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3 Ways to Spot a Fundamentalist

Are you a fundamentalist?

For a long time, I thought that fundamentalism was a right-wing phenomenon. But I’ve realized that just about anybody can get trapped in a fundamentalist mindset. Whether it’s gay rights, the atoning work of Jesus on the cross, abortion, climate change, or racial justice – all of our most cherished beliefs are susceptible to the snare of fundamentalism. No matter who you are or what you believe, you, too can be a fundamentalist!

Fundamentalism isn’t a point of view; it’s not a particular belief, but rather a way of living with our convictions. A person is a fundamentalist, not because of their views, but because they hold them in ways that negate the basic dignity and humanity of others. The fire-and-brimstone religious zealot is one flavor of fundamentalist, but there are so many varieties! It doesn’t matter if you’re an über-conservative or a radical progressive; fundamentalism is a possibility for all of us.

How can you tell when you’re slipping into a fundamentalist mindset? There are some tell-tale signs:

1. The fundy mindset is concerned above all with being right. Winning is the top priority for the fundamentalist, not truth. So, watch out when scoring points and proving yourself begins to take precedence; it might be more your own ego than truth that you’re championing.

2. Fundamentalism is basically about being in control. When we’re caught in a fundamentalist mindset, we exclude, demonize, and remove from the conversation anyone who questions our basic assumptions. We may use words like lovereconciliationjustice, and safety, but the number one concern is our need to defend our air-tight worldview against anyone who threatens it.

This can be any of us. And the beliefs that we defend can be good and true and right. Fundamentalists aren’t necessarily wrong about what they believe; they just fail to bear their convictions with love, humility, and tenderness.

3. You can spot the fundamentalist by their fear. The need for assurances and tight systems of control. Lists of rules and strict chains of command. Fundamentalism trembles under the weight of anxiety. But perfect love casts out fear.

I’ve seen fundamentalism tear so many communities apart. Many times, fundamentalism has come under the banner of radical progressivism. Other times, it’s marched to the tune of that old time religion. Fear seems equally capable of infiltrating the left-wing and the right. Fundamentalism takes hold whenever we value our worldview more than the health and well-being of the people who are right in front of us.

So how do we embrace the full strength of our convictions without lapsing into a fundamentalist mindset? What does it mean to believe fiercely, authentically, and whole-heartedly, without turning our worldview into an idol that takes precedence over the health and wholeness of our community?

If there are those who argue that we can avoid the dangers of fundamentalism by being lukewarm, I’m not one of them. But what would it look like to embrace our most passionate beliefs with the full power of love, reaching out to those who disagree with us rather than shunning them? What does it mean to love our enemies, even the really dangerous ones who threaten our most primary convictions? Is the truth we profess strong enough to risk vulnerability?

The way of Jesus is the ultimate answer to the fear that lies at the heart of fundamentalism. Jesus knew that the truth he was living and preaching was going to get him killed. And Jesus had the means to fight back. He could have raised armies and founded a military kingdom, or retreated to start a sectarian commune, or toned it down a little bit and become a respected religious guru.

Instead, Jesus had the courage to trust completely in the truth that his Father gave him. He extended everything he had – even his own life – to those who wanted to destroy him. He trusted in the strength of his convictions so much, he didn’t have to defend anything.

What would it be like to dwell in that kind of courage? How would it transform my relationships to live so fearlessly? What kind of love would I dare to show – to friends, to enemies, even to the fundamentalists?

Related Posts:

Do You Take the Bible Literally?

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  • Tony Marshall

    Thanks, Micah, for your refreshing, inclusive and liberating insights. Refreshing, because you open the meaning of fundamentalism to include all forms of that position, not only those that are currently very popular or very unpopular depending on whom you’re speaking to. Inclusive, because we have to admit to the temptations of fundamentalism and the ease with which we can justify this form or that. Liberating? Yes, because you advance the possibility that you may be mistaken and so evade the trap of another form of fundamentalism. Thanks for what you’re doing for and in the Quaker Way.

  • Great job pointing out the characteristics of fundamentalism. Unfortunately, many people are more concerned with being right than doing right.

  • Yelena Tower

    Yes! No wonder so many of us fall into this trap. It’s devilishly hard not to, once we’re convinced we’re right.

    • So true! For me, I find it’s important to surround myself with people whom I trust *and* with whom I frequently disagree.

  • As an atheist, I find the teachings ascribed to Jesus a pretty good guide.

    They also have absolutely nothing to do with the religion called “Christianity” as it is commonly practiced, in fact, they’re almost always in direct opposition.

    I do know a few calling themselves “Christian” who do follow the teachings now – they’re an endangered species, but not extinct.

  • Ralphykeys

    I would suggest changing your terminology although it’s probably too late.

    By definition the goal would be to adhere to the fundamentals of the faith.

    In school children are taught the fundamentals ; math, reading, writing, etc.

    No one makes that a pejorative. It would also make it easier for true disciples to track with you as most liberals use the word fundamentalist to attack true disciples.

  • AB

    “The way of Jesus is the ultimate answer to the fear that lies at the heart of fundamentalism.”

    That’s a fundamentalist statement.

    “The way of Jesus is an answer to the fear that lies at the heart of fundamentalism,” is more accurate and less fundamentalist.

  • i find these sorts of conversations to be really perplexing and imprecise, partly because i think what’s often in conflict–particularly in postmodern or activist spheres–are dissonant central values and tenets (fundamentals!) and not the demonstrable fear or control you describe. for instance, if my fundamental is “privilege the margins,” that is a deeply people-first value that will absolutely conflict with white liberal fundamentals like “all people should be treated the same”, “all ideas are worth honoring”, or “those with the most privilege decide what’s needed/loving and set the terms and pace for change”.

    i’m not part of your communities, so i can’t speak to exactly what you’re describing, but i’ve observed dozens of online conversations about supposed fundamentalism in progressive spaces, and i’ve yet to hear any that weren’t specific indictments of historically marginalized voices who wouldn’t submit to hierarchy or play nice.

    • Hi Suzannah. Thanks for commenting.

      I agree with you that fundamental values are critical, and not to be pushed aside in the desire to be all things to all people. To shy away from being clear about our bedrock mission and purpose is more cowardice than tolerance.

      However, in this article, I’ve defined “fundamentalism” as being about a way of holding views, not about the views themselves. It’s about the impulse to marginalize, control, and shun. Fundamentalism – as I’ve defined it for this post – always needs a scapegoat.

      I hope it’s possible to hold controversial convictions – like following Jesus and putting his way before all else – without slipping into a judgmental mindset that is more interested in excluding than in blessing, with purity than with purpose.

      • these are things we can interrogate in our own hearts and attitudes but perhaps not in anyone else’s. how could i possibly know for sure how someone else holds their views or what motivates anyone but myself? i’ve been shunned by people operating out of your framework–so am i the fundamentalist, or are they? i’d suggest maybe neither. as for marginalization, while oppressions intersect, there are power dynamics at play necessarily. queer people creating queer-friendly space cannot marginalize me, a straight cis woman, even if that makes me feel left out or undervalued somehow.

        it easy to make assumption about other people (they’re driven by self-righteous purity or a need to scapegoat), but i suspect that affixing these labels onto others (particularly across privilege lines, as is often the case) causes more division and marginalization than it heals.

    • Nathan Z Solomon

      If I may join in. As a former Fundementalist or more specifically a person who found themselves in the fundamentalism while searching for the truth, I find that Micah is not correctly defining a Fundamentalist. “A person is a fundamentalist, not because of their views, but because they hold them in ways that negate the basic dignity and humanity of others.” I hold that a fundamentalist is not just a person who believes in fundamentals, but instead makes a determination that there are absolutes dictated in the Bible. These absolutes (not all are true fundamentals) are derived outside of scripture and are used as a tactic to control/manipulate others.

      Example time: Is going to the movies right or wrong? One group of Fundamentalist would say it’s wrong based on the fact that $$ goes to a movie theater and back to the creator of not only the movie you’re watching (which may be O.K.) but to movies that are not “O.K” (in the view of the group). A form of control. This is O.K. That is “not”. ISIS could be defined in the same way. A set of rules (containing Fundamentals), but also include derived material outside the Fundamentals. They prove to others their derivations and then provide acceptance (reward) and distance or worse (punishment). To continue up the Fundamentalist chain of command, you learn to recite these derivations (e.g. Dispensationalism). The better you are at reciting them, the more accepted you are. The more you “drink, smoke or chew or go out with girls that do”, the less accepted you are or the more “wrong” you are. HTH

  • I am proud to be a Bible believing fundamentalist, but none of these apply. #GodMadeFundy

  • alnonymous

    This is absolute nonsense, read up on the Fundamentalist/modernist controversy before you write. For goodness sake try doing your homework before you produce such sloppy work.

  • Artboy

    Micah, defines fundamentalism this way:
    1. a movement in American Protestantism that arose in the early part of the 20th century in reaction to modernism and that stresses the infallibility of the Bible not only in matters of faith and morals but also as a literal historical record, holding as essential to Christian faith belief in such doctrines as the creation of the world, the virgin birth, physical resurrection, atonement by the sacrificial death of Christ, and the Second Coming.

    That’s not a perfect description of what I believe as a born-again follower of Jesus, but it’s close enough that I’ll defend it – certainly when it comes to the list of specific “doctrines.” Holding such beliefs does not automatically make one a butthead, or an ignoramus; in fact it precludes those things.

    The dictionary definition doesn’t agree with your redefinition that makes fundamentalism about a particular mindset. I’m not sure it’s a great strategy to attempt to redefine established meanings of words. Why not instead embrace the strategy of clarifying and demonstrating the beauty and benefits of believing what you believe to be true?

    Btw, like you, I consider it vital to be in respectful dialogue with those who disagree with me.

    • Hey, Artboy. Thanks for this thoughtful comment.

      I’ve gotten pushback from several commenters that I’m not being accurate in my usage of the word “fundamentalism”. According to the dictionary, that may be true. However, I think the reality is that most Americans use the word “fundamentalist” in a way that is far broader than the definition that you got on

      For example, people regularly speak and write about “Islamic fundamentalism”, which isn’t even Christian! And I think there’s a case to be made that fundamentalism (in this broad, popular sense) doesn’t even require faith in the supernatural.

      I consider myself an orthodox Christian, so I believe a lot of stuff that would make some non-Christian folks consider me a fundamentalist. My point here, however, is that the soul of what is commonly referred to now as “fundamentalism” goes far deeper than just a set of beliefs, it’s about how we hold them.

      For all these reasons, I feel pretty comfortable participating in the re-definition of the word “fundamentalism.” I’m hopeful that as the re-definition continues, we can all grow in our understanding that the hateful behavior of the Religious Right is actually a tendency that exists in all of us, when we allow abstract ideas to take precedence over human lives.

      • Artboy

        Yeah, I actually agree with you about the broad usage of the word. I’m in a dialogue with a guy right now who’s probably one of the most fundamentalist (by your def) people I’ve met. All I said was, “You can find “cultish” thinking anywhere that strongly held beliefs and groupthink hold sway; especially in academia.” He won’t consider the possiblity. He seems to think he’s immune to magical thinking, since he doesn’t believe in a god.

        Nonetheless, I still don’t like the idea of throwing Fundamentalists under the bus, as a group of people who are automatically hateful, idiotic, crazy, or whatever.

        I think what the media are really hoping to get across is an equally bad idea: That fundamentalism/extremism/radicalism is a problem per se. As though the problem is believing anything too strongly.

        I contend that radicalism is wonderful so long as one is radical about the right things, (ie: following Jesus.) Is it dangerous to be extreme about wisdom, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control? This renders a much different result than if you follow a prophet who, for example, had several wives, (including one who was a prepubescent child,) and who fought in over 80 battles.

        • I think you’ve said some really important and insightful things here, which I’ll keep chewing on for a while. I’m particularly interested in your observation that the demonization of “fundamentalists” can often be a way to marginalize people who “take their faith too seriously.”

          As you say, there is a kind of radicalization that is desperately needed in our world, a radical discipleship to Jesus that will look extreme and even frightening to those who are not willing to go there!

  • John Fischer

    You nailed all of our fundy tendencies. Good job. Check out my Declarations of a Marketplace Christian. I think you might like it.