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?

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