by Peter A. Huff

Interreligious dialogue will never fulfill its unique mission until it recognizes fundamentalisms as conversation partners.

PETER A. HUFF is Assistant Professor of Historical Theology at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire. He is author of Allen Tate and the Catholic Revival: Trace of the Fugitive Gods (Paulist Press, 1996).

Along with the rise of global interreligious dialogue, fundamentalism represents one of the most significant developments in modern religion.(1) Robert Wuthnow has called it "one of the defining elements of the religious mosaic" in our period.(2) Some have even claimed that fundamentalism was "the religious phenomenon of the twentieth century."(3) At present, fundamentalism serves as a transforming force in all of the major traditions of the world. Arguably it will be among the most important religious movements of the twenty-first century.

Despite fundamentalism's imposing presence on the religious landscape, interreligious dialogue tends to operate as if it did not exist. Fundamentalists and their concerns are rarely represented in interfaith encounter. If fundamentalism is acknowledged at all, it is branded as the prime threat to international spiritual harmony. In fact, nothing exposes the limits of pluralism better than the phenomenon of fundamentalism.

Thomas Merton once hoped to "unite in myself" the separated traditions of Eastern and Western Christianity.(4) Later he enlarged that posture to embody the encounter between Christianity and the religions of Asia. Many have followed this example and have made valuable contributions to the interfaith movement. But few have committed themselves to a comparable strategy that would reckon with the challenge of fundamentalism.

This essay explores the possibility of such an ecumenical strategy. The first part is unapologetically autobiographical. It shows how my interest in a quest for an alternative model of interfaith relations is deeply rooted in my own experience. Frederick Buechner has said that "all theology, like all fiction, is at its heart autobiography."(5) I find this insight especially true when I consider how fundamentalism and pluralism have been strangely linked in my experience. The second portion of the essay places my experience in conversation with the academic study of fundamentalism. It attempts to demonstrate the relevance of this interdisciplinary field for the future of interreligious dialogue. I believe fundamentalism studies is poised to make a major contribution to interreligious dialogue.

* * *

I cannot remember the first time I heard the word "fundamentalism." I was raised in a pious home deep inside the American evangelical subculture. Private Bible reading, extemporaneous prayer, hymn singing, faithful church attendance, and a moral code centered on abstinence from alcohol and tobacco profoundly affected the pattern of my family's life.

The church in which I grew up was affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. Because of its status in the Sun Belt, Martin Marty once called it the Catholic church of the South. My local church was a thriving suburban congregation not unlike many other Southern Baptist churches during the '50s and '60s. I was actively involved in Sunday School, two preaching services every Sunday, prayer meetings, choir rehearsals, youth activities, revival services, and all sorts of crusades, retreats, and camps. I memorized scores of Bible verses, learned the parts to hundreds of hymns, tithed my allowance, and never attended a school dance. In early adolescence, I also "got saved." During those years, however, I do not recall ever using the term "fundamentalism."

Now, as a historian of American religion, I can look back at the religious milieu of my childhood and call it a warm pietism shaped by the revivalist tradition and the peculiar experiences of white southerners in the generations after the Civil War. Ours was an experiential and mildly ascetic "heart religion" emphasizing personal conversion. It was permeated with the cadences of the King James Bible, steeped in the four-part harmonies of the Baptist Hymnal, and filtered through the ethos of a sectional consciousness. As a child in the Bible Belt, Flannery O'Connor's "Christ-haunted" South, I suppose I was never very far from fundamentalism. But no one I knew ever spoke of it. I possessed an acceptable level of theological literacy. "Fundamentalism," however, did not correspond to anything within my field of vision.

All that changed in the 1970s. That was the decade when Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth made premillennialism a household word; when Dean Kelley's Why Conservative Churches Are Growing aroused liberal pundits from their dogmatic slumber; when televangelism became the public face of America's folk religion; when the media discovered the born-again evangelical; and when Nixon's "silent majority" became Falwell's Moral Majority. It was also the decade when Zionist "pioneers" laid claim to the sites of the West Bank that would became the base for the Gush Emunim; when Indira Gandhi banned the Hindu nationalist organizations that would in a matter of years dominate Indian politics; and when the Ayatollah Khomeini -- Time magazine's 1980 "Man of the Year" -- led the successful Iranian Revolution that would wake the West up to resurgent Islam.

Closer to home, the '70s were also the years that witnessed the initial stages of the controversy that would transform the Southern Baptist Convention. Conservative forces led by megachurch celebrities began a crusade to root out perceived heresy in all denominational agencies. I vividly recall the fear that professors at my church-related university began to display as they calculated the effects of the take-over on their careers. I saw signs of that same anxiety -- plus great anger and betrayal -- on the faces of my professors at the denomination's flagship seminary.

At the same time, I had a vague sense that Catholics were detecting similar tremors in their church. Following the career of international cause célèbre Hans Küng gave me the impression that theologians were bracing for a crackdown on the new Catholic Left. I also got wind of a traditionalist underground that questioned the legitimacy of Vatican II and all popes since Pius XII. In a few years Catholic periodicals would feature scores of articles on something no one ever imagined before: Catholic fundamentalism. Suddenly everyone was saying something about fundamentalism.

As the term drifted into my vocabulary and the reality into my experience, I assumed a hostile stance toward it. Despite my background, I said to myself, I was not a fundamentalist. In college and later at seminary, I identified with what I imagined were progressive ideas. Gradually I found myself inhabiting the new world of belief and doubt that Harvey Cox described in "The Search for a New Church":

I am neither an agnostic nor a "true believer," but one whose parish is the world. . . Sometimes I suspect I may have the theologian's equivalent of the "medical student's disease" (suffering the symptoms of every sickness in the book). There is a part of me that says yes to some element of every religion I learn about.(6)

What I was experiencing was the liberating but painful erosion of a familiar faith. In the process of this intellectual rite of passage I constructed a negative -- and highly unoriginal -- definition of fundamentalism. As others have confessed,(7) I discovered that, despite my willingness to enter all religions intuitively, there remained one tradition for which I would not cultivate empathy. My self-taught pluralism did not extend as far as fundamentalism.

To my way of thinking, fundamentalism, at least in its U.S. Christian form, had six dimensions. Sociologically it was related to the outdated values and repressive code of small-town America. Culturally it manifested an inclination toward the lowbrow and the vulgar. Psychologically it was marked by authoritarianism, arrogance, and addiction to conspiracy theories. Intellectually it was characterized by a lack of historical consciousness and the inability to engage in critical thinking. Theologically it was identified by literalism, primitivism, legalism, and tribalism. Politically it was linked to reactionary populism and the "paranoid style."

As I look back on it, my definition seems to have been based largely on popular stereotypes.(8) It took me a long time to understand this, but gradually I came to see that fundamentalism was a much more complex and surprising phenomenon than I had imagined. A number of things helped to expose the inaccurate nature of my views. First, a shift in my attitude toward liberal religion led me to reconsider my conclusions about fundamentalism. Reading deeply in the neoorthodox theologians I came to regard liberalism with increasing suspicion. While it accepted the scientific worldview and promoted historical-critical methods, neoorthodoxy fostered a new appreciation for the countercultural dimension of tradition. As a chastened liberal, I did retain many of the instincts of liberalism, but I accepted the distinction that Quaker writer Rufus Jones made between liberalism as an unyielding set of conclusions and liberalism as a basic frame of mind.

I was also impressed by the fact that none of the great modern critics of religion -- especially Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud -- found the case for theological liberalism or modernism intellectually compelling. For "Catholic atheist" George Santayana, these strategies of mediation actually meant the sacrifice of the most interesting aspects of religion. Without the "necessary fictions" of myth and miracle, the authority of dogma and creed, and the power of a supernatural worldview, what is religion? The only authentic choice, these critics argued, was between traditional religion and sober (sometimes reluctant) atheism. The middle ground of religious liberalism provided no intellectual integrity or aesthetic satisfaction.

On a more personal level, my brief experience in ministry also undermined confidence in the liberal tradition. My acquaintance with religious professionals from a variety of traditions showed me that fundamentalists had no monopoly on narrow mindedness or self righteousness. I discovered that the theological double-speak and gerrymandering that philosopher Walter Kaufmann criticized in "Against Theology"(9) were not the exclusive property of conservatives. Mainline Protestants and liberal Catholics -- not to mention Quakers, Unitarian Universalists, Reform Jews, Baha'is, New Age practitioners, and Zen Buddhists -- could offer just as many examples of intellectual dishonesty and theological special pleading.

With my enthusiasm for liberalism tempered, I was prepared to examine fundamentalism on its own terms. I was no longer willing to defend the liberal caricature of fundamentalism at any cost. The erosion of some of my liberal sympathies allowed me to assume a more open stance toward fundamentalism. I turned the highest values of the liberal tradition toward its rarely examined shadow side. If I were truly to say yes to some elements of every religion in my world parish, fundamentalism could not be excluded.

* * *

My personal journey toward a full understanding of fundamentalism directly parallels the evolution of fundamentalism studies as an academic field. It is precisely this evolution that provides a clue as to the relevance of global fundamentalism for interreligious dialogue. In its initial phase, during the early twentieth century, the study of fundamentalism was marked by an open agenda of critique. Efforts to record its history were driven by a desire to question the integrity of fundamentalism itself. Theological analyses of fundamentalism followed suit, determining in advance that it was a distortion of genuine Christianity. Pioneers in the field portrayed fundamentalism as a negative backlash, more political than theological, to the perceived progress made in church and society.(10) Employing the cultural-lag theory and the rural-urban hypothesis, they described the fundamentalist-modernist controversy as "a struggle between two types of mind."(11) For decades this argument dominated scholarly opinion.

These first experiments in fundamentalist studies were exercises in liberal Protestant hegemony. By contrast, the rise of a second generation in fundamentalism studies coincided with a turn to honest curiosity. Researchers in this generation, coming to maturity after World War II, attempted to produce work that would meet the highest academic standards and avoid the prejudice of their predecessors. Since many of them had been raised in the fundamentalist subculture themselves, they endeavored to treat their subject with respect and professional restraint. They rejected the sociological clichés of the past and spoke of fundamentalism as primarily religious in nature. They also saw fundamentalism as a living reality. For this generation, witnessing not only the survival but also the revival of fundamentalism, the movement was no longer a curious chapter in modernity's strange career. It was a culturally significant impulse demanding explanation.(12)

The present generation of fundamentalism studies, begun in the late twentieth century, grew out of the history of religions and the social sciences. Here "fundamentalism" functions as a heuristic device teasing into relief typological "family resemblances" that unite religious protest movements across the globe.(13) Militant Zionism, political Islam, Hindu nationalism, and sectarian Buddhism all share "generic characteristics"(14) that invite comparative treatment. Using "fundamentalism" as a cross-cultural analytical category, this approach views fundamentalism not as an aberration but as one religious phenomenon among others. Fundamentalism is treated as one way to be religious in the contemporary world.

The main concern of scholars in this phase of the enterprise is to comprehend fundamentalism as religious identity and worldview. Examining fundamentalism from a phenomenological point of view, they exploit interpretive strategies such as the "thick description" made famous by anthropologist Clifford Geertz and the "structured empathy" that, according to Ninian Smart, characterizes the humble yet critical attitude of the outsider who wishes to attain an insider's perspective.(15)

More importantly, this approach represents the departure from a modernist paradigm and the movement toward a postmodern model of interpretation. Modernism imagined pure forms of what it called "world religions" and measured the authenticity of these traditions by post-Enlightenment "Protestant" norms. This perspective lent credence to the idea of a universal monomyth uniting all such pure forms and gave traction to the notion that fundamentalism constitutes a corrupt or counterfeit version of genuine religion. Hence studies of Christian fundamentalism that treat it as inferior Christianity or of Muslim fundamentalism that judge it to be deviant Islam.

Postmodernity has shattered the modernist fiction of universalism without particularism. Today scholars are used to the incredible internal pluralism that characterizes the great traditions of the world. Many have abandoned the ideologically loaded singular and are employing the awkward yet more accurate plural: they speak no more of types of Christianity or branches of Buddhism but rather of "Christianities" and "Buddhisms," effectively undermining the Manichean temptation to distinguish true from false forms of a single tradition.

What is now emerging in the field is the conviction that fundamentalists inhabit a "cultural system"(16) as authentically religious as any of the nonfundamentalist "world religions." Santayana spoke of every religion as "another world" marked by the idiosyncrasies and mysteries of its "special and surprising message."(17) The study of fundamentalism is slowly making its way toward a humanistic appreciation of fundamentalism's "other world."

What could emerge is the recognition that the world of fundamentalism has a distinctive wisdom to contribute to the human community. For several years theologians in various traditions have called for creative engagement with the wisdom of other cultures. Following Hindu mystic Ramakrishna, Francis Clooney suggests that the religions of the world may be viewed as a vast system of chakras with each representing "a focal point for a particular kind of religious experience."(18) Such language is commonplace in comparative theology. But no one has dared apply it to fundamentalism. Learning to see fundamentalism as one of those chakras -- as a peculiar wisdom tradition produced by the experience of modernity -- would cast fundamentalism studies in an entirely new light.

Perhaps that will be the task of the next generation of scholars. For the present, fundamentalism studies needs the equivalent of what a number of thinkers have done in the interest of a Christian theology of pluralism, advancing arguments for the nonabsoluteness of Christianity.(19) John Hick has spoken of being on the "moving hinge" between an exclusivist Christianity and a new Christianity aware of its place in the pluralistic world of today.(20) A similar case for the nonabsoluteness of nonfundamentalist religions will establish fundamentalism studies on firm philosophical ground. It would mean the end of the theological cold war that characterized much of twentieth-century religious history.

* * *

The academic study of religion has come a long way toward an informed understanding of fundamentalism. Unfortunately global interreligious dialogue seems to lag behind the academy. Even pluralists (and former fundamentalists) such as Hick seem to imply that fundamentalism is outside the system of equally valid approaches to ultimate reality that we call world religions.

Interreligious dialogue will never fulfill its unique mission until it recognizes the fundamentalisms of the world as valued conversation partners. The way in which the academic study of fundamentalism has matured in recent decades can provide a model for constructive exchange between fundamentalists and members of other religious movements. The academic study of fundamentalism has moved from a paradigm of prejudice to an approach of structured empathy. Interfaith movements can engage fundamentalism in a more positive fashion if they recognize the affinities between the native antimodernism of fundamentalism and the emerging postmodernism of current ventures in global ecumenism. Recent studies of the movement sparked by the 1893 World's Parliament of Religions have exposed its modernist underpinnings.(21) Grounded in its original worldview of modernity, interreligious dialogue can perceive fundamentalism only as a dangerous trend toward intolerance and barbarism. From a postmodernist perspective, however, participants in interreligious encounter can develop a measured appreciation for fundamentalism's critique of the profound limitations of modernity and all modernisms.

At the end of modernity, the future of interreligious dialogue is contingent upon its ability to find common ground with fundamentalists in all world traditions. It must seek the "moving hinge" between the old pluralism that was only exclusivism reconfigured and a genuinely new pluralism that embraces the major movements of the time. Such a proposal, of course, is bold. But if fundamentalism was the religious phenomenon of the twentieth century, the wider ecumenism can no longer afford to ignore it or abhor it. It may be the religious phenomenon of this century, too.


1. [Back to text]  This essay is a revised version of a paper presented at the Parliament of the World's Religions, December 1-8, 1999, Cape Town, South Africa.

2. [Back to text]  Robert Wuthnow, Christianity in the Twenty-first Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 109.

3. [Back to text]  Jerry Falwell, ed., The Fundamentalist Phenomenon: The Resurgence of Conservative Christianity (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1981), 1.

4. [Back to text]  Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (New York: Doubleday, 1989), 21.

5. [Back to text]  Frederick Buechner, The Sacred Journey: A Memoir of Early Days (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1982), 1.

6. [Back to text]  Harvey Cox, The Seduction of the Spirit: The Use and Misuse of People's Religion (New York: Touchstone, 1973), 242-43.

7. [Back to text]  See J. P. M. Walsh, " 'Leave Out the Poetry': Reflections on the Teaching of Scripture," The Struggle Over the Past: Fundamentalism in the Modern World, ed. William M. Shea (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1993), 317.

8. [Back to text]  My definition also shared many of the assumptions that currently shape the popular genre of antifundamentalist polemics. See Bruce Bawer, Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1997) and John Shelby Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991).

9. [Back to text]  Walter Kaufmann, The Faith of a Heretic (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1963), 89-135.

10. [Back to text]  See Stewart G. Cole, The History of Fundamentalism (New York: Richard R. Smith, 1931).

11. [Back to text]  Shailer Mathews, The Faith of Modernism (New York: Macmillan, 1924), 19.

12. [Back to text]  See Ernest R. Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970) and George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980).

13. [Back to text]  See Bruce B. Lawrence, Defenders of God: The Fundamentalist Revolt Against the Modern Age (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995).

14. [Back to text]  Samuel Heilman and Menachem Friedman, "Religious Fundamentalism and Religious Jews: The Case of the Haredim," Fundamentalisms Observed, ed. Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 197.

15. [Back to text]  See Daniel L. Pals, Seven Theories of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996) and Ninian Smart, Worldviews: Crosscultural Explorations of Human Beliefs (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1995).

16. [Back to text]  Clifford Geertz, "Religion as a Cultural System," The Religious Situation: 1968, ed. Donald R. Cutler (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968), 639-88.

17. [Back to text]  Santayana quoted in Geertz, "Religion as a Cultural System," 639.

18. [Back to text]  Francis X. Clooney, Hindu Wisdom for All God's Children (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1998), 109.

19. [Back to text]  See John Hick, "The Non-Absoluteness of Christianity" in Disputed Questions in Theology and the Philosophy of Religion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993).

20. [Back to text]  John Hick, The Metaphor of God Incarnate: Christology in a Pluralistic Age (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), 1.

21. [Back to text]  See Richard Hughes Seager, The World's Parliament of Religions: The East/ West Encounter, Chicago, 1893 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995).

Copyright of Cross Currents is the property of Association for Religion & Intellectual Life and its content may not be copied without the copyright holder's express written permission except for the print or download capabilities of the retrieval software used for access. This content is intended solely for the use of the individual user.  Source: Cross Currents, Spring/Summer 2000, Vol. 50  Issue 1-2