The Fundamentalist Phenomenon: A View from Within; A Response from Without
edited by Norman J. Cohen
Eerdmans, 266 pages, $14.95

This volume, containing sixteen essays (including the useful introduction by editor Norman Cohen), constitutes a valuable reference source on American Protestant and other forms of religious “fundamentalism.” There is a little something here for everyone. The essays, for one thing, range from basically sympathetic accounts of this variation of the conservative religious impulse to vicious diatribes against it. Others intend to be even-handed and objective historical accounts, with some closely approximating this ideal. The stated purposes of the essays also vary widely. Some are concerned with the basic issue of definition: Should the term “fundamentalism” be restricted to its American Protestant context? Should it be defined in terms of the attempt to protect the basic, foundational revelatory insights of any religion to be found on the globe? Should the term be allowed always and without exception to signify religious “fanaticism”? If so, what of the indisputable authoritarian tendencies of the religious left? Other essays are concerned with the issue of the theological adequacy of religious fundamentalism, noting that it is not necessarily coextensive with religious orthodoxy. And, finally, many essays are concerned with the ramifications of fundamentalism for the American political scene, for social relations and ecumenical endeavors, and for (alleged) psychological well-being. Indeed, a good deal of the material necessary for a comprehensive “sociology of knowledge and of truth” analysis of the fundamentalist phenomenon can be found in this collection. In his historical essay, Jaroslav Pelikan notes that orthodoxy, in not always requiring the literal exegesis of religious texts, is broader in its parameters than is fundamentalism. Orthodoxy is “not a straight line, hut a circle drawn around a variety of permissible views, excluding other views.” In another historical essay, George M. Marsden carefully unpacks his definition that “a fundamentalist is an evangelical Protestant who is militantly opposed to modern liberal theologies and to some aspects of secularism in modern culture.” Marsden’s qualification on secularism stems from the historic identification of Protestantism with an eighteenth and nineteenth century American outlook that still survives, in some modified form, into the present. Clark Pinnock, in a more obviously sympathetic portrait, argues that Protestant fundamentalism, especially what he terms “open” fundamentalism, is making major positive contributions to Protestant America. As he states, “It sends a clear and important message to mainline Protestantism: 1) to identify more with the historic faith and to stop dabbling with wild theological revisions and 2) to start talking better sense in the areas of politics and society and to stop advocating radical positions and get back to fundamental values.” In an ambitious and important essay, James D. Hunter addresses some of the worldwide manifestations of fundamentalism found in Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, and Buddhism. One can challenge his claim that all religious traditions in the modern world face only three options: withdrawal, accommodation, and resistance. Hunter ignores the option of development articulated in the Roman Catholic tradition by John Henry Newman as discussed by Pelikan and in later essays on Judaism as discussed by Leon Wieseltier and on Islam by Riffat Hassan. As a result of his omitting this fourth strategy. Hunter is forced to conclude that fundamentalist religion is always an example of the resistance to modernity and that “what ultimately triggers the fundamentalist reaction is a sense of crisis in the credibility of the faith for the fundamentalists themselves.” Hunter’s assertion may be true for some defenders of religious “fundamentals” in the modern world; however, it misses a considerable neo-orthodox or “developmental” segment within the biblical orbit that continually strives to reach, in a cautiously confident manner, a via media between the demands of heaven and earth. In his overview of “pietist politics,” A. James Reichley argues that “socially conservative Protestants”whether they be labeled ‘fundamentalists,’ ‘evangelicals,’ or the ‘religious new right’”have already significantly shifted the balance of American politics.” What of the secular fear that a growing religious new right might run roughshod over the rights of minorities? For Reichley, “Our constitutional and political systems are to a great extent self-corrective against incursions by extremist groups.” Mortimer Ostow’s psychological analysis argues, in essence, that Protestant fundamentalism provides what its adherents consider a safe haven in an otherwise wicked world. Given that “the members of the fundamentalist community cannot tolerate uncertainty . . . they restrict themselves to a single translation [of Scripture] and insist that it is absolutely correct and unambiguous. The Bible makes the world predictable.” Not only does Ostow not allow for the empirical reality of a somewhat “open” fundamentalism, he unfortunately does not follow up on his own important caveat to the effect that “these [fundamentalist] qualities clearly characterize some similar groups that do not claim religious orientation.” It is interesting to note that, as an aside in his own contribution, Richard John Neuhaus seems to be responding to Ostow’s one-sided analysis: “That many fundamentalists are fanatical cannot be denied. We would be well-advised, however, to consider whether there is not an element of the fanatical in much of the reaction to fundamentalism.” Amen. The major point of Neuhaus’ essay, however, is to plead the case to respect the rights of fundamentalists to participate in the public square and to listen attentively to their substantive claims and complaints regarding a secular monopoly in some of American’s key “megastructural” institutions (e.g., education and the mass media). James M. Dunn offers a sharp and unsympathetic rejoinder to Neuhaus: “One is distressed not by specificity of religious witness, but rather by the dogmatic insistence upon being the sole possessor of truth, followed by demonstrable dishonesty. That is what troubles many about the political activity of fundamentalists. One engaged in the day-to-day struggle is acutely aware of the end-justifies-the-means tactics of the radical right.” Be that as it may or may not, one wonders if Mr. Dunn would offer the same verdict on the tactics of the left in, say, the hearings on the nomination of Robert Bork. Riffat Hassan, in her contribution, presents “serious objections to the use of terms such as ‘fundamentalism’ and ‘fundamentalists’ with reference to Islam or Muslims.” In what could be construed as a critical response to the previously noted tripartite typology of Hunter, Hassan notes that “a review of Muslim thought in the modern period shows that instead of being in opposition to each other, the terms ‘fundamentalist,’ ‘modernist,’ and ‘liberal’ are oftentimes applied to the same thinker.” Similarly, Leon Wieseltier argues that there is no such thing as Jewish fundamentalism, given that there is “a love of development, a commitment of religious concepts and practices that allows the Jew to live fully in the present, even if the present is lived in exile.” In an intellectually dubious and simply nasty analysis, the Jesuit Patrick Arnold describes “Catholic fundamentalism as a psychological disease afflicting the conservative wing of our religious community.” The inclusion of this essay on the part of the editor can be considered appropriate only if the point is to demonstrate the injustice to which conservative religionists are often subjected by the liberal religious establishment in the U.S. That some liberals can live up to their name in terms of empathetic understanding, openness, and essential fairness is evidenced by the contribution of Donald W. Shriver, Jr. in which he urges his fellow liberals to be more open to dialogue and compromise with fundamentalists. After correctly noting that both liberals and conservatives have their own “fundamental convictions,” he argues that “one of the differences between having fundamentals and being a fundamentalist hinges on whether, even in possession of one’s clearest convictions, there is something outside those convictions which prevents them from turning into the intolerance of an ‘ism.’ That other something for many of us is God, before whom our convictions, like our knowledge and our virtue, are modest, finite, and often afflicted with sin.” While there is much to commend in David Saperstein’s analysis of the fundamentalist involvement in the American political scene, his work is marred, like that of some of the other contributors, in failing to acknowledge the totalistic tendencies of those of progressivist stripe. For him, the point “is not that the religious right does not have the right to speak and petition the government; it is that from the perspective of the religious traditions of the mainstream religious, what they are saying is not right. They have forgotten the fundamentals of the Judeo-Christian religious ethic.” The status of Saperstein’s assertion hinges on what is meant by “the fundamentals of the Judeo-Christian religious ethic”; one wonders if the values and attitudes of most Protestant fundamentalists are perhaps at least as close to this ethic as are those of the People for the American Way, one of the numerous left-wing groups that the author, according to the book’s credits, is intimately involved with. Arguing that the conflict between fundamentalist and liberal religion “is a question about proper balance, about the relative weight we attach to God’s sovereignty and to human will,” Eugene B. Borowitz makes a sophisticated (if not necessarily persuasive) case for “the enduring truth of religious liberalism.” And in the final essay, Preston N. Williams addresses his fellow religious liberals as to how “to set aside or bracket the question of inerrancy in the same way we set aside the doctrine of the infallibility of the Pope.” He argues, combining elements of good will and paternalism, as follows: “We can understand how the teaching [of inerrancy] came to those who accept it, without accepting it ourselves or feeling the need to condemn those who believe it. More importantly, we might point out to all that whatever their attitude toward the doctrine, it is unable, even when utilized by the ones committed to it, to achieve the religious purposes intended.” This Roman Catholic reviewer’s sympathies on fundamentalism and its critics? They are not with the reductionist tendencies of liberal religiosity. They are not with either a world-withdrawing or world-rejecting fundamentalism. They are not with any alleged presuppositionless or boundless or “post-liberal” theology. Rather, they lie with those neo-orthodox, developmental, or open “fundamentalists” who simply and honestly dare to both defend and critically apply to an ever-changing world the truths they consider to be handed down to them from God. It’s really that basic. Or should I say “fundamental”?


Joseph A. Varaclli teaches the Sociology of Religion at Nassau Community College and is a part-time adjunct with the Institute for the Advanced Study of Catholic Doctrine at St. John’s University, New York.