There’s a real comfort in being fundamentalist. And disturbing that comfort invokes a protective response that tells us that the depth of the appeal of whatever fundamentalism is involved serves a purpose that has little to do with the kind of doctrines to which a fundamentalist subscribes.
Anyone can exhibit the qualities of fundamentalists: whether it’s about the acceptance of a certain political candidate, commitment to New Age, atheist or any thinking, allegiance to an institution, devotion to a cultish (often called “charismatic”) leader, swearing by a certain product or procedure, touting a process, diet, or cure they believe works for them — anything. The content of the fundamentalism is open, but the responses to those who question whatever one is fundamentalist about become pretty similar.
All one needs to do to see a fundamentalism in action is to exist on social media and watch while people judge, label, condemn, and obsess over those who disagree with them. One post can produce a long string of defensive obsession, usually by the same people, with increasingly judgmental and angry responses to anyone who questions their certainty.
Fundamentalism, technically began at the turn of the 20th Century as a reactive response to some Christian leaders applying the day’s scientific analysis to theology, the Bible, and Christian doctrines. It was a thoroughly defensive action that claimed it was protecting the “fundamentals of the faith” against what would be labeled “modernist,” “liberal,” “unbelieving” and even “heretical” claims made about what Christians could instead affirm.
It began as a reactive, defensive posture against cultural forces. And as those cultural forces gained ground and resulting theologies such as 19th Century Liberalism and the Social Gospel crept even into government programs such as the New Deal, its defensiveness took the form of more condemning, absolutist criticisms of those who were now the “enemies” of “true, Bible-believing saints.”
Even “Evangelicals” began to fight among themselves over variations of conservative viewpoints – as they still do today. They labelled each other “Conservative Evangelicals,” Neo-Evangelicals,” Liberal Evangelicals,” “Syncretists,” and even “Defectors.”
A major part of the appeal of fundamentalist theology was its ability to explain everything within a closed circuit of its over-worked doctrines. When a person jumped in (took that personal “leap of faith”), the thought-circuit and its teachers captured them in a worldview that fit together and thereby provided relief and comfort from the many conflicting (and multi-cultural) opinions of “the world” festering around it.
Comfort in knowing is a way to protect oneself from what one doesn’t know. Admitting that there is so much we just don’t know and living in ambiguity is a difficult prospect that can be fearful.
We’ve just got to have answers, and right ones at that. So, a nice, coherent, undisturbed thinking system provides the mental and emotional rest we don’t want threatened by questioning or the idea that there are other options.
The fear of uncertainty is easily traced to human life experiences. What we didn’t know could hurt us, we learned early.
We could be mocked for our ignorance in peer groups, schools, or homes, and we could literally get hurt. There are even culturally approved, televised competitions to show who really knows the most.
Our freedom to say “I don’t know” was removed by a fear that without perfection we might be looked down upon or even rejected. Hanging on to some system that seemed to be certain alleviates such fears.
Notably, one of the marks of gendered masculine roles is that real men are supposed to know — confusion isn’t an option for manly leadership. It’s no surprise, then, that the history of the Fundamentalist movement’s thinking is male-dominated and tied to schemes of male authority over women.
Sadly, this comfort in a system of knowing that also assures us that even if we don’t have the answer, some smart inside authority we count on will protect us with solutions, stifles the change that must be embraced for progress in the area of human rights.
This use of religion that seeks to keep us from any emotional upheaval brought on by being forced to change ideas and, therefore, raising doubt about the whole comfortable system that has protected us in the coziness of certainty, is traumatic.
Imagine the scary consequences of asking:
“If I’ve been wrong about my understanding of the Bible’s rejection of LGBTQ people, about what else in the Bible have I been wrong? Maybe everything?”
“If the religious institution I’ve bet my soul on with people who provide community could have been wrong about its teaching regarding same-sex love, what kind of inside track to the Divine does it actually have? Maybe one no better than my own.”
Any one of us can become fundamentalistic if we can’t live in ambiguity and need to take comfort in the certainty of knowing.
And when we spot that happening in ourselves, it’s time to ask ourselves some questions like these — the kind that asking them consciously is more important than perfect answers.
Why do I react the way I do when someone provides an alternative option?
This is not to say that I must be wishy-washy about what I believe or that I shouldn’t have some core uncompromisable beliefs such as: people should not be discriminated against for their gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, race, class, differing abilities, etc.
It’s to ask: why do I respond the way I do especially when the person might have the same goal as mine?
Do they have to agree with 100% of my system now?
Did I move beyond discussion and let things go to name-calling? How will that righteous-feeling shaming win anyone over?
Why can’t I admit that we disagree and move on?
What has been triggered in me that I need to do more than explain how, and that, I disagree? Why do I stay in this discussion as it gets more heated? Am I protecting myself from questioning what I said? Do I need to win to prove I’m right and okay?
Could I freely admit that I was wrong?
What would I have to feel if I had to admit that I’d changed my mind? If we’ve been growing, we can look back and see that we have changed over the years.
Why do I need to know the answer to everything?
Can’t I live in ambiguity about some ideas even when keeping my core of beliefs? Can’t I live with some questions unanswered and still be committed to those core beliefs?
Why do I need to be perfect?
Because I don’t.
Instead I can embrace any personal discomfort I have for being humanly “imperfect,” measured, by the way, by whatever unhelpful standard of “perfection” I freely get to choose to apply to myself.
I don’t actually need the comfort of a fundamentalist attitude at all.
Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas where he taught for 33 years and was department chair for six years, Robert N. Minor (he/him), M.A., Ph.D is the author of 8 books as well as numerous articles and contributions to edited volumes. He is an historian of religion with specialties in Biblical studies, Asian religions, religion and gender and religion and sexuality. His writing has been published in Whosoever since 2005 and he continues to speak and lead workshops around the country. In 1999 GLAAD awarded him its Leadership Award for Education, in 2012 the University of Kansas named him one of the University’s Men of Merit, in 2015 the American Men’s Studies Association gave him the Lifetime Membership Award, and in 2018 Missouri Jobs with Justice presented him with the Worker’s Rights Board Leadership Award. He resides in Kansas City, Missouri and is founder of The Fairness Project.