October 17th, 2013


is Sarah Over the Moon a fundamentalist?

Originally published at Faith Seeking Understanding. You can comment here or there.

That’s her question, not mine, but it seems like one worth asking. Not because I particularly dislike her (I’m an occasional, fairly recent follower of her blog, but certainly can’t claim an expertise on everything she’s said), but because of the question lurking behind it: can you be both progressive and a fundamentalist?

Let me back up a bit. For those of you who don’t know her, Sarah Over the Moon is a blogger at Patheos, a major site featuring professional blogs from a number of religious traditions, spiritualities, corners of atheism, etc. Sarah herself blogs in their Spirituality section and engages quite a bit with the progressive Christian scene (though I don’t want to imply she’s limited to that neighborhood). Apparently she’s been called a fundamentalist a few times lately. Not the evolution-denying, dispensationalist-loving, Republican-voting kind of fundamentalist but a liberal version.

Over at her blog, Sarah lists several recent incidents where she or friends of hers took a hard line against several darlings of the progressive Christian blogosphere. Then she wrote:

This thinking requires coming up with some false equivalences. Is telling someone to stop using slurs that hurt people really just as bad as telling people that it’s a sin to say “gosh darn?” Is calling out rape culture really just as bad as promoting it? Is being intolerant of racism, transphobia, and homophobia really just as bad as being racist, transphobic, and homophobic? Is refusing to defend abusers really just as bad as covering up abuse in the name of God?

According to these folks, when fundamentalists are angry and intolerant about something, and these certain liberals/progressives over here are angry and intolerant about something, what matters is not the “something” that is the source of anger and intolerance, but the anger and intolerance itself.

Well, no. It’s not “just as bad.” But that doesn’t mean she’s not engaging in fundamentalism here, because not all fundamentalisms are equally dangerous. I’m not familiar enough with the incidents Sarah mentions to pass judgment on her, so I’ll leave the more personal question to her. But as to her general question, can you be a fundamentalist without opposing those infamous targets of conservatives? Well, yes – at least in one sense.

Historically, (American, Christian) fundamentalism is tied up with modernism, specifically a rejection of at least some of its claims. In the two or three courses I’ve had touching on this era, it’s usually tied to the Niagara Convention at the turn of the twentieth century. They rejected scientific criticism of the Bible and the teaching they saw in evolution that humans weren’t uniquely made in God’s image. And by around 1920 the movement had grown into a focus on five key claims:

1. the Bible is inerrant.
2. Jesus was literally born of a virgin.
3. Jesus literally, physically rose from the Dead on Easter morning.
4. This resurrection is necessary for the atonement of human sins.
5. Jesus’s miracles actually, historically happened.

Now throw into that a distrust for academic subjects that tended to challenge those kinds of beliefs (evolutionary biology, architecture, the German school of biblical criticism that spoke of manuscripts and authors and textual evidence throwing doubt on inerrancy) and a fear over loosening morals (so crusades against drinking, loosening sexual standards, etc.) and you’ve got the basic picture of historical, American Christian fundamentalism. It’s a rejection of what came to be called modernism, and a focus on some sort of golden age of The Way Things Were.

And I’ll grant Sarah this: it’s hard to be a progressive and go along with these kinds of things. The focus on The Way Things Were seems textbook conservatism to me, at least of a certain kind of conservatism. Not everyone uncomfortable with loosening sexual standards is a fundamentalist, but at least on this definition, everyone who’s a fundamentalist would probably be against loosening sexual standards. By analogy, people discussing movements in Judaism (like the ultra-Orthodox/Haredi movement trying to impose modesty standards in Jewish neighborhoods) or Islam (think Ayatollah Khomeini, for instance) often drew a parallel. These movements at least share the distrust of modernism, even if they don’t have the same historical roots.

The thing is, the word has a broader meaning these days. Here’s a few examples from the Wikipedia article of fundamentalism that’s really less about rejecting modernism and a ind of reactive, divisive extremism.

1. In a 2007 BBC interview, the Archbishop of Canterbury referred to the dangers of “any kind of fundamentalism, be it Biblical, atheistic or Islamic” and said ” new fundamentalism of our age … leads to the language of expulsion and exclusivity, of extremism and polarisation, and the claim that, because God is on our side, he is not on yours.”

2. A few years prior, when France tried to ban Islamic-style headscarves in the public schools, several protest signs referred to “secular fundamentalism.”

3. In his 2007 book The Dawkins Delusion, theologian Alistair MacGrath compared Dawkins’ “‘total dogmatic conviction of correctness’ to ‘a religious fundamentalism which refuses to allow its ideas to be examined or challenged.’” Dawkins rejected this accusation in a London Times editorial, writing, “The true scientist, however passionately he may ‘believe in evolution for example, knows exactly what would change his mind: evidence! The fundamentalist knows that nothing will.”

And finally, leaving religion completely behind,

4. Economists sometimes term “an exaggerated religious-like faith in the ability of unfettered laissez-faire or free market economic views or policies to solve economic and social problems” as free market fundamentalists. According to Wikipedia’s paraphrase of John Quiggin, “the standard features of ‘economic fundamentalist rhetoric’ are ‘dogmatic’ assertions and the claim that anyone who holds contrary views is not a real economist.”

I think it’s quite clear that, at least in this second sense, you can be a fundamentalist without arguing for certain positions. It’s about how you do the arguing. Are you a gatekeeper, trying to say who can and can’t speak for a certain group? Is your focus on delineating an in and an out crowd? How do you handle disagreement – do you treat it as an opportunity for dialogue, or are you more keen to say someone is wrong? Does the fact that someone is on the outside of the acceptable circle mean everything they might have to say is out of bounds for serious consideration?

Does Sarah cross the line here? She’s certainly passionate, but passion in itself isn’t fundamentalism. The way she phrases some of her bullet points gives me room for pause, but out of fairness, I’m sure I’ve given the same impression a few times in how I described views or interactions about things I cared deeply about. But really, that’s not the reason I’m writing this at 2 AM in the morning, when I should be asleep or rewatching “Belgravia” at the least. It’s that we progressives sometimes have this idea that if we just have the right positions, if we believe the right thigngs and say it in the right way and link to the right people on the right issues, there’s no way we can be fundamentalists.

That’s just not true.

Fundamentalism is a way we engage topics, a way we meet our enemies. Does it come with a focus on “Believe this, be right, that is what matters” or do we recognize that we are called to love even our enemies, which begins often enough with understanding and dialogue if not always in agreement? It comes in degrees, but it also pops up all over the ideological perspective. And it’s important that we progressives be ready to fight this own tendency in our own ranks. It doesn’t make us misogynists or homophobes, by any stretch, but it’s not nothing either.


evening plans

This week I've been fighting more than a touch of depression. Things that usually interest me just don't. But tonight, for the first time since the weekend, I actually felt like going out and doing something fun.

Of course, my luck being as it is, it's on the night that I really needed to pick up laundry, as it had been sitting on their shelf and also as I was about to need clean underwear. Also, The Fifth Estate comes out tomorrow and I'd be interested to see a flick on Astrange even if it didn't star Benedict Cumberbatch. So quiet night in it is. I suppose I could go out, but it's already lateish and I live four stories up. I did grab some end-of-day seafood (crab, mostly) and bok choy from the market on my block and gave it to my neighbor, who can do marvelous things with a skillet but doesn't like to cook for just one. I'll get a knock in an hour or so, hopefully with something scrumptious and unexpected.

I was going to curl up on the couch and start rereading the Hunger Games (latest TV spot has me thinking about that), but I also was just informed that John Watson's blog... is actually a thing. So I'm going to get out my Kindle fire, make myself a cup of tea, put on some Thelonius Monk, and cut the chains to my laptop for the rest of the night. Or try to. No guilt and no work until morning at a bare minimum.

(I do know I owe some people comment replies on my latest emo post and really want to do that. Just not tonight.)

I did have two moments of creativity today. Not sure how much sense they'll make generally. But in case you're interested:

1) Someone shared a link debunking some comments Ted Cruz made about the ACA. All I can see is one fine Moriarty impression. They're both so changeable.

2) A blogger acquaintance blogged about a roundtable she subjected herself to where John Piper and Douglas Wilson (two big-name evangelicals) talked about abortion, homosexuality, and race. So I gave her a little treat.