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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.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 17th, 2013 05:09 pm (UTC)
I have always believed that fundamentalism is an approach to a subject, rather than the symptoms such an approach entails.

You're right: it doesn't necessarily limit itself to merely the religious sphere - it can manifest itself regarding economics, politics, environmentalism, and many other areas of human endeavor. You're also right that, in many ways, it is seen as a form of conservatism, zealously guarding The Way It Used To Be.

In my personal definition, it is characterized by:

1. An utter inflexibility and unwillingness to consider anything but its own tenets.

2. Absolute intolerance of anyone holding opposing beliefs or positions.

3. An apparent lack of ethics, as if no matter what they do, the end (of convincing others of the rightness of their position) outweighs and justifies the means.

4. When in regards to religion, whatever the source material, it thrusts that scripture up into the "infallible" and "beyond question" category - in essence, creating a "god" of the volume and then worshipping that as much as any deity/messiah/prophet it describes.

Ultimately, the question boils down to (A) what is tolerance, (B) what is justifiable INtolerance, and (C) at what point does one cross the line into unjustifiable and/or equally unethical behavior?

When I was in the Interfaith BBS forums, back in the Internet Dark Ages™, one of the discussions that would come around every few months centered around a liberal/progressive person announcing "I can tolerate anything except intolerance." It always amazed me to see that these folks couldn't perceive the oxymoron they were spouting.

And now, all these years later, it's interesting to see that that particular argument has come no further in being resolved.

(Minor note: I'm almost afraid to start reading over at this Patheos you speak of so often. I'm trying to get material ready to start the submission/rejection road with some of my fiction, and don't want to get myself overwhelmed and obsessed by the depth of the discussions there. Maybe someday, but not today. But I enjoy it when you bring some of it here, as much because you and I can have a reasoned discussion as anything else.)

Edited at 2013-10-17 05:09 pm (UTC)
Oct. 17th, 2013 06:03 pm (UTC)
I think the question at the heart of the matter is: what do we mean by intolerance? It amazes me how many people think being tolerant means being so open-minded you refuse to take a position or call out people for incorrect or damaging beliefs. That's not it at all. I can be tolerant of people I disagree with --vehemently-- because I feel called to love them and live with them regardless of whether we agree. We can talk about the things that matter, but that can't shake the bond of being neighbors and fellow humans, I guess.

I've been thinking about this a lot in the context of the Not All Like That project. It's an interesting push getting Christians to make videos about "their belief that there is nothing anti-biblical or sinful about being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender." Which is something I agree with - I've come to believe that there's nothing in Christianity that has to condemn homosexuality per se, and I believe that gay etc. people have the same ethical duties as heterosexual people do. That often means no promiscuity, sacrificial love for each other, that kind of thing, but it's not limited by your gender. But I also get that not every Christian agrees with that by a long way.

So that leaves me the question: what do I say to the Christian who disagrees with me, who thinks that transgendered people are making a mockery of the way God made them or who thinks same-sex romantic love is sinful, or whatever? On the issue asked, I'd they're clearly wrong, but it still bothers me to say to other people in front of them that we're not all like that. It reminds me of the person who leans over to the guest at Thanksgiving dinner to just ignore the racist uncle going off about Mexicans because "he's just like that, but most of us aren't." Tolerance for me means saying that we are in this relationship whatever you say, and that makes me committed not to ignore the horrible things you say but to own you and at the same time help you learn to become a better person. Tolerance seems to be about something beyond just agreeing someone's right.

Anyway.... Gotta go teach. Good conversation.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )



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