Anti-fundamentalism in Modern America

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What do you think of when you think of fundamentalism? David Harrington Watt wants you to know that the thing you’re thinking is probably wrong. It is most likely a grab bag of ideas cobbled together from an intellectual discourse Watt calls “anti-fundamentalism.” Anti-fundamentalists have liked to think of themselves as detached observers studying an intriguing phenomenon. Look at those religious fanatics who can’t seem to cope with modernity! Look at how they stand in the way of progress! What is wrong with them?

Not so fast, says Watt. He invites anti-fundamentalists and all of us who have been influenced by that tradition (which is almost all of us, I think) to turn our gaze around and consider our own assumptions. Anti-fundamentalism then emerges not as a stable and neutral category of analysis, but an ideology designed to define, control, and make claims about the appropriate place of religion in the modern world (shades of Jonathan Z. Smith here).

The first fundamentalists were a group of conservative Protestants in the United States who proudly claimed that label in the 1920s as they battled theological modernists for control of the major Protestant denominations. They defended what they understood to be the fundamentals of Christianity against the theological modernists who rejected many traditional Christian doctrines such as the virgin birth. Fundamentalism was not the reactionary faith of uneducated yokels living in the countryside. It was especially appealing to the white Protestant middle classes and was particularly strong in many northern urban centers such as Chicago and Philadelphia. The fundamentalists weren’t even anti-modern in any thoroughgoing way (good luck defining modernity).

Watt thinks it makes a lot of sense to call those conservative Protestants of the 1920s and their religious descendants fundamentalists. He doesn’t think it is very useful to call other people fundamentalists. Obviously, many people disagree. Fundamentalism is now supposedly a global phenomenon, infecting nearly every religious tradition and threatening human progress wherever it raises its reactionary head. There are Islamic fundamentalists and Jewish fundamentalists and Christian fundamentalists and nearly every other kind of fundamentalist you can imagine.

Watt thinks this is silly. How did a term invented in a little corner of the Protestant world in a particular moment of controversy become a way for people to imagine and talk about an ostensibly global phenomenon? Watt’s book uncovers the intellectual genealogy of this shift. Along the way, he argues that the discourse of anti-fundamentalism has usually told us more about the intellectuals engaging in it than the people they study.

Watt shows how, beginning in the 1920s, the discourse of anti-fundamentalism created an idea of fundamentalism that was more a term of abuse than a unit of analysis. He demonstrates that the dominant image of fundamentalism that became crystallized through the 1970s was based on frequently shoddy scholarship, a lack of attention to the primary sources, and was all too ready to take the modernists word for it, as if they were a disinterested party. Richard Hofstadter looks especially guilty here, and Watt portrays his Anti-intellectualism in American Life as the complaint of an intellectual upset that everyone didn’t pay him the deference he was due.

Then, of course, everything changed in 1979. With the Iranian Revolution, fundamentalism quite suddenly became an elastic global concept used to describe all sorts of religious movements Americans found threatening. Precisely because anti-fundamentalist discourse had by the 1970s created a monster of its own imagination, it was easy to transport it globally.

Any aspiring author can learn from this book. David Watt’s prose here—as in all of his books—is crystal clear, and utterly unpretentious. He writes simply and forcefully, knowing exactly what he wants to say. That means it’s an extremely easy read.

I’ll close with a quote from Watt’s conclusion. An inattentive reader might wonder if this is all a semantic game that intellectuals play. What is really at stake in calling people fundamentalists? Watt writes:

Getting rid of the words “fundamentalist,” “fundamentalists,” and “fundamentalism” will not solve the problem. The problem is not with the words. The problem is with the assumptions, hopes, and habits of mind upon which they rest. Simply coming up with new names without rethinking those assumptions, hopes, and habits of mind does us no good whatsoever. If tomorrow everyone in the world were to stop talking about fundamentalism and begin talking about something like “reactionary religious groups” or “bad religion” or “Falwellianism” or “Qutbism,” we’d have made no progress. The problem is not with the term per se but with the category itself and with the desire to name a dangerous other. It is about the wish to pretend that we know the direction history is moving in and what it means to stand in the way of progress. It is about a desire to sort humanity into two groups: those who are virtuous and those who are not. It is, in other words, about our desire to separate the sheep from the goats.

One thought on “Anti-fundamentalism in Modern America

  1. In college I asked an episcopalian priest on a lecture circuit a question. His response was to call me a fundamentalist avoiding any direct answer to my question. At the time I was confused because I had never heard the term. After the fact I recognized it was intended to be an insult.

    Liked by 1 person

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