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What is Fundamentalism? What is Evangelicalism? Different Approaches Examined

Martin E. Marty on Fundamentalism

Martin E. Marty, “Fundamentalistm,” Encyclopedia of Science and Religion, vol. 1. ed. J. Wentzel Vrede van Huyssteen, 2 Vols (New York, NY: Macmillan Reference USA, 2003): 345-347.

Although admitting that the term “fundamentalism” originated as a term to define a group of Protestants in the 1920’s, Marty wants to define “fundamentalism” most broadly as a phenomenon of aggressive conservatism that “fights back” in the face of change.  Although with this definition fundamentalism is not restricted to religious adherents, Marty admits that the term is most often associated with religion.  Fundamentalism is especially present in religions “of the book” (346).

The problem with Marty’s approach to the term “fundamentalism” is its incredible flexibility.  For example, if Islamic fundamentalists became the majority in America and decided to overthrow our form of government in favor of a dictatorship, it would seem to be the case that conservative Americans who “fought back” in the face of such change could, by Marty’s definition, be dubbed as the “fundamentalists” all the same.  In this definition, any group that fights back when their beliefs or culture are attacked are “fundamentalists,” regardless of context.  This incredible flexibility of the term “fundamentalism” virtually strips it from its unique historical meaning and makes it synonymous with “conservative reactionaries.”  Chinese citizens who “fight back” whenever their government suppresses local traditions would thus be fundamentalists, even if those local traditions include things like free speech, political gatherings, sports competitions, or religious pluralism.

The other problem is that Marty’s description of “fundamentalism” would not include Bible-thumping inerrantists who isolate themselves from mainstream culture and mainstream Christianity in a reactionary fight against pluralism and higher criticism, who also interpreted the Bible literally and work up their congregations into a doomsday frenzy about the coming end of the world—provided that they accept certain aspects of reality can be explained by science (e.g. Keplar’s laws of planetary motion, certain laws of relativity, the chemistry of diseases, plate tectonics, etc.).  The reason they would not qualify in Marty’s description is because Marty defines fundamentalism as wholesale opposition to “the scientific worldview.”  Marty explains:

Ordinary people can live with the two worldviews, which do not always have to be seen as competing.  Religion can address some aspects of life and science can address others.  But fundamentalists have great difficulty picturing how the two worldviews can coexist in the same mind and the same culture.  To fundamentalists, one worldview must be right and the other wrong.  One is of God and the other is anti-God, perhaps of Satan. (346)

Other moves Marty makes in his encyclopedic entry also seem counterintuitive for purposes of taxonomy.  In agreement with a scholarly consensus that sees fundamentalism as a reaction to modernity, Marty argues that technology is the most significant impact of modernity.  By associating technology with modernity, he is able to characterize fundamentalists as either “anti-technology” or as accepting the results of science while paradoxically denying the “scientific worldview” that enabled them.  By defining fundamentalists as anti-science and anti-technology, he is forced to think of the fundamentalist who uses a cell phone as a walking “paradox” since fundamentalists are supposed to be anti-technology via anti-modernity.  But does this fit with scholarly taxonomy of religious fundamentalist groups?  Certainly fundamentalism is a reaction to modernity, but did the Protestant fundamentalists in the 1920’s reject all science wholesale or all scientific explanations of reality?  Here it seems Marty’s approach to taxonomy is in need of more careful distinctions.  Fundamentalists are typically opposed to Darwinism and philosophical naturalism, but Marty’s translation of this as wholesale anti-science (along with his humorous befuddlement that fundamentalists are comfortable with modern technology) reflects a problematic taxonomy.

Brenda E. Brasher on Fundamentalism

Brenda E. Brasher, “Introduction,” Encyclopedia of Fundamentalism, Brenda E. Brasher, ed. (New York, NY: Routledge, 2001), xv-xviii .

A more robust and helpful approach to fundamentalism as a historical movement is formulated by Brenda E. Brasher.  In her Encyclopedia of Fundamentalism, she defines it as a popular means of revolt against modernism by traditionalist Christianity that has three distinct characteristics.

First, the movement was ignited by a struggle between liberal and conservative Protestants over how to define Christianity.  In this struggle a conservative constituency banded together and over the period of fifteen years wrote The Fundamentals, a series of articles defining Christianity in terms of what they considered to be the most fundamental doctrines that constitute a uniquely Christian faith (e.g. the Trinity, the virgin birth, the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, the inspiration and authority of Scripture, etc.).  The articles also attacked trends in higher criticism and liberal theology, fearing these movements were inimical to orthodox Christianity.  While others were defining Christianity in terms of social ethics or political action, the fundamentalists opted for a doctrinally oriented definition instead (xvi).

Second, fundamentalists identified the Bible as the inerrant and perspicuous conveyer of divine truth (xv).  A corollary to this doctrine was a denial that higher education was necessary to understand the Bible, and attacks on modern intellectual trends perceived to threaten a literal interpretation of the Bible such as higher criticism, Darwinian evolution, egalitarianism and feminism (xvi).  The historical event that did more than any other to turn the word “fundamentalist” into a synonym for “uneducated conservative” or “narrow-minded religious bigot” was the famous Scopes Trial of 1925 in which William Jennings Bryant defended Tennessee state law that outlawed the teaching of evolution.  The journalists covering the story successfully exposed Bryant’s lack of familiarity with evolutionary science and depicted him as out of touch with the modern world.

Finally, in their defense of the “fundamentals” of the faith, fundamentalists advanced absolutist claims of religious truth that bred a spirit of intolerance in reaction to the new “Global Village.”  They had a very negative view of ecumenical and inter-religious cooperation and dialogue, resisted it and “denigrated the tolerance of religious pluralism intrinsic to the civil society that modernity brought” (xv).  “They maintained that the compromises of religious truth necessary for the modern state to exist were blasphemous, and must be rejected” (xv).

Brasher also distinguishes between two “waves” of fundamentalism.  The first wave of fundamentalists had a separatist approach to the modernist controversy, along with an “internal orientation” that made it seem to the larger public that fundamentalism had all but disappeared (xvi).  It would become quite evident, however, with the “second wave” of fundamentalism that the movement had simply went underground.  The second wave of fundamentalists were “sophisticated players in contemporary media culture,” keen on public image, possessing charisma and engaging the mainstream culture (xvi).  Although still holding to an inerrantist theology and sympathetic to the original “fundamental” doctrines that defined Christianity for the movement, they were engaging, less ideologically rigid and militant, politically active and savvy.

The hardest part in defining fundamentalism is explaining the relationship between this second-wave movement and evangelicalism.  Is there really even a difference?  Although admitting significant overlap, Brasher thinks “the easiest way to distinguish the two is by the adage that Evangelicals cooperate with other Christian groups, while Fundamentalists do not” (xvii).  She also notes that fundamentalists do not consider the largest portion of evangelical Protestants (Pentecostals) as part of their movement.  She later admits, however, that fundamentalists did engage in some “intra-religious cooperative ventures” (xvii).

William Trollinger on Fundamentalism

William V. Trollinger, Jr., “Protestantism and Fundamentalism” in The Blackwell Companion to Protestantism, eds. Alister McGrath and Darren C. Marks (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 344-354.

Historians are quick to admit the line between fundamentalists and evangelicals is more than a bit fuzzy.  “The line here is admittedly quite blurred,” writes Protestant historian William V. Trollinger.  “Fundamentalists shared and share with other evangelicals a commitment to the authority of the Bible, the necessity of a conversion experience for salvation, and the importance of sharing the good news of the gospel with others” (345).  He then goes on to add, however, “what distinguishes fundamentalists from other evangelicals … is that they are stridently opposed to ‘modernism’ including theological liberalism, Darwinism, and secularism” (345).  This way of parsing the difference between fundamentalists and evangelicals sound strikingly similar to Brasher’s way of distinguishing between first and second-wave fundamentalists.  Are Brasher’s second-wave fundamentalists, then, the same as Trollinger’s “evangelicals”?  It seems hard to distinguish them.

Alister McGrath on Fundamentalism

McGrath, Alister. Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution—A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007.

Alister McGrath, following academic trends in defining fundamentalism more broadly as “an oppositionalist mentality arising in response to a major threat,” distinguishes fundamentalism as a certain attitude not shared by evangelicals (392).  The advantage of this genericizing of the term is that it makes for a definite distinction between evangelicals and fundamentalists.  Nevertheless, this approach is also historically problematic.  For example, historians like Trollinger believe this taxonomy reduces the difference between a fundamentalist and an evangelical as a mere personality difference.  If it lies in a “certain mentality,” it may turn out to be a difference in the psychological makeup of the individual, which makes the judgment about whether one is a fundamentalist or evangelical very subjective.  An evangelical is simply a fundamentalist with social awareness to modern sensitivities and a sophisticated smile.  A hell-fire and brimstone pastor with a tendency towards biting rhetoric and polemical tirades may be only a personality away from another pastor with the same theology who has a certain charismatic optimism and a lighter tone to his preaching and teaching.  Trollinger’s point is well taken.

Conclusions and Suggestions

So then, are we to despair of delineating the precise distinction between a fundamentalist and an evangelical?  I would suggest that perhaps one frutiful key is in realizing that a different “posture” towards culture may entail certain beliefs also, not just a personality difference.  For example, the posture of evangelicals toward the critical tools of modernity demonstrate that they believe these tools are legitimate tools of critical inquiry, and this compels them to “engage” those who are using the tools to undermine aspects of their faith.  Here we have an agreement between the fundamentalists and the evangelicals about a problem—certain “fundamentals” are under attack by modernity—but different beliefs about the weapons of attack and how to respond.  Fundamentalists isolate and disengage from these weapons, forfeiting the intellectual battle, whereas evangelicals, being less afraid of these tools, have come to believe that these modern weapons of ideological warfare can be enlisted and used in defense of the “fundamentals.”  This goes beyond a personality difference to a substantial difference in beliefs about modern tools of critical inquiry.  Thus in the evangelical tradition there exists a tradition of critical inquiry that started within the bounds of the “fundamentals.”  This “posture” is both ideological and includes a tradition involving the practice critical inquiry and use of modern methodology.  This makes evangelicals more “dangerous” and influential, for they are often able to best the skeptics at their own game and appeal to modern minds.

There is, however, a consequence to this posture.  In a tradition that has adapted many forms of modern scholarship also has a tendency toward higher levels of tolerance for whatever differences exist between those who are on the same “team” and fighting the same battle using the chosen tools of modernity.  It is more difficult, for example, to find evangelicals who believe all denominations except their own are going to hell (would such evangelicals really be evangelicals?).  They have too keen an awareness of the astronomical difference that exists between believers in Jesus’ miracles and resurrection and modernists who have de facto ruled out anything supernatural under the philosophical assumption that such phenomenon are opposed to historical and scientific fact.  Although no less confident perhaps in their own denominational convictions, they are often therefore less dogmatic about them, seeing more clearly than fundamentalists who the “real” enemy is.

Perhaps what is even more important, as evangelicals encourage the best and the brightest of their own intellectuals in the use of the critical tools of inquiry and to engage secular aids and writings, it often turns out that once committed evangelicals, after being immersed in modern methods, defect from their evangelical heritage and either significantly modify their heritage (thus challenging the boundaries of evangelical identity) or join modernity altogether.  Having come from a tradition of outspoken zealots, evangelicals who defect and modify frequently become the most vocal critics of whatever part of their heritage they now reject.  This means the boarders of evangelical identity are always being challenged as a result of their new posture towards modernity. Many evangelicals are prolifically critical of biblical creationism and defend more nuanced approaches to the interpretation of the creation narratives in Genesis, holding that evolution is not incompatible with these biblical narratives.  Other evangelicals are also critical of traditional gender teachings in Christianity and champion an egalitarian theology.  Perhaps this diversity of evangelicalism is part of what distinguishes it from fundamentalism’s more rigid anti-modern ideology.  Evangelicalism has allowed for the use of critical tools in shaping evangelical faith and biblical interpretation.  Those who go further than a modification of evangelical faith and defect to join forces with modernity likewise can become the most vocal critics against Christianity in general and evangelicalism in particular (e.g. Bart D. Ehrman).

If fundamentalism is defined by its “stance” toward modernity and the tools of modern inquiry, then evangelicalism’s new stance toward such tools seems to constitute something new and not merely a second “wave” of the same sort of people.  It must also be said that evangelicals are not always primarily in a posture of attack against modernity, although they habitually use the very tools of higher criticism to undermine many any trends of such criticism unfavorable to their brand of orthodoxy.  These critical tools are constantly shaping the variety of approaches evangelicals take to biblical truth, the art of hermeneutics, tones of disagreement, styles of argumentation, methods of apologetics, the production of literature, ideas of what makes a good “faculty” at a seminary, etc.

Critical forms of inquiry so characteristic of modernity have been, in other words, validated by evangelicals, even while being selective in choosing among varied conclusions drawn by the use of these methods.  When choosing among positions to take with the use of these methods, evangelicals will characteristically choose and argue for the positions that favor their own ideology.  For example, they will not allow for the conclusion that the Bible contradicts history, science, or itself.  Among positions drawn by critical methods, these are off the table for most committed evangelicals in America whose identity is bound up with inerrancy.



  1. Bradley,

    Great review/synthesis. I have a post forthcoming called “Everyone Believes in Development of Doctrine” where I try to argue that authentic development is con-natural to knowledge and the way we should think. The two alternatives are liberalism and fundamentalism, and I try to prove they represent two extremes that diminish the value of truth: one by ignoring true statements that appear to be incompatible or threatening to other true statements thereby devaluing, in fact, truth; the other by making all statements equally valid and thus making them indistinguishably more or less valuable thereby devaluing, in fact, truth. Anyways, your post here has given me more to think about. Thank you.

  2. Thanks Brent. I think that would put evangelicals and Catholic both somewhere in the middle no? I look forward to your post!

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