I hate the f-word. Not the f-bomb, or even that other f-word you might be thinking of. No, instead I’m thinking of that other lovely term of abuse: ‘fundamentalist.’ Originally, the term simply referred to those on the conservative side of the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy in Evangelical Protestantism in the 1920s-1930s. These believers were the ones who affirmed things like the Incarnation, Christ’s atonement, the inerrancy of Scripture, the Resurrection, and Virginal conception of Christ–you know, the “Fundamentals.” Since then, it has morphed into a general catch-all label applied across various religions and possibly non-religious ideologies.
The first time I ran up against this reality was during office hours my sophomore year in college with my philosophy professor. I was sitting on her couch and proudly confessed to being a fundamentalist during our conversation on religion. She looked at me quizzically and said, “Well, you don’t look like one.” By that she meant I was wearing blue jeans not made by my mom out on our farm.
Philosopher Alvin Plantinga goes into some lexical analysis demonstrating how nearly-useless the term has become especially in discussions regarding religion (pardon the playful-profanity):
“..we must first look into the use of this term ‘fundamentalist’. On the most common contemporary academic use of the term, it is a term of abuse or disapprobation, rather like ’son of a b#tch’, more exactly ’sonovab#tch’, or perhaps still more exactly (at least according to those authorities who look to the Old West as normative on matters of pronunciation) ’sumb#tch.’ When the term is used in this way, no definition of it is ordinarily given. (If you called someone a sumb#tch, would you fell obligated first to define the term?) Still, there is a bit more to the meaning of ‘fundamentalist’ (in this widely current use); it isn’t simply a term of abuse. In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relatively conservative theological views. That makes it more like ’stupid sumb#tch’ (or maybe ‘fascist sumb#tch’?) than ’sumb#tch’ simpliciter. It isn’t exactly like that term either, however, because its cognitive content can expand and contract on demand; its content seems to depend on who is using it. In the mouths of certain liberal theologians, for example, it tends to denote any who accept traditional Christianity, including Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Barth; in the mouths of devout secularists like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, it tends to denote anyone who believes there is such a person as God. The explanation that the term has a certain indexical element: its cognitive content is given by the phrase ‘considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.’ The full meaning of the term, therefore (in this use), can be given by something like ’stupid sumb#tch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine’” –Warranted Christian Belief, pp. 244-245
Though Plantinga is a scholar, this is admittedly not a scholarly, sociological analysis. For a general observation on how the term is used in everyday discourse though, I think it’s spot-on. Depending on who uses the term, ‘fundamentalist’ can mean anything from Harold Camping/compound-out-in-Montana types to someone simply holding classic, Nicene Christianity–making it functionally useless.
I’m not sure I have any good word to replace it. Aside from the particular words to describe the beliefs in question, inevitably that new word will probably stretch and contract with usage, becoming similarly problematic as are terms like “liberal” and “conservative.” Relative statements inevitably need to be made. The problem is that my “liberal” might be your “moderate” depending on the scale you’re working with. Still, whenever I see someone or some belief labeled “fundamentalist”, unless I know the person or belief A, or the person B making the accusation, I am told almost nothing the belief in question, except that person B doesn’t agree with A because they find it idiotically-conservative.
All that to say, I don’t like the word much except for its historical, academic sense.
Soli Deo Gloria