It has been asked: "What is a 'fundamentalist'?"

I offer an extract from (EERDMANS') HANDBOOK TO THE HISTORY OF CHRISTIANITY, ed. Tim Dowley (Lion, Berkhamsted, England; Eerdmans, Grand Rapids MI, USA, 1977) p 596.

> In America, the movement protesting against liberal theology became known as 'fundamentalism'. Fundamentalists believed not only in the verbal inspiration and infallibility of the Bible, but also in a whole series of evangelical doctrines published around 1909 under the title of THE FUNDAMENTALS. The writers included such men as B B Warfield, H C G Moule and James Orr. They emphasized the substitutionary death of Christ on the cross, the reality of eternal punishment, and the need for personal conversion. In later years the term 'fundamentalism' came to denote an unduly defensive and obscurantist attitude which was anti-scholarly, anti-intellectual and anti-cultural. For this reason, many conservative theologians who might be regarded as heirs of the original fundamentalists disown the label today.

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To this I append my own answer:

(DISCLAIMER: It is the job of a sportscaster to tell the audience what is happening on the field, not which side he wants to win. If you can tell from my definition what my own religious beliefs are, then I have not done my job.)

First a preliminary definition. Inerrantism is the belief that the Holy Scriptures have been preserved by God from all error. Inerrantists sometimes disagree among themselves in stating and applying this principle, but it obviously gives them a great deal of common ground.

The term "fundamentalism" is sometimes used to mean inerrantism, but is narrower in two ways.

First, from the beginning it was understood that fundamentalists were agreed not merely on the inerrancy of the Scriptures, but also on certain doctrines that they believed to be plainly taught by the Scriptures, but which not all inerrantists agree are so taught. Example: most fundamentalists are in considerable agreement on a scenario for the events accompanying the spectacular supernatural overthrow of the present order of things and the return of Christ in glory to judge the world. Example: they are mostly agreed, not only on the necessity of having "a conversion experience" in order to be in a right relation with God, but also on the proper content of that experience.

Second, fundamentalist congregations, as a natural consequence of worshipping apart from other groups and being more willing to borrow ideas and customs from other fundamentalists than from outsiders, have tended over the years to develop or preserve their own musical tastes, their own ways of talking, and the like, that set them apart. Example: Fundamentalists tend to like the hymns IN THE GARDEN ("I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses") and THE OLD RUGGED CROSS ("On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross"). Non-fundamentalists tend not to like these, and the difference is not theological as much as it is cultural, literary, and musical. However, since an atheist would naturally not care for either hymn, when a non-fundamentalist tries to explain to a fundamentalist why he can't stand the fundamentalists' favorite hymns, the fundamentalist is likely to suspect that he is talking to someone in deep spiritual trouble, and this irritates the non-fundamentalist, whereupon communication tends to break down. (Naturally, this attitude is not limited to fundamentalists. "I understand that there are some persons around who are expecting to go to Heaven but who do not like to sing the music of J S Bach. Such persons had better shape up. What do you think we are going to be singing there?!") Example: In a fundamentalist congregation, if coffee and doughnuts (or something more substantial) are to be served in the social hall after the service, a deacon will say, after the final blessing, "And now, let us fellowship." (A visitor once whispered to his host, "What does that mean?" and got the response, "It means, let's party!") Non-fundamentalists seldom use "fellowship" as a verb. Little things like this add up, and make each side feel, even when the theological differences are not particularly great, that the other side must be from Mars. HINT: Superfluous use of "just" in prayer is a giveaway. If you hear someone saying, "Lord, we just pray that--", or, "Lord, we just thank you that--", then beware! You are dealing with a fundamentalist!

To these may be added a third difference. In public discourse, and particularly in the media, the term "fundamentalist" has become largely a term of abuse. This tendency was either originated or greatly encouraged by H L Mencken, editor of a magazine called THE SMART SET. Mencken was a writer who was popular largely on the basis of the witty style with which he attacked and ridiculed those persons, tendencies, and ideas that he regarded as insufficiently urbane, enlightened, sophisticated, and intellectually fashionable. He was a professional curmudgeon -- that is, he may have liked some things, but he seldom said so in writing, and is even more seldom quoted or remembered for saying so. It was not his best style. (Andy Rooney is a useful comparison.) In 1925 Mencken went to Dayton, Tennessee, to cover the Scopes Trial ("The Monkey Trial"), held to determine whether the State of Tennessee could constitutionally forbid teachers in the public schools from teaching Darwinian evolution (more broadly, from teaching views on the origin of man that contradicted a literal interpretation of Genesis) in the public schools. Mencken was less interested in convincing his readers (most of whom needed no convincing) that the prosecution was wrong than he was in amusing them by portraying the prosecution, and the population of Tennessee, and fundamentalists in general, as a gang of idiots utterly devoid of the social graces. No reader of Mencken would want a fundamentalist attending his cocktail parties, let alone marrying his sister. If Mencken started the trend, other forces have continued it. Largely by historical accident, fundamentalism in the United States is disproportionately found in the rural South and (to a lesser extent), the Midwest. Since the Civil War, Northerners have tended to look at the culture of the South as an inferior culture, simply because it was the culture of the conquered. In the context of the Civil Rights movement, especially in the 1960's, the idea was encouraged that anything connected with white Southern culture was positively evil. (I heard a professor give a lecture in which he undertook to prove that the Southern way of pronouncing certain sounds was in itself proof of moral degeneracy.) Those who opposed the Movement were generally perceived as fundamentalists, while those who favored it were not. More bad PR for the word "fundamentalist". A recent development has been a series of scandals (in this context, two are enough to make a series) about television evangelists, in particular Jim and Tammy Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart. The result is a perception that all fundamentalists, without exception, are either sexually promiscuous con-men or pathetically gullible victims of the aforesaid con-men (all right, con-persons!). In view of the scandals involving Senators, Representatives, and other government officials, one might ask why the conclusion is not quite as widely drawn that all politicians, without exception, are scoundrels. The answer, I think, is that most of us do hear the Congress mentioned in other contexts. We know that the legislators do spend time in the Capitol Building as well as time in motels. (We may occasionally wonder whether the country might be better off if some of them spent all their time in motels to the utter neglect of their work, but that is another issue.) But the ordinary non-fundamentalist reader of the daily newspaper and watcher of the nightly news broadcast is unlikely to have heard of the Bakkers, or Swaggart, until they became objects of scandal, and is unlikely to remember having heard anything specific about any other evangelist (with the possible exception of Billy Graham) that was not scandalous. Ted Kennedy can get on the six o'clock news by making a speech calling for more money for child care. Billy Graham can probably not make it except by dying or by doing something that makes people say, "Aha! I always knew the man was a phony!" It also has not helped matters any that the press refers to the Ayatollah and his followers, and indeed to any Moslem who perpetrates an act of violence (or a speech condoning same) that the press disapproves, as Islamic fundamentalists. (That Khaddafi, for example, is certainly not a Moslem fundamentalist, and probably not, strictly speaking, a Moslem at all, tends to be overlooked by the average reporter, whose sensitivity to fine points of Islamic theology is limited.)

CONCLUSION: The term "fundamentalist" is used in at least three ways: (1) As a synonym for "inerrantist". Here I suggest using the term "inerrantist" instead on the grounds that it is less ambiguous, and carries less emotional baggage with it, and will on both grounds be preferred by those who aim at clear thinking. (2) As a general term of abuse and mudslinging, appealing to the prejudices of the listener, whether against Southerners, or against Arabs, or against moral and religious standards that make him uncomfortable, or against all cultural and social circles not his own. This use the honest writer and speaker will avoid on principle. (I have been asked: "Do you think newspersons should stop talking about Moslem fundamentalists? If so, what word should they substitute? Should they talk about Moslem conservatives instead? That implies that the Ayatollah resembles Bill Buckley, which is hardly more accurate than suggesting that he resembles Jerry Falwell." I reply by recommending that the newsperson stop and think for a moment about what the members of group under discussion really are. Are they anti-modernists? anti-Westerners? anti-Zionists? anti-Americans? anti-capitalists? nationalists? ultra-nationalists? militarists? chauvinists (the word is older than Gloria Steinem)? jingoists? xenophobes? Let him identify them a little more precisely than "fundamentalists" (meaning "people-definitely-not-from-my-club- who-are-all-riled-up-about-something-I-do-not-understand-and-I-do- not-like-them-and-I-wish-they-would-go-away"), and when he has identified it, let him find the right word or phrase for it, and use it. HINT: The correct word may vary from group to group, or even from event to event.) (3) As a term for an inerrantist, normally a Protestant from the United States, accustomed to a certain style of worship: of devotional music (see above), of preaching (sermons that would lose much of their effect in printed form), of prayer (always spontaneous and "from the heart", although habits of speech do develop), and so on. Now, all fundamentalists are inerrantists, but not all inerrantists are fundamentalists, and in addition to the beliefs common to all inerrantists, the fundamentalist normally has an additional set not shared by all inerrantists, although the fundamentalist often does not realize this, and takes it for granted that all "Bible-believing Christians" share his views on, for example, the future of Jerusalem, or what it means to be "born again". DIGRESSION: Fundamentalist or not, it is easy to overlook the fact that the Bible does not actually say what you assume it must say somewhere. For example, I was in a Bible study on Genesis, where one of the Jewish participants asked, "Why do you talk as if it were Satan tempting Eve, instead of just a snake." The Christians answered, "It was Satan disguised as a snake." The Jew said, "But the Bible doesn't say that." The Christians said, "Of course it does!" and started skimming the page to find the place where it does. It doesn't. The best one can do is a verse in Revelation referring to Satan as "that old serpent," and it is not clear that this is anything more than generalized name-calling. That is why it is valuable to have group Bible studies with a diverse group, and to read commentaries by writers with whom you are totally out of sympathy. It keeps you from making unchallenged assumptions.

This third use of the word "fundamentalism" has some legitimate use, but only where all those involved in the dialogue already have some acquaintance with fundamentalism and know what the term means. And even then, there is some danger of sliding off into stereotype.

This is probably going to get some letters saying, "You are wrong. I am a third-generation Unitarian, and I think THE OLD RUGGED CROSS is the most beautiful hymn ever written," or, "You are wrong. I am a fundamentalist to the core, and I positively loathe IN THE GARDEN." Please note that I covered my bets by saying things like "most" and "many" and "by and large".

Yours, James Kiefer