Today for most people the term "fundamentalist" is a pejorative term. It refers to anyone who is too extreme in their religion. Many times it carries the connotation of someone who will resort to violence in support of their religious beliefs, such as Islamic fundamentalists or even Christian fundamentalists who kill abortion doctors.
So, the term "fundamentalism" means different things to different people.
In his book Introducing Anthropology of Religion, David Eller describes fundamentalism from an anthropological point of view:
Religious fundamentalism derives its name from the notion of "fundamentals," those things--beliefs, behaviors, organizational structures, and/or moral injunctions--that are felt by members to be most essential or central, the oldest, deepest, and truest aspects of it. (p. 276).He sees three common elements in religious fundamentalism:
First, religious fundamentalism is for something, namely what it perceives to be the fundamental and crucial elements of its faith, which constitutes the worldview and "the truth" for practitioners. In the case of Christianity, these fundamentals typically focus on the Bible even as a literal and inerrant document and source of knowledge; a certainty that their path is the true path and therefore, the exclusion and sometimes condemnation of others (even other Christians) as corrupt and lost; a sharp distinction between religion and "the secular," the latter of which is inferior or actually evil; an eschatology in which the end-time is near and only they will survive into the new kingdom, that is, an apocalyptic view and a sense of being "chosen"; an uncompromising moral standard; and increasingly, a willingness to participate in politics to institutionalize all of the above, including a more or less conscious desire to dismantle the separation of church and state. . . .For some this means total separation from the world, such as the Amish, or other communal groups. For others it means separation from what they perceive to the be the evil pleasures of the world, such as gambling, dancing, drinking alcohol, certain types of music, certain types of apparel, and so on. For still others it takes on an activist form whereby the world is engaged and attempts are made to change the world. This could be through evangelism (either mass meetings or personal "soul-winning"), and/or through political means, such as attempts to "legislate morality," post the Ten Commandments, reinstate prayer in schools, teach "scientific" creationism, and so on. Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority and Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition are examples of this type of fundamentalism. An even more extreme example is the Christian Reconstructionists, a Calvinist group (which would eschew the label Fundamentalist), whose stated goal is to enforce all of the OT laws including stoning homosexuals, adulterers, and so on.
Second, religious fundamentalist is against something. . . As Marsden proceeds to argue, fundamentalists "must not only believe their evangelical teachings, but they must be willing to fight for them against modernist theologies, secular humanism, and the like" (George Marsden, "Defining American Fundamentalism, p. 23). . . Fundamentalists see themselves as militants. . . They are, in their words and often enough in their works, at war with the world (pp. 277-78).
Eller notes a third common thread of fundamentalism--it is enamored with the past. The past, when the fundamentals were formed and truly practiced, looms as a kind of golden age, an ideal and idealized way of life. Fundamentalisms thus emerge as one variation of the cultural nostalgias produced by the modern world--memories of a better, purer time (p. 279). Fundamentalism favors the past over the present. This is evidenced oftentimes in their choice of hymns over more modern worship music, in the use of the King James Bible over newer translations, and so on.
Here are some additional characteristics of a fundamentalist mentality:
- Intellectual and moral absolutism--"we alone have the truth."
- Obsession with who is and who is not a real "fundamentalist"
- The need to be "certain"--doesn't like ambiguity
- Submission to authority is a prime virtue--the written Scriptures as taught by the (male) leader
- Sense of being special--we are God's children, we have the truth and everyone else is lost
- Resistance to change--any change is seen as compromise which is almost always wrong
As Eller concludes:
No religion is immune to fundamentalist tendencies, especially in a modern world of religous and cultural pluralism, rapid social change, and strong religious beliefs and sentiments. All fundamentalisms share a certain reactionary or defensive nature--even a certain militancy--although they also vary significantly not only between religions and between societies/states but also within religions. They are also, it is quite clear, no utterly unique to modern times but can be found in all times of change and threat--which are almost all times. They are ultimately one of the recurring forms of "revitalization movements" that arise in all societies (and not only in religious institutions) during moments of turmoil and (real or perceived) social decline. . . . The fact that these very circumstances are certain to continue and even intensify in the future suggests that fundamentalisms are likely to persist, and it also proves conclusively that "modernity" is not the death of religion but may rather give it new and energetic life" (p. 301).So, one should not be surprised at the rise of fundamentalism in the 20th century. Since the last century brought the greatest amount of change to the world, it is only natural that there were a segment of society that resisted that change. As Eller points out, fundamentalism is a mentality and it is not unique to religions (although that is the most visible and potentially dangerous kind). As we move into the 21st century, one can only expect more rapid changes in society and therefore stronger resistance from fundamentalists.