Fundamentalism is a surprisingly new word which is applied to a wide variety of religions—Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism— to denote a strict and unquestioning set of beliefs linked to literal readings of sacred texts. So common has it now become that it can be used to describe anyone with a fixed and rigid set of beliefs, as in the recent market fundamentalism.
A new word, it has very old origins. It is derived from fundamental, which is a Middle English borrowing from French, the French word deriving from a Latin root meaning “bottom.” Fundament can thus refer both to the base of a building and the lower part of the body, specifically the anus. Fundamental also comes to be used as a noun in Early Modern English referring in a concrete sense to such a foundation or base. Fundamental as a plural also has an important meaning to refer to basic medicine, foodstuffs, clothes, but also more abstract senses: “the fundamentals of reading, writing, and arithmetic.” In its abstract sense, the word refers to the essential or primary part of a system. Fundamental does not generally carry particularly positive or negative connotations; it has technical meanings in mathematics, geology, crystallography, biology, and music pertaining to primary parts of relevant systems in each discipline.
Crucially, however, it was the word used in a determined effort fueled by one of the greatest oil fortunes in America to establish a version of Christianity that would repudiate the advances of philology (which had demonstrated that the Gospels were written down some fifty years after Christ’s death), geology (which had made the widely accepted biblical date for the formation of the world in 4004 BCE ludicrous), and biology (where the story of Genesis had been replaced by The Origin of Species). This comprehensive rupture between religion and science was linked initially to publication of The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth (though the word fundamentalism is encountered in religious discourse earlier in C19). The Fundamentals consisted of twelve volumes on Christian doctrine published from 1910 to 1915 by the Bible Institute of Los Angeles and edited initially by A. C. Dixon, then later by Reuben Archer Torrey (with revised editions in 1917, 1958, and 1990 reflecting the continuing significance of this publication within American Protestant discourse). Overall, The Fundamentals set out to define the essential elements of a system of American Protestant belief. In particular, the contributing authors affirmed the literal truth of the Bible in opposition to empirically verifiable sciences; they also opposed modern developments in family and political life, including modern warfare, in favor of an (often romanticized or idealized) traditional lifestyle.
Fundamentalism has something in common with the Catholic Church’s reaction to modernity, but if American Protestants favored the infallibility of the letter over modern knowledge, forty years earlier at the First Vatican Council in 1870 Catholics favored the infallibility of the pope as representative of the institution of the church. In Catholic Europe this fundamentalist ideology had a name: integrism, but it occurs in the OED only in reference to Catholic Europe, and it never gained any currency in English despite the fact that Ireland was almost entirely English-speaking by the time of the Council. The Fundamentals were popular enough that H. L. Mencken in the aftermath of the notorious 1925 Scopes trial about the teaching of evolution in schools wrote:
Heave an egg out of a Pullman window and you will hit a Fundamentalist almost anywhere in the United States today. They swarm in the country towns, inflamed by their shamans. . . . They are thick in the mean streets behind the gas-works. They are everywhere where learning is too heavy a burden for mortal minds to carry, even the vague, pathetic learning on tap in little red schoolhouses. They march with the Klan, with the Christian Endeavor Society, with the Junior Order of United American Mechanics, . . . with all the rococo bands that poor and unhappy folk organize to bring some light of purpose into their lives. (1926)
Defining the essential, necessary elements of the Christian belief system and tradition was not new: assessment and reassessment of those fundamentals had been ongoing for centuries. However, the words fundamental and fundamentalism had played no significant part in such assessments until the rise of science and democracy on the one hand and the early suffragette movement and flappers on the other. Fundamentalism was thus an increasingly influential but seriously contested term during the 1920s. To some, fundamentalism signified a positive, secure grounding in tradition (even if that grounding was, in fact, within a romanticized historical tradition rather than a factual one); to others, fundamentalism conveyed a narrow-minded rejection of positive developments in the modern world. To this extent, fundamentalism is clearly a reaction to modernity and the modern.
From eC20, claims vested in fundamental and fundamentalism related to a dynamic negotiation of what is essential within a given belief system. In The Fundamentals, some articles accepted that contemporary scientific developments, including evolutionary theory, were compatible with the fundamentals of Christianity. However, among other changes to later editions of The Fundamentals, such accommodation of evolutionary theory was removed, and opposition to abortion introduced. Various details in what was fundamental to American Protestantism in C20 in this way evolved, reflected in a changing, dominant meaning of fundamentalism. As the modern world changed, practices associated with fundamentalism reacted, just as the self-conscious adoption of fundamentalism had been largely a specific reaction to modernization. Fundamentalism in later C20 was increasingly characterized by romantic idealization of an imaginary past that serves as a foundation for rejecting modernity; in this respect fundamentalism signifies something different from many earlier examples of religious activist movements. In contemporary use, fundamentals is still a widely embraced term, particularly among Baptist or fundamental churches worldwide whose belief systems often resemble beliefs stated in revised versions of The Fundamentals. Most Protestant churches today, however, have distanced themselves from the term, perhaps more forcefully following increased use of the term Islamic fundamentalism in public discourse over the past two decades. Many English speakers might conflate fundamental with evangelical, but members of such churches tend to highlight the doctrinal differences between fundamental and evangelical churches. Slightly later than the nouns fundamentalism and fundamentalist (and adjective fundamentalist) as applied to Protestant Christianity, Hindu fundamentalism appeared as a term applied by non-Indian writers to Hindu nationalist movements in India, showing the potential overlap between fundamentalism and nationalism. The terms Islamic fundamentalism and Islamic fundamentalist first appear in the 1940s and 1920s, respectively. An early use dates to 1937, when the British Minister in Jeddah wrote that King Ibn al-Aziz, the founder of Saudi Arabia, was coming out strong “as a fundamentalist.” Significantly, this description was in the context of disapproval of men and women using ideas of progress to mix socially. Use of these expressions is not directly linked to The Fundamentals, or any comparable and explicit statement of religious belief; rather, fundamentalism was loosely transferred from its application to C20 American Protestantism to evoke some or all of the same associations, including strict religious adherence to literalist interpretation of scriptures and activism against various elements of modernization, particularly sexual freedom for women and acceptance of homosexuality. The total rejection of gay sex by Protestant fundamentalists is in line with the Christian tradition of homophobia, but the possibly even more virulent hatred of homosexuals by Islamic fundamentalists breaks with more tolerant muslim cultural traditions. Islamic is now one of the most common collocates for fundamentalism. Other religious terms that are generally less common collocates include religious, Christian, Islam, and Muslim; the terms rise and spread; and the terms terrorism and militant. These patterns of use created an important contrast: unlike the situation with early American fundamentalists, many of whom identified positively with the term, groups labeled fundamentalist today generally have the term thrust on them by adversaries.
The expression anti-fundamentalism readily emerged in such circumstances, referring to counterattacks against fundamentalists. Anti-fundamentalism is inevitably often associated with stereotypes of fundamentalism, typically as an outside enemy (with the result that fundamentalist can connote “political enemy of the state”). Popularization of fundamentalist and fundamentalism by US neoconservatives has facilitated a contested and problematic, generalized application of fundamentalist to political enemies worldwide, in which these terms may refer either to persecuted minority groups, who may or may not adhere to fundamentalist religious beliefs, or to hegemonic political powers (e.g., the Iranian state). Fundamentalism is also used in relation to spheres beyond religion, such that strict adherents to a particular policy or practice can be referred to as fundamentalists. OED evidence shows that, in the 1970s, fundamentalist was also used neutrally or positively for people who identified as traditional in non-religious ways, though that usage seems to have declined.
The variably technical, but sometimes oblique, expression religious fundamentalism has now become an accepted term in academic psychology, sociology, and even neuropsychology, with the result that religious fundamentalism is viewed in some fields as quantitatively measurable. Psychologists of religion have developed and revised a twelve-item Religious Fundamentalism Scale which rates subjects’ responses in terms of the degree of religious fundamentalism exhibited. One implication of such research, however, appears to be that fundamentalism may be viewed as a specific psychological or social defect consisting of connections between religious attitude and kinds of prejudice—to the exclusion of social, political, economic, and cultural contexts in which it is cultivated, and separated from the wider process of modernization to which the C20 development of the phenomenon is undoubtedly tied.
While fundamentalism covers a vast array of different kinds of religious belief, there are striking similarities: a shared belief in a literal text, a desire to return to an imagined perfect past, and a virulent hatred of both female and homosexual desire.