Fundamental is derived from fundament, a term borrowed from French into Middle English. Fundament refers to a concrete foundation or base, generally the base of a building. Fundamental emerges in Early Modern English referring in a concrete sense to such a foundation or base; alternatively, in an 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.
The term fundamentalism differs importantly in this regard. The word is generally linked, initially, to publication of The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth (though the word fundamentalism may have existed in American Protestant discourse during the decade prior to publication of that work). 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 favour of an (often romanticized or idealized) traditional lifestyle.
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 time of the First World War, itself a culmination of modern colonial expansion, economic forces, and technological developments. In early 20c, the term fundamentalism was embraced particularly by those known as “dispensationalists” in American Presbyterian churches, but the term was also used by other groups. Many religious groups, including Mennonites, split into fundamentalist and liberal sects. 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 clearly relates to another important social keyword: modern.
From early 20c, 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 also introduced. Various details in what was fundamental to American Protestantism in 20c 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 20c was increasingly characterized by romantic idealization of an imaginary past that serves as a foundation for rejecting modernization; in this respect fundamentalism signifies something different from many earlier examples of religious activist movements. Anabaptists from 16c to 19c, for example, had urged a return to a communal living system that existed in recent memory; 20c fundamentalists generally, by contrast, sought a return to an imaginary and often romanticized past which had never existed in an equivalent way. 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, which all originate in the 1920s, 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 appear slightly later again, in mid 20c. 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 20c 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.
In the COCA and BNC corpora, Islamic is now by far the most common collocate for fundamentalism (followed significantly less commonly by other religious terms such as religious, Christian, Islam, and Muslim; by the terms rise and spread; and by the terms terrorism and militant).However, in the course of 20c use of fundamentalism was extended to other religious groups, including Buddhist activist groups, often by forces opposing particular groups. This pattern 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 violence or ideological counter-attacks 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 U.S. neo-conservatives 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, giving rise, for example, to Bayesian fundamentalism and market fundamentalism. 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 such as Bob Altemeyer and Bruce Hunsberger, for instance, have developed and revised a 12-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 modernizationto which the 20c development of the phenomenon is undoubtedly tied.