Fighting the Good Fight: Fundamentalism and Religious Revival
In J. MacClancy, ed. Anthropology for the Real World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001
William O. Beeman
Department of Anthropology
The term fundamentalism has rapidly entered the vocabulary of social science in the past two decades as a general designation for revivalist conservative religious orthodoxy. Though originally applied only to Christianity, Gananath Obeyesekere theorizes that the extension of the term to other religious traditions dates from the time of the Iranian Revolution in 1978-79. Today it is used to describe Evangelical Christians, Iranian revolutionaries, ultra-orthodox Jews, militant Sikhs, and Buddhist resistance fighters, among others. Its categorical use is so widespread and so easily applied, that the misperception persists that it has always been with us.
The specific origin of the word fundamentalism dates to an early 20th Century American religious movement. The movement took its name from a compendium of twelve volumes published between 1910 and 1915 by a group of Protestant laymen entitled: The Fundamentals: A Testimony of the Truth. These volumes were circulated in the millions and served as the concretization of a cross-denominational set of traditions with roots in previous centuries. It owes its existence particularly to the same evangelical revivalist tradition that inspired the Great Awakening of the early 19th Century and a variety of early millenarian movements. Spurred on by reactions to Darwin’s theory of evolution, the original Fundamentalist Movement was seen as a religious revival. It came to embody both principles of absolute religious orthodoxy and evangelical practice which called for believers to extended action beyond religion into political and social life.
These four qualities: revivalism; orthodoxy; evangelism; and social action; are the basis for the discussion of fundamentalism (writ small) presented below. As a number of social scientists have noted, the term has come to have pejorative connotations. Nevertheless, it does seem to serve a useful purpose as a characterization of a repeatedly occurring and nearly universal human social phenomenon. The deeper comparative understanding of fundamentalism may forestall the frequent dismissive attitudes exhibited by groups sharing common beliefs toward each other. As Lionel Caplan, editor of a prominent collection of essays on the subject has noted: “an adequate understanding of fundamentalism requires us to acknowledge its potential in every movement or cause. . . . We are all of us, to some degree and in some senses, fundamentalists.”
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