George Walford: The Future of Fundamentalism

From the French Revolution Forward society seemed to be growing more open, more secular, more rational. Education and literacy spread, free thought and even outright atheism became socially acceptable, democracy largely replaced monarchy, and a prospect of socialism, communism, even anarchy, opened in the distance. The Great War revealed other possibilities, but that got dismissed as a last recurrence of the old, evil ways, arousing the irrevocable determination: Never Again! In October 1917 the future came to Russia.

Gradually at first and then more rapidly, through the Twenties and the Thirties, shadows overtook the brightness. The crisis of capitalism, so long awaited, brought not socialism but fascism, bursting up from forgotten depths. The Soviet promise was trampled into bloody dust, and the Great War turned out to have been merely the first act, with worse to come. As the empires retreated former colonies sank into a state worse than before. In India after Liberation Muslim-Hindu rioting killed more than ever fought for socialism, communism or anarchism. The Enlightenment and its results remain with us, but as a supplement to the old modes of social behaviour, rather than a replacement for them. We have a new and more complex scenario to face.

Much of the apparent progress turns out to have been illusory; the old attitudes had been obscured rather than eliminated. The advanced nations, equipped with computers, nuclear power and spaceships, find themselves confronted with mass attachment to the ideas of a thousand, two thousand years ago. Radio and television spread the words of Mohammed, Christ, Buddha and Moses; in the USA followers of hellfire evangelists greatly outnumber atheists. More people study the Bible and the Koran than ever read Das Kapital or Newton’s Principia – or Russell and Whitehead’s either. Neither Marx nor William Morris nor Bakunin anticipated anything like this for the end of the Twentieth Century. We need to rethink our expectations.

As the empires withdrew from direct control of the Third World it seemed at first that Marxism would move into the resulting vacuum. This did not last. The attempt to use Das Kapital as a pattern for setting up modern capitalist societies, complete with a proletariat ready to move on through socialism to communism, collapsed for lack of mass support. In the ex-colonies Marxism went down under a wave of traditional religions, each of them driving back towards its origins. Islam proved the strongest of these, with 45 nations now belonging to the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Its strength had persisted under the empires although obscured by rationalist influence over the media; now it reasserted itself, returning to a literal reading of the Koran as a guide to life. Renascent Islam applied to the westernised societies of the Twentieth Century the condemnation jahiliyya (period of ignorance and barbarism) used by the Prophet for conditions preceding his Seventh-Century ministry. Israel’s victories over the Arabs confirmed, in Islamic eyes, the need for a return to traditional ways; the new wealth of the Arab oil states helped to finance the movement and the terrorism that furthered it. Khomeini, relying on the superior legitimacy of the religious establishment in Iran, overthrew the Shah. In the Gulf War Saddam Hussein abandoned, for the time at least, the policy of suppressing Islamic movements; he raised the green banner of the Prophet, calling for a Holy War. The largest transnational Islamic organization, the Jama’at al Tabligh (Society for the Propagation of Islam) dismisses twelve centuries of history, rejecting everything in the legal organisation of society, not authorised in the sacred writings of Islam, as sin and corruption. Its members reorganise their lives in detailed emulation of Mohammed’s behaviour, dressing in white as the Prophet did and even wearing a turban of the same size.

A corresponding fundamentalism in contemporary Judaism, finding organisational form mainly as Gush Emunim (the Bloc of the Faithful) increases the bitterness of the struggles between Israel and Islamic states. Although Israel has no one model to fill the role of Mohammed, Gush Emunim operates in the same spirit as the Tabligh; it holds to the Covenant God (in Genesis) made with the Jews, working against the secularist and socialistic tendencies of Zionism for a thoroughgoing return to traditional Judaism. Claiming divine authority for the occupation of Palestine, it tries to replace the legalistic concept of Israel as a state by the biblical idea of the Land of Israel. The ‘return movement’ in Israel parallels the Tabligh, demanding a return to full observation of Judaism’s religious prohibitions and obligations, all 613 of them; these govern both trivial bodily functions and the organization of life in society. Members of Gush Emunim, looking to Scripture for their justification, belonged to the terrorist movement stopped, just in time, from blowing up buses crowded with Arabs; they had also planned to dynamite the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aksa mosque. [1]

These Islamic and Judaic movements (with others, following similar behaviour-patterns, in the Hindu and Sikh religions) appear mainly in the East; this encourages a long-standing tendency to associate religion with the East, secularism with the West; the following examples come from a recent study by John L. Esposito: ‘Western, secular, presuppositions and lifestyles’; ‘the more Western-oriented and secular elite minority’; ‘liberal, secularly informed Western intellectuals, policymakers, and experts’. [2] With the West seen as advanced and the Islamic countries as backward or (more politely) developing, this suggests that we can expect the Muslim countries to become secular states themselves. With a society becoming increasingly integrated this may seem reasonable enough, but before accepting it we need to ask what route the West has in fact been following. Can we fairly describe it, without massive qualification, as secular?

In 1910 some American Protestant theologians published a series of twelve volumes opposing the modernism of the time. It carried the title The Fundamentals, but only in the 1920s (the Shorter Oxford gives 1923) did ‘fundamentalism’ emerge. A recent study defines the movement now known by this name primarily by its literal reading of the Bible, taken to be the absolutely infallible expression of Divine Truth. This means acceptance of all its ethical, moral, social and political commandments and injunctions, together with belief in the divinity of Christ, his life, death and physical resurrection, and the effective action of these in the salvation of souls. [3]

This list of features contains nothing unfamiliar, and indeed the movement disclaims originality, urging return to an assumed previous condition. Yet from its first appearance it did (as its use of a new term implies) display at least one novel feature. From the time Christianity spread over Europe until the latter part of the 18th century the biblical account held the field virtually unchallenged, complete with divine creation of all living creatures, each after its kind. When the Inquisition and its Protestant near-equivalents condemned heretics to the stake they were doing no more than suppress a few dissidents. Even in the late 19th Century, when Disraeli declared himself on the side of the angels (he would rather be descended from them than ascended from, as he put it, monkeys), he spoke from a position of assumed security. Only in this century, with growing respect for science, did the balance of intellectual authority shift, throwing religion onto the defensive, and only then, as a reaction, did aggressive fundamentalism come to the fore.

As Darwinism spread, Christians taking the Bible literally found their beliefs endangered by these newly-met theories and the cosmopolitan, secularist thinking of which they were a part. In the nineteen-twenties they began to fight back, especially in America, where xenophobia, anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism became more active, and growth of the Ku Klux Klan accompanied a fresh outburst of ‘revival meetings conducted by improbable evangelists from Southern and Western backwaters who banged the drum, pranced about, and shouted for that old-time religion.’ [4]

In 1925 the authorities of Tennessee charged John Thomas Scopes with having broken the law by teaching (in the words of the indictment) ‘that man descended from the lower order of animals.’ (Islam and fundamentalist Judaism, too, reject the theory of evolution; Lewis Wolpert, lecturing to a hall full of Islamic Society members found not one of them willing publicly to accept it, [5] and Coca-Cola were obliged to abandon, in Israel, a series of advertisements mentioning it. [6]) There followed the famous trial in which Clarence Darrow, for the successful defence, made a monkey out of William Jennings Bryan, and after that it seemed fundamentalism must disappear. The event disappointed these expectations, the movement going on to greater strength.

It has grown larger and more powerful than sometimes appears, for it effectively includes, along with those acknowledging the name, and other movements of the ‘New Christian Right’ such as the Moral Majority, Christian Voice and Religious Roundtable,’ also the larger numbers supporting evangelicalism. Although these usually prefer to work from below upwards, trying to affect society by way of individual spiritual regeneration rather than vice versa, the difference remains tactical rather than substantive. The influence still being exercised in the USA by evangelicalism, directly political as well as social in the more general sense, showed up in 1980, when all three presidential candidates declared this allegiance. Evangelicals and fundamentalists hold much the same beliefs and display much the same attitudes, both of them (for example) distrusting liberal Protestantism with its tendency to question the virtues of capitalism. Both set out to bring society back to God, and evangelicals like Billy Graham have to insist on the difference, between themselves and fundamentalists, to prevent it being lost to sight. One investigator reports ‘the use of ‘evangelical’ as a synonym for fundamentalise and Charismatics, Pentecostals and other enthusiasts are in much the same position. In any but a narrow academic sense these sects count among the fundamentalists. A Gallup poll of 1986 reported 58 million Americans calling themselves evangelicals (i.e. fundamentalists) and Jerry Falwell, (founder of the Moral Majority and adviser to President Reagan) using phrases such as ‘born-again Christians,’ ‘religious pro-moralists’ and ‘idealistic moralists,’ claimed 84 percent of the American people for the movement.

Although such figures invite scepticism, the movement is clearly both large and powerful. Recent developments, rather than sidelining fundamentalism, suggest it may soon achieve even greater influence; Jerry Falwell has founded Liberty University, specialising in study of radio, television and the other mass media. This follows up past successes, for American fundamentalism has gained its present numbers and influence mainly by skilful use of modern propaganda techniques.

Charles Finney and Dwight Moody in the late Nineteenth Century, followed by Billy Sunday in the early Twentieth, developed the use of mass meetings under canvas, with Billy Graham going on to use the popular press, radio and television. Jim Bakker, Jerry Falwell, Oral Roberts and others joined in later. They came to pull in many millions of dollars annually, and their warnings of the skill and cunning of the Tempter have proved only too well founded. As Jim Bakker’s embezzling came to light his slogan PIL, originally an acronym for Praise the Lord!, was reinterpreted as Pass the Loot!, and when an attractive church secretary admitted receiving some of the cash in return for highly personal services, the reading changed again, to Pay the Lady! He wound up with a sentence of forty-five years. Jimmy Swaggart and Oral Roberts also displayed too warm an appreciation of worldly and fleshly pleasures, the press made the most of the scandals, and televangelism ceased to cover its expenses. History does not suggest that these disclosures will have much lasting effect, for such behaviour comes as no novelty. Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry, a drunken, lying lecher, was drawn from the life with many a ranting Southern bible-puncher for model; American fundamentalism reached its high point after that exposure, and we have to be prepared for it to rise again. Indeed it continues active now; the anti-abortion movement cites the Fifth Commandment against the taking of life, and creationism fights evolutionary theory.

The strength of fundamentalism lies less in its leaders than in their congregations, and neither Lewis’ writings nor the deficiencies of early or later preachers did much more to these than discourage them for the time being. Fundamentalist preaching, whether in tent or studio, produces its effect by revealing, rather than creating, the prevalence of fundamentalist attitudes. On the rather rare occasions when anarchists, socialists, freethinkers, atheists or the like appear on radio or television, the response does not suggest that greater exposure, improved technique, or more charismatic expositors would win them comparable support.

These responses from the people of the leading Western country mean that we cannot sensibly describe contemporary Western society as simply secular. The state organisations, narrowly defined, may be so but the countries, taken in any more general sense, continue subject to substantial religious influences. After ten thousand years of change religious people continue to outnumber the anti-religious, and religious influences to outweigh atheistic and anarchistic ones.

Any given instance of fundamentalism presents a particular set of ideas, and one set often clashes with another, as when Muslims resent Christian ideas about ‘Mahound.’ Fundamentalism does not find its full definition in any particular beliefs; it lies in form rather than content, in an attitude comprising an unshakable certainty of rightness, together with an overbearing assertiveness that refuses toleration or compromise, insisting on the original form of a religion (or what is believed to be such). It appears when and where an authoritarian religion finds itself under attack. In the past this has usually happened locally, with one religion threatening another, but now on a larger scale.

Secularism, also, has now gained firm establishment. Its extension over the civilised world, along with freethought, agnosticism and atheism, tendencies felt by religious people to threaten their ideological security, has produced a correspondingly widespread reaction, religion responding with fundamentalism rather as the body produces fever in defending itself against infection. Now each of the great authoritarian religions has its militant arm joining battle with rationalism, and the course of events so far offers no assurance of a rationalist victory. The more recent entrants – secularism, atheism, anarchism and others – have not ousted the earlier tendencies and we have no good reason for expecting them to do so. Rather does the course of events to this point in history suggest a continuance of authoritarian religion, fundamentalism serving as its actively defensive organ, with the tendencies that have emerged more recently, both reformist and revolutionary, providing criticism, restraint and modification rather than offering any viable alternative.

I have brought forward more than one account of fundamentalism; none of these depart at all radically from generally-accepted ideas, and I do not now propose to reject any of them. They do not completely agree with each other, but a social movement appearing in separate parts of the world, in widely different social contexts, engaging millions of people and persisting over decades, cannot sensibly be summed up in one of the snappy dictionary definitions that serve to distinguish a square from a triangle. We do, however, need to add something. Although each of the above descriptions has value, they all omit a significant feature, namely: belief in the supreme value of authority. Rather than attempt to work out ultimate objectives for themselves, or even to survey those offered and make a rational choice between them, fundamentalists accept the ones laid down in their familiar scriptures, believing them to have been set by deity. Taking their stand on these, they fight from that position.

This pattern of behaviour appears in politics as well as in religion. Willing submission to authority enables the state to operate, and high valuation of it marks the totalitarian states, with their near-deification of the Leader. Fundamentalism appears when a religious community feels itself or its constituent beliefs under attack, totalitarianism in the states that are (or whose people believe them to be) under threat. Only states feeling themselves secure can afford the luxury of democracy, and when a democratic state feels itself endangered, as Britain did in 1914 and again in 1939, it restricts the normal liberties, moving towards the totalitarian condition. Totalitarianism and fundamentalism present the same behaviour-pattern in, respectively, the political and religious fields.

These tendencies (or these two forms of the one tendency) have persisted through all the changes of recorded history; the ancient empires (at least when at war) already displayed both of them. Fundamentalism is neither a new creation (except in the trivial sense that circumstances, and responses to them, vary from moment to moment) nor even a return; rather an extension onto the world stage of something formerly localised. The tendencies and movements that have become established in the course of later history – free thought, agnosticism, atheism, democracy, socialism, communism, anarchism and others – have each of them in turn enjoyed an initial period of rapid growth. This misleads the members into expecting the movement to take over the society, but the impetus does not last. Once the people who had been independently moving towards the new way of thinking have been taken up, the new movement settles into place, able to maintain itself but not to displace its competitors or the overriding authority.

An increasingly complex structure develops, and we now have a society that, in the most advanced states, has shown itself capable of dynamic stability, a continuing condition of tension, reformist and revolutionary movements on the one hand, traditionalist tendencies on the other. This has not excluded change in the past – working people in the West do not now live under the same conditions as in Marx’s time – and we have no good reason for expecting it to do so in future. It does, however, affect the probable course of future events. It suggests a persistence of the established social and religious base, with its tendency (more or less fully realised in practice according to conditions) towards fundamentalism and totalitarianism. The indications are that reformist and revolutionary movements will have to reckon with this as a continuing feature of their social environment.

[1] Kepel G. 1994 The Revenge of Go4 the resurgence of Islam, Christianity and Judaism in the modern world Cambridge: Polity Press 140, 164.
[2] Esposito J.L.1992 The Islamic Threat, myth or reality? NY etc: Oxford University Press 1992, 210.
[3] Kepel 106.
[4] Keats J.1979 (1970) You Might as Well Live; the life and times of
Dorothy Parker
Harmondsworth: Penguin, 82.
[5] Ethical Record November 1993, 2.
[6] The Observer newspaper, 17 April 94.
[7] Kepel 120.
[8] Kepel 104.

from Ideological Commentary 64, June 1994.