Delivered at the South Nassau Unitarian Universalist Congregation

July 30, 2006

 “Fundamentalism, or On Having a Lack of Imagination”

Rev. Catherine Torpey

In the twenty-first century, we have mapped all the genes in the human body, we can replace a human heart or hip with something made by human hands, we have landed people on the moon and sent contraptions to land on Mars. And we have Americans fighting to teach creationism in schools, Jews insisting that a patch of land in the Middle East was given to them by God several thousand years ago, and Muslims blowing themselves up with pleasure, as long as someone else dies with them.

A Catholic scholar from the University of Chicago, Martin Marty, led what was called the Fundamentalism Project in the early 1990’s. They wrote a number of volumes outlining fundamentalisms throughout various religions—mostly Christian, Jewish and Muslim. In one of these volumes, religious fundamentalism is described as “a tendency, a habit of mind, found within religious communities and … embodied in certain representative individuals and movements. It manifests itself as a strategy… by which beleaguered believers attempt to preserve their distinctive identity as a people or group. Feeling this identity to be at risk in the contemporary era, these believers fortify it by a selective retrieval of doctrines, beliefs, and practices from a sacred past.” But one thing characteristic of fundamentalists, it turns out, is that they take what they have revived from the past as fundamentals, and they add in new twists which lend urgency to their doctrine.

Nostalgia for a perfect past is a hallmark of fundamentalism, the Project authors state, but the objective is not a simple return to this golden era. Instead, they seek a “re-created political and social order that is oriented to the future rather than the past.” Whatever their religious backdrop, they seek to remake the world by returning all things in submission to the divine. They are all characterized by an urgent fear that forces in the predominant culture are bound and determined to wipe out submission to the divine, and so theirs is a fight both for an ideal future and for mere self-preservation.

Or, if you want a shorter definition: A fundamentalist is an evangelical who is angry about something.

A little background on our homegrown Christian fundamentalism. First, let’s distinguish between evangelicals and fundamentalists. “Evangelical” is the term that came to define the revival movements in America and Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries. It refers both to a style and to a set of beliefs. In terms of beliefs, it focuses on Jesus’ death on the cross as the means to salvation for all, and it focuses on the requirement that that salvation be accepted personally by each individual. In terms of style, it emphasizes simple Biblical preaching that is intended to arouse a fever pitch in order to elicit dramatic conversion experiences. The simplicity of the message is central, and evangelicals de-emphasize loyalty to any particular denomination or institution.

It was in the 1920’s when some evangelicals became worried about renewed liberalizing of Christian doctrine. They began to emphasize getting back to the fundamentals. They came to be known as the fundamentalists.

In the time after the Civil War, up until about 1920, there was a spirit of liberalism in American Christianity. Men like Henry Ward Beecher—who was a minister in Brooklyn and the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe—men like Rev. Beecher had great influence throughout the United States. He taught that Christianity had matured from its earliest years, like an oak tree that had grown from an acorn. He encouraged his hearers that Christianity had evolved—that it had more to do with religious feeling, and living an ethical life, than with adherence to ancient doctrines. His message was indistinguishable from that of the Unitarian ministers of his time.

As the 19th century gave way to the twentieth, liberal Christianity was arguing that advances in science and understanding are part of the continuing revelation of God. The scriptures are not to be taken as telling us facts about science, but rather they are records of how our ancestors knew and understood the working of God in their lives and in the universe. Scripture is instructive not because of its historical or scientific information, but because of what we can learn from the relationship of our ancestors to God.

At the turn of the century, liberal Christians, including Unitarians and Universalists were putting a great emphasis on ethical living. They had faith in the ability of human beings to make ethical choices and to learn to live holy lives. Evangelicals tended to believe that humans are too depraved, too sinful to be capable of making consistent ethical choices. If we are to act righteously, they insist, it is necessary for the Holy Spirit to be at work in us as individuals, overcoming our sinful natures. We can’t do it ourselves, because our selfish natures are too powerful.

In 1919, in order to battle the rise of liberalism, an organization was formed which called itself the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association. The following year, the Northern Baptist Convention had a conference called “Fundamentals,” which was where the word “fundamentalist” was first coined. A book called “The Fundamentals” was written to outline the fundamental points of Christianity. It was widely distributed free of charge.

Darwinian evolution became a central battleground, because fundamentalists saw evolutionary theory as atheism. To them, there was no way to believe in God—no way therefore to be capable of living an ethical life—if one accepted the precepts of evolution. The Scopes of 1925 trial was a pinnacle of the rise of fundamentalism; but the country was, for the most part, unimpressed by the lack of sophistication they saw in the fundamentalists, and so fundamentalism mostly stayed out of the limelight for several decades.

Some religious scholars argue that because the term “fundamentalism” is so rooted in this particular Christian history, it isn’t useful to use it in relation to other religions such as Islam, Judaism or Hinduism. But in part because of the work of the Fundamentalism Project, the striking similarities from one religion to the next have given the term wide usage. They all feel threatened by the pervasive dominance of external powers. For Muslims, that external power is most visibly the US. For Jewish fundamentalists, it is the Arab and Muslim population lined up along its borders. For American Christians, it is the Teletubbies, homosexuals and the Clintons.

British writer Karen Armstrong refers to fundamentalism as “a militant form of piety.” Fundamentalists are determined to drag God and religion from the sidelines, where they've been relegated in secular culture, back to center stage.

Armstrong adds that every fundamentalist group that she has studied is convinced that secular, liberal society wants to wipe out religion. All are rooted in a profound fear of annihilation. The movements begin by opposing members of their own faith and their own people; it is only at a later stage that they turn their attention to foreigners.

I was speaking with a woman a year or two ago who had grown up in a fundamentalist Christian household. We were talking about the obsession against homosexuality from the Christian right. From her experience, she said, “They feel that if homosexuality is endorsed, then it represents a complete abandonment of God.”

Because they believe that they are fighting for their own survival and the survival of the worship of God, fundamentalists tend toward militancy, “ignoring the more compassionate elements of the faith in favor of more ferocious theologies.”

“Fundamentalist groups and ideologies all tend to follow a similar pattern of behavior,” Armstrong writes. “First, they withdraw from mainstream society to form sacred enclaves of pure faith. Obvious examples are Bob Jones University; the ultra-Orthodox communities in New York; and Osama bin Laden’s training camps. These fundamentalist churches, colleges, yeshivas, communes, settlements, study groups are fortresses where the "faithful" can live what they regard as a true religious life. They create a counter-culture, in conscious reaction against the modern society, which fills them with such dread. But from these bastions, fundamentalists sometimes plan a political, military or social offensive.”

Examples are the Iranian revolution of the 1970’s, the emergence of the Moral Majority in the USA, and an upsurge of Islamic and Jewish groups in the Middle East.

On the one hand, fundamentalism is a revolt against modernity and secular society. And yet, these groups have an amazing ability to use the tools of the modern age in clever, effective and innovative ways. I suppose it is the urgency in their theology that energizes them into finding whatever tools are at their disposal to accomplish their goals. The attacks of September 11 are a tragic example of this, but in a much more innocuous context, conservative Christian churches in the United States are far, far ahead of us Unitarians in their use of modern technologies, even as they decry the science that made those technologies possible.

What are we to do about fundamentalism in our world? The options are to ignore it, to fight it or to engage it. Many of us wish that we could ignore fundamentalism. Especially those of us who are educated and live blissfully in a community of people who share our love of learning. We easily look down upon the ignorance of others, and shake our heads at how they can be so deluded. The problem with simply wishing fundamentalists would go away is that they won’t. They are engaged in a cosmic battle—that is how they see it. They have largely taken over the Republican party, to the chagrin of many traditional Republicans. Many of us remember the Republican National Convention of 1992, where Pat Buchanan gave a speech declaring a "culture war," and Pat Robertson said that the Democratic nominee had "a radical plan to destroy the traditional family and transfer its functions to the federal government." They did not win the White House in that year, but we now have a president who shares much of the ideology of fundamentalism.

So ignoring it won’t work. How about fighting it head on, demonizing them, declaring them our enemies? Well, if we look at how that is working in the Middle East, I for one don’t have a lot of optimism for a head-on fight to the death. To engage in such an apocalyptic battle with fundamentalists would tend to confirm their belief that the goal of the secular, liberal world is to destroy them. We’ve seen that the war in Iraq has served to increase fundamentalist militancy, rather than to diminish it.

So, I propose engaging with fundamentalism, as much as we possibly can. I don’t wish to be naïve, or to minimize the threat—particularly the threat to our democratic government. I, like many of you, fear that Christian fundamentalism at home is more of a threat to our democracy than any number of terrorist acts that could be committed by fundamentalists from outside our borders. While I do believe that US policy abroad has encouraged Muslim fundamentalism, I do not believe that our policy has caused fundamentalism. Nor do I believe that the liberal Christianity of people like Henry Ward Beecher or Ralph Waldo Emerson caused Christian fundamentalism in this country.

There will always be a segment of every society that is attracted to fringe theologies. But what I fear allows them to have undue influence is when we of liberal religious faith do not offer our hope for the world, the source of joy for our souls, to the rest of the world. People out there—on this block, in the Thrift Shop, on Jones Beach—people all around us are trying to figure out this crazy world. They need a purpose beyond paying their bills and going to work. We need a purpose beyond paying our bills and going to work. We need spiritual lives. We need lives of action. We need meaningful human connection.

The alternative title I gave to this sermon is “On Having a Lack of Imagination.” It is easy for us to criticize fundamentalists as having a lack of imagination, but let no one be able to say the same about us. How can we reach deeper into our souls to find a religious life worth living? Are we able and willing to pray for ourselves and others? Or do we fail to imagine a kind of prayer that an agnostic or even an atheist can pray? Are we able and willing to reach out to the residents of Freeport who shop at our Thrift Shop not because they want to re-sell the items they find on Ebay for a 1000% profit margin, but because they can afford to shop nowhere else? Or do we fail to imagine a Unitarian Universalism that offers hope and meaning to all classes, races, and types of people? Are we able and willing to engage with people across our borders, like the people of Cuba, to learn their culture, listen to their concerns, and learn how we—from the bottom up—can shape foreign policy based on our visions and ideals? Or do we fail to imagine any way to fight city hall? Do we give up, discouraged because our political life in America has steered so far from what we had dreamed?

Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization, and their project “Pastors for Peace” is daring to imagine a way of living faith that calls us to involve ourselves in the most important struggles on earth: the struggle for human dignity, love and solidarity across borders, across cultures, across language barriers. And there are others—so many others—so many people right here in this sanctuary—who are hungry for a meaningful religious community.

And the more that we are out there, offering our neighbors, our country, our world, a religious life that is deeply steeped in prayer and meditation, in actively searching for God or for whatever we name that reality beyond ourselves--- the more we are out there, offering our neighbors, our country, our world, a religious life that is actively engaged in created the Beloved Community in this world, the fewer of our neighbors will go looking for meaning in religious fundamentalisms that are all too willing to give them that sense of purpose in their lives.

Imagine with me a South Nassau Unitarian Universalist Congregation that has an ever more active prayer life, more meditation groups, more Spiritual Directions groups, more community lectures, more movies about Cuba, more trips to devastated areas of the world, more health fairs, more children growing up knowing that their minds matter, and that they have a way to be religious that is deeply satisfying so that they would never look elsewhere, and they will tell everyone they meet that at their congregation, life has meaning.