The Fundamentalist Agenda
February 3, 2002
The most famous definition of fundamentalism is probably still some variation on H.L. Mencken’s assessment of Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy.” There’s something to this. It’s too fearful, too restrictive, too lacking in faith to provide a home for the human spirit to soar or for human societies to blossom.
But there isn’t enough to it. An adequate understanding of fundamentalism contains some inescapable and uncomfortable critiques of America’s cultural liberalism of the past four decades. We were given the rare chance of a revelation in the aftermath of the attacks on September 11, 2001. That revelation came in two stages.
First was a list of things some Muslim fundamentalists hate about our culture:
- They hate liberated women, and all that symbolizes them. They hate it when women compete with men in the workplace, when they decide when or whether they will become breeders, when they show the independence of getting abortions, and changing laws that previously gave men more power over them.
- They hate the wide range of sexual orientations and lifestyles that have always characterized human societies. They hate homosexuality, can’t confront the homosexual tendencies that exist in them, and so project them outward and punish them in others.
- They hate individual freedoms and rights that allow people to stray from the single, rigid sort of truth with which they want to constrain all people.
Not much about these revelations was really new. We saw all this before, when Khomeini’s Muslim fundamentalists wreaked such havoc in Iran in the years following 1979, or when the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in the mid 1990s.
But the surprise came two days after September 11, in that remarkably unguarded interview on The 700 Club between Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. It was remarkable partly because these men are so media savvy it’s amazing they would say such things on the air. But it’s also remarkable because as they listed the “causes” of the September 11 attacks, we heard exactly the same hate list the Afghan Taliban had outlined:
- They hate liberated women who don’t follow orders, who get abortions when they want them, who threaten, or laugh at, their arrogant pretensions to rule them.
- They hate the wide range of sexual orientations that have always characterized human societies. They would force the country to conform to a fantasy image of two married heterosexual parents where the husband works and the wife stays home with the children—even when that describes less than one-sixth of current American families.
- They hate individual freedoms that let people stray from the one simple set of truths they want imposed on all in our country. Pat Robertson has been on record for a long time saying that democracy isn’t a fit form of government unless it is run by fundamentalist Christians of his kind.
It is terribly important for us to realize that the fact that “our” Christian fundamentalists have the same hate list as “their” Muslim fundamentalists is not a coincidence!
From 1988 to 1993, the University of Chicago conducted a six-year study known as “The Fundamentalism Project,” the largest such study ever done. About 150 scholars from all over the world took part, reporting on every imaginable kind of fundamentalism. And what they discovered was that the agenda of all fundamentalist movements in the world is nearly identical, regardless of religion or culture.
They identified five points shared by virtually all fundamentalisms:
- Their rules must be made to apply to all people, and to all areas of life. There can be no separation of church and state, or of public and private areas of life. The rigid rules of God—and they never doubt that they and only they have got these right—must become the law of the land. Pat Robertson, again, has said that just as Supreme Court justices place a hand on the Bible and swear to uphold the Constitution, so they should also place a hand on the Constitution and swear to uphold the Bible.
- Men are on top. In every way. Men are bigger and stronger, and they rule not only through physical strength, but also and more importantly through their influence on the laws and rules of the land. Men set the boundaries, men define the norms, and men enforce them. They also define women, and they define them through narrowly conceived biological functions. Women are to be supportive wives, mothers, and homemakers.
- Since there is only one right picture of the world, one right set of beliefs, and one right set of roles for men, women, and children, it is imperative that this picture and these norms and rules be communicated precisely to the next generation. Therefore, they must control the education of the society. They control the textbooks, the teaching styles, and they decide what may and may not be taught.
- There is an amazingly strong and deep resemblance between fundamentalism and fascism. Both have almost identical agendas. One scholar suggested that it’s helpful to understand fundamentalism as religious fascism, and fascism as political fundamentalism. Fundamentalists spurn the modern, and want to return to a nostalgic vision of a golden age that never really existed. Likewise, the phrase “overcoming the modern” is a fascist slogan dating back to at least 1941.
- Fundamentalists deny history in a radical and idiosyncratic way. Fundamentalists know, as well or better than anybody, that culture taints everything it touches. Our teachers and our times color how we think, what we value, and the kind of people we become. If you have perverse teachers or books, you develop perverse people and societies. And they agree on the perversions of our current American society: the air of permissiveness, narcissism, and individual rights unbalanced by responsibilities; sex divorced from commitment; and so on. What they don’t want to see is that exactly the same thing was true when their own sacred scriptures were written. Good biblical scholarship begins by studying the cultural situation when scriptures were created, to understand their original intent so we can better discern what messages they may still have that are relevant for our lives. But if fundamentalists admit that their own scriptures are as culturally conditioned as everything else, they lose the foundation of their certainties. Saint Paul had severe personal hang-ups about sex, for instance, that lie behind his personal problems with homosexuality and women. How else would he say that it is a shameful thing for a woman to speak in church, or that men are made in the image of God, but women are made in the image of men? These are the reasons that informed biblical scholars take some of Paul’s teachings as rantings, not revelations. But for fundamentalists, their scriptures fell straight from heaven in a leather-bound book, every jot and tittle intact.
Now something should be bothering you about this list. And that’s that except for the illustrations I’ve added, you can’t tell what religion, culture, or even century I’m talking about! This realization also stopped the scholars a dozen years ago while they were presenting abstracts of their papers at the fall meetings in Chicago. Several of them noted that all their papers were sounding alike, that they were reporting on “species” and needed to be studying the “genus,” that there were strong family resemblances between all these fundamentalisms, even when the religions had had no contact, no way to influence each other.
This is one of the most important things we need to learn about the agendas of all fundamentalisms in the world. They are all alike. And the only way that can be the case is if the agenda preceded all of the religions.
And it did. These behaviors are familiar because we’ve all heard and seen them many times. These men are acting the role of alpha males who define the boundaries of their group’s territory, and the norms and behaviors of their in-group. These are the behaviors of tens of thousands of territorial species in which males are stronger than females. Or to put it into jargon, these are the characteristic behaviors of sexually dimorphous territorial animals.Males set and enforce the rules; females obey the males and raise the children.
What the conservatives are conserving is the biological default setting of our species—virtually identical with the default setting of ten thousand other species. This means that when fundamentalists say they are obeying the word of God, they have severely understated the authority for their position. The real authority behind this behavioral scheme is tens of millions of years older than all the religions and all the gods there have ever been. It is the picture of life that gave birth to most of the gods, as its projected protectors.
It’s absolutely natural, ancient, powerful—and completely inadequate. It’s a means of structuring relationships that evolved when we lived in troops of 150 or fewer. But in the modern world, it’s completely incapable of the nuance or flexibility needed to structure human societies in humane ways. But it does help us better understand the relative roles of conservatives and liberals in modern society, and the role that liberals play in giving birth to fundamentalist uprisings. It is both natural and inadequate.
The conservative impulse that has its starkest form in the fundamentalist agenda is our attempt to give stability to our societies. And as many observers have noted, hierarchical structures tend to be very stable.
The liberal impulses serve to give us not stability but civility—or humanity. The primary job of liberals is to enlarge our in-group. This is the plot of virtually all liberal advances in society. Giving women the vote eighty years ago was expanding the in-group from only adult males to include adult females. Once that larger definition was established by liberals, conservatives began defending that definition of the in-group rather than the smaller one.
Likewise, the civil rights movement was a way of saying that our in-group was multicolored. Every liberal advance adds to the list of those who belong within our society’s protected group.
This means that, while society is a kind of slow dance between the conservative and liberal impulses, the liberal role is the more important one. It provides civility and humanity; it makes our societies humane rather than just stable and mean.
It also means that in order for the liberal impulse to lead, liberals must remain in touch with the moral center of our territorial nature. Fundamentalist uprisings are an early warning system telling us that the liberals have failed to provide an adequate and balanced vision, that they have not found a vision that attracts enough people to become stable.
Just as it’s no coincidence that all fundamentalisms have similar agendas, it’s also no coincidence that the most successful liberal advances tend to be made by liberals wrapping their expanded definitions in what sound like extremely conservative categories.
John F. Kennedy’s most famous line sounds like the terrifying dictate of the world’s worst fascism: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask rather what you can do for your country.” Imagine that line coming from Hitler, Khomeini, the Taliban, or Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell! It could be a conservative, even a fascist, slogan. Yet Kennedy used it to effect significant liberal transformations in our society. Under that umbrella he created the Peace Corps and Vista, and enlisted many young people to extend their hand to those they had not before seen as belonging to their in-group—liberal ends achieved through what sounded like conservative means.
Likewise, the Reverend Martin Luther King used the rhetoric of a conservative vision, expanded through his liberal redefinition of the members of our in-group. When he defined all Americans as the children of God, those words could well be the battle cry of an American Taliban on the verge of putting a Bible in every school, a catechism in every legislature. Instead, King used that cry to include Americans of all colors in the sacred and protected group of “all God’s children”—which was just what many Southerners were arguing against forty years ago. Liberal ends, conservative means.
When liberal visions work, it’s because they have kept one foot solidly in the moral center of our deep territorial impulses, and the other free to push for a bigger tent, to expand the definition of those who belong in “our” territory.
And when liberal visions fail, it is often because they fall short of achieving just this kind of balance between our conservative impulses and our liberal needs.
During the past half century, many of our liberal visions have been too narrow, too self-absorbed, too unbalanced. And their imbalance has been a key factor in triggering the fundamentalist uprisings of the past decades. And when society doesn’t follow liberal visions, liberals haven’t led well (or at all).
When liberals burned the American flag during the Vietnam War rather than waving it and insisting that America live up to its great tradition, they lost the most powerful symbol in our culture, and the ability to speak for our national interests. This created an imbalance that planted the seeds of future fundamentalist uprisings.
When liberals defined abortion in amoral terms, as simply a matter of individual rights—where only the mother, but not the developing baby, were “individuals”—they created a moral imbalance and planted the seeds of future fundamentalist uprisings (while quietly losing the support of many liberals, including liberal ministers).
When liberals overemphasized individual rights while ignoring the need to balance them with individual responsibilities toward the larger society, they planted the seeds of future fundamentalist uprisings.
Those uprisings are happening in some Muslim societies that hate us and hate the influence our culture is having on their own. They are also threatening our own culture, as shown by that amazing interview on The 700 Club and some of both Robertson and Falwell’s statements of the past two decades.
But if I’m right in what I’m suggesting here, it isn’t their fault. The fundamentalists are reacting absolutely instinctively—whether they think they have instincts or not—to a threat to social stability made up of the narrow and unbalanced liberal teachings of the past three or four decades.
Maintaining both stability and civility, humane content and enduring form, is an unending dance between the conservative and the liberal impulses within our societies. But the task of liberals is much, much harder.
It’s really quite easy to be a fundamentalist. All you have to do is cling tightly to a few simplistic teachings too small to do justice to the complex demands of the real world. You just have to cling to these, and then pretend that what you have done is either honest or noble.
But to be a liberal, really to be an awake, aware, responsive, and responsible liberal—that can take, and that can make, a whole life.
Chelsea Green Publishing Company, Inc. Copyright 2005 by Davidson Loehr