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The Rise of Fundamentalism in American Culture

by George M. Marsden

Militant Christians


What is a fundamentalist? A shorthand definition is: “an evangelical Christian who is angry about something.” That works pretty well and has even been used by some prominent fundamentalists to describe themselves. A more formal way of saying the same thing is: “A fundamentalist is a strongly militant evangelical Christian.” Typically, fundamentalists aggressively oppose liberal theologies in churches and/or trends in modern culture that conflict with traditional evangelical teachings such as sexual permissiveness. We must still define “evangelical Christian,” a matter we will get to shortly.

One problem in identifying exactly who should be called a fundamentalist is that many people and groups that display the traits of fundamentalism prefer not to use the term as a self-designation. They are more likely to identify themselves as simply “Christian,” or “Bible-believing Christian,” or by a particular church affiliation. Furthermore, our broad definition of fundamentalism involves both an attitude (militancy) and a set of beliefs (evangelical). The attitude, by its subjective nature, is hard to measure. Some people and groups are clearly militants: they highlight biblical images of warfare in their portrayal of Christian faith. Others are militant about only some matters and would rather emphasize evangelical outreach and the positive aspects of Christianity. So it’s sometimes difficult to draw the line between a fundamentalist and someone who is simply evangelical.

Militant Protestant religious movements have occurred in earlier eras, but “fundamentalism” is a twentieth-century term. It’s usually reserved for those who react specifically to certain trends associated with modern ways of thinking. In the United States, where the term was invented in 1920, it has referred to those who have wanted to defend the “fundamentals” of Christian teachings against modern liberal theologies in the churches. The same people may oppose those changing cultural morals that are associated with the breakdown of more traditional moral standards, especially regarding sexuality.

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