Fundamentalism may be absolutely natural, ancient, and powerful—but the liberal impulse makes us humane.
The most famous definition of fundamentalism is H. L. Mencken's: a terrible, pervasive fear that someone, somewhere, is having fun. There's something to this. Fundamentalism is 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 are far more fundamental things to understand about fundamentalism, especially in this age of terrorism. An adequate understanding also includes some inescapable and uncomfortable critiques of America’s cultural liberalism of the last four decades. The attacks on September 11, 2001, provided us a rare revelation about fundamentalism that arrived in two installments.
First, we became vividly aware of the things some Muslim fundamentalists hate about our culture:
Not much was really new in this installment of the revelation. We had seen all this before, when Khomeini’s Muslim fundamentalists wreaked such havoc in Iran starting in 1979. We have long known that Muslim fundamentalism is a mortal enemy of freedom and democracy.
The surprise second installment came just a few days after 9/11 in that remarkably unguarded interview on The 700 Club when the Rev. Jerry Falwell told Pat Robertson, “I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way—all of them who have tried to secularize America—I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen.’” These men are so media-savvy it’s amazing they would say such things on the air. But it’s also remarkable because in their list of “causes” of the 9/11 attacks, we heard almost exactly the same hate list:
Together, the two installments make vivid the fact that “our” Christian fundamentalists have the same hate list as “their” Muslim fundamentalists.
From 1988 to 1993, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences sponsored an interdisciplinary study known as The Fundamentalism Project, the largest such study ever done. More than 100 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 virtually identical, regardless of religion or culture.
They identified five characteristics shared by virtually all fundamentalisms. The fundamentalists’ agenda starts with insistence that 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. In Khomeini’s Iran, and in the recent Taliban rule of Afghanistan, we saw how brutal and bloody this looks in real time.
The second agenda item is really at the top of the list, and it’s vulgarly simple: Men are on top. 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.
A third item follows from the others. (Indeed each part of the fundamentalist agenda is necessarily interlocked, and needs every other part to survive.) 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 rules be communicated precisely to the next generation. Therefore, fundamentalists must control education by controlling textbooks and teaching styles, deciding what may and may not be taught.
Fourth, fundamentalists spurn the modern, and want to return to a nostalgic vision of a golden age that never really existed. Several of the scholars observed a strong and deep resemblance between fundamentalism and fascism. Both have almost identical agendas. Men are on top, women are subservient, there is one rigid set of rules, with police and military might to enforce them, and education is tightly controlled by the state. One scholar suggested that it’s helpful to understand fundamentalism as religious fascism, and fascism as political fundamentalism. The phrase “overcoming the modern” is a fascist slogan dating back to at least 1941.
The fifth point is the most abstract, though it’s foundational. Fundamentalists deny history in a radical and idiosyncratic way. Fundamentalists know as well or better than anybody that culture shapes everything it touches: The times we live in color how we think, what we value, and the kind of people we become. Fundamentalists agree on the perverseness of modern American society: the air of permissiveness and narcissism, individual rights unbalanced by responsibilities, sex divorced from commitment, and so on. What they don’t want to see is the way culture colored the era when their scriptures were created.
Good biblical scholarship begins by studying the cultural situation when scriptures were written in search of their original intent, so that we can better discern what messages they may still have that are relevant for our lives. But if fundamentalists were to admit that their own scriptures are as culturally conditioned as everything else, they would lose the foundation of their certainties. Some scholars see evidence that St. Paul, for instance, had severe personal hang-ups about sex that may account for his harsh teachings about homosexuality and women. Many biblical scholars treat some of Paul’s teachings as rants rather than revelations. But for fundamentalists, their scriptures fell straight from heaven in a leather-bound book, every jot and tittle intact.
Except for the illustrations I’ve added in laying out the agenda that the Fundamentalism Project discovered, you can’t tell what religion, culture, or century I’m describing. The scholars discovered this a dozen years ago while they were presenting abstracts of their papers. Several noted that all their papers were sounding alike, reporting on “species” when studying the “genus” was called for, that there were strong family resemblances between all fundamentalisms, even when the religions had had no contact, no way to influence each other.
The only way all fundamentalisms can have the same agenda is if the agenda preceded all the religions. And it did. Fundamentalist behaviors are familiar because we’ve all seen them so 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 that define members of their in-group. These are the behaviors of territorial species in which males are stronger than females. In biological terms, these are the characteristic behaviors of sexually dimorphous territorial animals. Males set and enforce the rules, females obey the males and raise the children; there is a clear separation between the in-group and the out-group. The in-group is protected; outsiders are expelled or fought.
It is easier to account for this set of behavioral biases as part of the common evolutionary heritage of our species than to argue that it is simply a monumental coincidence that the social and behavioral agendas of all fundamentalisms and fascisms are essentially identical.
What conservatives are conserving is the biological default setting of our species, which has strong family resemblances to the default setting of thousands of 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 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 champions.
Fundamentalism is absolutely natural, ancient, powerful—and inadequate. It’s a means of structuring relationships that evolved when we lived in troops of 150 or less. But in the modern world, it’s completely incapable of the nuance or flexibility needed to structure humane societies.
Fundamentalism’s conservative impulse wants stability in societies. Liberal impulses serve to give us not stability but civility: humanity. They do this by expanding the definitions of our inherited territorial categories. The essential job of liberals in human societies is to enlarge our understanding of who belongs in our in-group. This is the plot of virtually all liberal advances.
Giving women the vote eighty years ago expanded the in-group from only adult males to include adult females. Once that larger definition was established by liberals, conservatives began defending that new 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 also multi-colored. Every liberal advance adds to the list of those who belong within our society’s protected group.
While society is a kind of slow dance between the conservative and liberal impulses, the liberal role is the more important one. It makes our societies humane rather than just stable and mean.
But for the liberal impulse to lead, liberals must remain in contact with the center of our territorial instinct and our need for a structure of responsibilities. Fundamentalist uprisings are a sign 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 wrap their expanded definitions in what sound like conservative categories.
John F. Kennedy’s most famous line sounds like the terrifying dictate of the world’s most arrogant fascist: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Imagine that line coming from Hitler, Khomeini, Mullah Omar, or Jerry Falwell. It is 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 programs and through them enlisted many young people to extend our hand to those we had not before seen as belonging to our in-group.
Likewise, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used the rhetoric of a conservative vision to promote his liberal redefinition of the members of our in-group. When he defined all Americans as the children of God, those words could sound like 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 white Southerners were arguing against forty years ago.
When liberal visions work, it’s because they have kept one foot solidly in our deep territorial impulses with the other foot free to push the margin, to expand the definition of those who belong in “our” territory.
When liberal visions fail, it is often because they fail to achieve just this kind of balance between our conservative impulses and our liberal needs.
Over the past half century, many of our liberal visions have been too narrow, too self-absorbed, too unbalanced. This imbalance has been a key factor in triggering recent fundamentalist uprisings. When liberals don’t lead well, others don’t follow. And when society doesn’t follow liberal visions, liberals haven’t led.
When liberals burned the U.S. flag during the Vietnam War rather than waving it and insisting that America live up to its great tradition, they lost the most powerful territorial symbol in our culture and with it the ability to speak for our national interests. They created another moral imbalance by defining abortion in amoral terms, as simply a matter of individual rights—where only the mother, but not the developing baby, was an “individual.” And they did the same whenever they emphasized individual rights while neglecting the need to balance rights with individual responsibilities toward the larger society.
Fundamentalist uprisings are happening in some Muslim societies that hate the influence our culture is having on their own. But the uprising is happening within our own culture, too.
In Texas, where I live, the state has refused to grant the Ethical Society in Austin a church tax exemption because its members don’t believe in God. The state maintains that defining God as a concept won’t do, that to qualify as a church the society’s members must believe in God as a being. The case has been through two appeals, and the state’s attorneys have now taken it to the Texas Supreme Court. If the state wins, the ruling will affect every Unitarian Universalist church in the state—not to mention Buddhists, Taoists, and Hindus. Austin has the largest Hindu temple in North America, and Hindus are quite clear that Brahman is in no sense a being, and that all his personified images—as Krishna, Vishnu, Shiva, or the Divine Mother Durga and her manifestations—are all imaginative creations, not beings.
In cases like these 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, in human societies is an unending dance between the conservative and the liberal impulses in human nature. The fundamentalist role in this dance is quite easy: 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 honest and noble.
But the task of liberals is much, much harder. To be a liberal, to be an awake, responsive, and responsible liberal—that can take, and that can make, a whole life.
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