The Better Letter: A Fundamentalist Top Ten List

Fundamentalisms abound today. Most are secular.

We “live” more and more online. A pandemic that keeps us inside and away from each other accelerates the trend. We can readily find like-minded people and thus create more sharply honed categories for interaction. These people congeal into groups, harden into echo chambers, and often metastasize into partisan hate. That we don’t ever have to relate to our enemies IRL creates an environment ripe for anger, vitriol, and fundamentalism. Together, they can manufacture fear and catalog grievances.

David French of The Dispatch recently made the case that America is in the midst of a fundamentalist revival on the political right and left, but one that isn’t Christian. It is an identity politics that is religious in character, but secular, and increasingly dark, if occasionally absurd. 

Today’s secular fundamentalisms are perpetually outraged and anxious to dish out abuse. Most (ah-hem) fundamentally, David argues that these fundamentalisms lack existential humility. This week, I want to expand upon David’s point and try to outline what today’s fundamentalisms, of various sorts, look like.

I grew up in and around Christian fundamentalism. These are my people. In my youth, for example, I knew Christians who refused to support Billy Graham because he was too liberal, with “liberal” pronounced “lib-rul,” and spat out as an epithet. The Biblical admonition to “be ye separate” was taken most seriously, indeed. 

I went to prophesy conferences led by preachers interpreting Revelation with colorful charts, naming Henry Kissinger as the Antichrist, and reading “the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other” for hints of the coming Rapture (but never mentioning Karl Barth). 

Who better to describe what fundamentalism looks and feels like than someone who has lived it?

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A Fundamentalist Top Ten List

Between 1910-1915, 90 coordinated essays by 64 authors were published from throughout the orthodox, English-speaking world outlining what its writers saw as the essentials of Christianity. By the standards of the time, it was remarkably ecumenical and cooperative. These essays were published together as The Fundamentals, and churches began describing and defining themselves as “fundamentalist” based upon their adherence to those tenets of the faith. 

However, it wasn’t long before being a fundamentalist wasn’t seen as an irenic, ecumenical label. Almost immediately, fundamentalists began acting as pugilists engaged in purity rituals, contending for their faith so as to be, literally, holier than thou. As Jerry Falwell (Sr.) said, “a fundamentalist is an evangelical who is angry about something.”

Fundamentalists militantly opposed both modernism in theology and the cultural changes that modernism endorsed, confident that “common sense” – the rational judgments of ordinary people – could and should prevail. In the popular culture, fundamentalists all end up looking like John Lithgow in Footloose.

As David French argued, fundamentalists are certain about their righteousness and that (their version of) truth is readily ascertainable. They believed in a defining equation: The Bible + Common Sense = (readily ascertainable) Truth. For them, the capital-T Truth is so obvious that those who disagree aren't just in error, they're stupid, delusional, or mentally ill. Look at these numbers from the More in Common project, for example. The “other side” is deemed inherently unreasonable. “This narrowing of the American mind is making everyone dumber and nastier,” as Mona Charen said.

Because the Truth is so obvious, those who disagree are without excuse. Indeed, they are inferior, and that idea is not terribly constructive and is incredibly dangerous, as history makes ever so clear.

Here’s a top ten list of fundamentalist attributes – a checklist of sorts for ascertaining where fundamentalist tendencies might be located. Spoiler Alert: There are more (secular) fundamentalists in politics today — right and left* — than there ever were within Christianity.

Let’s have a look.

1. Excessive certainty. As noted above, Christian fundamentalists are certain of their virtue and rightness. Poker superstar Erik Seidel’s mantra is crucial to his success and would benefit us all: “Less certainty, more inquiry.” But that viewpoint doesn’t prevail often, especially among fundamentalists. As the hymn says, “In times like these… | Be very sure, be very sure | Your anchor holds and grips the Solid Rock!”

Today’s secular fundamentalists are just as sure of themselves. 

At the end of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, the “self-styled paladin of scientific rationality” and an avowed enemy of Christianity, explains how he would view a miraculous event – say, “[a] statue of a madonna...wav[ing] its hand at us.” In that instance, his philosophical assumptions would force him to conclude that no miracle had happened. Instead, “the jiggling atoms in the hand could all just happen to move in the same direction at the same time. And again, And again...In this case the hand would move, and we'd see it waving at us” (emphasis in original). Accordingly, even though Dawkins pays lip service to the idea that evidence could and would change his mind about the miraculous, he is so certain of his correctness that he has philosophically precluded the possibility that such evidence could ever exist.

2. “Truth” is zealously guarded. Within Christian fundamentalism, church splits over doctrinal disputes are legion. So are various purity rituals. They aggressively guard what they think is true. Today’s secular fundamentalists are surprisingly similar. A Boeing executive resigned recently following an employee’s complaint about an article the former U.S. military pilot wrote 33 years ago arguing women should not serve in combat. Fundamentalists don’t even want public support from those deemed insufficiently pure.

3. “Truth” is surprisingly flexible. Conservative churches have often proven surprisingly flexible about the truth when it comes to their leaders and their improprieties. They aren’t alone, of course. 

George Washington warned us, perhaps prophetically, that no constitution, however wisely designed, can protect a people against tyranny or conquest if it weakens itself by unchecked “corruption of morals, profligacy of manners, and listlessness for the preservation of the natural and unalienable rights of mankind.”

That idea was the primary driver of conservative Christianity’s foray into politics beginning in the 1970s. Eric Metaxas, for example, wrote a book about the importance of personal virtue in politics. However, with the advent of Donald Trump, who has never pretended to Christian character, Metaxas decided that Mr. Trump is “the last best hope of keeping America from sliding into oblivion, the tank, the abyss, the dustbin of history.” Clearly, Metaxas went with the flow. White Evangelical voters have gone from the community least tolerant of unethical politicians to the community most tolerant, and in just five years. 

Similarly, much of the #MeToo movement insisted that we should believe women but rejects the idea of believing women who accused Bill Clinton or Joe Biden of improprieties. For the fundamentalist, truth is surprisingly flexible.

4. Dissent isn’t tolerated. Christian fundamentalists are not a tolerant group, generally. Secular fundamentalists aren’t, either. Even those who claim tolerance as a virtue are usually interested only in others being tolerant of them rather than their being open-handed toward those with whom they disagree.

As reported by Rolling Stone, professional Republicans “perceive a political reality driven by base voters and the president’s sh*tposting that simply does not allow for dissent.” Therefore, “There are two options, you can be on this hell ship or you can be in the water drowning.”

Similarly, if more horrifically, in China’s Uighur concentration camps, every moment is designed to torture, indoctrinate, and subjugate. “At the end of the class, inmates are asked ‘is there a God?’ The only permitted answer is ‘no’.”

5. Checks and balances are for others. When Jimmy Swaggart got caught consorting with a prostitute, he resisted his denomination’s attempts at oversight and accountability, resigned his ordination, and struck out on his own, taking his church and its bank balances with him. When he was caught again, Swaggart told his congregation, “The Lord told me it's flat none of your business.”

Bill Clinton and Donald Trump each got a pass from their supporters despite repeated abuses of women. When the other side transgresses, nail ‘em. When our guy does, find a way to justify it. When we see facts that contradict our opponents’ points of view, we ask ourselves if they can or might be true and respond accordingly. When it’s our side, we ask ourselves if there might be a way it isn’t true, and act accordingly.

6. Outcomes are all. I dealt with this last week.

7. Enforcement is harsh. David French has been highly critical of President Trump from a Christian and conservative perspective. His wife, Nancy French, is also a highly regarded writer. She wrote an op-ed on the Kavanaugh nomination framed by her experience of being sexually abused by her pastor when she was 12. Here’s how Trump sycophant Julie Kelly attacked Ms. French for her lack of obeisance and obedience to the president’s goals.

“Harsh” doesn’t begin to cover it, don’t you think?

8. An extreme skew. When members of a private Facebook group called Genevan Commons found Aimee Byrd insufficiently pure theologically, they wrote blog posts critical of her alleged feminism, tried to get her speaking engagements canceled, and cruelly ridiculed her within the group. As one of them bleated, “Christian men need to rise up and tell feminists like her within the church to be quiet.” Extremists are drawn to fundamentalisms, religious and secular.

As Chesterton said, “We shall soon be in a world in which a man may be howled down for saying that two and two make four, in which people will persecute the heresy of calling a triangle a three-sided figure, and hang a man for maddening a mob with the news that grass is green.”

“Soon” has arrived.

9. It was always thus. Aristotle had many bad ideas, at least by today’s standards. Washington and Jefferson, too. This week, the Sierra Club condemned the racism of its founder, John Muir. Planned Parenthood of Greater New York is removing the name of pioneering birth control advocate Margaret Sanger from its Manhattan health clinic because of her “harmful connections to the eugenics movement.”

We shouldn’t lionize leaders of the past indiscriminately and uncritically. We should recognize, criticize, and work to correct their wrongs. However, history and context matter, despite what today’s fundamentalists say. Icons of the past lived in a different time with different values.

Washington and Jefferson were giants, not monsters. They were also human — sinners in need of grace.

Remember, some (many?) of our current views will someday be deemed dreadful and unacceptable. By today’s standards of truth espoused by the political left, nobody not alive today is worthy of respect, much less emulation, and precious few of them.

10. Opponents aren’t fully human.

History is replete with examples of what happens when opponents and enemies see “the other” as less than fully human. A deeply held conviction of superior virtue can be (and often is) used to rationalize just about anything. That is how and when we get concentration camps, gulags, cultural revolutions, and killing fields.

If you think of those you disagree with as enemies who are stupid, evil, or delusional, you may well be a fundamentalist, even if you don’t think of yourself as at all religious.


* The fact that there is plenty of blame to go around on all sides is not the same thing as saying the blame is equivalent. I’m not making an argument for bothsidesism at any point herein.

Totally Worth It

The most important thing I read last week. The most powerful (especially when you know both how different and how important the two authors are). The silliest. The sweetest. The most delightful (don’t miss the end). The saddest. The nicest. The oddest. The most interesting. The most delightfulCool photo. Udderly fun. “FOMO never sleeps.” A new ocean. The baseball season is here, finally. The Tampa Bay Rays are the Antiques Roadshow of baseball. They find Picassos in attics, Tiffany lamps in basements, and pitchers with outlier stuff in the dumpsters of other organizations. Here is how they do it.

Pentatonix has a new version of Dreams, a classic song from The Cranberries.


This week’s benediction is an Irish Blessing from over 300 churches throughout every county of the Emerald Isle. Be sure to stay ‘til the end.

Contact me via rpseawright [at] gmail [dot] com or on Twitter (@rpseawright). Don’t forget to subscribe and share. Thanks for reading.

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Issue 23 (July 24, 2020)