The Appeal of Fundamentalism

In our increasingly polarized political environment, the political right and the political left often square off over the issue of religion. The Christian right proclaims to all who will listen that they stand for the true values of the Christian faith- equating them increasingly as a litmus test for patriotism.

The religious left- (somewhat of an oxymoron, since to the secular world, religion itself is generally seen as an inherently conservative, if not reactionary movement) – insists that their populist promotion of social justice and care for the marginalized members of society constitutes “true faith”. With comparable rigidity, they tend to cast conservative Christianity- and particularly the varieties prone to Biblical literalism- as an aberration of the truth of Jesus. The intellectual tendencies of the the left also tend to paint the biblical literalist as engaged in an anti-intellectual interpretive approach that is intrinsically self-contradictory, requiring an abdication of all critical thinking. The response of the Right is to see the Left as tailoring faith to convenience, morally too weak to handle the rigors of dealing with the Absolute that true faith requires.

Ironically, similar polarities exist with Islam, Judaism, and even Hinduism, despite the millennial wisdom enshrined in them all. Instead of trying to decide who is “right”, it would be more helpful to the pacification of religious conflict and its political offshoots to take a deeper look at the deep seated appeal of fundamentalism.

To be sure, there is a strong anti-intellectual strain in some brands of religious conservatism. There are those who hold to a rigid interpretation as emotionally comforting, Scripture taken as a rule book, or case study of simple truths, sooner or later is likely to bring the faithful to an emotional abyss when the reality of experience and the interpretation of scripture seem diametrically opposed. But to dismiss the sincerity and integrity of those who devotedly try to live up to the requirements of their understanding of faith would be to discount the entire communion of saints throughout history who have led exemplary spiritual lives in the face of enormous opposition and challenge.

In order to understand the pull of fundamentalism, we need to look beyond the clichés of “people looking for simple answers to complex questions”. We need to take a fresh look at what it is that is truly “fundamental” to any faith. By doing so, we may well be surprised to discover that less separates the religious conservative from the spiritual radical.

The yearning to transcend suffering and achieve lasting peace is arguably innate to our species. Historically it has been demonstrated that, despite our increasingly sophisticated weapons and methods for killing each other, as a species, we have been becoming less violent. This suggests that the underlying message of the world’s scriptures is, in fact, expressive of something fundamental to the human race. Though we may disagree as to the most effective means to pursuit that transcendent and peaceful goal, we should recognize it as a tie that should unite us rather than divide us.