The Logic of Fundamentalism: Comparing Movements After September 11

Martin E. Marty
The Divinity School of the University of Chicago

Date: October 31, 2001
 Church of St. Ignatius at Boston College


On October 31, Martin Marty, a noted scholar of religion and the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago, came to St. Ignatius Church at Boston College to give a talk on “The Logic of Fundamentalism: Responses to September 11.” In his talk, Marty drew on insights from the six-year Fundamentalism Project he directed for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences from 1987-1993. One of the results of the project, which studied fundamentalist groups in 23 different religions, was that it became possible to understand fundamentalism itself as a distinct kind of movement that is in part a reaction to modernity.

How fundamentalists experience modernity, and its attendant pluralism and relativism, can be characterized, said Marty, in terms of a number of particular features. Central to fundamentalist movements is their self-definition as "the old time religion," a return to a pure past before the intrusion of modernity. Fundamentalist movements do not usually develop out of liberal societies or liberal religions, but are founded in traditional societies or existing orthodox religious movements. At the same time, fundamentalists can be very inventive with the tools, if not the culture of modernity. Marty cited the door-to-door salesmanship of the millennialist Moody Bible Institute and websites promoting Amish tourism as examples of this element. Using these tools is a way to do battle—Marty called it doing "jujitsu with modernity." The principle is to take an opponent’s force and turn it around to one’s advantage. The efforts of fundamentalist groups to create their own media outlets are examples of this strategy. The stance of fundamentalism, Marty continued, is one of reaction to a total threat, a threat that endangers both personal and social identity. Fundamentalists have to be ready to take action if called, and to see themselves as an agent of the divine. There is no middle ground. As Marty put it, fundamentalists hate moderates more than they hate infidels. Such a view can explain why a historian at Bob Jones University would say that Billy Graham is the most dangerous man in America, or why most Islamic fundamentalists are battling Islamic moderates, not the West itself. Marty argued that fundamentalism involves a selective retrieval of those aspects of the tradition considered most central. Often those fundamentals are "scandalous and offensive," chosen in part because the difficulty of adhering to them will help to insure the full commitment of members who remain. But the down side of such selective retrieval is that it tends to distort the larger tradition; many people feel that "bin Laden and Al Qaeda have hijacked Islam," just as the Ku Klux Klan distorted Protestant Christianity. Thus, Marty concluded, it is important that our response to the current situation be one of openness and dialogue. He believes we need to do "what no fundamentalist can do," namely, "converse with, listen to, understand, and work with the other who is different" as part of a pluralistic community.