America: The Fundamentalist Controversy

Fundamentalism arose as a religious reaction within American conservative Christianity to the development of a secular culture during the 1920s. The aftermath of the Great War in American culture was seen by many as marking a departure from America’s traditional Christian (and especially Protestant) moorings. In part, this was a response to the greater mass production of consumer goods – especially autos – and a drive towards consumerism and a credit economy, which many regarded as encouraging materialism. Divorce rates soared. To many religious Americans, the nation seemed to have embraced new secular values, and moved away from older values of self-denial and the Protestant work ethic to a form of self-indulgence and materialism. The rise of fundamentalism is deeply rooted in these broader cultural developments.


Despite the wide use of the term to refer to religious movements within Islam and Judaism, the term originally and properly designates a movement within Protestant Chris- tianity in the United States. By a series of historical accidents, the term “fundamentalist” derived its name from a series of twelve books which appeared from a small American publishing house in the 1910s. The series was unremarkably entitled The Fundamentals, and was intended to be an exploration of the “basics of faith” from a conservative Protestant perspective.

To begin with, the term “fundamentalism” did not have the overtones of obscurantism, anti-intellectualism, and political extremism that many now associate with it. It was seen as a movement on the fringes of American mainline Protestantism that believed that culture was moving in anti-Christian directions, and wanted to try and safeguard the Christian heritage. Fundamentalists initially saw themselves simply as returning to biblical orthodoxy. This point was recognized at the time by Kirsopp Lake, a leading British modernist writer who specialized in the field of New Testament and early Christian studies. In his Religion of Yesterday and Tomorrow, which advocated a form of reli- gion based on individual human perceptions and experience, rather than revelation, Lake described fundamentalism as “the partial and uneducated survival of a theology which was once universally held by all Christians.”

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