From Henry Neufeld, "My Dad Was a Fundamentalist":
Labels are such tricky things, and any linguist is aware of the problems of saying that a word should mean some certain thing. So I’m going to resist that. But it would be nice to have a label for people who were very firm about the tenets of their faith, and yet was not also a pejorative term.
More and more, “fundamentalist” is used in a pejorative sense. You can be an evangelical Christian, and you might be considered a reasonable person. A little over pious, perhaps, but reasonable. But fundamentalist now carries the connotation of Westboro Baptist protesting at funerals, suicide bombers, and planes flying into buildings. Most fundamentalists I know, whether Christian or Muslim, don’t think the actions of those groups. You even have the term “fundamentalist atheist” for atheists who are firm in expressing their beliefs and don’t give in to anyone else.
On one online forum in which I participated, the common standard was to use “fundamentalist” of the person’s basic beliefs, but to call someone who was also over the line in terms of behavior a “fundy.” It didn’t always work. In fact, it rarely worked, because a pejorative label is unlikely to be received well by anyone.
Now my dad was, in terms of beliefs, a fundamentalist Christian. He believed literally in all the major doctrines–virgin birth, resurrection, a literal and imminent second coming of Jesus, the complete truth of the Bible, a literal and recent reading of the Genesis creation story, and salvation by faith alone in Christ alone. He didn’t waver from any of those believes.
He was also a medical doctor who spent his life serving others. He never made the kind of money that one expects of a physician. He never intended to nor did he try to. He put his effort into serving. He made no distinctions of religion, race, or nationality (or of any other kind that I know of) in the people he served. He treated everyone with the sort of respect that must be part of one’s nature; it’s not put on, so it never slips. He fit none of the stereotypes of a fundamentalist.
I disagree with some of the religious positions my father held, but I have a profound respect for his faith, his service, and the way he dealt with people. I’m deeply grateful to have grown up under that influence. When I call my father a fundamentalist, I mean no disrespect whatsoever. Yet the term carries that disrespect, and at the same time, I know no other the fully reflects his beliefs.
Language changes, and is nearly impossible to turn from its course. I wonder if I should try to rescue the term “fundamentalist” so as to make it descriptive rather than pejorative, but I doubt I’d succeed. Perhaps I just need to write something like this every so often, to remind people that “fundamentalist” is not a synonym either for “terrorist” or “idiot.”
As someone who is distinctly non-fundamentalist, perhaps I’m a good person to make that statement.
Thoughtful post. We always need to struggle against our stereotypes/labels. I think on some issues liberals can be fundamentalists in that they reach a point about some subject in life that they cannot prove sufficiently by reason or experience, yet believe it to be true.
Yes, I think the label is a pejorative. You especially see this in certain blogs hosted and frequented by former fundamentalists or those who've had bad experiences. Unfortunately the term is a shortcut to "win" a discussion or argument. If you have the "wrong" view on women pastors, creation, homosexuality, etc. you will be tagged with the label. It really is sad to see Christians, who should know better, participate in this. An interesting post.
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