If you were to name the single most important driving force of political decision-making in recent history in this country and around the world, it would have to be religious fundamentalism. In her new book, "The Battle for God" (Alfred A. Knopf, March 2000), Karen Armstrong suggests that fundamentalism has erupted in almost all cultures and indicates a widespread and worrying disenchantment with modern society, a society which many of us see as liberating, exciting and empowering. Projects that are usually seen by the majority as self-evidently good, like democracy, peace-making, concern for the environment, the liberation of women or freedom of speech can seem evil or even satanic to a fundamentalist.
Fundamentalism is an American export to the world. The intellectual atmosphere in America was changing swiftly in the late 1800s and many new views sharply challenged ideas cherished by conservative Protestants. Those who were reared on the traditional biblical views of creation were shaken by the new ideas that were coming from geologists on the one hand and from biblical critics on the other. A growing acceptance of evolution as an explanation of the origins of life on the planet was the spark that ignited the smoldering dis-ease. A series of conferences were held, and at the Niagara Conference in 1895 a statement was prepared that named the five points of fundamentalism. The five points are the verbal inerrancy of Scripture, the deity of Jesus, the virgin birth, the substitutionary atonement, and the physical resurrection and bodily return of Christ. Fundamentalism around the world may differ in substance, but it has grown from the same root as fundamentalism in America; that is, a fear and distrust of modernity and reaction to it.
Armstrong suggests that although only about 10 percent of Americans would describe themselves as "fundamentalists," polls show that many fundamentalist attitudes are shared by about 50 percent of the population. Where the old Moral Majority was essentially law abiding in its campaign against secular society in the late 1970s and early 1980s, new fundamentalistic campaigns (such as the anti-abortion crusades of Operation Rescue) are prepared to resort to civil disobedience.
Many Christians believe, with varying degrees of commitment, in the five points of fundamentalism as the substance of their faith. Most have heard no alternative to them, and even the suggestion that an alternative Christian belief structure can be found will throw the fundamentalist into a tizzy. The hand with the finger pointed heavenward and the rubric, "One Way," creates a clear inference that, if your faith journey does not follow the path that uses their words to parrot their ideas, you are never going to be accepted by or acceptable to God. Much of American religion appears to be the product of a cookie cutter, where all look alike, sound alike, use the same buzz words and demonstrate their piety in the same way.
Yet there are many who search for depth, who long for meaning in their lives, who know there are serious questions about existence that can't be answered with simple cookie cutter answers and who will decline to participate, thank you, if that is really all there is. The Church has generally not done well in honoring that search, especially recently. Dare we say that we do not all have to think or believe alike? When we stand bravely against the onslaught of anti-intellectual pap that characterizes so much of the religious speech that is around us every day, we can safely say that our human experience tells us there are likely many paths to God and that God honors the journey of every person on every path.
I suggest to you that the circle of love that God draws around the world is much wider, much more encompassing, much more comprehensive and much more accepting than what we have been hearing. It is likely wide enough even to include me. And you.
Thomas H. Dahl is the pastor at Aldersgate United Methodist Church.