In the third line of Antifundamentalism in Modern America, David Harrington Watt asks, “what can we do to keep fundamentalists from obstructing human progress?” (ix). Not a lot, it turns out, because as Watt masterfully demonstrates, we don’t really know what fundamentalism is, and even if we did, it may not be impeding human progress at all. Watt has written a brilliant book that moves across the twentieth century and into the twenty-first to show how the term fundamentalism came be used, first among a distinct set of Protestants in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s, and then by scholars and critics ever since. Watt’s goal is not to tell the history of fundamentalism proper, but to track how the term evolved and developed such negative connotations. In the process, he shows how scholars and journalists appropriated the term and then began applying it to a broad variety of religious movements, not only within Christianity, but within Islam and Buddhism as well. “The story of how fundamentalism came to be seen as a global menace,” Watt explains, “rather than simply an American one—is at the heart of this book” (xv). Watt opens Antifundamentalism by laying out four arguments. First, he wants readers to understand that the most influential analyses of fundamentalism over the last fifty years were created by people who had done little actual research on fundamentalists or their beliefs and practices. Second, he explains, the term fundamentalism is often used pejoratively by writers to make moral claims, and especially to argue that right-thinking humans accept “universal truths” revealed in the European Enlightenment, while fundamentalists reject those truths. Third, Watt continues, using the term fundamentalist makes good sense when discussing the self-identified fundamentalists of the 1920s and 1930s. But that’s it. “It does not make much sense at all,” he continues, to use the concept of fundamentalism “to analyze the beliefs and practices of Jews, Muslims, and Hindus.” Finally, he notes, not all the men and women organizing and writing against the “fundamentalist threat” are good, and not all those who get labeled fundamentalists are “thoroughly evil” (xvii). To make these arguments, Watt begins by explaining the history of the Fundamentalism Project, which the American Academy of Arts and Sciences sponsored in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Its influence “on the way Americans think about fundamentalism,” Watt explains, “is almost impossible to exaggerate” (2). The project, which Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby directed out of the University of Chicago, brought together a distinguished group of scholars to study fundamentalism and fundamentalisms the world over. Over two hundred and twenty scholars participated across ten conferences and they authored or contributed to multiple books. Their goal was to provide even-handed, fair analysis. But from the start, the leaders of the project had trouble defining their subject. They eventually settled on a mostly negative definition: fundamentalism was a phenomenon that described those who were antimodern and antisecular. In addition to problems of definition, the project had numerous other flaws, the greatest of which was that most scholars paid little attention to the actual religious practices and beliefs of those who they were studying. In the end, Watt observes, the project created more questions than answers. “In spite of all its achievements,” Watt summarizes, “the Fundamentalism Project failed to conclusively demonstrate that global fundamentalism is a useful concept” (16). Nevertheless, the project has shaped at least a generation of scholarship. Despite the failure of the project, the concept “global fundamentalism” has had staying power. Watt explores its genealogy. He begins with an analysis of the work of the skeptics of the concept of global fundamentalism (Watt is in this camp). He argues that they see the idea of “global fundamentalism” as something that impedes rather than illuminates our understanding of the world in which we live. Talking about global fundamentalism, he argues, is akin to talking about primitive religion or unicorns: things that do not exist. The defenders of the concept of global fundamentalism mostly ignore these critiques of their terminology and assumptions. They continue to use “fundamentalism” broadly and without really unpacking the assumptions that underlie their claims. They see their subjects—fundamentalists—as misguided, confused, or ignorant. Watt, however, analyzes their arguments and evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of their work. Once Watt establishes the stakes and lays out the contemporary debates, he turns to history to show readers how we have arrived at this controversy. He begins with the rise of the original fundamentalists, although he relies a little too much on somewhat dated scholarship in the way he shapes his early narrative about Christian fundamentalism in the 1910s and 1920s. Unfortunately, he never offers a truly satisfactory definition of what defines the parameters of the original fundamentalist movement. Instead he casts a wide net and includes figures like William Jennings Bryan and J. Gresham Machen, both of whom other scholars (including me) have recently argued were not fundamentalists. To Watt’s credit, he makes sure to include recent work in his notes; it’s just not clear that the latest scholarship informed his analysis. Next, he turns to the rise of a series of influential antifundamentalist polemics that arose concurrent with the fundamentalist movement. He highlights the work of Harry Emerson Fosdick and Fredrick Lewis Allen, among others, both of whom used the term fundamentalist to describe religious adherents who seemed backwards, unenlightened, and often southern and rural. In the interwar era, a few people took the term fundamentalist and applied it to Muslims, but this move was rare and didn’t really catch on. In the 1930s and 1940s, a new wave of texts further shaped how many Americans came to understand fundamentalism. H. Richard Niebuhr and Talcott Parsons presented fundamentalism as a serious social and political threat (somewhat akin to fascism and nazism). They presented their work in a seemingly objective, scholarly fashion, as if any right-thinking person would realize how backwards fundamentalists were. Parsons, Watt explains, led readers to the conclusion that “fundamentalism was a nebulous social force that might be lurking anyplace where modernity’s effects had been felt and resented” (102). Then in 1947, Carl Henry published The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. Henry, who in many ways identified with fundamentalism, believed that fundamentalists should shed their seeming antiintellectualism and polemical style and better engage with the shapers of the modern world. Fundamentalists, it seemed, were taking shots from all sides. With such seemingly thorough critiques of fundamentalism gaining traction, many outsiders assumed the movement was on its deathbed. Watt offers careful analysis of the play and movie Inherit the Wind and the work of historians Norman Furniss and Richard Hofstadter. All three left readers (and/or viewers) with the impression that fundamentalism peaked in the 1920s and then rapidly declined. Meanwhile, in 1970, Ernest Sandeen published The Roots of Fundamentalism, the first careful, serious modern history of the origins of fundamentalism. It is an excellent, but difficult and boring book, which did not get much traction outside of the work of academic specialists. Then came the rise of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and the Iranian Revolution. Scholars, journalists, and policy makers were all afraid of what these events heralded. Very afraid. The Christian fundamentalists they had seemingly relegated to the dustbin of history suddenly had the ear of President Ronald Reagan. And in the Middle East some Muslims seemed to share equally if not more threatening political tendencies. Perhaps what united them was this thing called fundamentalism? The distinguished scholar Martin Marty published an essay in the Saturday Review in 1980, in which he juxtaposed and lambasted both movements and then made the case that both Falwell and the Ayatollah Khomeini represented similar expressions of religious fundamentalism. Both were militantly antimodern, fanatical, and opposed to the separation of church and state. Watt argues that although Marty’s conclusions were sloppy and inaccurate, they continue to be rehashed again and again. Marty, Watt implies, deserves a good portion of the blame for the rise of the concept of global fundamentalism, and all the problems it has caused. Watt’s final chapter focuses on a series of books that frame fundamentalism—whether Christians, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, or other—as a tremendous evil that we would do well to eradicate. But Watt is not buying it. “I think,” Watt concludes, “that the category of global fundamentalism is rotten to its core” (171). Watt has written an excellent and provocative book. Antifundamentalism is smart, thoughtful, carefully argued, and significant. Graduate students, scholars, journalists, and policy makers alike should wrestle with his arguments. He has put together a complete history peppered with insightful analysis and commentary. Fundamentalism may not have died the slow death its mid-century detractors thought, but thanks to Watt, perhaps the next generation of scholars can kill the concept of global fundamentalism and its misapplications, misrepresentations, and incessant moralizing. © The Author(s) 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Academy of Religion. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Journal of the American Academy of Religion – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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