Fundamentalism: Not Just a Religion Problem

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Fundamentalism: Not Just a Religion Problem

I knew this day would come eventually. The day I finally articulated the thing that irks me the most about regular interaction with ethical and conscious living folks.

This post has been stewing around in my head in a semi-articulated state for at least a year, but Holly’s recent post finally gave me the push I needed.


It will come as no surprise to you if you’ve been reading my blog for very long that I am a practicing Christian. I like to refer to myself as a progressive Christian lest you think I’m a gun-waving Trump supporter, but at the end of the day, I’m still someone who identifies with a religious tradition that doesn’t always get the best rap.

It’s complicated, but I decided a long time ago that the best thing I could do was not to throw out a belief system that I find to be important, challenging, comforting, and inspiring just because a few thousand loonies make it look bad. To borrow a term from feminism, I’m “reclaiming” Christianity and its terms in order to flip those bad connotations on their head. At least, I hope that’s the result.

In any case, you’d think it’d be fairly easy among a bunch of conscientious folks, many with various spiritual practices and rituals of their own, to join in conversations of a more religious sort. But over and over again, I get the sense that I need to tread incredibly lightly so as not to cause a problem.

But my question is: how is it more crazy to believe in a resurrected Jesus than to use healing crystals and read Tarot cards and channel the goddess Isis?

Let’s just admit something right now, among ourselves:

We’re all crazy. It’s okay. 

But, I don’t want to oversimplify things. I know why rubbing Jade rollers on your face in the name of cosmic healing is more socially acceptable than going to church every Sunday.

The problem is Christianity’s association with fundamentalism. 

Christians are mean to gay people. Christians are unkind to women. Christians are legalistic and shortsighted. Christians are against social programs. Christians don’t support the rights of trans people. Christians are weird about sex. Christians are authoritarian nationalists. Christians want to build a wall. Christians are racist. Christians are uppity and rude and insular and othering.

Yes. All of those statements can be truthful in context. But to generalize a broad, lengthy, complicated, culturally contextualized, diverse group – 2.2 billion people located all over the world – by the actions and words of a relative few isn’t fair. But more than that, it simply isn’t accurate.

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Fundamentalism is a Commitment to an Unwavering Ideal

Fundamentalists have inadvertently become Christianity’s spokespeople because they yell the loudest. 

And Gosh darn, do they like to yell.

You know who else likes to yell?

Vegans. Intersectional Feminists. Environmentalists. Neopagans. Survivalists. Homesteaders. Conscious Consumers. Atheists. Etcetera, etcetera.

Let me break this down a bit…

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from being friends with a whole bunch of Religious Studies folks, it’s that Religion as a term is mostly unhelpful. What is religion but an ideology, a framework for seeing the world and interpreting stimuli?

We may classify religion in the West as a set of rituals, morals, and supernatural beliefs, often practiced in community, that facilitates our formation and behavior in the world. But there are plenty of world religions that don’t have firm supernatural beliefs, and some practice takes place in virtually total isolation.

Ask an Evangelical Christian what Christianity is and they’ll likely give you a spiel about accepting Jesus into your heart and not even mention a communal or ritual element as mandatory.

Religion Is One Kind of Ideology

One definition of ideology is:

the body of doctrine, myth, belief, etc., that guides an individual, social movement, institution, class, or large group.

Ideology is everywhere. It’s a way of organizing the world, creating a sort of shorthand, so we can actually manage the immense chaos of our lives. Capitalism and democracy have accompanying ideologies, like the American Dream, that help us buy into the system.

Ideology is a good thing, or at least it can be. It allows us to rally around a common goal and get things done. It shapes us around set moral and ethical frameworks, making us think before we act in ways that aren’t consistent. If done well, it can temper our tendency toward hypocrisy.

Ideology is also powerful. It’s no coincidence I waited ’til Election Week here in the U.S. to post this. Politicians create ideological worlds for us to attach ourselves to. They speak to our preexisting values, and once they’ve done that, they can begin to mold and manipulate them into their own specific take on what’s best for us. It’s easy to see how easily we become thoughtless sheep, or rats perhaps, following our preferred Pied Piper no matter the costs or the realities. Cheering and jeering. Like Artificial Intelligence bots that haven’t yet attained consciousness.

Fundamentalism Poisons All Ideologies

If you partake in any ideology – and you do – you can fall prey to fundamentalism.

In my experience, a lot of earth loving, sustainability-minded folks grew up with religious practices they’ve since shed, likely due to concerns over fundamentalism. But because they never pinpointed and dissected their experience, they don’t realize that fundamentalism is not exclusive to institutionalized religious belief.

Fundamentalism’s most basic definition is:

strict adherence to the basic principles of any subject or discipline.

When applied to religion, fundamentalism often refers to a strict, literal approach to scripture, or reading the text at “face value” without applying literary criticism or accounting for historical and cultural context. I would argue that this un-nuanced approach to a value system – one that doesn’t take into account multi-layered ethical priorities, traditions, and social hierarchies – can and does occur in any ideology.

However, it seems to me that fundamentalism is more likely to crop up in ideologies that inherently require a higher degree of abstinence from the dominant lifestyle.

An example: 
The definition of “conscious consumer” is incredibly flexible and mostly up to the individual to define. I may buy only vegan products. I may buy essentials from fair trade vendors, but still make exceptions for shoes, uniforms, or formal wear. I may start a capsule wardrobe.

I may stop wearing clothes. In a similar vein, I can believe in the American Dream without sacrificing an individual interpretation of what that means. If you watched Parks and Rec, think Ron Swanson and Leslie Knope. Total opposites, but both were taken with the romance of the quintessential American narrative and what it could offer them.

The definition of “vegan” isn’t as flexible, at least not in its Western iteration. I may call myself a vegan and still eat meat on special occasions, but that doesn’t mean that the vegan community recognizes me as vegan. I’m very likely to be called out by my fellow vegans for my willingness to be flexible.

Similarly, in many Christian circles, the community dictates who is in and who is out regardless of how the individual may define herself. This exclusivity isn’t universal, but it happens frequently enough to cause frequent PR nightmares for Christians everywhere.

To reiterate, that’s not to say that all vegans – or all Christians for that matter – are fundamentalists, it’s to say that it’s easier to be a fundamentalist vegan or a fundamentalist Christian than a fundamentalist conscious consumer or American Dream lover because veganism and Christianity are all-encompassing, long term lifestyle changes while conscious consumerism and the American Dream are still a loose grouping of ideals.

Let me be clear, though: you can be a very dedicated adherent to something and not be a fundamentalist at all. 

Nuns come to mind. Often, the threat of fundamentalism is simply a quirk of the dominant rhetoric that needs to be addressed and re-framed. Conscious people in communities that sometimes have a reputation for bullying need to work particularly hard to change the conversation, even if it’s not their fault to begin with. That’s just the sucky unfairness of caring about social justice.

On the other side of the spectrum, you can find your way into a fundamentalist frame of mind even if the larger ideological framework you submit to is fairly flexible.

To use the same example as before, while the conscious consumer community may be quite diverse, it’s easy enough for me to form my own, more rigid ideas of what constitutes an “authentic” conscious consumer and make judgments based on the tiny ideological world I’ve built for myself. The difference is that there are enough people within the community not being a big meany about everything that I could (thankfully) be drowned out.

And one more small point before I move on: judgment that isolates, alienates, and others can happen a la carte, too. Just because you’re normally tolerant doesn’t mean you can’t go off the rails. As Cari Romm says in a recent article on ethical shoppers, “being good for long stretches of time is exhausting.” It’s inevitable you’ll snap if you’re not gracious with yourself.

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The Point

The point is that if you have been burned by Christian fundamentalism either through your interactions with Christians or because of your own religious upbringing, you better make sure that you’re not falling prey to your ideology’s own brand of fundamentalism.

Fundamentalism at its root is objectification and othering.

It’s refusing to listen because you HAVE TOO DAMN MUCH TO SAY AND YOU NEED TO SAY IT LOUDLY.

It’s getting high on your rants and your shut downs and your cyber bullying, and thinking that counts as “activism.”

It’s blaming individuals by way of a “call-out culture” that fails to recognize the systems, narratives, and communities that fuel the flames of ignorance.

It’s acting as if any of this is easy and obvious.

Reject Simplified Narratives

Nothing about conscious living, or religion for that matter, is easy and obvious. 

If you’ve convinced yourself it is, you’ve forgotten how far you’ve come.

As a Christian raised in churches that sometimes bordered on fundamentalism and often incorporated evangelism strategies that were based in fear and intimidation, I have a pretty good radar for this stuff and I’m determined not to use lazy, deceptive, and psychologically harmful modes of influencing people to build my little congregation. I’m determined not to roll my eyes at people who just “don’t get it” or “don’t care enough.”

That’s not the point. This isn’t about me. This is about us. So stop with the judging and the generalizations and the sighing and complaining and be the thoughtful, perceptive, gracious person you always wanted to be.

You chose this lifestyle because you want better. Don’t forget that.

Fundamentalism will never get you there.

Be firm with yourself, but be generous with others. Call out your friend who swore she’d start eating better, but don’t do it to your poor uncle as he enjoys his turkey on Thanksgiving day.

Buy sustainably sourced clothing, but give your mom a few recommendations for better, not perfect, options at her favorite stores.

Model your values with integrity and consistency, and admit how hard it can be. That’s when the payoff will come. That’s when people will start to listen.  Don’t worry. I believe in you. You don’t need to yell about it anymore.

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Leah Wise

Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.

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