Staff

Curbing our use of the ‘fundamentalist’ label

The word's connotations can lead to the dismissal of certain ideologies, closing off the chance to dig into understanding why people might hold them.

The fundamentals of algebra are its most basic laws, upon which the whole system is built. “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat” are the fundamentals of cooking, according to Samin Nosrat’s book of that name. Fundamental things are “basic,” “primary,” “essential” – the word “applies to something that is a foundation without which an entire system or complex whole would collapse,” according to Merriam-Webster.

It would be logical to assume, then, that fundamentalist is simply a term for someone who values “the fundamentals,” whatever they may be in context. While this is indeed part of the definition, fundamentalist and fundamentalism have had pejorative connotations since they first appeared in English.

Fundamental has been in common use since the 15th century. Fundamentalist and fundamentalism, though, are much later – they rose to prominence in the 1920s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The terms were first used to describe a group of Protestants who reacted to the increasing secularization of American society by advocating for what they saw as the fundamentals of Christianity, including a belief in the inerrancy of the Bible, and the need to separate from a sinful world.    

Some people embraced the label, proudly referring to “our fundamentalist views.” In wider public discourse, however, it acquired negative connotations, as some prominent fundamentalists – the politician Williams Jennings Bryan, for example – made a grand cause of banning the teaching of evolution and supporting the Ku Klux Klan.      

As English speakers employ it today, fundamentalist still carries these connotations. It implies fanaticism, backward thinking, and a too-rigid adherence to doctrine. It can be used in secular contexts, but, as journalist Richard Ostling puts it, “Writers have often employed the term to mean ‘hardline religious people I don’t like very much.’”

Because of the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan, the news is again full of reports of “Islamic fundamentalists.” This may indeed be an accurate way to describe certain aspects of some groups – Salafists, for example, look back to the Prophet Muhammad and the two generations that followed him to inform their observance. 

If a group doesn’t self-identify as fundamentalist, however, the Associated Press Stylebook, which is followed by the Monitor, advises against using the term. Its pejorative connotations lead to too-easy dismissal of certain ideologies, rather than opening up understanding about why people might hold them. Mr. Ostling urges that what he calls “the religious F-word” be avoided with the same care that we eschew other derogatory language.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to Curbing our use of the ‘fundamentalist’ label
Read this article in
https://www.csmonitor.com/The-Culture/In-a-Word/2021/0906/Curbing-our-use-of-the-fundamentalist-label
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today
https://www.csmonitor.com/subscribe