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.

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