Examining fundamentalism in Europe

By Martin E. Marty
August 29, 2008

At the end of July 2008 I went to Prague this for the Tenth International (Dietrich) Bonhoeffer Congress, to present a synoptic view of fundamentalism(s). The conferees were probing ways in which the life and record of the theologian put to death by the Nazis in the last month of the European War (1945) can illumine life between and beyond "Fundamentalism and Secularism."

To prepare, I revisited Fundamentalisms Observed (University of Chicago, 1991), the first of five volumes, 3073 pages - I counted and added - by about one hundred scholars. These volumes are regarded as standard in reference libraries globally. R. Scott Appleby, my partner in leading the venture for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, pursues the subject at the University of Notre Dame. I've wandered off, but still drop in on the subject about which he and I say, "Too bad we're still relevant"

To the point of treating the subject at an International Congress: Twenty-one years ago when we initiated conferences and planned the edited volumes, Europe was virtually absent from our screen. Now, scholars from numerous European nations are presenting papers and discussing the subject. Why were there so few references back in 1991, and why is there such interest now?

The simple answer is that all our scholars, from many faiths and disciplines, agreed that the word "fundamentalism" differs from its cousins, "conservatism," "orthodoxy," et cetera. It is always reactive. Members of a religious body or a religiously-informed culture that is already vital and "traditional" have to feel that the threats of modernity, relativism, pluralism, and theological challenge are so drastic that newly-named (in 1920) fundamentalists must react, must "do battle."

Back in 1987 we did not find enough vital religion in state-church-dominated Europe to find reactors. We did finally agree to include Communione e Liberazione, a fundamentalist-like Italian movement. It is hard to be a fundamentalist in Catholicism, because Catholicism teaches "development of doctrine," which means that, even where it is ultra-traditionalist, it has to recognize the potential for such development. That notion is lethal in the minds of fundamentalists, who need everything nailed down absolutely.

Reading on the subject in recent months, I did not lack references to Islamic fundamentalism, which is indisputably present in Western Europe, where non-Muslims and more moderate Muslims are reacting against the reactors. What I did discover on Western European web-sites and in publications is that, absent large-scale Protestant and clear-style Catholic fundamentalism, more and more commentators are stretching the meaning of the word. They apply it wherever staunch conservatism links with political power and threatens liberal polities and policies.

So one will read that causes and governments which oppose feminism and women's or homosexuals' rights in the name of God and citing sacred texts, get labeled "fundamentalist." We who were part of The Fundamentalism Project were not chartered to run around with "Fundamentalism Present" or "Keep Off the Grounds" labels. Still, confusion results, I contended at Prague, if the term is always used pejoratively and polemically to cluster everyone, especially the religious, whom one does not like.

There are real threats out there, without question, but we do societies no service if we lump all movements to the Right together, homogenize them, and mis-label some of them. Dealing honestly with others and carefully with labels are positive ways to react. Then, again, the European colleagues may instruct me otherwise.


(c) Martin E. Marty The author is a leading US commentator on religion. His biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.

**With grateful acknowledgements to Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Illinois, USA.**

See also Ekklesia's research paper, Facing up to fundamentalism - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/research/070201

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