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Fundamentalism originally referred to an American Protestant Christian movement occurring at the turn of the 20th century. Since then the term has been adopted by scholars to refer to a worldwide movement that includes various faith traditions. The usefulness of the term lies in its ability to capture the form and functions of a great many religious groups and to define the essence of their agendas. As used by scholars, the term is meant to describe, not evaluate. At the heart of fundamentalist movements is their revolt against modernism and their call to return to the fundamentals of their faith traditions, fundamentals defined either in sacred texts such as the Bible and the Qur'an or in the practices of a faith tradition's founder or original community. Fundamentalism refers, then, to protests against developments associated with modernism, protests that are often energetic, sometimes aggressive, and occasionally violent.
Fundamentalists feel that certain developments associated with modernism undermine religious identity and their own religious worldview. They believe these developments undermine the ability to lead a morally pure life and, in some cases, a life that prepares for the afterlife. Their concern is not with developments in technology and science per se but only with those developments that challenge their religious worldview or have moral implications-as when Darwinian evolutionary theory challenged the creationist theory derived from a literal reading of Genesis.
In North America, the term fundamentalism has often been used interchangeably with the term evangelism-though more so at the beginning of the fundamentalist movement than in recent times. Evangelism refers to the winning or saving of souls. To evangelize, then, means to lead others to becoming saved. North American fundamentalists are, then, all about being saved and saving others-saved by believing in Jesus as the Lord and saved by accepting the Bible as the literal and inerrant word of God. To be saved, it is not enough to attend church or to try hard to lead a good life. Being saved, say the fundamentalists and evangelicals, entails no less than a total commitment to Christ and a total belief in the Bible. To be a North American Protestant fundamentalist is, then, to embrace a biblical perspective that is clear, free from contradiction, and rejecting of alternative, nonfundamentalist worldviews. Being ecumenical is not, then, a part of the fundamentalist agenda. Therefore, North American Protestant fundamentalism, like other forms of fundamentalism around the world, runs counter to the dominant worldview in most societies today, a worldview that values pluralism and accepts there being multiple perspectives on what is true and valuable.
Nor is it a fundamentalist agenda to promote a separation of religion and state, a separation that has been central in North American and European democratic traditions. This is even more evident in Arab regions of the world where Islamic fundamentalism works to unite societies under Islamic law and under Islamic religious leadership.
Worldwide fundamentalism has, then, been both separatist in spirit and integrationist in political life. That is, while fundamentalists speak of the need to separate one's self from the unsaved and from this sinful or corrupt world; they also speak of the need for human kind to become a single, religious community. Fundamentalism is not, then, simply about returning to a distant past or living in the present according to truths and prescriptions revealed in the distant past. It is also about working and waiting for an imagined future. In North American Christian fundamentalism, the imagined future is the second coming of Christ or Parousia, a time when sinners (nonbelievers) will be judged and the Kingdom of God will be established.
This theme of there being a cataclysmic future event or time when sinners will be judged and the righteous and true believers will prevail is not just a theme in North American Protestant Christian fundamentalism. It is also a theme in non-Christian, non- Western fundamentalist movements. The important point here is, then, not about the Parousia but about the general theme in all fundamentalist movements that today's secular, pluralistic society will be replaced by a monoreligious society.
One particularly controversial aspect of the focus on evangelism has been the recruiting efforts by a few fundamentalist groups on college campuses and in other places where youth gather. These groups have come under attack for their singling out vulnerable youth, for their sometimes using deception to recruit, and for their encouraging new members to separate themselves from the larger community. However, the fundamentalist movement is far broader than these youth-based groups, and so it is not clear whether any generalizations can be made with regard to fundamentalism and youth development.
Fundamentalism has and will continue to appeal to large segments of societies-especially in troubled times and in times of rapid transition. Its greatest appeal is in its offering clarity where there is doubt, order and continuity where there is disorder and discontinuity, and hope for being good and being saved where there is despair about being sinful and being lost.
On the other hand, fundamentalism will likely continue to be rejected by the majority and for several reasons. First, its appeal to return to previous ways runs counter to the majority's desire to develop new ways that reflect new conditions in modern life.
Second, its appeal to adopt an uncompromising perspective, one that does not value alternative faith traditions and alternative worldviews, runs counter to the majority's desire to value cultural and religious diversity so as to live harmoniously in a pluralistic society.
Third, its appeal to believe in the literal and inerrant truth of sacred texts runs counter to the philosophical and scientific ways of thinking that pervade modern academic and political institutions.