What is fundamentalism?

Torkel Brekke and Uzair Ahmed


  • Fundamentalism is a religious reaction against aspects of modernity.
  • The concept of fundamentalism first emerged in American christianity in the early 20th century, but later developed to denote movements in other cultures too.
  • Fundamentalist religion sometimes overlaps or converges with radical nationalism and xenophobia.
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History of the concept

The conceptual history of fundamentalism starts in the US in the first decades of the 20th century. Curtis Lee Laws, the editor of the Baptist magazine Watchman-Examiner, wrote in 1920 that real Christians who still accept the fundamentals of the faith should proudly call themselves “fundamentalists”. In this meaning, the word denotes the opposite of what was called “modernism”, which encapsulated a modern, historical and relativizing approach to Biblical truth. Thus, the word “fundamentalism” was first used by American Christian groups to describe their own stance as opposed to what they perceived as the liberal and irreligious tendencies of modern science and theology. The greatest threats to Christianity, in their view, were the new science of life as presented in Darwinian evolutionary theory and the modern approach to the Bible as represented by modern historical philology and theology. Many of the leaders who wanted to revive Christianity and fight these aspects of modernity were lay pastors who saw the religious establishment as the problem.

A key development in the conceptual history of fundamentalism came in the late 1970s as a result of the so-called “second wave” of fundamentalism in the US, and political developments in other parts of the world, particularly the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979. A new sense of the global significance of religion in politics made both scholars and commentators detach the concept of fundamentalism from its Christian origins in order to use it to discuss phenomena in non-Christian societies, especially in the Islamic world. Because of this conceptual broadening, it became much more popular in the discussion of the role of religion in politics in many parts of the world; the use of the term “fundamentalism” in literature and media in the English language, or in German (fundamentalismus) or French (fondamentalisme), witnessed a veritable surge from the late 1970s onwards.

Different types of fundamentalism

There are at least three basic distinctions in the major forms of fundamentalism. Firstly, there is a need to distinguish clearly between Christian fundamentalism and all other forms. As European colonial powers spread and consolidated their power throughout the world, secularization took root in different ways and at different speeds. For instance, traditional religious laws and courts often lost their status and their roles in Asian and African societies. The institutions and traditions of learning developed by world religions over centuries were rapidly marginalized, while religious elites were often co-opted by colonial states or by post-colonial governments. Fundamentalisms emerged in all world religions in this period (from the late 1800s to early 1900s) as attempts to fill the cultural vacuum left by the breakdown of traditional religious authority.[1] For instance, in the Islamic world, the Muslim Brotherhood emerged and spread from the 1930s, and the same was the case with the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in India. Most of these non-Christian fundamentalisms share aspects of the anti-modernism of Christian fundamentalism, but in addition they often nurture anti-Western and anti-colonial sentiments and policies.

Secondly, there are varying degrees of overlap between fundamentalism and (radical) nationalism. For instance, radical nationalist movements that have emerged in Europe sometimes combine aspects of Christianity with nationalism. The radical Hindu movement in India that is collectively called the Sangh Parivar includes organizations that are clearly both nationalist and fundamentalist. In the Islamic world, fundamentalist (i.e. Islamist) movements were often seen as the main enemies of secular nationalisms in the 1950s and 60s, but after the 1990s, fundamentalism and radical nationalism seemed to merge in some contexts, as in Turkey and Iran.

Thirdly, there are varying degrees of political engagement and involvement among fundamentalist groups. The Fundamentalism Project, which was funded by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences from 1987 to 1995, resulted in several volumes with empirical and theoretical contributions from scholars in the social sciences and the humanities.[2] The project identified four positions that fundamentalist groups tend to take in relationship to society around them. The most extreme position is called “world conqueror” and implies a drive to change the world in radical ways, by violence if necessary, and is exemplified by jihadist movements and the Christian Identity movement in the US. At the other extreme end are the “world renouncer” types that completely reject all forms of politics and strive to isolate from the world. The Amish would be a good example of this apolitical type of movement or sect. Between the two extremes are the two categories of “world transformer” and “world creator”.

Prevalence of fundamentalism

There seems to be at least two possible approaches to the question of whether fundamentalism is becoming more or less important today. On the one hand, there is the general scholarly debate about the secularization or the de-secularization of the world. Some scholars insist that religion is in inevitable decline and from this perspective fundamentalism will gradually disappear, like other forms of religion. But this is an increasingly minority position.[3] On the other hand, there is the more specific debate about the renewed importance of religion as a defensive marker of identity in the face of increasing globalization and immigration. This debate is highly relevant to understand contemporary right-wing ideology and politics in the Western world. Christianity has become an important frame for far right mobilization, not least as a reaction against immigration from Muslim minority countries.[4]

However, the convergence of fundamentalist Christianity with the populist and far right is not a new phenomenon. In Denmark in the mid 1980s there emerged an exclusionary Lutheran type of nationalism as a reaction against Muslim immigration and this nationalism later influenced at least some politicians in the populist right Danish People’s Party, like Marie Krarup.[5] In France, the political party Front National (Rassemblement national, after 2018) was from its origins in 1972 under leader Jean-Marie Le Pen closely affiliated to the fundamentalist Catholicism espoused by conservative archbishop Marcel Lefebvre (1905-1991). This religious affiliation was an important element of the party’s antisemitism and French nationalism, as well as its traditionalist views of the family.[6] It seems, then, that fundamentalist religion can provide a significant set of resources for far right movements in many cultures.


[1] Brekke, T. (2011). Fundamentalism: Prophecy and protest in an age of globalization. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

[2] Marty, M. E. & Appleby, R. S. (eds.). (n.d.). The Fundamentalism Project. University of Chicago Press Books. https://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/series/FP.html

[3] Bruce, S. (2002). God is dead: Secularization in the West. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

[4] Minkenberg, M. (2018). Religion and the radical right. In J. Rydgren (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of the radical right (pp. 366-394). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

[5] Sedgwick, M. (2013). Something Varied in the State of Denmark: Neo-nationalism, Anti-Islamic Activism, and Street-level Thuggery. Politics, Religion & Ideology, 14(2), 208-233.

[6] Bizeul, Y. (2018). Die religiöse Dimension im Denken und Handeln der französischen Rechtspopulisten. Zeitschrift für Religion, Gesellschaft und Politik2(2), 365-385.

By Torkel Brekke and Uzair Ahmed
Published Sep. 7, 2020 11:54 AM - Last modified Mar. 8, 2021 1:40 PM