Sunday, January 08, 2006

The true meaning of a fundamentalist Christian
The true meaning of a fundamentalist Christian
Byron Williams

I am a fundamentalist Christian who trusts women to make the right choices with their bodies, supports marriage equality and opposes the death penalty.

With such declarations, it is not likely that I will be categorized with the usual fundamentalist suspects like the Rev. Jerry Falwell and the 700 Club's Pat Robertson.

As the great labor organizer Saul Alinsky stated: "Whoever controls the definition, controls the outcome." Therefore, I contend that many of those who most commonly labeled "fundamentalist Christian" are the ones out of step with the teaching of Jesus.

Theology's role in the public conversation has been largely vacuous since the days of Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King Jr. Replacing them has been a series of religious neophytes whose allegiance to a political party appears greater than any contribution to American discourse.

In America, the term fundamentalist is often intertwined, and therefore misunderstood, as being synonymous with evangelical. But evangelical, which comes from the Greek word "euangellismos," simply means gospel or good news.

An "evangelical Christian" can either be conservative or liberal in origin, ranging in practices from proselytizing, systems of belief or affiliation of denomination.

Fundamentalism is linked to a literal interpretation of the biblical text, the way an "originalist" like Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia approaches the Constitution.

So much of what fundamentalist Christianity espouses is designed to maintain some notion of a status quo. It is a religious doctrine that seems to be wedded as much to an antiquated notion of the Constitution as it is to scripture.

Early Christianity was a rebellious underground movement until Roman Emperor Constantine made it his religious practice in A.D. 312 and his successor, Theodosius I, made it the official religion of Rome in A.D. 380.

I submit those who self-define today as Christian fundamentalist are closer to being heirs to the nationalistic religiosity originated in Rome than to the teachings of Jesus.

The blending of church and state into one national voice by segments of the Christian fundamentalist movement runs counter to any notion of American democracy of which I am aware.

Fred Barnes, executive editor of The Weekly Standard, writing recently on the tragedy of Terri Schiavo, acknowledged and justified fundamentalists' attempt to blend church and state: "True, there is an arguable federalism issue: whether taking the issue out of a state's jurisdiction is constitutional. But it pales in comparison with the moral issue."

How can arbitrary notions of one's privately held morality trump constitutional due process?

It seems quite paradoxical for fundamentalists to periodically invoke the name of Jesus in their rhetoric while advocating tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, militarism and authoritarianism, along with the exclusion of certain Americans from the public conversation.

Such beliefs do not play well, however, with a Jesus who emphasized love, justice, hope and opportunity. The very idea of something called a "fundamentalist Christian" as currently practiced is by definition oxymoronic.

It is impossible to be a fundamentalist Christian and not apply a strict adherence to the belief of "love your neighbor as yourself," a concept Jesus placed as a high priority. In short, a fundamentalist Christian must be a fundamentalist to love.

A genuine definition of Christian fundamentalism would demand that love, justice, hope and opportunity be central to its understanding.

In addition to King, Mother Teresa and Archbishop Desmond Tutu are authentic examples of a Christian fundamentalist. In fact, Gandhi's embodiment of the teachings of Jesus, as a practicing Hindu, remains far superior to the claims of orthodoxy by the vast majority of 21st century Christians.

The challenge is to wrest the title "fundamentalist Christianity" away from those who have narrowly defined it as a tool that works in tandem with the state for its own purposes of greed, domination and a limited interpretation of morality.

The way to accomplish this is to be living examples of a strict adherence to love, justice, hope and opportunity, thereby authentically being fundamentalist Christians in word and deed.

Moreover, such fundamentalism is possible universally, even if one is not Christian.