Fundamentalism and structural differentiation

In an additional comment, Professor Steve Bruce at the University of Aberdeen, who has recently written a book on fundamentalism and participated in the Fundamentalism Project, comments Mårtensson's and Brekke's suggestions. 

I am particularly grateful to PluRel for an invitation to contribute to this discussion of fundamentalism because it reminds me of a very pleasant time in my youth when I was part of the University of Chicago’s Fundamentalism Project. I cannot claim to have contributed much: by any definition of fundamentalism, my specialism then — the interaction of Protestant religion and politics in Northern Ireland and Scotland — was on the fringes of the subject. But I learnt a great deal from the other contributors and I would heartily commend all the country and topic essays in the splendidly-edited and produced five volumes. However, I am less persuaded of the value of the trait approach to identifying what interests us.

Three challenges

My first reservation is that the trait list includes things which few people would call ‘fundamentalist’ and which Prof. Martensson correctly points out are ancient: religious sectarianism for example or millennialism. My second reservation is that the Fundamentalism Project’s definition groups together three phenomena which, even if they do sometimes combine or overlap, are probably better analysed separately. First there are conservative religious movements, such as the original US Protestant fundamentalism, which are simply what sociologists call ‘sects’ or, in the language of later debates ‘strong’ (as distinct from ‘weak’) religions. Second, there are movements based on religio-ethnic identity such as Paisleyism in Northern Ireland or Afrikaaner nationalism in South Africa. Third there is what we now call fundamentalism. What distinguishes the Kalifat movement, Al-Qaeda or the Iranian Revolution is a rejection of the structural differentiation which is an essential component of modernization.

It is unfortunate that the term ‘fundamentalism’ is used for at least these three somewhat different things but there is little point in arguing about it. We need simply to be clear what we are talking about. Though they are most common in monotheistic creation religions, sectarian or revival movements which seek to sharpen divisions between the righteous and the rest, the Godly and the unGodly, seem to be a regular recurring feature of all major religions. One reason for not treating such movements generally as fundamentalist is that they often take the form of pietistic retreat from the world. Sectarians can sometimes be revolutionary but many turn inwards. After the embarrassing own goal of the Prohibition legislation which did nothing to curb drinking but encouraged the growth of organized crime, the US conservative Protestants who gave us the label ‘fundamentalists’ could be ignored by most Americans because they concentrated on building separatist social institutions to preserve their faith from worldly contamination.

Religio-ethnic movements can also be regarded as a regularly-recurring features of most major religions, though they are rare in the pre-modern world because they require some popular idea of ‘the people’ as a collectivity of theoretical equals: a fraternity of people who share descent from (as often as not fictional) common ancestors and who are united by a common language, common culture and shared religion. Although the Old Testament Children of Israel provides the template, such movements are rare before nationalism because in Europe in the Middle Ages, for example, most rulers did not give a moment’s thought to the common people and certainly did not expect them to share a common sense of identity or destiny.

The classic writers on nationalism such as Ernest Gellner and Benedict Anderson have identified the conditions which make claims to being God’s chosen people common. One good reason for not confusing religio-ethnic movements and fundamentalism is that — and this may seem like a paradox — the former need not be very religious. The Ustase movement which between 1941 and 1943 took advantage of Nazi support to impose their Catholic Church-legitimated fascism on Croatia was violent to a degree which eventually offended many of its pious Catholic supporters. Some religious commitment is required to believe that your people have been specially chosen by God but too much religion may cause you to notice that most of your people fall far short of what you believe God requires. Furthermore, such movements do not generally demand that the people become personally pious. They seek honour and status for the symbols of their religion and they seek to drive out alternatives (and the ethnic groups that support them) but they do not look into people’s souls. The Ustase wanted a formally-Catholic Croat state; all Croats had to be Catholic but they did not have to be good Catholics.

Religion, true believers and differentiation

What we normally have in mind when we talk now of fundamentalism is a combination of two things that have not previously gone together: a society dominated by religion and a society of sectarian true believers. Let us take each point separately.

Precisely which consequences of structural differentiation are rejected varies but the list generally includes the separation of church (using the term loosely) and state; secular social spaces and institutions; the allocation of basic human rights irrespective of religious rectitude; and the right of people to worship the wrong God or none. Although the US Christian Right and the Taliban are both called fundamentalist, what separates them is far more important that what unites them. The US Christian Right distinguishes between morality and law. It accepts that its interpretation of God’s will (morality) takes second place to what the state can reasonably be expected to require of its citizens (law). It tries to change the law to make it more moral but it confines its actions to what the law allows. So it fights elections and mounts court cases and when it loses it accepts the verdict. It is hard to exaggerate the significance of this observation: the Christian Right presents its case in secular terms. Abortion infringes the universal human right to life; divorce and homosexuality are socially dysfunctional; the Genesis 1-12 account of the origins of species is as good science as Darwinian evolution; the current rigorous separation of church and state infringes the rights of religious minorities; and so on.

The Christian Right does not, as the Taliban does, insist that God trumps the law. When the Reverend Jerry Falwell, the founder of Moral Majority, was accused of implicitly encouraging gay-bashing, he did not, as Mullah Omar would have done, say ‘And a good thing too!’. Instead he called a press conference and in the company of gay rights activists denounced those who used vigilante violence and explicitly stated that anyone who took his ‘preachments’ as a legitimation for gay-bashing had misunderstood him and furthermore was not Christian. We may suspect that Christian Rightists privately retain fantasies of theological imposition but they remain just that: private fantasies. Though the Christian Right has religious reasons to wish to change secular culture, it does not reject the structural differentiation which characterises modern societies.

By definition, fundamentalism is modern in that it can only occur as a reaction against modern structural differentiation. It is also contingently modern in that it is only in a society with effective means of communication and control that the zealots can hope to impose their vision of the Godly society on the population at large. Given the popularity of regarding fundamentalists as conservatives and traditionalists, it is important to appreciate that traditionally the major religions have tolerated a great deal of laxity. They operated with a religious division of labour. A cadre of religious specialists glorified God on behalf of the people; the common people were obliged only to accept the authority of the dominant religion, to pay their dues, and to occasionally conform (for example, by taking communion at Easter or making annual sacrifices at this or that shrine). The toleration of laxity is essential for any religion which seeks to encompass the entire people.

Puritanical sects can police their own small number of members and the leaders of John Calvin’s Geneva could hope to impose righteousness on a few thousand people but the religious leaders of pre-modern societies had no choice but to tolerate a great deal of laxity because the social technology was not available to force everyone to become, in Martin Luther’s words, ‘his own monk’. Even a well-organized state such as that of the United Kingdom in the seventeenth century could not effectively suppress religious dissenters. What makes the theological imposition of the Iranian Revolution an entirely different proposition is that it was able to use modern technologies (material and social) to do a far better job of coercing religious conformity than the original Puritans could ever manage. When the ayatollahs took power, they did not dismantle the Shah’s repressive state; they took it over.

The secular threat

There is a third sense in which our current fundamentalisms differ from previous sectarian movements is that they are presented with (perhaps ‘confronted by’ be a better term) a relatively complete version of their nemesis: secular liberal democracy. The complex changes we now gloss as modernization occurred only gradually the first time and the societies of the West had more than two centuries to come to terms with them. It is now over 300 years since Britain gave up trying to coerce religious conformity and almost 200 years since we accepted that even people with the wrong religion should be allowed to vote. That long passage of time gave our sectarians ample opportunity to appreciate the trade-off: the creation of a secular public space might be an affront to their God but it did protect their religious interests.

It also gave them ample time to re-write their beliefs to accord with the prevailing circumstances. The situation for conservative Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists and Hindus is very different in that they have to deal with both the modernizing trends inherent in their own societies and the fact of the West. Whether the secularity of the West is seen as a model to emulate (as it was by Kemal Ataturk, the early Ba’ath party, or the Shahs of Iran) or as a cause of all our problems (the view of contemporary Muslim fundamentalists), it is a powerful social reality. Even when Western powers do not try to impose on other societies (and they have done enough of that), travel and global mass communication ensures that all but the most remote people now know that there are worlds where religion is a private preference.

When eighteenth century British church and sect leaders struggled to come to terms with religious pluralism and such attendant notions as religious liberty they sometimes tried to strengthen their arguments with references to bigger political issues. When conservatives who supported the state-established Church of England accused the Methodists of French Revolutionary principles, they were playing the same game as Newt Gingrich when he accused Mitt Romney of the vice of ‘speaking French’. But basically religious people in the West got to deal with the consequences of structural differentiation in their own time and were able to treat the issues in their own terms. Contemporary fundamentalists are in a very different position. They can and do combine reactions to modernization with reactions to modern nations. How one feels about the separation of law and morality, for example, is, for any Middle Eastern, Afghani or Pakistani Muslim, mixed up with how one feels about American commercial and military power.

It is wise to beware of exaggerating the novelty of any social phenomenon and there is much to be learnt about those movements we call fundamentalist by identifying their timeless features but it is equally important to avoid blurring important distinctions. I have suggested that the important features of fundamentalism are easiest to see if we distinguish it from what sociologists call sectarian or strong religion and from religio-ethnic political movements. Furthermore I have suggested that we stop calling the US Christian Right ‘fundamentalist’ because although it seeks to increase the influence of its religious values, it does so within a secular framework which accepts the marginalization and privatization of religion. For me the defining characteristic of fundamentalism is its rejection of structural differentiation.

Since 1991 Steve Bruce has been Professor of Sociology at the University of Aberdeen. His two most recent works are Politics and Religion in the United Kingdom (Routledge 2011) and Secularization (Oxford University Press 2011).

By Steve Bruce
Published Mar. 28, 2012 7:42 PM - Last modified June 4, 2015 1:47 PM

Reflection over Steve Bruce\''s comment

Steve Bruce''s comment is most valuable and highlights the problems with the term: applying it too broadly or too narrowly, as Torkel Brekke also points out and makes as the starting point for his limitation of the term to post-1850 rejection of secular modernity and structural differentiation. Steve Bruce limits the application of this use of ''fundamentalism'' even further by removing notably the American Christian Right, which is usually seen as the paradigmatic case, because it in fact accepts structural differentiation, not least in the legal sphere.

This is an important move, and Steve Bruce accompanies it by breaking down the Fundamentalism Project''s ''family traits'' further into the categories religious-ethnic political movements, strong religion, etc. However, take the case the Muslim Brotherhood, which does seek to have a religious (sharia) frame of reference (marja''iyya) for legislation. It is a religious-ethnic political movement with a strong grounding in Arab ethnic identity and Arab nations as the foundation of reform of current majority Muslim nation-states into Islamic states (meaning democratic constitutions, according to their party platform, the Freedom and Justice Party). But what warrants the definition ''fundamentalism'' is the belief that the sacred scripture is a source for the reformation of society and individuals, and that this religious reform has the capacity to link the Islamic nations with the divine destiny and power. This is something which the Muslim Brothers have in common with sections of the American Christian Right, and which distinguishes them from ''mainstream'' Muslim theologians and jurists. It also makes them a specific type of religious nationalism, as stated by the founder Hasan al-Banna.

Because the Fundamentalist Projects combines religious traits with social approaches I think they capture important religious traits which are easily missed if one only looks at the socio-political behaviour of fundamentalist movements and churches. It may well be that the American Christian Right respect a secular law, but they do want legislation to be in line with religious values, and they do believe that there is a divine destiny which true believers can connect with, and which determines the history of nations. I would maintain that to focus on these common traits is not to blur important distinctions but it actually furthers the understanding of the belief-dimension of fundamentalism.

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' - Mar. 28, 2012 9:42 PM
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