Review: Antifundamentalism in Modern America

Antifundamentalism in Modern America. By David Harrington Watt. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2017. Xviii + 218 pp. $27.95.

Since the mid-1990s, most university libraries have devoted eight and a half inches of shelf space and seventeen pounds of tensile strength to the mammoth five-volume Fundamentalism Project. Everything about it exuded intellectual heft: from its marquee editors, Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby, to its illustrious sponsor, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, to the hundreds of eminent contributing scholars. But the analytical tools its participants anticipated never materialized. Although this work made fundamentalism a household word, its scholarly impact was negligible, and by some accounts, counterproductive.

How could a project with such promise fail so spectacularly? David Harrington Watt’s Antifundamentalism in Modern America offers a brilliant and indispensable explanation. The study of global fundamentalism was only the latest iteration of a century-long set of conversations he calls “antifundamentalism.” Never a dispassionate search for understanding, it yoked scholarly investigation to the normative goal of preventing fundamentalism (preemptively categorized as “bad” religion) “from obstructing human progress.” (xi).

Watt notes that he is not alone in questioning the usefulness of global fundamentalism. Other “skeptics” have critiqued the field’s inability to precisely define fundamentalism, its imposition of stark binaries, and its reliance on dubious assumptions and analogies. Champions of fundamentalism have not rebutted these critiques; whether ignored or acknowledged, their substance is never addressed.

The meaning of fundamentalism was not always so muddled. In the 1920s, it referred to a movement within American Protestantism that coined and claimed the label. By Watt’s telling, it was a bona fide religious tradition—with distinct beliefs, practices, leaders, institutions, publications, and campaigns. However, the term was almost immediately redefined by their liberal Protestant opponents. Starting with Harry Emerson Fosdick’s famous sermon “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” these “modernists” depicted themselves as the vanguard of progress and fundamentalists as regressive antimodernists on the wrong side of history. They thus defined fundamentalism typologically, signifying dangerous religious adherents. Antifundamentalism was born.

Watt traces the development of the antifundamentalist discourse through carefully curated examples from leading scholars, artists, and journalists. The first scholars of fundamentalism in the 1930s and 40s absorbed the partisan assumptions of modernists, now presented as fact. Sociologist Talcott Parsons cemented the idea that “fundamentalism was at base simply resistance to the rationalizing of society that inevitably accompanied the coming of modernity” (91). Watt also notes the underappreciated role of so-called “neo-evangelicals” like the journalist Carl F. H. Henry in reinforcing the antifundamentalist discourse. Despite holding almost identical theological convictions to fundamentalists, they created a “modern” and irenic identity to sidestep the label’s negative associations. This new conservative option led to a sharp decline in Protestants who claimed a fundamentalist identity; those who did, became predictably more isolated and bitter, reinforcing antifundamentalist assumptions. Thus, works in the 1950s and 60s presumed that fundamentalism was on the brink of extinction—whether Stanley Kramer’s dramatic retelling of the Scopes Trial, Inherit the Wind, or academic histories by Richard Hofstadter and Norman Furniss.

Perhaps the antifundamentalist discourse itself would have disappeared if not for two events in the 1970s: the revolution in Iran and the rise of the Religious Right in the United States. A 1980 article by Martin Marty, the urtext of global fundamentalism, made direct comparisons between Jerry Falwell and Ayatollah Khomeini. In this latest iteration, fundamentalism remained an “irrational backlash against modernity” (133) only now with the potential to infect any religious tradition anywhere in the world. Never mind that its framing, borrowed from Parsons, had been long-discarded by sociologists, or that postcolonial scholars were critiquing the imperialist roots of “modernization,” or that the meticulous work of historian Ernest Sandeen had reinterpreted early “fundamentalists as adherents of an innovative religious movement” (121). This scholarship was ignored. Ironically, the antifundamentalist discourse itself rested on the outmoded scholarship of a bygone era.

Watt’s argument is thoroughly convincing. It is an essential intervention in a scholarly discourse muddled by many unacknowledged, and dubious, assumptions. Interestingly, the historiography of American Protestant fundamentalism (apart from Sandeen) is left largely outside the study’s purview; the book’s treatment of the early fundamentalist movement follows longstanding conventions. This was a conscious choice (and an understandable one), producing a sleek and lucid argument that fits comfortably in a slim volume. However, a growing body of work on the early fundamentalist movement has begun a wholesale reassessment of this historiographical orthodoxy. Historians like Matthew Sutton have picked up where Sandeen left off; others (myself included) have questioned whether Protestant fundamentalism ever approximated a unified tradition. This work only reinforces Watt’s argument. For if fundamentalists could not even articulate a coherent set of beliefs and practices, it is no wonder that antifundamentalists would define them by their oppositional posture.

Watt’s critique also raises some searching questions. To what degree does the history of fundamentalism in the United States (often written by scholars with evangelical sympathies) reflect antifundamentalist framing? When we distinguish fundamentalists from evangelicals by their “anger” or their “sectarian” orientations are we recapitulating neo-evangelical tactics? These questions should, at the very least, spur us to reevaluate our categories.

For such an unflinchingly negative assessment of a scholarly enterprise, the book is refreshingly free of animus. Watt may stubbornly insist that the emperor which is global fundamentalism has no clothes, but he also has a towel at the ready. Comparative fundamentalism, like any other form of academic inquiry, was an experiment. It began with a hypothesis: that this concept would help us better understand religion in the modern age. It was put to the test and found wanting, but that should not reflect upon the intelligence of those scholars or even the usefulness of the project. (How else could we know unless we try?) Yet once a negative result is confirmed, it is time to end the experiment. Global fundamentalism is dead; this book is a spectacular post mortem report.