Fundamentalism is the same, and is the same kind of problem for the world, and has the same basic features, no matter what religion it springs from.

The Rev. Dr. Davidson Loehr, in this month’s UUWorld (the “UU” is “Unitarian Universalist”) has an excellent essay on this subject.

He refers to the Fundamentalism Project of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which, from 1988 to 1993, studied the subject, and came up with this clear distillation of the fundamentalist agenda.

(I’ll paraphrase and excerpt, but I recommend the whole essay)

  • First, their rules must be made to apply to all people, and to all areas of life. There can be no separation of church and state, or of public and private areas of life. The rigid rules of God – and they never doubt that they and only they have got these right – must become the law of the land.
  • Second, men are on top. Men are bigger and stronger, and they rule not only through physical strength but also and more importantly through their influence on the laws and rules of the land. Men set the boundaries. Men define the norms, and men enforce them. They also define women, and they define them through narrowly conceived biological functions. Women are to be supportive wives, mothers, and homemakers.
  • Third, since there is only one right picture of the world, one right set of beliefs, and one right set of roles for men, women, and children, it is imperative that this picture and these rules be communicated precisely to the next generation. Therefore, fundamentalists must control education by controlling textbooks and teaching styles, deciding what may and may not be taught.
  • Fourth, fundamentalists spurn the modern, and want to return to a nostalgic vision of a golden age that never really existed.
  • Fifth, fundamentalists deny history in a radical and idiosyncratic way.

Fundamentalism predates the religions themselves, Loehr argues, and at it’s core it’s always a conservative stance – attempting to preserve, or to revert to, the earliest (most primitive) human society. The resistance to this type of thinking, the liberal impulse, is a movement forward, rather than backward.

While society is a kind of slow dance between the conservative and liberal impulses, the liberal role is the more important one. It makes our societies humane rather than just stable and mean.
But for the liberal impulse to lead, liberals must remain in contact with the center of our territorial instinct and our need for a structure of responsibilities. Fundamentalist uprisings are a sign that the liberals have failed to provide an adequate and balanced vision, that they have not found a vision that attracts enough people to become stable.


When liberal visions work, it’s because they have kept one foot solidly in our deep territorial impulses with the other foot free to push the margin, to expand the definition of those who belong in “our” territory.
When liberal visions fail, it is often because they fail to achieve just this kind of balance between our conservative impulses and our liberal needs.

Over the past half century, many of our liberal visions have been too narrow, too self-absorbed, too unbalanced. This imbalance has been a key factor in triggering recent fundamentalist uprisings. When liberals don’t lead well, others don’t follow. And when society doesn’t follow liberal visions, liberals haven’t led.

When liberals burned the U.S. flag during the Vietnam War rather than waving it and insisting that America live up to its great tradition, they lost the most powerful territorial symbol in our culture and with it the ability to speak for our national interests. They created another moral imbalance by defining abortion in amoral terms, as simply a matter of individual rights – where only the mother, but not the developing baby, was an “individual.” And they did the same whenever they emphasized individual rights while neglecting the need to balance rights with individual responsibilities toward the larger society.


Maintaining both stability and civility, humane content and enduring form, in human societies is an unending dance between the conservative and the liberal impulses in human nature. The fundamentalist role in this dance is quite easy: All you have to do is cling tightly to a few simplistic teachings too small to do justice to the complex demands of the real world. You just have to cling to these, and then pretend that what you have done is honest and noble.

But the task of liberals is much, much harder. To be a liberal, to be an awake, responsive, and responsible liberal – that can take, and that can make, a whole life.

It’s a very intriguing approach, and a very interesting essay.