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Leaving the World to Save the World
While in Oxford for the last two years on a research fellowship, I took a perverse delight on occasion in introducing myself in the Senior Common Room of my college, while sherry glasses tinkled before dinner, as a visiting scholar from a Bible college in small-town Saskatchewan with roots in Protestant fundamentalism. I was curious to see where the conversation might go after that. Not far. Indeed, fundamentalism is one of those terms loaded with stereotypes, a term that still connotes more than it denotes, despite the welter of finely tuned academic studies of the phenomenon.
I suspect that my colleagues at Oxford were working with a hazy notion of fundamentalism as something like what Richard Niebuhr described in an influential article on the movement in 1931—a doomed reaction of isolated and rural Americans against educated, urban elites. Mix with that a few modern images of machine gun-toting Shi'ite terrorists from the Middle East and the stereotype is complete. In a superb Ph.D. thesis, Michael Hamilton has described how from the 1920s until the early 1960s, scholars (like Niebuhr) viewed Protestant fundamentalism in Hobbesian terms. Its life would be nasty, brutish, and short. Long on caricature and short on exposition, this liberal view of fundamentalism is still influential. Hamilton notes that the "new liberals," while agreeing that fundamentalism is nasty and brutish, only regret that its life has not been short.
Thus a term originating in debates among American Baptists in the 1920s has become a key category in comparative religious studies. Parallels are drawn between American Protestant fundamentalists and militant religious traditionalists elsewhere in the world. This approach is taken, for example, in the massive multivolume Fundamentalism Project, edited by Martin Marty and Scott Appleby, and popularized in the pbs series The Glory and the Power in 1992. Here is where the hazy image of the Arab extremist merges with the hell-fire, histrionic Protestant ...