A friend (who might not be after this post, and so shall remain unidentified) brought a quote to my attention, to wit:
“Religious fundamentalism is dangerous because it cannot accept ambiguity and diversity and is therefore inherently intolerant… It is dangerous, especially in America, because it is anti-democratic and is suspicious of ‘the other,’ in whatever form that ‘other’ might appear. To maintain itself, fundamentalism must always define ‘the other’ as deviant.”–Rev. Peter J. Gomes, 1942-2011, Harvard Chaplin
While I’m no fundamentalist myself it does set me to wondering when the same thing shows up in so many places. I mean, honestly, the language is not terribly memorable. This isn’t heart-moving religious oratory in the great American tradition that runs from Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards through Martin Luther King, Jr. Yet it must be speaking to the folks quoting and repeating it.
I have a feeling that whatever it’s saying to them it isn’t saying to me. To me it sounds entirely judgemental with its defining list of adjectives–“dangerous,” “anti-democratic” and “suspicious”– not to mention the ominous ending in which we’re warned about what fundamentalism must do to maintain itself. There’s even a nice little “in America” to make the reader feel good when they agree with Rev. Gomes. Substitute the word communist for fundamentalist and the quote more or less still makes the same sense, it just sounds like Senator McCarthy.
The whole thing strikes me as a neat little rhetorical trick in which intolerance of fundamentalism is transformed into an appropriate moral position–maybe even the only acceptable moral position. What’s conspicuous in its absence is any attempt to understand anything about the folks who hold such beliefs.
Here’s a chart drawn from General Social Survey data:
I specifically charted the various Baptist denominations and a few other Evangelical ones against the top and bottom 10 SES strata. For non-social scientists SES is socio-economic status, a composite measure that takes into account occupation, income and education.
What you’ll notice is the width of the bars for the lower SES brackets within each denomination. If we accept that Baptists and Evangelicals are more likely to be fundamentalists then what you’re looking at is a chart that says a lot of these people come from the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum. If you look at these denominations over the 34 years of data available on-line you’ll see they are growing as the mainline denominations shrink in size.
The people this chart represents might work at Harvard. I’m not certain they’re reading Andrew Sullivan or the others noted above. So maybe instead of fearing fundamentalists, or worrying about such people defining those not like them as the other, we really ought to be asking ourselves: what comfort do they seek in such a belief system and why does it provide it?
I suspect this gets too close to a place people don’t want to go. If you agree with the good Reverend Gomes life is easy. You can tell yourself you’ve done the heavy intellectual lifting. You accept the idea that fundamentalists are dangerous demons or, even more insultingly, you’ve decided these are stupid or weak people easily manipulated by demagogues and charlatans. I submit that drawing the latter conclusion without actually investing the time to understand such people is profoundly undemocratic and elitist.
Because my sister holds such beliefs I have had to invest that time. And while I can’t accept that worldview for myself I’ve met enough true believers (both through her and talking with folks all over the country) to know that Reverend Gomes is dealing in a world of cartoons and stereotypes. What we’re really talking about, I think, is having deeply held beliefs ratified whether you agree with Rev. Gomes or are one of the fundamentalists he is so concerned about