Afraid of Something

In Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, George Marsden begins

A fundamentalist is an evangelical who is angry about something. That seems simple and is fairly accurate. Jerry Falwell has even adopted it as a quick definition of fundamentalism that reporters are likely to quote. A more precise statement of the same point is that an American fundamentalist is an evangelical who is militant in opposition to liberal theology in n the churches or to changes in cultural values or mores, such as those associated with “secular humanism.” In either the long or the short definitions, fundamentalists are a subtype of evangelicals and militancy is crucial to their outlook. Fundamentalists are not just religious conservatives, they are conservatives who are willing to take a stand and to fight. (p. 1)

Having grown up in the fundamentalist world, this just didn’t ring exactly true for me. It rang true for what I saw on TV when Westboro Baptist would protest something, but, by and large, I think the more dominant ethos of fundamentalism was fear.

Of course, as we all well know now, “fear leads to hate, and hate to the dark side,” but on a note more inline with contemporary psychology, fear leads to fight or flight. Sometimes fundamentalists take a stand, but sometimes they retreat into enclaves. As a student who went to a fundamentalist high school and college, we used to talk about living “in the bubble”–an entire world that was contained within fundamentalism where all of your needs were met without ever needing to be in contact with someone from the outside. Of course, this was not totally true, but sometimes in the life of a teenager, perception is more important. That fear shaped us.

Now of course, fear can also lead to fighting. No one is more dangerous than a person who thinks they are fighting for their life. But fear is still in the driver seat more than anger or militancy.

What’s concerning, however, is the way fear has become a dominant mode of thinking in the US in general. In past generations, fundamentalists would create horror films like A Thief in the Night to scare their kids about the rapture with hopes that they would get saved and not get Left Behind (which was the title of the 90’s version of the same idea). But what happens when progressives use the tactic to scare us about fundamentalists? The Handmaid’s Tale seems to work on a similar logic.


Alan Jacobs has talked about the problem of turning someone else into a “repugnant cultural other,” and his point is well made. But thinking of someone as “repugnant” keeps you at a sort of distance, like when the trashcan in the garage stinks. That distance makes it hard to really hear them. But thinking of someone as dangerous is different–that person is more than smelly. They are a monster in a zero sum game. That makes conversation impossible.