Too Bad We’re So Relevant: The Fundamentalism Project Projected

Marty’s Stated Meeting Report to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1995, at the conclusion of the 6-year Fundamentalism Project. This report describes the surprising rise of militant fundamentalisms and the need to study them and suggests some ways of conceiving them.


In 1987 the Academy chartered an international public policy study. Its committee was free to select any issue that seemed relevant. The project was to involve one or two hundred international scholars and would have to hold the attention of participants from a number of disciplines. Any number of topics must have presented themselves as attractive alternatives. If we can think back a decade, it is not difficult to imagine study ideas that would have been on the minds of the members of such a committee: “The Role of the Soviet Union in 21st-Century Affairs,” “The Threat of Apartheid’s Export from South Africa,” “The Impending Spread of Liberation Theologies and Other Ideologies of the Left,” “Prosecuting the Cold War in Its Second Fifty Years.”

By now, these and similar themes would have become virtually, if not totally, irrelevant. The implosion of Soviet Communism, the political change in South Africa, the spread of democracies and decline of theologies of the left in Latin America, and the end of the cold war as it had been defined were not easily foreseeable developments.

The endeavor the Academy did charter in 1987 was the Fundamentalism Project, a six-year (turned seven), five-volume (at least) study of modern religious fundamentalisms. The time has now come for looking back and summing up that effort, which I codirected with R. Scott Appleby of the University of Notre Dame.

Over the past seven years—in the face of changed political, economic, social, and religious realities; after ten conferences, the employment of the energies of two hundred international scholars, considerable financial expenditures, and thousands of hours of fieldwork, air travel, computer use, telephone calls across time zones, and visits to libraries; after numerous conversations among experts, testings of existing hypotheses and inventions of new ones, wieldings of editorial blue pencils, and the like—both the Fundamentalism Project and its theme could have become irrelevant. That would have been the case if civilizations turning toward what has come to be called the “postmodern” had found they no longer had room for “modern” movements like fundamentalism; or if secularity and secularism had swept the globe, leaving little room for anything religious; or if the prospering forms of late-modern religions had turned out to be modernist, liberal, moderate, concessive, reconciliatory, and interactive, leaving no room for fundamentalism. But none of those things did happen. Nevertheless, knowing that stunningly rapid changes would have rendered irrelevant many of the other alternatives entertainable back in 1987, those charged by the Academy to pursue the Fundamentalism Project had reason for anxiety in respect to its theme.

During the seven years of the project’s prime, unable and unwilling to wait for the end of the 20th century and the second millennium, the directors of the project purchased yellow highlighting markers. With them in hand, we checked newspapers daily for confirmation of trends, poised to highlight items directly relevant to the project. To qualify for a highlighting, reports or editorials either (1) had to use the work fundamentalism or its clear cognates (words like conservatism, traditionalism, or orthodoxy would not do) or (2) had to refer explicitly to any number of movements that the project scholars observed to be fundamentalist or fundamentalist-like, or to movements they considered to bear “family resemblances” to fundamentalisms. There turned out to be thousands of stories certifying that:

  • The period that had been called “modern” or “late modern” but was now coming to be called “postmodern” was seeing more—not fewer—primarily religious or religiously connected movements that were intense, impassioned, separatist, absolutist, authoritarian, and militant.
  • The world that with good reason has often been named “secular” had room to include, within its pluralist, multicultural, and “mixed” religiosecular settings, more—not less—religion. Religion grew ever more visible, more public, more prosperous. While doing so, it evidenced more of both the healing and the killing capacities of religion.
  • The international spheres that in the recent past had been marked by tendencies denominated “interreligious” or “ecumenical” were challenged by more—not fewer—tendings toward fundamentalisms. Certainly, some of the isolationist and separatist fundamentalisms, in the course of even those few years, met with rejection or decline, while others dwindled, turned moderate, or coalesced with less hard-line movements—consequently losing their identity and their militancy. Yet at the same time, more such movements expanded and found inspiration in formally similar movements in other religions. Together they aspired to fill the spiritual vacuums, to grow on the spiritual deserts, left by the decline of some ideologies (e.g., post-Enlightenment sorts in the West), by the demise of others (e.g., Soviet Communism), and by the perceived failure of moderate faiths to deliver promised spiritual and physical goods to millions.

To provide a typical sample of news items we highlighted, I will turn back to April 1995, a month in which we noted several stories of continuing significance. About half of them had to do with various forms of Islam in both the Arab and non-Arab worlds. (In fact, so consistent was this concentration every month that through all the seasons of the Fundamentalism Project, the scholars—despite their worldwide provenance and multireligious scope—were sometimes seen as having created an Islamocentric concentration, or ideal type.) Yet there was variety in the other half of the citations. These included references to Protestantisms in Northern Ireland, North America, and Latin America; evidences of fundamentalisms in Western Europe, which had not even been isolated as a laboratory for our study; references to Judaism in the form of small and restricted but significant movements in Israel and on the West Bank; accounts of eruptions among Sikhs and Hindus on the subcontinent of Asia; and much discussion of Americans’ misperceptions of Islamic fundamentalism before a non-Muslim was arrested in connection with the Oklahoma City bombing.

Throughout that one month of “relevancies,” it became clear that the noted stories involved international public policy foci that demanded expert analysis. Let me present what I hope will not be a wearying catalog, italicizing some verbs that suggest the nature of the expertise required. The scholars and other professionals who participated in the Fundamentalism Project had to deal with quarantining nations run by fundamentalist clerisies or as fundamentalist hierocracies (e.g., Iran, on nuclear issues); discerning how international transmissions of extremist or terrorist excrescences occurred (e.g., in Iran and Egypt, and in the case of the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York) and fantasizing about possible transmissions of that kind (as when the American media and public immediately speculated that Middle Eastern terrorists were implicated in the Oklahoma City bombing); measuring to what degree religious fundamentalists influenced or dominated the Christian Coalition and other movements in American national and local politics; assessing how movements bearing the characteristics of fundamentalisms (e.g., Hamas) would affect the Israeli-Palestinian peace process; speculating about the role that small but influential elements (e.g., Reverend Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party) would continue to have in Northern Ireland issues; observing the emergence of Taliban, a new religious-scholarly-military fundamentalist force in Afghanistan, as it moved toward possible dominance; expecting more governments in North Africa (e.g., Algeria) to follow Sudan into fundamentalist hegemony, while nations in sub-Saharan Africa (e.g., Nigeria) see more of such influences; conjecturing as to whether Russophilic, Slavophilic hyperorthodoxies were taking fundamentalist forms; and more.

Now that the Fundamentalism Project is concluded, I would like—in the spirit of the Academy—to raise and only partially answer some questions pertinent to the whole effort.

First, had the fundamentalisms we studied been widely foreseen several decades before? To the knowledge of the Fundamentalist Project scholars, voiced at many gatherings, these movements and trends had not been foreseen three decades previously by social scientist, people in statecraft or media, theologians, or futurists (other than some “philosophers of history”). More characteristic were collations like those of Herman Kahn and Anthony J. Wiener, who in The Year 2000: A Framework for Speculation on the Next Thirty-Three Years (1967), projected a “basic, long-term multifold trend” tending toward “increasingly Sensate (empirical, this-worldly, secular, humanistic pragmatic, utilitarian, contractual, epicurean or hedonistic, and the like) cultures.” This “surprise-free” projection grew out of working papers of the Academy’s Commission on the Year 2000.

To their credit, Kahn and Wiener reported that “almost all of the nineteenth-and twentieth-century philosophers of history [did] seem to believe it likely that some new kind of ‘religious’ state [would] follow a termination of Sensate culture” and that “there [would] be some unpleasant events between the late Sensate chaos and the new religiosity,” during a time of “chaos, anarchy, nihilism, and irrationality.” So these cited “philosophers of history” may indeed have foreseen, in the longer range, what others did not see in the shorter-range “long-term” trend. That longer-term scene arrived ahead of schedule, and its unfoldings may have contributed to the relevance of the Fundamentalism Project before the year 2000.

A second question refers to the title of my talk tonight, “Too Bad We’re So Relevant.” It may fairly be asked, Who are the “we” who claim to find ourselves relevant? The answer: “We” are those whom the Academy chartered to do the Fundmentalism Project—those who directed it and the scholars who participated in it. We now disband and are allowed to find our own places in the zones of comparative relevancies and irrelevancies.

A third question further reflects on the title: If it is to be said, at the end of the project, that it is “Too Bad We’re So Relevant,” is not that phrase a tipping of the hand in what was to have been a scholarly project, as it implies a negative judgement on the movements studied? Certainly, fundamentalists in one or another of these movements would say of their fellows—though certainly not of their rivals—”How Wonderful We’re So Relevant.” If fundamentalist respondents’ reviews of the project-related volumes are representative, it is clear that our scholars did bring to their work, and maintain, a reputation for scholarly distance, fair-mindedness, and suspension of judgment. But, happy as we may be with their overall verdicts, such reviews are not all that have to be taken into account.

Anyone who is not a member of a fundamentalist movement whose typical activities resemble those we chronicled in April 1995 will see that much of what goes on within such fundamentalisms is threatening—or even devastating—to other kinds of fundamentalists, to more moderate coreligionists in the complexes out of which particular fundamentalisms grow, to their neighbors and rivals, to governments, and to the idea of civil society. “Too bad,” in such cases, it is well said, that we are still so relevant.

Now to a fourth question: What is meant by relevant—a tired and overused word—in this context? Phenomenologist Alfred Schutz describes two systems of relevances: “the system of intrinsic, and the system of imposed, relevances.” In Alfred Schutz on Phenomenology and Social Relations (ed. By Helmut R. Wagner, 1970), he writes that “the intrinsic relevances are the outcome of our chosen interests, established by our spontaneous decision to solve a problem by our thinking . . . the normal mode of humanistic and social scientific (and perhaps other scientific) scholars.” The Fundamentalism Project scholars were invited to participate because of their previous work within their systems of intrinsic relevances. But, as Schutz adds, also “imposed upon us as relevant are situations and events which are not connected with interests chosen by us, which do not originate in acts of our discretion, and which we have to take just as they are.” These are the sort that inspire curiosity among nonspecialists in the Academy and in the public at large.

Of course, these systems of intrinsic and imposed relevances can be seen as zones of interaction. Thus, some specialist historians were already studying fundamentalist-like movements in 1967, when Kahn and Wiener published, whereas the Fundamentalism Project was chartered only when world and domestic affairs imposed a relevant agenda on others.

A fifth question deals with the substance of the study: Is fundamentalism the only “modern religious” topic that might be seen as possibly remaining relevant? The answer: Not at all. The directors of the Fundamentalism Project isolated one set of phenomena and defined them clearly against analogues and rivals, and many of them could qualify as prospects for future study. Since so many of these phenomena impinged on ore were influenced by the movements we studied, it is fitting to enter them into the record. Among others, they include these five:

  1. Ethnonationalisms. Throughout the years of the Fundamentalism Project, the directors might well have used a green marker to highlight the ever-increasing number of references to religious dimensions of ethnonationalist expression and strife—in places where the marks of fundamentalisms are largely absent (e.g., the former Yugoslavia and Central Asian Republics), in African tribal contexts, and among Buddhist, neo-Confucian, or Hindu populations within which those who are not “people of the book” invoke spiritual, religious, and divine impulses and legitimations.
  2. New religious movements (often called cults), such as Aum Shinrikyo in Japan and the Branch Davidians in the United States—although they did not qualify for highlighting by the project directors—might have rated a pink marker simply for their impact on society. In colloquial terms, the project definers would say, “If you claim to be getting new messages from the gods, you cannot be fundamentalist,” because fundamentalisms appeal to old authoritative and canonical scriptures, canons, codes, creeds, stories, and laws.
  3. Understandings of health care, population, and development issues by various religious cultures, as evidenced by the unforeseen and dominant role of religious controversialists at the United Nations’ 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (held in Cairo) and at other such international gatherings. The attitudes of such groups regarding these issues have international public policy implications and merit comparative study.
  4. Liberation theologies and other surviving movements of the religious left, which have seen their assumptions change (e.g., after the demise of Marxisms) but their impulses remain. Because those impulses are often asserted in fundamentalist-like styles, such movements deserve study.
  5.  Quasi-religious or parareligious movements that sometimes show the marks of fundamentalist-like zealotry. The energies of programs like the Fundamentalism Project could be focused on such movements, including “spiritually” inspired ones dealing with environmental concerns, gender issues, and animal rights.

These and similar movements attract the attention of scholars who face agendas of imposed relevance to advance the intrinsic relevance of each.

Now that I have reviewed typical events of interest to participants in the Fundamentalism Project and noted phenomena not studied, despite their credentials, I will focus my remarks on subjects that fell within the project’s zones of relevance. I will narrow my focus by concentrating on three key words: modern, religious, and fundamentalism.

Modern is a fought-over term with a morass of meanings that have sparked an array of debates. The scholars of our project tended to use phenomenological methods. They delineated as modern what the various fundamentalisms designated as modern. It was hypothesized that for a conservatism or traditionalism to become fundamentalist, it leaders must perceive a threat that they tend to call modern (or some cognate term). They may refer to putative embodiments of modernity or modernism, such as “the West,” “the imperialist,” and “the secular humanist,” or to more abstract phenomena, such as “pluralism,” “relativism,” and “moral erosion.”

No effort was made in the Fundamentalism Project to suggest that religions had no prior experience with modernities, under whatever name. One almost casual way of defining our assignment would be to say simply that the project was studying those kinds of fundamentalisms that developed after the Academy tended to suggest that there would be no more. To historian who were not busy with the Fundamentalism Project, and to the busied ones when on their won, was left the study of earlier fundamentalist-like movements, anticipations, and precedents, of the sort abundant in all religions.

Although modernists had evidently earlier regarded fundamentalisms as belonging to culturally fossilized strata of humanity, those movements have turned out to be very much alive everywhere. They are innovative, adaptive, and at home with technology. Many fundamentalisms may look like “old-time religions” and may convince themselves that they are traditionalist, yet most are eclectic and selective as to what they would retrieve or repristinate from the presumed past and old texts.

Religion, similarly, could have consumed the definitional energies of the project’s scholars for seven years, had they been called to define it precisely, with consensus as a goal. However, along phenomenological lines, the researchers observed, listened, and collated their findings, using definitions of the studied faiths that were not as narrow as those characteristically used in reference to institutions in almanacs or yearbooks or phone books. Nor were they as broad as those that equate religion with all impulses to transcend mere bodily existence. For the project participants, then, one all-but-colloquial way of defining religion was to point to the sixteen-volume Encyclopedia of Religion and say, “We define religion as anything the encyclopedia’s editors would include in that work.”

Fundamentalism also needed some definition. If members of a particular movement—and/or their friends, their enemies, their rivals, reporters, scholars—perceived that they bore certain marks, the scholars of the Fundamentalism Project spoke of those movements as being fundamentalist or fundamentalist-like, or as bearing family resemblances to fundamentalism.

On occasion, The Fundamentalism Project attracted the notice of critics who might be thought of as “lexicographical fundamentalists.” That is, they rely on English dictionary definitions of fundamentalism, on the basis of “historical principles” that were fixed in the 1920s in the United States. Thus, in the view of such critics, the term referred to forms of Protestant biblical literalism devoted to specific doctrines—which, of course, are not shared by Hindus, Muslims, Jews, or even Catholic Christians. Hence, one might add, the term would be inapplicable in all religions but one. Nevertheless, these critics—temporarily forgetting the Protestant Christian context—often accused the project of drawing too many of its illustrations and markers from Shi`ite and Sunni Islamic movements.

Still other critics complained that using any word born in the West as a coordinating term—as a heuristic device for the typology and comparison characteristic of virtually all social-scientific inquiry—had to be an indication of Western cultural imperialism. In our collection of reviews of the project, one will find arguments against rendering the term fundamentalism intercultural and generic—within paragraphs in which the authors of those reviews use such words as nationalism, ethnonationalism, revival, reformation, and radicalism for their own comparative purposes.

There were times when we wished that someone would come along with an invented word that needs no translation—an equivalent of quark in astrophysics, googol in numeracy, or blik in philosophy—a word with no history in any of the cultures in which fundamentalisms are present. But the participants in the project accepted a term that had made its way into public discourse and tried to clarify it.

One should note a certain paradoxicality in respect to the naming of fundamentalist movements, which has parallels in other contexts. In the American Protestant case, the word was invented—and chosen over conservatism, traditionalism, and the like—to be precisely and pointedly a sign of differentiation and verbal aggression. As some sociologists point out, leaders of movements at certain stages want their groups to be stigmatized. Stigmatization is part of the group bonding experience. Later (and this turns out to be the case for fundamentalisms), as movements know some successes and move toward cultural mainstreams, their leaders proceed toward public-relational phases and want to leave such terms behind.

Suffice it to say that the participants in the Fundamentalism Project profited from criticisms such as those cited and reinforced the efforts of the project’s leaders to help politicians, communicators in the media, and academics to use fundamentalism and similar terms nonpejoratively. Simultaneously, when it came to issues of substance, the participants made every effort to use the terms of self-description employed by members of the various movements studied. It occurred to some of us that the project’s offense, in the eyes of some critics, lay not so much in our use of the term fundamentalism as it did in our comparison of various movements. In fact, the one feature that kept otherwise sympathetic fundamentalist scholars from participating in the study—which many of them said they regarded to be fair-minded and full of positive intent—was the fact that their movements would rather not be compared with any others.

With the appearance this year of our fifth volume, Fundamentalism Comprehended (University of Chicago Press), and with a follow-up volume on public policy implications in preparation, R. Scott Appleby and I, as project directors and editors, bring our stewardship to its end and welcome the chance to engage in retrospection. Reviews from around the world indicate a generally thoughtful reception of the Fundamentalism Project volumes, and critiques of particular essays advance the work of scholarship in areas of inquiry that are only beginning to be developed.

Mr. Appleby and other authors of the work collected in the project’s five volumes have been called on to consult with agencies of the United States government and other governments to which our findings are relevant. Mass communicators have shown interest in our work, but we are somewhat disappointed with their limited success and reach in disseminating the project’s findings. Also, many reporters and editors misidentify movements and lump together various fundamentalists and nonfundamentalists, classifying them simply as (e.g., “Muslim”) militants, extremists, or terrorists—and thus quite possibly contributing to stereotyping and the exaggeration of threats.

The Fundamentalism Project was able to demonstrate, by collecting the names of many scholars and the titles of numerous books and articles, that it was an instrument in the enlargement and refinement of a field of studies that in the early years of the next century should build on and move beyond recent efforts. Fundamentalisms are extremely dynamic, kinetic, and subject to various other forces—not likely to sit still for a permanent, unchanging portrait.

Now it its time to analyze what the Fundamentalism Project understressed or left undone. I think we might well have put more energy into the humanistic side of the study equations by coming up with more literary, linguistic, theological, and philosophical inquiries into fundamentalisms, to help balance the preponderance of sociological, anthropological, psychological, and political-scientific studies of such movements.

In recent years, many more women have begun to study fundamentalism, and many more scholars have stressed the need to discern why women make up the majority in most fundamentalisms, even as they find themselves in more defined and submissive roles as these movements succeed. Also, it is not as clear as it might be why fundamentalist leaders have stressed masculine imagery in communicating about God and human dynamics. More studies of such gender-related issues are required.

Every day, there are reasons to react to headlines involving fundamentalisms, both internationally and domestically—yet opinion polls show that the US public’s awareness of systematic threats or promises from fundamentalisms remains relatively low. In a Chicago Council on Foreign Relations study entitled American Public Opinion and US Foreign Policy 1995, editor John E. Rielly notes that “a third of the public and slightly more of the leaders (39%) believe that the possible expansion of Islamic fundamentalism could represent a critical threat.” This seems low, given the extent to which the United States is involved with nations in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Asian subcontinent where fundamentalisms are disruptive of security. Similarly, despite the volatility of both local and national debates over the influence of fundamentalist-like right-wing coalitions in American politics, locating such movements in a hierarchy of threats or promises is not yet reflexive among polled United States citizens. Should the Fundamentalism Project have rung figurative alarm bells with one hand and tried to calm those who stereotype and exaggerate fundamentalist threats with the other? It is hard to offer a single policy for all situations. Future studies might address this issue.

This is not the place to try to summarize the project’s several thousand published pages of commentary on fundamentalisms; I could not possibly do it justice. Much of the integrity of the project depended on the faithfulness with which the participants represented the depth and complexity of individual movements in various times and places. At the end of the fifth and final volume to come out of the project—Fundamentalisms Comprehended—is a commendable capstone statement by Gabriel Almond, Emmanuel Sivan, and R. Scott Appleby. Their essay, which identifies different categories of fundamentalist movements and delineates four distinct patterns of fundamentalist behavior toward outsiders, offers an analytical framework for understanding and comparing fundamentalisms around the world. I would recommend these pages—worthy of reprinting as a small separate volume—to anyone who would like to begin at the end, as it were, with an overview of comparative features, based on twenty illustrations drawn from Christian (six), Islamic (eight), Jewish (five), and South Asian (three) religious cultures.

The study’s findings clearly indicate differences between fundamentalisms in polities in which religion and regime were never separated (whether by philosophical tendencies of the sort we associate with the Enlightenment or by legal constitutions that distinguish between religion and civil authority) and those in which church and state have been separated. In the former case, fundamentalist movements can more plausibly aspire to take over—or, as they would say, “retake”—polities. They consider themselves to be reassuming power that they had yielded to compromising and corrupting governments, under which religion has a secondary and necessarily concessive role. In polities that make a legal distinction between the realms of religion and government, fundamentalisms more frequently work through constitutional means and must content themselves with a share of the power in a republican context.

In both cases, however, fundamentalisms are Manichaean in the sense that they sharply differentiate between the realm of their god and their satan, between the elect people and the outsiders, between “us” and “them,” allowing for no middle ground. Because of this characteristic, fundamentalisms may and often do resist some features of political life, including compromise. In fact, fundamentalists tend to be more disdainful and wary of the moderates within their own religious complexes than they are of liberals or representatives of other faiths, who are unmistakably “other.”

The Fundamentalism Project scholars have found that fundamentalists tend to turn intimate and private issues into public affairs. Concern for the zones of life closest to the self—worldview, identity, sexuality, gender differentiation, family, education, communication—tend to take priority over macroeconomic concerns. For example, in American Protestantism (which has analogies elsewhere), “social issues” regarding the womb, nursery, classroom, bedroom, and clinic take precedence, whereas conventional political concerns about such issues as tariffs and trade are secondary. Failure to understand that fundamentalists project their readings of private and personal concerns onto the largest possible political canvas leads to many misreadings of fundamentalisms.

An understanding of how their agendas are set explains, if only in part, why fundamentalisms are uniformly patriarchal—stressing male leadership, both from God and within earthly hierarchies, including that of the family. It helps explain why fundamentalisms are so concerned with such apparently trivial symbolic issues as prayer in public schools and the display of religious symbols on public property. Such matters have little to do with profound faith or moral development; instead, they indicate fundamentalists’ perceptions of who is staking claim to a culture that “they” have temporarily taken from “us.”

The reliance of fundamentalisms on texts and local leadership suggests why, despite the hierarchical nature of such movements, charismatic or celebrity leaders are not always necessary. Islam can be a village religion whose local authorities dominate. Protestant fundamentalism often relies more on the authoritative interpretation of the very un-charismatic local pastor or the father in the family than on distant theologians or denominational leaders.

The Fundamentalism Project has distinguished between movements that demand great activity in the public world, along with a ready reliance on coercion and even military action in order for the elect people to get their way, and movements that remain ecclesial, intellectual, pious, and morally active “close to home.” It is too soon to tell whether or not all fundamentalisms, when pushed too far and too long, will resort to arms, as some have done in some cultures.

Few participants in the study would be ready to project trends for the next thirty-three years, as Kahn and Wiener did in 1967. It may be that energies put into fundamentalisms will soon be invested in ethnonationalisms instead. The religious fervors that have inspired fundamentalist movements may eventually dissipate. Fundamentalisms may deliver or fail to deliver, succeed at exporting some features and fail at exporting others. They may lose adherents by being too strict on one hand or too relaxed on the other. They may barter away their integrity though negotiations with modernity or through too-entangling participations in coalitions. Power can corrupt some fundamentalisms, just as failure to gain power can corrupt others.

That jumbling of possibilities within one paragraph is a way of saying that the Fundamentalism Project has tried to isolate some patterns and frameworks within which one can observe fundamentalist movements, but only careful tracking of individual movements will do justice to them and their futures. After all, is that not also the case with secular political movements and other cultural expressions of the life of the letter and the spirit? Thus, although the Fundamentalism Project has formally ended, the questions and agenda it has projected should, like the Academy itself, remain relevant for years to come.

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