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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

The new fundamentalists

From classrooms to bureaucracies, liberals keep making new rules for people's lives

They'd be startled to hear it, of course. But many of today's liberals-whether sociological, political, economic, or even theological-have become the fundamentalists of our generation.

The term "fundamentalist," I fully understand, is not usually considered a compliment. And I don't mean it as a compliment here.

But, in fact, to call someone a fundamentalist has historically carried the possibility of high praise instead of an insult. The great theologian J. Gresham Machen was not embarrassed to find part of his identification in the early 1900s with the five "fundamentals" of the Christian faith: the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth of Christ, the atoning work of Jesus' death, the physical resurrection of Jesus, and the historical reality of Christ's miracles. Those "fundamentals" were seen by orthodox believers as foundational to their Christian faith-as the girders on which the rest of the structure rested.

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In much the same way, it's a compliment to say that a person really understands the fundamentals of a discipline (like economics or investing), or the fundamentals of a vocation (like carpentry or perhaps managing a business), or even the fundamentals of a game (like baseball or chess). You tend to trust fundamentalists like that.

But it's not typically how the term is used. The word suggests instead folks (maybe like the Pharisees in the days of Jesus' earthly ministry) who think righteousness is established by rule-keeping.

Nobody's quite sure how it happened, but over the generation following Machen and his colleagues, the term "fundamentalist" took a pretty ugly turn. Perhaps it was because so many of the folks who held to those important doctrines also held to a way of life characterized by a certain genre of rule-keeping. Those rules included the avoidance of alcohol and tobacco, as well as gambling, dancing, and even playing cards.

The term "fundamentalist" came to be less and less attached to key theological distinctives and more and more attached to particular behaviors-to a pattern of life characterized by lists of rules and regulations. And usually, the attachment of the term that way was almost always derogatory. I grew up a "fundamentalist," and I can tell you from experience that it was much less a term you ever applied to yourself and much more a term your opponents tended to use to put you down.

Which, I suppose, is precisely what some might accuse me of doing here. Because I am indeed arguing that a great body of the liberal argument on a number of fronts has in recent years moved from discussion of the issues themselves (the fundamentals, if you will) to a whole blatant series of rules and regulations. In the mainstream media and in academia (starting with the colleges and universities, but pervasively now even in the elementary grades), an increasingly doctrinaire political correctness determines who is in and who is out. An insidious form of "fundamentalism," structured around an ever-growing list of do's and don't's, has for the last generation increasingly held sway and picked up steam.

But shaping the public's mind through the media and educational institutions hasn't apparently been enough. Now those same engines of conformity are rumbling rapidly through government as well, building gargantuan systems of rules and regulations. In brand new and unimaginable ways, the lives of Americans are being dramatically formed by incredibly bold "thou shalts" and "thou shalt nots."

These are not usually, mind you, laws seasoned by careful debate. Whatever you think of Congress, its very inefficiency provides a brake on many silly and arbitrary statutes. But when such rule-making is moved from the legislative chambers and happens in the back offices of regulatory agencies, there's little to slow down the goofiness.

You can generally welcome and trust governments that base their work on the fundamentals-like requiring compliance with carefully drawn constitutions and other founding documents. It may seem slow and tedious. But they're likely to be safe.

But be wary, on the other hand, of modern day fundamentalists. Their arrogant governance by lists of rules and regulations is usually both wearisome and ineffective. And there are reasons why you tend, intuitively, to think of fundamentalists and dictators in the same breath.

Email jbelz@worldmag.com

Listen to Joel Belz's commentary on "The new fundamentalists" on WORLD's radio news magazine The World and Everything in It.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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