This holiday season is nearly past, putting one set of secularism-versus-religion arguments to rest - at least until next December. However, the outrage expressed by some Christians over what conservative pundit Bill O'Reilly called "the war on Christmas" was more than seasonally transitory this year. The vehemence displayed everywhere - the airwaves, the Capitol, malls and mega-churches - was emblematic of a religious stridency sweeping America, the vociferation of fundamentalism.
For most Americans, the term fundamentalism is synonymous with Islamic suicide bombers; since Sept. 11 this has been as natural an association as peanut butter with jelly. However, religious fundamentalism in America is neither the purview of Islam nor new.
The Puritans were fundamentalists, and Mormons and Seventh-day Adventists always have been. The Revs. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, as well as other, lesser-known televangelists, have been promoting Christian fundamentalist doctrine for decades. But this Christmas, many lay Christian fundamentalists raised their voices to match their ire, filing lawsuits and complaining angrily about the secularizing of both their holiday and their nation.
A week before Christmas, U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Davis, a Virginia Republican and fundamentalist Christian, introduced a resolution in the House - which passed overwhelmingly - to protect the symbols of Christmas, but no symbols of other religions.
So what is fundamentalism? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it is "a form of Protestant Christianity which upholds belief in the strict and literal interpretation of the Bible or the strict maintenance of the fundamental doctrines of any religion or ideology." Unmentioned in this definition: politics, which is now, as the Christmas furor showed, an essential expression of fundamentalism.
Sam Harris declares the perils of fundamentalism to be manifold, asserting that in the 21st century, religion is itself akin to terrorism. His provocative thesis is laid out persuasively in The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason (Norton, 352 pages).
The basis of Harris' polemic is succinct as it is damning. He insists that religious faith demands an irrationality that allows and provokes to violence because, he explains, faith relies on a world to come and a judgment beyond this life. Thus, he warns, its most fanatical adherents heed not the laws of this world, but the code of the next with their strict and uncritical attention to dogma.
The fundamentalist concepts of heaven and hell, Harris says, make an airtight case for the earthly damnation of those who don't follow the precepts of this or that faith. Which leads inevitably to extremes of violence like the conflicts in the Middle East or Sudan, he contends.
Fundamentalism stirs conflicts outside the fractious landscape of the Middle East, as well - a battle Sojourners founder the Rev. Jim Wallis details in God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It (HarperCollins, 316 pages). "Since when did promoting and pursuing a progressive social agenda with a concern for economic security, health care and educational opportunity mean you had to put faith in God aside?" queries Wallis, in response to Christian fundamentalists who refer to political progressives as "godless" and to secularists who refuse to factor faith into any social equation.
Shouldn't religious fervor - in Wallis' view, the Christian tenet of "good works" - lead to a pro-justice approach to social issues? Shouldn't true adherence to the teachings of Christ necessitate equity in the social sphere: embracing all races, ethnicities, classes and sexual orientations? Wallis contends that, as practiced, fundamentalist Christianity promotes hate along with biblical literalism. (The day after Sept. 11, Falwell asserted that the attacks were God's retribution for homosexuality in America; Robertson made similar statements about the Katrina disaster.)
Wallis insists that devout Christians such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day and Archbishop Desmond Tutu are exemplars of Christian religious fervor, reformers in Christ's image whose strict adherence to religious precepts has benefited all of society. From Wallis' perspective, fundamentalism warps the true teachings of Christ, in which social justice and the quest for peace were core values. How can we, he asks, be against anyone made in God's image? Yet that, he argues, is the fundamentalist dictate: One group is "chosen," the others infidel.