Kingdom of Priests

It sometimes happens that a word outlives its usefulness and has to be put out to pasture along with other terms like “Negro,” for example, or “Oriental.” Or maybe the preferable metaphor would be partial retirement. We can still appropriately use Oriental to refer to a rug but not to a person.
I bring this up because I was surprised and a little disappointed to read my estimable Beliefnet senior colleague Steven Waldman, in the Wall Street Journal, relegating doubts about theistic evolution to “fundamentalist Christians.” The context was Steve’s interesting piece on Francis Collins, Obama’s pick to head the National Institutes of Health:

Because he’s advocated “theistic evolution” — the idea that God set in motion the laws of the universe, including natural selection — there are some more fundamentalist Christians who may sniff at Mr. Collins.

Steve’s formulation would put me, an Orthodox Jew, in the category of a fundamentalist Christian.
There are a number of issues here. First, I personally know lots of people who would have a problem reconciling theistic evolution with their own religious beliefs, whether Jewish or Christian. None of those people are fundamentalist Christians — if the term is defined in any kind of meaningfully restrictive sense. 
A helpful dividing line between a fundamentalist and everyone else might be that a fundamentalist believes in a literal interpretation of the Bible, so that creation really took only 6 days of 24 hours each and happened less than 10,000 years ago. By that definition, in my total circle of friends and acquaintances, I know exactly one person who would count as a Christian fundamentalist. He’s a professional airline pilot — I won’t say with which airline, lest a witch hunt ensue. He cheerfull calls himself a “fundamentalist.” Not one person other than him that I know would use the term to describe his own beliefs.
Second, if that’s what Collins believes —  “that God set in motion the laws of the universe, including natural selection” — it would sound like he’s a deist. And maybe that’s what he is. But in that case, lots of people who clearly aren’t fundamentalist Christians — anyone who’s a theist — would have to disagree with him and potentially “sniff” at his beliefs.

Third, Collins as a self-identified Evangelical Christian would himself be labeled a fundamentalist by many otherwise serious people today. Several years ago I did a little interview with Karen Armstrong in which, responding to my question, she defined fundamentalists as “those who think that only one religion is right.” I don’t see how anyone could possibly be defined as a conservative, Evangelical Christian and not believe that only his religion possesses the truth about “getting right” with God.
Pope Benedict had it about right when he said back in 2005 (upon being elevated to the papacy):

Having a clear faith, based on the creed of the church, is often labeled today as a fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and “swept along by every wind of teaching,” looks like the only attitude acceptable to today’s standards. We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.

Too often, “fundamentalist” is used to refer to firm believers in whatever whose beliefs we don’t like. For years I’ve been called “a smug proselytizer for Jewish fundamentalism” and variants thereof by people who have little concept of what I actually believe or how I live my life. 
Yet at the same time we on the traditionalist side often speak of “atheist fundamentalists,” “secular fundamentalists,” and “liberal fundamentalists.” In general, the word has become a sort of all purpose insult term. I plead guilty, by the way. I’ve probably used it this way myself.
But not about myself, except ironically, and that is the nub of the matter. It has reached the point where most people who in public life are called “fundamentalists” would not accept the term as a fair description of their own religion or philosophy. It has become a term that carries little information other than about the feelings of the person using it. Language is supposed to inform us about what it designates. By that test, the word “fundamentalist” as typically used has got to go.
What to replace it with? As a default, at least, why not call people what they call themselves? If you want to know how to describe me, then why not ask…me?
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