A guide to fundamentalism

The “fundamentalist” label has become common in everyday conversation, with Americans applying it with equal frequency to Islamic radicals, Christian conservatives, or even political ideologues of every stripe. Yet as use of the term has grown, its meaning has been obscured. That has important implications for understanding the turbulent dynamics of today’s religious and political landscape, especially as violence in the Middle East persists. Experts caution that fundamentalism has different characteristics and histories in different faiths.

As coverage of the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s death showed in 2007, many conservative Christians are still considered fundamentalists, and some of them wear the label proudly, as Falwell did. Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., is perhaps the best-known fundamentalist college. But in recent years the fundamentalist tag has become associated with many other religious and political phenomena. Some experts even detect fundamentalist attributes in the recent polemical writings of the so-called neo-Atheist movement. At the same time, increasingly negative associations with the word fundamentalist have led many Christians, particularly conservative evangelicals, to be more careful than ever to distance themselves from classic fundamentalism.

Journalists should use the term fundamentalist with care and should only use it when the individual or group labels itself that way.


Why it matters

The association between religion and violence and various forms of repression is a paramount concern and a source of fierce debate today, and the term fundamentalist is often invoked as a one-size-fits-all explanation. But attributing every problem to religious fundamentalism does not do justice to the complexity of the issues involved, to fundamentalists or even to religion in general. It’s critical to gain and communicate a deeper understanding of fundamentalism.


Originally, “fundamentalist” strictly referred to a swath of deeply conservative Christians, predominantly in the American South, who in the early 20th century reacted strongly against what they saw as the encroachment of dangerous new ideas, such as evolution, biblical criticism, and liberal theology. They saw those trends as undermining the basics of the faith, and so they tried to lay down and enforce a core set of non-negotiable beliefs, known as “the Fundamentals.” The phenomenon has spread widely since then. Here are some resources for learning more:



Quantifying the number of religious fundamentalists in the United States is difficult. The label conveys many meanings, and it carries so much baggage that social scientists find it difficult to come up with a reliable estimate of the number of American fundamentalists.

  • “American Religious Identification Survey (2001)”

    The 2001 American Religious Identification Survey found that 27,000 Americans identified themselves as fundamentalist Christians in 1990, and 61,000 gave themselves that identifier in 2001.

  • “The Fundamentalist Project”

    The Fundamentalism Project is considered the most comprehensive effort to date to describe and classify fundamentalism. Between 1988 and 1993, religion scholars Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby gathered more than 100 experts in fundamentalism around the world at 10 conferences and produced five volumes containing almost 8,000 pages of material. The table of contents of each volume is viewable online, with the author of each essay identified.

National sources

  • Robert Wuthnow

    Robert Wuthnow is director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University. He wrote the book Poor Richard’s Principle: Recovering the American Dream Through the Moral Dimension of Work, Business and Money and was the editor of the 2006 Encyclopedia of Politics and Religion. He is also the author of  After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion and Red State Religion: Faith and Politics in America’s Heartland. He can speak about hot-button issues including abortion, the separation of church and state and gun control.

  • Christian Smith

    Christian Smith is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame. He was co-principal investigator for the Youth and Religion Project. He is the author, with Melinda Lundquist Denton, of a book summarizing major findings from that study called Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford University Press, 2005). He has written widely on religious giving and is co-author of Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don’t Give Away More Money (2008).

  • Martin Marty

    Martin Marty, retired professor of religion at the Divinity School at the University of Chicago, is the author of Education, Religion and the Common Good: Advancing a Distinctly American Conversation About Religion’s Role in Our Shared Life.

  • George Marsden

    George Marsden is an emeritus professor of history at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. His areas of expertise include evangelicalism and American religious and intellectual history. His books include Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism.

  • Charles Kimball

    Charles Kimball is Presidential Professor and director of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma. He is the author of When Religion Becomes Evil: Five Warning Signs, and his most recent book is When Religion Becomes Lethal: The Explosive Mix of Politics and Religion in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (April 2011).

  • Mark Juergensmeyer

    Mark Juergensmeyer is director of the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies and a professor of sociology and affiliate professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, and his most recent book is Global Rebellion: Religious Challenges to the Secular State, From Christian Militias to al Qaeda (2008).

  • James Davison Hunter

    James Davison Hunter is Labrosse-Levinson Distinguished Professor of Religion, Culture and Social Theory at the University of Virginia and executive director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. He is a frequent writer and commentator on the culture wars dividing America, especially as regards homosexuality. Contact Hunter through his assistant.

  • John C. Green

    John C. Green is a senior fellow at the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, specializing in religion and American politics. He also serves as interim university president, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics and distinguished professor of political science at the University of Akron.

  • R. Scott Appleby

    R. Scott Appleby is professor of religious history at the University of Notre Dame and John M. Regan Jr. director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. He teaches courses in American religious history and comparative religious movements and is the co-editor of Being Right: Conservative Catholics in America (Indiana University Press, 1995).

Experts in Christian fundamentalism

Colleges and universities

Several Christian colleges and universities identify as fundamentalist, and others are generally considered under the umbrella of fundamentalism. Among the agencies that accredit such schools and bible colleges are the Association for Biblical Higher Education and the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools. The following are some leading fundamentalist-style schools:

Experts in Islamic fundamentalism

  • Ivan A. Strenski

    Ivan A. Strenski is a professor and Holstein Endowed Chairholder in religious studies at the University of California, Riverside. His article “Sacrifice, Gift and the Social Logic of Muslim ‘Human Bombers'” was published in 2004 in the journal Terrorism and Political Violence. He can speak on globalization and international law.

  • Mahmood Mamdani

    Mahmood Mamdani is an anthropology and government professor at Columbia University in New York and author of When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism and the Genocide in Rwanda (Princeton University Press, 2002.). He has also researched Sudan.

  • Anouar Majid

    Anouar Majid is an English professor at the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine. He is a critic of religious and economic orthodoxies, examining the place of Islam in the modern world, particularly its interaction with the process of globalization. He is also a novelist and co-founder of Tingis, the Moroccan-American magazine of ideas and culture.

  • Bruce Lawrence

    Bruce Lawrence is professor emeritus of  religion at Duke University in Durham, N.C. He is author of Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden (Verso, 2005). He is an expert on comparative fundamentalism and Muslim networks.

  • Carl W. Ernst

    Carl W. Ernst is a professor of Islamic studies at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. He wrote Following Muhammad: Rethinking Islam in the Contemporary World and edited Islamophobia in America: The Anatomy of Intolerance. He is affiliated with the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security.

  • Faisal Devji

    Dr. Faisal Devji is University Reader in Modern South Asian History at St. Antony’s College at the University of Oxford. He is the author of Landscapes of the Jihad: Militancy, Morality, Modernity and The Terrorist in Search of Humanity: Militant Islam and Global Politics.

    Contact: +44 (0)1865 284700.
  • Robert A. Pape

    Robert A. Pape is a professor of political science at the University of Chicago and director of the Program for International Security Politics. He is the author of Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. Media contact is Jann Ingmire.

  • Jon Armajani

    Jon Armajani is an associate professor of theology at the College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University in St. Joseph, Minn. He has written about Islamic fundamentalism and is writing a book to be titled Islam and the West: Understanding Islamic Fundamentalism.

Experts in Jewish fundamentalism

  • Yaakov Ariel

    Yaakov Ariel is a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of Evangelizing the Chosen People: Missions to the Jews in America, 18802000, and teaches several courses on contemporary Judaism.

  • Eliezer Don-Yehiya

    Eliezer Don-Yehiya is a professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. He has written widely on varieties of Jewish extremism.

  • Emmanuel Sivan

    Emmanuel Sivan is an emeritus professor of history at Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel and an expert in comparative fundamentalisms. He is a co-author, with Gabriel A. Almond and R. Scott Appleby, of Strong Religion: The Rise of Fundamentalisms Around the World, a publication in the Fundamentalism Project series.

  • David S. Katz

    David S. Katz is a professor of the history of books and chairman of the history department at Tel Aviv University in Tel Aviv, Israel. He has written about fundamentalism and scriptural literalists.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Clyde Wilcox

    Clyde Wilcox is professor of government at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He specializes in electoral behavior and public opinion and can comment on the Catholic vote, abortion, gun control, gay rights, church-state issues and other issues involving religion and politics. He wrote “Abortion, Gay Rights and Church-State Issues in the 2000 Campaign” for the book Religion and Liberal Democracy: Piety, Politics and Pluralism and he is the co-author of The Values Campaign? The Christian Right and the 2004 Elections.

  • Dr. John Stratton Hawley

    Dr. John Stratton Hawley is a professor of religion at Barnard College, Columbia University in New York City. He is a specialist in the traditions of Northern India and has written about issues facing American Sikhs.

  • Nancy Ammerman

    Nancy Ammerman is professor of sociology at Boston University and a leading expert on congregational dynamics, especially in mainline Protestantism. She is the author of Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes: Finding Religion in Everyday Life and Pillars of Faith: American Congregations and Their Partners. She is also an expert on religious movements and has written about the rise of fundamentalism.

  • Charles B. Strozier

    Charles B. Strozier is a history professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York in New York City, and he is director of the Center on Terrorism there. He researches and writes about the psychology of religious extremism.

  • Richard T. Antoun

    Richard T. Antoun was a professor emeritus of anthropology at the State University of New York at Binghamton. He wrote Understanding Fundamentalism: Christian, Islamic and Jewish Movements.

In the South

  • Ami Pedahzur

    Ami Pedahzur is a government professor at the University of Texas at Austin who has written on political extremism and terrorism, in particular in Israel. His most recent book is Jewish Terrorism in Israel (2009).

  • Vinson Synan

    Vinson Synan is Dean Emeritus of the School of Divinity at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va. He is an expert on the Pentecostal movement and its history.

  • Julie Ingersoll

    Julie Ingersoll is an assistant professor of religious studies at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville and can discuss religion and popular culture. She has written about faith and values among Jimmy Buffett fans.

  • Ralph W. Hood Jr.

    Ralph W. Hood Jr. is a psychology professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He writes and teaches on the psychology of religious fundamentalism.

  • Leslie Griffin

    Leslie Griffin is the William S. Boyd Professor of Law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, William S. Boyd School of Law. Griffin, who teaches constitutional law, is known for her interdisciplinary work in law and religion. She has written on the role of fundamentalist religion in the modern world, including an article in the Cardozo Law Review in 2003 titled “Fundamentalism From the Perspective of Liberal Tolerance.”

  • Frank J. Lechner

    Frank J. Lechner is an associate professor of sociology at Emory University in Atlanta. He contributed the essay “Fundamentalism” to the 1998 edition of the Encyclopedia of Religion and Society.

  • William Paul Williamson

    William Paul Williamson is an associate professor of psychology at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Ark., and an expert on the psychology of religion. He is a co-author of the 2005 edition of The Psychology of Religious Fundamentalism.

In the Midwest

  • Joel A. Carpenter

    Joel A. Carpenter is a professor of history at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., where he also directs the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity. He also is the former religion officer for the Pew Charitable Trusts and former director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicalism.

  • Edith L. Blumhofer

    Edith L. Blumhofer is director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill. She has written extensively on Pentecostalism.

  • Darren E. Sherkat

    Darren E. Sherkat is a professor of sociology at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He studies the intersection of religion, family and politics, and he’s working on a book about marijuana legalization.

  • William O. Beeman

    William O. Beeman is chairman of the anthropology department at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and author of many articles on fundamentalism.

  • Santosh C. Saha

    Santosh C. Saha is a history professor at Mount Union College in Alliance, Ohio. He has written on the rise of fundamentalism, particularly in the developing world.

  • Martin Riesebrodt

    Martin Riesebrodt is a sociology professor at the University of Chicago. He has written on fundamentalism in the United States and Iran.

In the West

  • Frederick Gedicks

    Frederick Gedicks is an expert on law and religion who teaches at Brigham Young University’s J. Reuben Clark Law School. He regularly writes amicus briefs, law review articles and columns on religious freedom cases before the Supreme Court.

  • Ted G. Jelen

    Ted G. Jelen is a professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He has followed religion and politics, including the participation of the Catholic Church and the role abortion politics plays. He co-edited the books Abortion Politics in the United States: Studies in Public Opinion and The One, the Few and the Many: Religion and Politics in Comparative Perspective. He also co-wrote the book Between Two Absolutes: Public Opinion and the Politics of Abortion.

  • David Domke

    David Domke is an associate professor of communication at the University of Washington in Seattle. He writes and teaches widely on religious radicals, fundamentalism and politics. With co-author Kevin Coe he is writing a book, The God Strategy: How Religion Became a Political Weapon (Oxford University Press, 2008).

  • Peter C. Hill

    Peter C. Hill is a psychology professor at the Rosemead School of Psychology at Biola University in La Mirada, Calif. He contributed to the 2005 edition of The Psychology of Religious Fundamentalism. He specializes in the psychology of religion and has done research on individuals’ right to choose whether to forgive, restorative justice and the role of apology.

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