Stupid sumbitches to the right of me

Alvin Plantinga on the definition of “fundamentalist”:

But isn’t all this [Plantinga’s epistemological system] just endorsing a wholly outmoded and discredited fundamentalism, that condition than which, according to many academics, none lesser can be conceived? I fully realize that the dreaded f-word will be trotted out to stigmatize any model of this kind.

Before responding, however, we must look into the use of this term ‘fundamentalist’. On the most common contemporary academic use of the term, it is a term of abuse or disapprobation, rather like ‘son of a bitch’, more exactly ‘sonovabitch’, or perhaps still more exactly (at least according to those authorities who look to the Old West as normative on matters of pronunciation) ‘sumbitch’. When the term is used in this way, no definition of it is ordinarily given. (If you called someone a sumbitch, would you feel obliged first to define the term?)

Still, there is a bit more to the meaning of ‘fundamentalist’ (in this widely current use): it isn’t simply a term of abuse. In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relatively conservative theological views. That makes it more like ‘stupid sumbitch’ (or maybe ‘fascist sumbitch’?) than ‘sumbitch’ simpliciter. It isn’t exactly like that term either, however, because its cognitive content can be expanded and contract on demand; its content seems to depend on who is using it. In the mouths of certain liberal theologians, for example, it tends to denote any who accept traditional Christianity, including Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Barth; in the mouths of devout secularists like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennet, it tends to denote anyone who believes there is such a person as God. The explanation is that the term has a certain indexical element; its cognitive content is given by the phrase ‘considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.’

(Warranted Christian Belief, pg 244)

2 thoughts on “Stupid sumbitches to the right of me”

  1. “In the mouths of certain liberal theologians, for example, it tends to denote any who accept traditional Christianity, including Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Barth”

    Most liberal theologians would argue that these famous Christians were not fundamentalists. Whether or not we accept their claims is a different story. However, they are right in pointing out that many of these Christians did not hold precisely to the claims of modern fundamentalists. For instance, several of them held different views of innerancy which might be considered quasi-liberal.

  2. If we use “fundamentalist” in the strict meaning of the term, referring to those who came out of the early 20th century movement, then no, they certainly weren’t fundamentalists. As the term is generally applied today, I think they were. They would have had zero tolerance for homosexual acts, fornication of any kind, or abortion, all of which are touchstones of modern liberalism. I agree that some of their views of inerrancy would clash with modern conservatives, but when it comes to the issues that most mark the modern divide, they would be placed firmly in the camp of the “fundamentalists.”

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