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In My Own Little Corner
From the little chair of the fantabulous Ms. O.

Fundamentalism = Cult?

Are the Terms "Fundamentalism" And "Cult" Equivalent Terms?

In my mind, the term "cult" is an ugly word. It acquires that connotation by its usage. In a quite literal definition, the term refers to religion and religious practice, especially ceremonial practice. Therefore, we might refer to a bar mitzvah as part of the cult of Judaism. We might likewise refer to the Eucharist as being bound up with the cultus of Christianity. In its barest definition, the term "cult" is neither good or bad, evil or benign. It is a quite generic and non-specific word.

However, we all know that there is an entirely different meaning of the term "cult." When we think of that meaning, we usually think of some aberrant form of an established religion. Since there are so many varieties of belief within any given religious faith, it's a lamentable term - maybe not very useful. But, for the sake of argument, we must muddy the waters even further. It seems that many Christians use the term to refer to non-Christian religions in general. Many churches speak of Hinduism as a cult. Or they might refer to Zen as a cult. I've heard "A Course in Miracles" devotees called cultists. Even some techniques, such as transcendental meditation, which may be practiced completely apart from a belief in any sort of god, are often labeled cultish, despite the fact that many medical practitioners recommend meditation practice.

In its lamentable usage, it seems as if there are various defining characteristics assigned to the concept of a cult by those that use the word, a few come to mind quite readily:

1. Cults are authoritarian
2 Cults usually separate folks from mainstream society
3. Cults often use mind control methods
4. Cults brainwash people (This is a slightly nuanced version of number 4.)
5. Cults cause adherents to do illogical things
6. Cultists cannot be reasoned with by conventional methods

Usually, when cults are discussed, the discussion occurs in conservative churches, often churches that might be labeled fundamentalist or evangelical. (For the sake of this discussion both will be regarded as funadmentalist - although I know some evangelicals might object. "Evangelical" is a quite fluid term, historically identical to the term "fundamenatlist.") It would appear that fundamentalists have some need to "contend for the faith." It is rare to see many books written from a religious perspective dealing with cults that was not produced by a fundamentalist.This being the case - that they are the most likely to label alternative religious movements as cults - I am compelled to make a surprising observation. Usually, the characteristics ascribed by fundamentalists to cults - characteristics such as those listed above - are highly descriptive of Christian fundamentalism as well. This can be easily illustrated.

The characteristic of authoritarianism attributed to cults is surely true of fundamentalism. It is true on two counts. First, fundamentalism is a movement largely directed by charismatic figures. I'm not talking about the Warren Jeffs or similar folks here. I refer to the televangelists, megachurch leaders, and leaders of the religious right. Leading figures direct the faithful and teach them what to believe. Adherents "follow the leader" often blindly. This leads to the second source of authoritarianism. Here I am referring to the Bible/Bible interpretation package that directs fundamentalists. The Bible becomes a "paper pope," the fundamentalist interpreters regard as virtually infallible.

On the charge of trying to separate the faithful from mainstream society, surely the fundamentalist leaders must plead guilty. Adherents are encouraged to break ties with family and friends that get in the way of their belief system. They sometimes are forced to cut ties with friends in churches they attended before becoming fundamentalists. Alternative schools flourish to separate fundamentalist youth from "the world." Fundamentalists maintain separate institutions for arts (recording companies and labels, and publishing concerns, all adhering to the fundamentalist outlook) separate organizations teaching authoritarian ideas for husbands (Promise Keepers, for example), and distinct political action groups (guided by quasi-religious opinion).

Mind control methods? Yes, even here it must be noted that fundamentalists meet the qualification for cultists. Members of fundamentalist churches are taught to deny their questioning and maintain a mantra of "God said it! I believe it! That settles it!" Doubting and questioning are discouraged. "Proof texts" from the Bible are memorized for use when a church member might have a question. When taking up questions with church leaders, members are not enouraged to think things out for themselves. Just as when I was a fundamentalist, members are told the "right" answers for troubling questions.

Do fundamentalists brainwash people (remember, we are talking about the fundamentalist church down the street, not the Moonies)? They bombard them with many meetings each week. They often work themselves up into emotional frenzies. Even if that is not always so, one must admit that fundamentalist leaders know how to work emotionalism to arrive at their desired outcome. They threaten those who don't believe the "right way" with hell. They de-construct reality as we see it and create an alternate reality filled with devils, demons, and flaming perdition. Some have been able to get very sick folks to stop taking medicine to prove they have faith worthy of being healed. It would certainly appear to be a form of brainwashing.

What about logic? Is the fundamentalist's version of "science" logical? Is faith healing logical? Is it logical that mental illness is caused by demon possession? Is the fundamentalist world view logical?

What about reasoning with a fundamentalist? All I can say is forget it. We don't have enough time to review that question. Just give it a try some day.

It is a sad state of affairs that there are dangerous cults in our world. Certainly any fair-minded person would agree that white supremacist religious groups, polygamous groups, the Branch Davidians, Reverend Moon and his followers, and many others fit the negative use of the word cult. But, apparently so do fundamentalist Christians. They may not adopt the extremes that the "far out" cults embrace. They may be more socially acceptable. They may share many characteristics (perhaps negative) of Christianity in general. Nevertheless, the similarities remain. I have discovered all people are inconsistent (including yours truly). Maybe in one sense fundamentalists are no more inconsistent than the rest of us. But is fundamentalist Christianity a type of cult? We must agree, the similarities are striking.

Religious Extremism vs. The Prince of Peace

What in the Name of God?
Religious Fundamentalism, Fear & Terrorism

By James F. Mattil
Since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Islamic Fundamentalism has become the subject of much controversy and debate. On one hand, Islamist terrorists are perceived as a threat to world security - protagonists in a new holy war. Alternatively, we’re told that the vast millions of mainstream Muslims reject the views of extremist elements, but other reports suggest that popular support for Islamic Fundamentalism is far deeper than one might expect. And so we’re left in a quandary, asking why do they hate us?
  Many experts and analysts refer to the rise of Islamist terrorism as a new phenomenon, more deadly and more obtuse than the more traditional terrorism associated with separatist and nationalist movements. Some refer to the Islamists as if they are some mysterious and incomprehensible mutation - suicidal fanatics who make no demands and take no credit for their acts of terror.

In fact, there are surprising similarities between Islamic, Christian and Jewish Fundamentalists. Religious fundamentalists often share some common traits and motivations with secular dissidents engaged in political violence. But perhaps the most disturbing situation is the convergence of fundamentalist interests and the potential for a global holy war, with ground zero being Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

As Winston Churchill warned, “we have nothing to fear, but fear itself.” It’s doubtful he realized the sweeping political accuracy of those inspiring words. The common thread that weaves violent political movements together is fear. It is not the only motivating factor behind political violence, nor necessarily the most obvious, but it is virtually always there. Whenever we ask why people hate, or why they are willing to kill or die for a cause, the answer is invariably fear.

Religious fundamentalists are united by fear. Whether they are Christian, Muslim, or Jew, fear is the common denominator. They fear change, modernization and loss of influence. They fear that the young will abandon the churches, mosques and synagogues for physical and material gratification. They fear the influence of mass media and its ability to subvert the young with song, dance, fashion, alcohol, drugs, sex and freedom. They especially fear education if it undermines the teachings of their religion. They fear a future they can’t control, or even comprehend.

These themes are as common among traditionalist Muslims as they are with traditionalist Jews and Christians. We’ve all heard the same concerns about moral decay, decadence, and the influence of the impious. These are the evils of which religious teaching warn us. These fears resonate loudest among those people who have least. For people mired in poverty, lacking hope and frustrated by political and economic systems they can neither understand or control, religion holds meaning and offers hope, at least for future salvation, if not in this world.

Perhaps it’s not surprising to realize that it is fear that also connects the myriad of nationalist, separatist and independence movements who also engage in political violence. Although experts, academics and analysts hypothesize about a multitude of causal effects that lead to violence and terrorism, fear is the underlying motivator.

People are social beings who come together in groups with shared values, religion, culture, language, tradition, heritage, or location in hope of survival and prosperity. Whenever the core characteristic that bonds a group together comes under threat, the group will inevitably fear for its very survival. They’ll attempt to change the situation that poses the threat, or, failing that, they will attempt to repel the threat and strengthen their group cohesiveness. Occasionally, leaders who seek to exploit popular fears for personal advantage by exaggerating threats.

Examples are plentiful. In the Northern Ireland conflict both sides fear changes that will erode their nationality, language or culture and with it their economic opportunity. Each group fears the other will dominate them unjustly. Similar motivations exist (with minor variation) in Sri Lanka, the Basque Country in Spain, Rwanda, Sudan, Jammu and Kashmir, Palestine and Israel, or among the Kurds of Turkey, Iraq and Iran. Many groups have survived attempted genocide against them, certainly the Jews, the Irish, but also Tutsis, Hutus, Kurds, Armenians, Azeris, and Arabs. This is not to suggest that numerous other factors don’t also influence the move to violence, but none act upon people with the urgency and stimulation of fear.


A movement cannot, however, willfully and openly admit its fears; to do so would be an admission of weakness and despair. Instead a movement must develop a positive political or theological proposition and agenda. The emergence of religious fundamentalism may be driven by fear, but each religion must adopt its unique version of a revealed Truth to justify participation. These Truths cannot be temporal in nature; they must be based on the inerrant sanctity of God’s word.

Religion has been created by men, never women, and invariably as a result of divine intervention and mystical guidance. Inherent in most religious doctrine is inplicit fear of eternal damnation; in Christianty even a child is born into this world in a state of original sin - a mechanism to instill immediate fear of damnation, unless corrective action is taken.

But most important is the belief that the divine word of any particular religion is the one and only truth, subject to no compromise. Hence fundamentalist Jews know, without doubt, that they are God's Chosen People. Christians know, without doubt, that when Armageddon arrives, true Christian believers will be saved and non-Christians condemned. Fundamentalist Muslims know, without doubt, that Allah will reward only their faith and not that of the infidels. The danger in each of these cases is that eternal salvation requires more than leading a good and humane life, it demands certain achievements during one's life - conquering land, converting non-believers, or destroying infidels.


The key to Fundamentalist Christian belief is their acceptance of the inerrancy of the Bible. The scriptures, representing the word of God, provide a road map for the future. One of the key elements of current evangelical Christianity is a belief that the Bible prophesies a second coming by Christ. There is some disagreement as to whether the second coming would be precipitated by mankind’s positive advances and achievements, or by his failings. In either case, the “signs of the times” are bad news – political anarchy, religious apostasy, increased wickedness, earthquakes, plagues and widespread misfortune.

The first anticipated event is the Rapture, wherein faithful Christian believers and followers would be “caught up together to meet the Lord in the air.” The rest of humanity will be left behind to endure the “tribulation,” a series of terrible calamities that will last for seven years, under direction of the “Antichrist.” During the tribulation, the Antichrist will force people to wear “the mark of the beast,” and he will desecrate the “Temple” in Jerusalem. The Second Coming of Christ and the battle of Armageddon, and the tribulation are to be followed by the millennium and the Final Judgment. Those who are redeemed will be granted eternal bliss, while the wicked will be condemned to eternal punishment. The Righteous, who will meet the Lord during the Rapture, will presumably avoid all this hellishness and the key to their salvation and selection for the Rapture is one’s unwavering adherence to the scriptures.

A problem arises in that there is no Temple in Jerusalem, so one must be reconstructed on the Temple Mount before it can be desecrated to fulfill the Bible prophecy and the Jews must build it. Thus Christian fundamentalists have found common ground with the Jews. Since their fate and that of the entire world is at stake, the Christian Right is committed to supporting and protecting Israel at all costs. This relatively new and unusual alliance has important ramifications.

This entails support for the Israel’s hard line Likud, including leaders like Ariel Sharon and Binjamin Netanyahu. A substantial component of such support is US financial aid to Israel, together with political support, opposing UN resolutions, or condoning Israeli actions. For many Americans this should be disquieting situation in that it involves compromising America’s political ideals, process and parties in the name of religion.

The Religious Right began its political crusade in the 1950’s and it gained momentum and unparalleled influence in the late 1980’s and into the 1990’s. This “moral majority” has been dedicated to electing candidates that share their conservative values and promote their policies as symbolized by a single issue – abortion rights. Until recently, such views were anathema to liberals, especially Jews. However, by linking the cause of the Christian Right to that of Jews, Christian leaders have gained impressive political clout, while sapping traditional Democratic support.

Today, both republicans and democrats must be strongly pro-Israel to win election and republicans now compete by being stronger Israeli supporters than their democratic opponents. The result has been an escalation in support for Israel. It’s not surprising that the current Bush Administration has turned its back on the Middle East. Although President Bush has paid lip service by announcing his vision for a Palestinian state, he’s made no efforts toward creating one. Meanwhile, former republican House Majority Leader, Dick Armey has been more forthcoming asserting his vision for a Palestinian state, somewhere in the Middle East, but definitely not in Palestine.

To most Americans, it should be frightening to realize the underlying beliefs of our elected officials and the ways that US policy is being distorted by religious convictions. In the absence of a formal US foreign policy since the end of the Cold War, such religious motivations and their proponents have had a free hand in shaping US responses, with little regard for the potential long-term consequences.

In the US, Christian fundamentalism has focused on, and enjoyed success at gains through the ballot box. Nonetheless Christian Fundamentalists also resort to violence. Religious extremists have attacked abortion clinics, doctors and patients in acts of terrorism. In Northern Ireland, Protestant extremists continue violent attacks against Catholics on the streets and in their homes. This form of terrorism rarely makes the world news but the assaults and fire bombings have an effect similar to the US serial sniper murders. In November 2002, members of a Protestant terrorist group actually crucified a Catholic man.