Antifundamentalism in Modern America

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
David Harrington Watt
  • Ithaca, NY: 
    Cornell University Press
    , May
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The term “fundamentalism” originated in 1920, as David Harrington Watt notes in the preface of his book on Americans’ fears regarding fundamentalists. Yet 1920s America is not where Watt’s book begins. Rather, we find Watt in Bangladesh, discussing the appellation of “fundamentalist” with a leader of the most powerful Islamist political party in that country. (For the record, the Jammat-e Islaam-i leader rejects the label, and not disingenuously.) Neither does Watt’s introduction open with the Baptist convention that led a sympathetic raconteur to coin the “fundamentalist” moniker and apply it to those who ostensibly held to the fundamentals of their faith against rising tides of historicist and literary interpretations of the Bible and doctrine. Instead, it opens with planes flying into the World Trade Center and Pentagon in 2001—and for good reason.

As Watt’s preface and introduction (“Putting Fundamentalism to Work”) make clear, the self-referential American term from the 1920s had turned, by the 1980s, into a synonym for a global plague of anti-modern backwardness—thanks largely to the work of progressive Protestants, liberal intellectuals, and even other conservative Protestants. More than that, it had become part of the American military’s lexicon, with the Vice President arguing in 1990 that Islamic fundamentalism was one of the main reasons the US needed an inordinately weaponized standing army. In 2001, US military and political leaders were certain they understood what impelled the September 11th attacks and responded with the means they knew best. By the following January, US forces were enmeshed in a conflict in Afghanistan and hundreds of innocent bystanders, among others, were kidnapped and held captive in an island prison of dubious legality. Some remained there for fifteen or more years, confined not only by the military personnel who guarded their cells, but also by the working notion that fundamentalists are those who inherently pose a threat to modern, civilized existence.

Did it all have to be so? And can it be differently? To answer these questions, Watt begins with the post-2001 attempts certain scholars and populists have made to educate Americans about Muslim fundamentalists. Such attempts, he demonstrates, drew heavily on the writings of academics from the 1980s, which—in turn—drew from evaluations of American Protestant fundamentalism compiled in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. The body of Watt’s book is devoted to analyzing the main currents of and pivotal moments in these discourses of “anti-fundamentalism,” by which well-meaning academics—many of whom had never met any self-identified fundamentalists—created the truisms that circulate today in breathtakingly consequential ways: that fundamentalists violently oppose modernism, or progress, or critical thinking, or even freedom. Not only did scholars constantly recirculate these canards, several made more audacious claims: that fundamentalists were an existential threat along the lines of Nazis or Communists, and were potential fascist sympathizers. Such rhetoric, often cloaked in the language of disinterested observation and social science, set the tone for later works that purported to show the global scope of what had previously been considered a particularly domestic phenomenon.

There were voices of dissent among non-fundamentalist scholars of the movement—historians who documented a passion for learning and teaching among American fundamentalists and treated them not as nay-saying fanatics or deluded followers of a politicized false creed, but as subscribers to an innovative American religious movement that provides positive propositions some have found compelling. Watt punctuates his examination of antifundamentalist diatribes with several examples of academics who, through rigorous and careful scholarship, show that the consensus view of the 1980s—that fundamentalists, domestic and foreign, are a threat to civilization—need not have been so compelling then and should not be mistaken for sound scholarship now. This is particularly the case since those 1980s works (largely the output of the American Council of Learned Societies-funded Fundamentalism Project) only produced modest conclusions about so-called fundamentalist movements around the world, and never proved for scholars that one could speak of fundamentalism as a global phenomenon. At least, one could not do so without engaging in seriously orientalist, and possibly imperialist, logic—problems that leaders of the project consistently failed to address. So why do such perspectives on the threat of global (particularly, “Islamic”) fundamentalism still echo at present?

As Watt documents, the Iranian revolution and subsequent hostage crisis were pivotal moments in the manufacture of global fundamentalism, particularly for Martin Marty, one of the leaders of the Fundamentalism Project, who conflated the revolution and hostage crisis in a piece for popular audiences. Although Watt does not challenge Marty on this issue, in particular, blaming Iranians’ ostensibly fundamentalist religiosity for these events elided the importance of politics and economics. These factors were paramount on the ground—particularly for the communist factions and Iranian merchant guild members who were displaced by American corporations during market liberalization and who helped oust the Shah, and for the students who occupied the American embassy out of anger that the American government allowed the exiled Shah, who had brutally tortured and repressed dissenters, to enter the US for medical treatment. Such crucial details were submerged beneath a flood of scholarly generalizations about bad religion, and though he challenges the generalizations, Watt (an Americanist, not a specialist of the Middle East) does not rescue them. Yet he does demonstrate that thinking differently about fundamentalism was and is possible, and his accessibly written and expertly researched book is offered in service of that project.

Watt is a keenly observant commentator who effortlessly blends media analysis with intellectual history, archival work with examinations of contemporary events. His prose is engaging without sacrificing depth or rigor. Perhaps most impressively, Watt is an even-handed and even generous critic of those with whom he disagrees. When it comes to the subject of fundamentalism, such equipoise is almost astonishing. But that is part of the point. Only by ratcheting down the rhetoric can one begin to dismantle the machinery that has built the targeting of ostensible fundamentalists—particularly Muslims, and often violently—into a pillar of statecraft at home and abroad. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rosemary R. Corbett is visiting scholar at the Bard Prison Intiative.

Date of Review: 
October 13, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David Harrington Watt is professor of history at Temple University. He is the author of Bible-Carrying Christians: Conservative Protestants and Social Power and A Transforming Faith: Explorations of Twentieth-Century American Evangelicalism and coeditor of Fundamentalism: Perspectives on a Contested History.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.