I just finished Karen Armstrong's The Battle For God (Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), 450 pages of historical detail tracing the genesis and evolution of religious fundamentalism in The Big Three: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. I gave it five stars as it is well worth the read. You have to slog through more obscure Jewish rabbis and Islamic mullahs than was probably necessary, but the historical perspective is absolutely necessary to understanding "Fundamentalism." That word is too stereotyped and misunderstood to be used descriptively. Fundamentalist religious movements are better understood as a form of modern, participatory, mobilizing religion. Here's my theory:
Liberal Protestantism poses as "modern" in that it accomodates modern scientific ideas and liberal political goals (tolerance, social improvement) within its vision of Christianity, to the extent that is possible. But it also retains a premodern Enlightenment approach to religion. Modernity as it emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries was democratic and aggressively so. Government, the military, consumer retailing, education, the media in newspapers and cinema, even sports--all these social institutions adopted mass market methods and appeal. They had to in order to survive in the modern world. "Fundamentalist religion" is modern in the sense that it, too, eventually adopted a mass market approach. That's why Evangelicals now define Christianity in America and can build sprawling megachurches. That's also why Liberal Protestantism is dying a slow death--it's a dinosaur in the modern world. It never adapted.
Government adopted modern forms through representative government, elections, and political parties (participatory organizations, mobilizing support, getting people involved and voters out to vote). Notice the mass market, mobilizing aspect of political advertising, simple slogans even the dumbest voter can grasp, and minutely scripted political conventions. It's not a debate, it's Hollywood, DC. Welcome to modernism in the democratic era. Don't fight it, just recognize how it works. We could similarly review such aspects of the other institutions I listed above. For example, the Monday Night Football kickoff extravaganza last week about made me ill. It was a combination of Las Vegas glitz, video music performers of every genre, fireworks galore, talking heads on the TV screen, and precious little football--this is modern sports. I can't even remember the teams, but I'm not sure that's relevant anymore.
Religion became "modern" in this sense by adopting mass market devices. Televangelism reaches believers directly (rather than through a hierarchy or congregation), provides hi-tech, emotionally manipulative TV images and soundtracks to millions of viewers, and builds star power (seems kinder than "brand name recognition") for the more influential evangelists. Modern Fundamentalists/Evangelicals create a broad funding base through contributions. You can't play in the modern world without money--look at how contributions drive modern presidential campaigns. Hey, televangelists and modern Evangelicals can bring in the bucks (megachurches with a pastoral staff of 20 don't come cheap). Fundamentalists have simple slogans: Jesus saves. The Bible is inerrant. God created the world. Modern institutions run on slogans--that's why the Army spends millions advertising "Be All That You Can Be" or "An Army of One." Everyone advertises now. It's how you retain the attention and loyalty of your target market. But can you think of a single Presbetyrian slogan? Ever seen a Methodist PR commercial? An Episcopal rally at your local stadium? These are the premodern, dying denominations. I like them, they're just 200 years behind the times.
Conclusion: So, coming back to The Battle For God, remember that until 1979 religion was regarded as pretty much irrelevant to modern society. Then came 1979 in Iran--huh? Then Moral Majority and the strong role conservative religion now plays in party politics. No one in 1960, for example, foresaw the return of fundamentalism (read "modernized religion"). Amazingly, Armstrong wrote the book before 9/11, but it still reads as a direct hit in the post-9/11 world.
Part II will give links to other sources supporting this view of "Modern Fundamentalism," and Part III will consider Mormonism as Modern Fundamentalism (i.e., as an example, possibly the best example, of a successful, modern, participatory, mobilizing religion). [light edits, 9/14]