I was called a “liberal” this week on Twitter. I don’t have any problem per se with being called a liberal. But in this case it clearly wasn’t intended as a compliment. So I asked my interlocutor about his basis for making the charge. He replied by pointing out that I support public healthcare for all.
Guilty as charged! Of course, by this standard almost every Canadian is a “liberal”. I inquired further and was told that “conservative” entails support for limited government. And support for limited government is inconsistent with expanding government to include public healthcare. Hence, I’m a liberal.
Now one can certainly take issue with this use of the terms “liberal” and “conservative.” But it goes both ways. “You’re a liberal!” “Oh yeah? Well you’re a fundamentalist!”
Ahh, “fundamentalist.” I’ve been called that too. Indeed, I once had a book proposal rejected because one blind reviewer called me a fundamentalist. (By “blind reviewer” I don’t mean he lacked the ability to see. I mean I didn’t know who he — or she — was.)
Say, what’d he (or she) mean by calling me a fundamentalist?
Great question! And that brings me to Alvin Plantinga’s priceless treatment of the use of the term “fundamentalist” as an epithet to marginalize particular individuals for holding theological opinions that are decidedly out of fashion. Here is the delightful section from Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 245. It has all the elements that we love in Plantinga’s writing: concise, reasoned analysis melded with dry wit, and astute social commentary.
And now, without further ado:
On the most contemporary academic use of the term [fundamentalist], 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 expand 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 Dennett, 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.’ The full meaning of the term, therefore (in this use) can be given by something like ‘stupid sumbitch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine.’.”
So thanks to Alvin Plantinga, the next time you get called a “fundamentalist” you’ll know what they’re really saying!