Postmodern Conservatism, February 2006. Geoff Boucher.

Postmodern Conservatism and Religious Fundamentalism

The worldwide resurgence in so-called “religious fundamentalism” seems to question the notion that the global culture of corporate capitalism has entered a “postmodern condition” characterised by “incredulity towards metanarratives.” Instead of the street-level postmodernism of contemporary consumerist individualism (moral relativism, flexible identity and acceptance of uncertainty), Christian fundamentalism offers moral absolutism, traditional social roles and the certainty of faith.

This paper proposes that contemporary religious fundamentalism is not a “throwback” to a vanished tradition but an element that emerges as an internal, dialectical moment of the postmodern culture of “reflexive modernity.” Postmodern dimensions of religious fundamentalism are:

Contemporary fundamentalism seeks to incorporate modern science (especially technology) into monistic worldview and synthesises this with elements of Nietzschean despair, borne of an acceptance of the neoconservative diagnosis of modernity.


1920s traditional fundamentalism
  • problem of orthodoxy (opposition to heterodoxy and revisionism) – dialectics of modernity and tradition
  • religion as dominant social instance; Christian mission to convert the world
  • Biblical literalism versus natural science
2000s post-traditional fundamentalism
  • problem of nihilism (moral relativism springing from postmodern condition) – dialectics of post-traditional culture
  • religion as cultural cement; denominationalism and ethnopluralism
  • Biblical inerrancy delimits natural science

Opposition to Postmodernity

Contemporary fundamentalism roots itself in a critique of the postmodern condition and must be considered to be an effort towards the dialectical negation of that condition. Taking aim against epistemological uncertainty, ontological multiplicity, consumerist individualism and moral relativism, religious fundamentalism proposes that faith ground knowledge instead of transcendental rationality, a new version of the chain of being, communitarian forms of belonging and moral absolutism. It is anti-postmodern – yet paradoxically, religious fundamentalists in the United States find themselves in alliance with what we are describing as “postmodern conservatives” and some radical Islamists adopt ideological elements of secular nationalism to produce what can only be described as a clerical fascism. I propose that contemporary fundamentalism is a “post-traditional fundamentalism,” to be distinguished from the fundamentalism of the 1920s because of a major shift, from the defence of tradition to its selective reinvention.

Following the arguments of Malise Ruthven (who draws on Anthony Giddens), reflexive modernity as a post-traditional society generates a dialectical reaction in the form of post-traditional religious fundamentalism. Post-traditional fundamentalism designates a return to Christian doctrine within Protestant theology that is specifically opposed to the effects of modernity. It is distinct from traditionalism (orthodoxy) in that (1) it is a self-reflexive cultural alternative to modernity that seeks to reinvent tradition rather than preserve traditions and (2) it is a theological politics that employs the state as an instrument in cultural transformation.

Traditional fundamentalism emerges in the light of the challenge from modernist theologies (“higher criticism”), when post-Enlightenment scholarship is understood by religious authorities as corrosive of the eternal truths revealed through sacred texts. Fundamentalism is a militant defence of tradition from modernisation, as politically legitimising and culturally authoritative, and therefore emerges from the dialectics of modernity. Christian fundamentalism – Milton and Lyman Stewart, The Fundamentals: A Testimony of Truth (1910) – the inerrancy of the Bible, the direct creation of the world ex nihilo, the authenticity of miracles, the virgin birth of Jesus, the crucifixion and bodily resurrection, the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, the immanence of the Second Coming and Kingdom of God. The original fundamentalism proposes an anti-hermeneutic methodology of literalism, which supposes the independence of text and context together with the univocity of meaning. But American fundamentalism proved to be a vulnerable strategy for political and intellectual reasons: politically, it was defeated in the Monkey Trial as an expression of provincial reaction; intellectually, it led to problems with textual contradictions. Post-traditional fundamentalism, by contrast, stresses conversion experiences linked to the utopian promise of the Rapture, and couples this with the hermeneutics of inerrancy, which proposes that apparent contradictions in the Bible expose the limitations of human understanding, rather than the incoherence of the sacred text. As Malise Ruthven proposes:

“Whereas the true traditionalist does not know that he is a traditionalist, the [post-traditional – GB] fundamentalist is forced by the logic of his desire to defend tradition into making strategic selections. Textual anomalies are either denied, or subsumed into the hermeneutics of inerrancy, where the burden of proof is shifted from God onto humanity. They can then be explained as errors in human understanding rather than flaws in the text itself” (Ruthven, 2004: 66).

Contemporary religious fundamentalism best thought of as a search for meaning in an anomic world, by means of a reaction against reflexive modernity and its “culmination” in “postmodern nihilism.” This doctrine is theocratic (a political theology) rather than theological (an extramundane cosmology).

For instance, in the United States one of the most politically influential forms of post-traditional fundamentalism is Dominion Theology. Dominion Theology states that humanity is the guardian of God’s creation on earth, so that political intervention is mandated to believers. It also emphasises the supposedly Biblical origins of the United States on the basis of the Calvinism of the Founding Fathers. Logically speaking, Dominion Theology precludes the formation of coalitions and ideological hybridisation with secular doctrines. Factually speaking, however, the identification of America and the Bible opens the way for its embrace of patriotism. One of its leading lights is Francis Schaeffer, who, in The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture (1976) proposes that the unity of science, religion and philosophy that existed in classical times has been broken by the autonomisation of these spheres. The result is the nihilism diagnosed (and celebrated) by Nietzsche and the solution is a return to the Biblical unity of rationality and theology (the fate of science is unclear). In The Escape from Reason (1968), Schaeffer proposes that Augustine’s incorrect doctrine of the fall (original sin affects the natural body but not the intellect, leading to natural theology and secular philosophy) led to the dualisms of modernity. These dualisms plunge us into nihilism, absurdity and relativism – but the solution is not a leap of faith (the solution of modernist theologies after Kierkegaard); rather, it is the univocal binding of nature and reason in the Bible. Theologically, this is a fundamentalism: I define fundamentalism as the combination of scriptural doctrines of inerrancy (literalism) and political doctrines of militancy.

Like postmodernism, post-traditional fundamentalism is a critique of the Enlightenment basis of modernity, one that elaborates a cultural alternative to the modern world. The decline of the grand narratives of the Enlightenment – the ideology of progress leading to human mastery of nature; the ideal of human emancipation based on the natural rights of the individual – opens a paradoxical space for a post-secular return of religion. On the one hand, the loss of faith in the project of seeing a rational foundation for the social totality in transcendental (universal and necessary) rationality opens the possibility of a social foundation located in a transcendent rationality. In this respect, postmodernism can open the space for a return of metaphysical theologies. On the other hand, the pluralism of the postmodernism – the abandonment of the universal and necessary aspect of foundations and their replacement by arbitrary or transcendent grounds – inherently relativises the contending foundational claims. While these might be regarded as morally absolute by their adherents, they cannot be demonstrated through rational procedures, but must be accepted through faith. Through the aporetic dialectics of postmodernity, resistance to moral relativism and cultural individualism ends by deepening the subjectivisation of rationality. Unlike traditional religious dogmatism say, of the Middle Ages in Western Europe or of 1920s fundamentalism in America, however, religious fundamentalism today is not hostile to all expressions of natural science. Indeed, aside from the biological sciences, religious fundamentalism engages a technocratic understanding of the human mastery of nature that is fully compatible with commercialised science and completely consonant with the well-known appeal of fundamentalism to engineers, doctors and lawyers.

Fundamentalism only really becomes post-traditional once it unites with the modern doctrine of nationalism: instead of the defence of premodern tradition (the administration of the law by religious authorities implying the externality of the state to cultural life), contemporary fundamentalism makes the state central to its political ambitions. Accordingly, the state is both responsible for spiritual corruption and central to religious salvation, and cultural transformations are regarded as preparatory of a zealous citizenry. Drawing from the Marxist tradition (especially Gramsci), contemporary fundamentalists seek to emulate the secular Left and borrow doctrinal elements from populist nationalism, instrumentalising the position of religion in cultural practices in the process.

The postmodernity opposed by religious fundamentalism is the one-dimensional postmodernism of a generalised nihilism that is diagnosed by all neoconservatives. Yet their opposition to postmodernism accommodates significant elements of postmodernity itself: reflexive invention of tradition and nationalist populism. From these spring flexible identities, negotiated hierarchies, social constructivism and “secularised” religions.

Moral Relativism and Political Secularisation

Fundamentalism is therefore an effort to reverse secularisation and to erase modernity. By contrast, post-traditional fundamentalism is an effort to begin a counter-modernity from within the dialectical logic of reflexive modernity itself. I have defined post-traditional fundamentalism as the combination of militancy and inerrancy. Now, it might be thought that militancy involves an anti-secular aim and inerrancy seeks to reinvest moral culture with absolute foundations. In the lived experience of neofundamentalist recruits, this is undoubtedly the case. But this only illustrates the proposition that ideological identification involves misrecognition of the effects of cultural and political practices.

I propose that militancy involves the effort to make religion into the cultural cement of the social foundation – in other words, a strategy aimed at making religion the leading ideological apparatus – while inerrancy invests the sacred text as a practical manual for political action.

The process of secularisation involves the progressive de-institutionalisation of traditional religious from social institutions, so that the social cohesion wrought by religion declines. Secularisation involves rationalisation, individualism and the replacement of religious solidarity with national community. Further, the autonomisation of social institutions leads to the decline in plausibility of religion as a binding form of rationality; together with the replacement of the chain of being by the provisional hypotheses of natural science. Secularisation does not propose an end result in atheism, but instead an attenuation of faith – strictly speaking it is an institutional hypothesis and not anti-theism. According to this hypothesis, fundamentalism arises (1) where rapid modernisation generates a need for religion and (2) as a reaction against the cultural structures of modernity (individualism, de-traditionalisation).

Following Durkheim, we can propose the equation of the sacred with the spirit of community (projection of communal spirit onto supernatural entity), so that in modernity, religion and nationalism are rival forms of communal solidarity, corresponding to the dialectical opposites of tradition and modernisation, respectively. Nationalism provides an alternative series of public rituals and doctrines of sacrifice that position it as a secular competitor with religion. Theoretically, nationalism is an Enlightenment ideology that arose from industrialisation and that proposes popular sovereignty expressed through secular institutions: the parliament, not God, legislates for the people. The theocracies advocated by post-traditional fundamentalism are of course supposed to be counterposed to nationalism. Islamic fundamentalists, for instance, have unequivocally opposed nationalism through both democratic competition and armed rebellion in Indonesia, Malaysia, India, the Arabian Peninsula, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey. These movements are counter-nationalist, in that they regard their mission as universal and oppose its delimitation by the territorial boundaries of the modern nation state.

By contrast with fundamentalists, post-traditional fundamentalists advocate “faith in the nation” as an expression of religious conviction. American post-traditional fundamentalists do not identify a contradiction between patriotism and religion, because America is a land “covenanted to God” – on condition that the people obey God’s law. For Christian post-traditional fundamentalists in the USA, faith in the nation justifies the linked missions of global evangelisation and revival of Americanism. In a similar vein in the Middle East, Islamic post-traditional fundamentalists employ elements of populist nationalism in their opposition to the power bloc. Granted, their proposal is a “revival” of the Caliphate. But there is a world of difference between an Islamic federation of nation states based on Islamic law and a restoration of the premodern Caliphate. Premodern Islamic solidarity is communal rather than territorial and the borders of the Caliphate were not frontiers in the modern territorial meaning. Furthermore, in premodern Arabia, religion was central and the state was a superimposition on top of traditional forms of life.

Ruthven claims to detect an undeclared modernist premise in the doctrines of post-traditional Islamic fundamentalism: the state is central to the social existence of the individual. “Reference to the state as the central framework of Islamist political thinking and action constitutes a signal departure from theories of government developed during the classical age of Islam. It is clearly the result of dialectics with the cultural antagonists of Islam – liberalism, nationalism and socialism – and of the engagement of the Islamist movements in national politic processes” (Ruthven, 2004: 147). Where the Islamists have held power, the regime’s strategic priorities characteristically gravitate from economic development to policing morals: this accelerates capital accumulation at the expense of the constituency of Islam (the rural displaced and the bazaari). “Far form being counter-nationalist in the sense of opposing the ‘secular’ national states imposed on the Islamic world since decolonisation, Islamism in practice mostly reveals itself as an alternative variety of nationalism whose political focus is cultural and religious rather than economic” (Ruthven, 2004: 150).

The basis of the post-traditional fundamentalist project is accordingly the consolidation of the nation state: adapting itself to the Jacobin state of the French Revolution, these movements accept the totalistic and egalitarian orientation of modernity but reject the Enlightenment values of the historical Jacobins, including popular sovereignty, moral autonomy and rational critique. As a result, post-traditional fundamentalism is closer to a “postmodern Jacobinism” than a religious doctrine.

As Ruthven proposes, like a Feuerbachian “religion,” post-traditional fundamentalism terrestrialises the cosmic struggles of religious cosmologies: it reduces mythological cosmologies to rational guidelines. In religion, the disorder of the world is compensated by cosmic order and divine justice; in post-traditional fundamentalism, the world is to be justly ordered so that the divine cosmology can prevail. To this end, the religious doctrine is radically simplified, reduced to a core teaching along with a moralistic programme of right conduct linked to ethno-religious identity. A secular faith couched in religious language, post-traditional fundamentalism ignores the difference between the mundane and the transmundane, typically claiming to collapse the latter into the former. In the process, religious symbols are stripped of their polyvocalism and reduced to a monologue that can become a manual for practical action. The truth of religion – for Christian and Islamic fundamentalists alike – is vindicated in the battlefields of history and the stock exchanges of the world market (Ruthven, 2004: 86-87).

Flexible Identities and Negotiated Hierarchies

Now, it might appear that post-traditional fundamentalism precisely tries to reinstate fixed identities and theocratic hierarchies. But it is my contention that post-traditional fundamentalism tries to legitimise a stark inside/outside distinction on grounds that this cements natural identities and divine hierarchies, but that within the charmed circle thereby created, neofundamentalism actually engages flexible practices of identity formation designed to accommodate multiple subject positions, and negotiates hierarchies on a localised basis to accommodate shifting distributions of social empowerment.

Of course, there is a massive difference between defending fixed identities and natural hierarchies from dissolution, and reinstating them once they have been erased. Post-traditional fundamentalism diagnoses the postmodern condition as characterised by nihilism: by social isolation, cultural individualism, moral relativism and materialist science. In other words, it postulates the existence of a post-traditional society as an historical result of modernity, while denouncing this as a harbinger of the apocalypse.

The extent to which post-traditional fundamentalism borrows its cultural raiment from that which it opposes – and is therefore an internal moment of the dialectics of postmodernity – can be seen from the post-traditional fundamentalist approach to questions of identity and hierarchy. The fundamentalist solution to modern detraditionalisation and relativisation was a trenchant defence of traditional identity and divinely-ordained hierarchy. Religious identity completely determined the social and sexual identity of the believer, thanks to strictures delivered directly from the Almighty; the community of belief provided the fundamental hierarchical distinction in society, between believers and infidels. In the revealed religions, the question of sin represented the intersection of identity and hierarchy, and overdetermined the position of women in premodern societies such as Europe in the Middle Ages.

According to Martin Reisebrodt, fundamentalism in late twentieth century America and Iran arises as a “patriarchal protest movement” (Reisebrodt, 1993). The defensive patriarchal character of the movement determines its obsession with the regulation of female sexuality. For instance, 107 of 195 articles of Quranic prescription in the Iranian Islamic republic (1981) were concerned with the detailed prescription of sexual activities. According to Ruthven’s précis of this argument, “fundamentalist concern to maintain the family as a social unit and transmitter of conservative values has been overtaken with a neurotic obsession with sexual behaviour” (Ruthven, 2004: 121). Sexual anxieties, Reisebrodt proposes, have sociological roots in rural displacement and economic transformation, where sociological modernisation results in symptoms of patriarchal decline manifest in the family. The symbolic prohibition of patriarchal decline (through the regulation of women) is a displaced failure to avert structural transformation. This move follows the conceptual link between social degeneration and female chastity common to Islam, Christianity and Hinduism. “Many fundamentalist movements ... pursue social programmes designed to reshape the family in accord with these values. These programmes in turn share another trait: they define the role of women and children quite narrowly and often place severe restrictions on these family members” (Reisebrodt, 1993: 176-177).

Yet women are amongst the principal supporters of post-traditional fundamentalist movements. One explanation of female support for the control of women involves the hypothesis of a “trade-off” between sexual regulation and economic security. Fundamentally, the inequalities in male/female income mean that a woman can really only have social aspirations when solely supported by a male. Fundamentalist values that centre on homemaking have an element of economic realism – they can be read as representing a legitimation and sanctioning of “inevitability.”

Homophobia provides the “sanitary cordon” within which post-traditional fundamentalism actually involves a re-negotiation of women’s roles based on a form of “social contract” (male economic provision and loyalty in return for sexual regulation and domestic labour). According to Ruthven, fundamentalist Christian women “can and do exercise considerable power in the religious institutions they join” – role of believer relativisation of other demands and primary identity (above even motherhood). Thus fundamentalism might be a transitional phase in the passage from confinement in the home to participation in business. Thus Ruthven reads it somewhat hyperbolically as a strategy to formally affirm patriarchal authority whilst substantively “taking their jobs” (Ruthven, 2004: 125).

For the post-traditional fundamentalist, “What is the proper way to behave?” is replaced by “what is the right conduct under modern conditions?” Modernity of fundamentalism: new solutions to contemporary problems; not the construction of rigid orthodoxies based on traditional solutions, but the invention of new orthodoxies for unprecedented situations. Religious fundamentalism in the West is coordinated by postmodern conservatism (“neoconservatism”), which employs religious beliefs instrumentally as an effective means to the deception of the masses.