milbank fundamentalism fundamentalist
Society and Social Structures

When did traditional morality become ‘fundamentalist’?

It was a question posed by Professor John Milbank on Twitter a few days ago. Or, rather, it wasn’t posed as a question, such as the ‘when’ inquiry into conceptual chronology (which is almost irrelevant), but as an observation of conceptual sloppiness: to be morally orthodox or to hold “mainline traditional moral beliefs” is often categorised as ‘fundamentalist’. If your Christian expression does not conform to the zeitgeist concerns of sexuality, gender identity, feminism, human rights, victimhood, ‘hate’, phobias, equality and diversity, you are, by definition, a fundamentalist.

Professor Milbank is wrong to juxtapose Christianity with Islam in this regard: the only fundamentalist Muslims are those which bomb the kuffar to jahannam, hurl homosexuals off tall buildings or summarily behead you for being Christian, white and western. Thus the phrase ‘Islamist fundamentalist’ pervades the narrative of Islamic extremism: Muslims who don’t conform to notions of gender equality or gay rights aren’t fundamentalist’; they simply adhere to the “mainline traditional moral beliefs” of Islam, which is perfectly acceptable in the UK, in the name of mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith.

But Christians are treated differently.

If Christians aren’t properly politicised in their expressions of faith – that is, properly politicised to conform to the state’s moral orthodoxy and the sensitivities of the pluralist culture – they are ‘fundamentalist’. They may profess a prophetic function to contend against the culture of oppression and to free the captives, but by the words and deeds of their fundamentalist evangelism they offend against personal autonomy and the emancipation of identity. Their sacred traditions are otiose; their struggles are irrelevant; their pristine dogma is bigoted and backward. Christians who seek to restrict others in social participation offend against personal identity and cultural belonging. If a gay teacher applies to teach Religious Education in a Roman Catholic school, what PR department dare inquire into his or her personal life? Who dares to oppress the minority? Who presumes to exclude the vulnerable?

Only the fundamentalist, which is basically the same as ‘bigot‘: those who oppress and exclude by employing the critical insights of centuries and millennia of biblical revelation; those Bible-believing zealots and extremist dogmatists who deny mercy and compassion to those who now define the essence of mercy and the parameters of compassion.

If two men or two women seek to marry, as the state has decreed they may, why should the fundamentalist Christian elders abuse their power and deny justice to those whose beliefs are different? Custom and culture are not homogenous: the myth of homogeneity in national or cultural identity has often been adduced to exclude women, religious minorities, LGBT people and diaspora communities. When “mainline traditional moral beliefs” have inflicted so much pain and suffering in their reification, who are you to to preach that people may not find God in themselves?

And when people find God in themselves, they love Her with all their heart, all their soul, and all their mind. The divine power sustains the self because the self is the source of divinity. Are you offended by ‘Her’? Do you judge the source of self? Who are you to assert your fundamentalist toxic masculinity on the new and necessary theological vocabulary? Who are you to proclaim that your Bible-believing faith must control the language in order to shape the symbolic narrative of contemporary culture?

Nuance? You say you want to ‘qualify’ your “mainline traditional moral beliefs” with ‘nuance’?

Sorry, but your nuance stems from your fundamentalist traditions, and so even the nuances of your moral oppression are oppressive. The hermeneutics of Christian postmodernism or postmodernist Christianity cannot trust or accept biblical dogma or moral orthodoxy as divine revelation. The task is to evaluate the scriptures accurately and examine their sitz im leben and then expound the new insights as transformative revelation toward greater love, more justice and the peace that passes understanding.

Your “mainline traditional moral beliefs” have no role in the construction of postmodern normative ethics, because your fundamentalist Christian beliefs can only ever be patriarchal, misogynist, homophobic, Islamophobic, anti-equality and ‘hateful’. And the more you bring the weight of your hostile theological authority to bear down on people’s personal experience, the more you offend against their identity and hurt their feelings. Your ‘truth’ is not universal, and this is a universal truth.

And so to be Christian is to be fundamentalist: salvation is to be found in Christ alone. That is in an immutable fundamental, however offensive, hateful, intolerant, narrow-minded, unenlightened and bigoted it may be. The question is not so much when did traditional morality become fundamentalist, but why?