Bryan Caplan  

Fundamentalists: When They're Right, When They're Wrong

Why Hitler Chose the Jews... Finally, a Pure Bailout...

Here are my two Laws of Fundamentalism:

1. In any textual dispute between fundamentalists and moderates of the same creed, the fundamentalists are almost always correct.

2. In any substantive dispute between fundamentalists and moderates of the same creed, the moderates are almost always correct.

These claims work for all of the creeds I understand well enough to test them against: Christianity, Marxism, Judaism, Austrian economics, and Objectivism for starters.

The logic is simple: Fundamentalists take the writings of their creed seriously, so they genuinely struggle to figure out their true meaning. Moderates of the same creed, in contrast, want to be right without admitting that their creed could be wrong. So they get the substance right, but do violence to the texts.

Thus, fundamentalist Christians see that the Bible prescribes the death penalty for homosexuality, and (if they're extreme enough) actually want to apply it. Moderate Christians see that this is an absurd and monstrous position, so they struggle to "reinterpret" their sacred text to make it consistent with common sense and common decency.

More examples? Counter-examples?

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COMMENTS (21 to date)
liberty writes:

The you need to rewrite your article to say "Why I am a moderate Austrian" rather than why you are not an Austrian.

Then you could get the substance right, even if you disregard some errors that Mises made, or what have you.

Selfreferencings writes:


Very few people who consider themselves fundamentalists call for the death penalty for homosexuals. Even the most orthodox Christians think that the penalties which applied to the Ancient Israelites no longer apply.

You know, millions of people work on Biblical exegesis and many very smart people have for millenia. Clearly there are experts. But you're not an expert, so why do you think your reading of the Bible is going to be reliable? I mean, c'mon Bryan, defer to experts!

Caliban Darklock writes:

I think this is an incorrect division. It's not between the fundamentalist and the moderate, it's between the zealot and the skeptic. The zealot only cares what the text says; once this is established, the debate is over. The skeptic cares what makes sense in the real world among real people, and extreme positions almost never make such sense. Thus, where the text takes an extreme position, the skeptic softens it.

So the skeptic naturally falls into the moderate camp, while the zealot DOES NOT fall into the moderate camp. The zealot may disagree with the text, but rather than adopt a compatible position or a compromise, he will discount the text entirely and adopt a different extreme position.

8 writes:

How does this work for the Constitution? I think 1 holds but 2 does not.

caveat bettor writes:

Assuming the doctrine of original sin, any text for the consumption of humans would need to be contextualized in the state of their institutionalization of specific sins, whether it be sexism or slavery or homosexuality.

But what if that scriptural text pushed redemptively at the cultural status quo? For instance, the state of Israel was to grant asylum to runaway slaves, as well as free slaves after 7 years. That was much more moderating a practice than surrounding cultures. Likewise, the ministry of Jesus Christ and the new covenant church presented a much more egalitarian treatment of women, against the Jewish and Greco-Roman culture of the day.

Unfortunately, there does not seem to be a moderating view of homosexuality, except in the most generalized cases (e.g. he who is without sin cast the first stone). Of course, anyone who subscribes to Darwin's natural selection or sexual selection could be justified in having just as unsympathetic view of homosexuality ... just bringing forward such hypotheses to logical conclusion.

My "fundamentalist" church friends and I aren't really hung up on homosexuals in our midst (and there are several), as much as we are caught up on whether some of us worship at the altar of Big Government Programs. Perhaps the culture a century now will look back and realize the error of our big government ways. One can only hope.

Jeffrey Horn writes:

Fundamentally speaking, there are no substantive disputes within the Christian world. No, of course this is not true, but I felt clever writing it.

The truth is, Christians feel that the ancient Israelite punishments for transgression of the law no longer apply because the ultimate wage of every transgression is death (physical and metaphysical). The punishment is unavoidable. The law itself is unattainable.

So the most fundamental of all Christians must admit that the Israelite law no longer applies.

However, right-wing nutjobs with a penchant for proseltyzing may see things a bit differently. But I hardly think they're fundamental: their heart is misguided and their spirit unhearing.

Rayson writes:
Moderate Christians see that this is an absurd and monstrous position, so they struggle to "reinterpret" their sacred text to make it consistent with common sense and common decency.

Sorry to disagree. Real fundamentalist Christians follow Jesus and not a "sacred text". They don't need "common sense and common decency", their reason to object to things like death penalty for homosexuals is the charity for which Jesus stands. What you call "fundamentalist Christians" should better be called "fundamentalist Biblists".

"Moderate Christians" are a much different story...

What about the issue of interpretation of texts that are inherently obscure or metaphorical? The text may or may not provide clues. For example, there are those fundamentalists who insist that the days of Genesis 1 are literal, 24-hour days, even though the physical conditions for such a day didn't exist according to the text itself. The Bible also supplies clues like "A day with the Lord is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as a day," which suggests that we probably should not take "day" as a literal 24 hour Earth day everywhere in the Bible. One could also argue that Jesus' parables was, in part, his way of trying to tell us how we are supposed to understand the Bible -- as metaphors that demonstrate life lessons or lessons from God -- and the text is further complexified.

Fundamentalists tend to give a "literal interpretation" -- even though that term is itself an oxymoron. Something is either literal, or an interpretation. If I say, "The sky in Texas today is cloudy," nobody is going to go, "I wonder what he meant by that?" If I give you another text that requires interpretation. Take the following exchange from a play I just finished. Adam has just professed his love for Lily, who has no idea he's in love with her. She's visiting him at his house and is looking at a mirror he just bought:

Lily: This is a fantastic mirror you found. Incredible. You need to clean this tarnish off. But the extra color gives it character, so I don’t know what I’d really do.

Adam: I think there’s a flaw in the glass. I sometimes get strange glimpses of images that are and are not there. Just some strange reflections.

If you read this exchange literally, you won't get the full meaning behind the exchange. When you read a text like this -- or a religious text, for that matter -- you give up meaning and insight for . . . what? Historical accuracy? As Aristotle pointed out, myth is more philosophical than history, since myth tells you how things could and should have been (meaning it has meaning and demonstrates values), while history only shows what did happen.

Does this necessarily discredit the historical accuracy of the Bible, for example? Not at all. I'm arguing that historical accuracy may not be the most important thing in a religious text, is all.

Heather writes:

"Fundamentalists take the writings of their creed seriously, so they genuinely struggle to figure out their true meaning. Moderates of the same creed, in contrast, want to be right without admitting that their creed could be wrong. So they get the substance right, but do violence to the texts."

This argument assumes that there are no contradictions in the text. The Bible is riddled with them and anyone who tells you they know which one is "right" is taking an interpretive stance. In the same passage of the Bible, both homosexuality and the wearing of cloth made from two fibers is condemned. I challenge you to find a fundamentalist who follows the later part of this condemnation and does not "interpret" it as meaningless. The problem is not one of reinterpretation, but rather of different people reading with different biases.

Rick writes:


Excellent piece entitled, "Why I am Not an Austrian Economist." However, I will agree with liberty and say the title may need some altering.

With strikingly close precision, you explained how I feel about the current state of economics. Like you, I believe there is room for econometrics and mathematics, which unfortunately, Austrians do not. However, The ideas Mises offers in Human Action have helped put into words what I've thought for a long time.

For good measure, a few points where I disagree; Section 3.4.2, propositions 3 and 4.

Nathan Smith writes:

It doesn't require any "reinterpretation" of the Bible to think that what was Jewish law hundreds of years before Christ oughtn't necessarily to be applied today. Indeed, anyone who thinks that the whole old Jewish law is still in force doesn't know his New Testament.

James A. Donald writes:
Thus, fundamentalist Christians see that the Bible prescribes the death penalty for homosexuality, and (if they're extreme enough) actually want to apply it.
Not so. This is a problem for Jews, not Christians. Christians are not bound by the old testament. Jesus and Paul both weaseled out of all that disturbing stuff . “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone”
Bob Knaus writes:

The comments are pretty funny. Many of Jesus' sayings took aim at the fundamentalists of his day. They had the form "You have heard it said {traditional law}, but I say to you {new way of doing things}." Radical prophet, fundamentalist followers. A repeated pattern of human behavior.

As to Bryan's request for counter-examples, certainly in the Christian arena the fundamentalists are not the best textualists. The fundamentalists who are most interested in the text prefer the King James Version with the Scofield annotations, minus the Apocrypha. This gives them a text with a number of known inaccuracies and late additions; a creationist and millenareist commentary; and a disregard for textual criticism.

Did that seem like gobbledeygook? Now you know why I left the religion of my youth.

The Christians I've found to be most open to scholastic inquiry regarding biblical text are neither the fundamentalists (who have wax in their ears) nor the liberals (who don't care). Rather it is the moderate evangelicals, whose target audience is the educated middle classes.

Eli Smith writes:

Unfortunately, the radical example you gave of the death penalty to a homosexual cannot be applied to any Christian. That was Old Testament law and Christians do not follow Old Testament law nor believe in it, as it was prescribed for the Jews of those times. Hence, the coming of the New Testament (new covenant). Even the strictest orthodox Jews do not follow the OT to its letter.

brian writes:

Really? In my Catholic school upbringing, we were taught the Old Testament along side the New Testament. We were never taught that the Old Testament was "outdated" or anything. The 10 Commandments, for example, applied just as strongly as anything in the New Testament. Fundamentally, why should the adherence to the 10 Commandments be any different than the stoning of gays? Any distinction and you lose the fundamentalist, textualist approach.

I've never heard this claim before that Christians don't have to adhere to the OT, despite the fact that it is in their sacred text, the Bible.

Nathan Smith writes:

There is some apparent contradiction in the New Testament. On the one hand, Jesus says, "Not one jot or tittle of the law shall pass away." On the other hand:

(a) Peter has a vision in which God spreads out a plain full of animals unclean in Jewish tradition and orders him to "kill and eat," then twice chastises him when he resists the command in respect towards the Jewish law;

(b) Paul gets in a big debate with other early Christian leaders because he doesn't think Gentile Christians should have to be circumcised, along with some other Jewish regulations he doesn't think should apply, and wins the debate;

(c) Jesus says of the woman caught in adultery: "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone"-- a principle that, if generally applied, would (since the point is that none of us is without sin) seem to prohibit *ALL* punishment, and which, even if applied only in circumstances closely resembling those in which the utterance was made, would seem to forbid the stoning of those caught in sexual crimes.

(d) Jesus also said "Do not resist a wicked man," "Turn the other cheek," forgive your brother "unto seventy times seven," and other sayings which, taken together, would seem to amount to a pacifist-anarchist political philosophy and would certainly eviscerate any criminal justice system. It's not hard to interpret his "not one jot or tittle of the law shall pass away" in light of this; Jesus meant that the law is binding on individuals morally, not that it should continue to stand as a presciption for the state (which right the Jews had already lost to the Romans anyway). (It is harder to reconcile the not-one-jot-or-tittle line with Paul's relaxation of some aspects of Jewish law.)

You can't say "Christians don't have to adhere to the OT," or "Christians do have to adhere to the OT." It's subtler than that. If you read the Bible and try to apply it to your life, such a crude approach quickly becomes untenable, and you're driven to higher modes of reading.

Eric writes:

The role of Christ in Christianity is that of the redeemer of all sin debt. In essence, the spiritual "death penalty" applies to all sinners, which encompasses all humanity. Christ died for homosexuals as much as for common liars, heterosexuals who engage in premarital sex, and a host of other sins, all of which make us impure in the eyes of God. If Christ walked the earth in the flesh today, he would reach out to homosexuals in love, as he did with others in the New Testament.

Note Romans 3:20-31 which declares the purpose of the law of the Old Testament -- to show that none of us are perfect. And it also shows the recognition that the law has been demoted from its purpose of spiritual payment to a purpose of maintaining order.

20 Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.
21 But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets;
22 Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference:
23 For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;
24 Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus:
25 Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God;
26 To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.
27 Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith.
28 Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.
29 Is he the God of the Jews only? is he not also of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also:
30 Seeing it is one God, which shall justify the circumcision by faith, and uncircumcision through faith.
31 Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law.

Note that I'm not a theologian -- hopefully this is an accurate understanding of the text.

fundamentalist writes:

Your example of the death penalty for homesexuals is a poor one. Those laws were the civil laws of the nation of Israel at the time. Christians don't follow those laws because we have a new covenant that supersedes them.

I just finished Mises: The Last Knight of Liberalism and have to agree with Mises that most moderates are wrong on most things and are motivated by the desire to be popular. They have no problem compromising with the truth in order to achieve practical (that is, short term) goals at the expense of longterm goals.

SheetWise writes:

"Real fundamentalist Christians follow Jesus and not a 'sacred text'."

That's a good trick. Can you name some of the books he wrote -- or what other resources you use for guidance?

Rayson writes:
Can you name some of the books he wrote -- or what other resources you use for guidance?

Of course Christians will rely on the known sources - e.g. gospels, letters of Paul or Peter. But the contradiction you suggest is not there: These texts are only means to find out what kind of person this Jesus was. You don't even need to take them literally for this purpose.

Ben Kalafut writes:

Consider Ron Paul a counterexample; there's a "fundamentalist" Constitutionalist whose textual beliefs are akin to Irwin Schiff's or Michael Badnarik's.

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