Who gets called a “fundamentalist” depends heavily on location and context. I teach at a “moderate” Baptist university (critics would call it “liberal”), where I am likely to be perceived by some as a “fundamentalist” because of my evangelical commitments in doctrine and cultural issues.

Some in the Southern Baptist Convention (those in the “fundamentalist” wing) might accuse me of being a “liberal,” however, even though I am firmly aligned with all the SBC’s doctrinal commitments. Yet I am not a fan of Donald Trump and Trumpism. To some this might implicitly or explicitly disqualify me from good standing within the SBC.

The difference between evangelicals and fundamentalists has been much discussed lately, as observers such as David French have explained what happened at SBC 2021 as a fight between evangelicals and fundamentalists – or “fundamentalist pirates,” to be precise. Tim Keller has likewise tweeted about the negative effects of certain American fundamentalists on the public impression of the world evangelical movement generally.

The terms of “evangelical” and “fundamentalist” are among the most perplexing on the American religious landscape. Very few people identify as fundamentalists any more in America, while more white people identify as evangelicals than are actual evangelicals in the sense of belief or practice. As I discuss in my book Who Is an Evangelical?, this disparity is partly because pollsters since 1976 have routinely asked whether people are “born again” or “evangelical.” But they rarely ask people if they are fundamentalists.

Similarly, many African Americans would fit standard definitions of “evangelical” according to belief and practice, but they do not identify as such either because they are not asked – often pollsters only ask whites if they are evangelicals – or because they reject the term’s political implications.

During the fundamentalist-modernist crisis of the early 20th century, “fundamentalist” became almost synonymous with “evangelical.” Fundamentalist meant those who defended the fundamentals of the Christian faith against modernists, who doubted the full veracity and inspiration of the Bible.

“Fundamentalist” came into some bad odor due to the debacle at the Scopes Trial in 1925, the effect of which was amplified by the play and movie Inherit the Wind, which made William Jennings Bryan’s character look like a deranged buffoon. “Fundamentalist” also took on connotations of any intolerant religious person, so that it was as common to hear the term applied to Muslims as to Christians.

By the post-World War II era, whether a Christian embraced the term “fundamentalist” basically depended upon one’s opinion of Billy Graham. Self-identified fundamentalists said that Graham’s cooperation with mainliners and Catholics was a fatal compromise of the gospel. In 1966, Bob Jones Jr. said that Graham was “doing more harm to the cause of Jesus Christ than any living man.” Bob Jones University remains a flagship institution for American fundamentalism, noting that its doctrinal beliefs accord with the “spirit of historical biblical Fundamentalism.” Independent Baptist churches are probably the most common denominational affiliation that touts and embraces the fundamentalist label today. If you’re going to a church that is King James Bible-only, it seems fair to conclude that it is “fundamentalist.”

The problem comes when people apply the term “fundamentalist” to rivals or enemies (or pirates) who do not claim the label fundamentalist for themselves. I definitely agree with David French’s type of concerns about SBC 2021. The SBC may yet tear itself apart over issues including “Critical Race Theory” (however one defines that), race relations, Republican politics, women’s roles, and more. But I’m not sure that labeling people fundamentalists is going to “move the ball” on the SBC’s problems. (Candidly, I don’t think anything will essentially address those problems other than a great move of the Holy Spirit to renew the denomination in its commitment to humility, transparency, love for one’s brother and sister, evangelism, and faithfulness to the Word of God.)

Part of the difficulty is that, save for those who self-identify as fundamentalists, “fundamentalist” is most often an epithet (as Alvin Plantinga has explained) for those whose whose views on politics, theology, or church life seem more rigid than yours. Then there is the “spirit” of fundamentalism, which has infected both the woke left and the nationalist right. As French says, woke fundamentalism is “a secular version of the religious intensity of the far religious right, rejecting alternative worldviews with the same ferocity that religious fundamentalists reject secular sources of truth.” You only need to spend a few minutes on a typical university campus to get a taste of this intolerant wokeism.

By this point, however, “fundamentalist” seems as much like a tool of rhetoric as a description of how a specific group of religious people would understand themselves. Social media is consumed with incendiary attacks against people of faith, but the priority of empathy undercuts the value of using “fundamentalist” to describe most religious people. If “fundamentalist” is simply a way to place people beyond the pale – to identify them as outside the evangelical movement, to be specific – then it may be rhetorically useful but not much else.

Keller and French would no doubt remind us that internal debates among traditionalist Christians are not likely to get solved on Twitter. And our current problems reflect yet another instance of people in churches being discipled far more by cable news and social media than by the church. The “spirit” of fundamentalism tells us that no difference, politically or theologically, is tolerable, and that our enemies must be destroyed. The spirit of Christ offers a better way: robust truth and robust kindness.

Sign up here for the Thomas S. Kidd newsletter. It delivers unique content only to subscribers.