Fundamentalism Is a Disease, a Demonic Perversion

Editor’s Note: This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Waco Siege that occurred from February 28 to April 19, 1993. Throughout the weeks, we have been sharing on the website the articles that appeared in the May 1993 edition (vol. 23, no. 1) of Spectrum concerning this tragedy.

On Sunday, April 25, 1993, the same day The Washington Post ran two essays chastising government law enforcement for its tragic assault in Waco, Andy Rooney of Sixty Minutes said he was sick and tired of slurs like these. Nobody's to blame, Rooney hissed, except those "religious nuts."

I'm with the Post: the government was impatient, klutzy—and culpable. Still, except for the children, Rooney's description fits. The Branch Davidians were religious and they were nuts—not just weird, but weird to the point of lunacy.

And they were fed by fundamentalism.

All who are cousins to these crazies—and we Adventists are—should wake up to this fact. Perhaps we're not close cousins. I personally had never heard of the Branch Davidians until the media, gorging on the initial shootout, began to belch out the story. And what did I then hear? I heard about a man who had Revelation solved. I heard about a man who thought everyone was wrong but him. I heard about a man who knew all of the answers and none of the questions.

The man, and most of his followers, had once belonged to Adventist churches. Many in these churches thought—think! —that wehave Revelation solved. Many think everyone is wrong but us. Many have all of the answers and none of the questions.

Our best theologians, including Ellen White, know we see through a glass darkly. They know that God, and God alone, is infallible. But it isn't often that our church's leaders, even its thought leaders, have either the spunk or the insight to say once and for all: fundamentalism is a dread disease, a demonic perversion, a groundwork for madness.

Not long ago—but before David Koresh—I gave a talk on "The Adventure of Truth" to some highly educated, second- and third-generation Adventists. Invoking the Abraham story, I said that when you truly love God you leave off arrogance of mind as well as heart. As Abraham set out, "not knowing where he was going" (Hebrews 11:8, NRSV), you walk a path of bravery and risk, all along acknowledging the imperfection of your knowledge and even of your prophecy (1 Corinthians 13:12). I also said that the contrary frame of mind was fundamentalism, a conceit that murders curiosity and leads thereby either to listlessness or to destructive passion.

The idea of truth as adventure appealed to this particular group—I was preaching to the choir. But in the conversation it came out that nearly everyone thought it was a rhetorical mistake to hammer away at fundamentalism. They thought that most Adventists would be suspicious of me, and reject my deeper point, if l came across unfriendly to fundamentalism, and that if I gave this talk elsewhere, or wrote it down for publication, I should avoid an explicit reproach.


I was a fairly patient listener then. Now, after the madness and the fatal fire, and the knowledge that so many of the dead were schooled in Adventism, I'm impatient. The church's leaders, including its privileged thought leaders, must acknowledge the violence of fundamentalism. Now, more than ever, we must confess that closed and cocky minds are an abomination to the Lord. God wants us always to remain open to change and renewal (Isaiah 48:6).

If I am a fundamentalist I take my convictions to be non-negotiable. I reject challenges to my belief before I have considered them. I deny my fallibility and my need to grow.

In other words, I reject God; I worship an idol.

The wild, ominous energy of David Koresh exposed the violence of fundamentalism. But it won't do to say No to this lunatic. We must say No to the frame of mind that fed the lunacy.

Further reading on the Waco tragedy: Futuristic Highs at Mt. Carmel, April 4, 2018 One of David’s Mighty Men, March 28, 2018 The British Connection, March 14, 2018 Apocalypse at Diamond Head, March 7, 2018 God, Guns, and Rock ‘n’ Roll, February 14, 2018 The Making of David Koresh, February 7, 2018 Paradise Lost in Waco, February 5, 2018 We Didn't Start the Fire but the Tinder was Ours, January 31, 2018 New TV Series Premieres for 25th Anniversary of the Waco Tragedy, January 24, 2018 Beware of Wolves Disguised as Sheep, June 8, 2017 Death of a Branch Davidian Friend and Other Memories, April 19, 2014 Branch Davidians (and Adventists) Revisited in The New Yorker, March 30, 2014 My Trip to Waco, December 27, 2012

This article was written by Charles Scriven for the May 1993 issue of Spectrum. Scriven is Board Chair of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum.


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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

“Horsefeathers!” Careful now; that too can represent a mindset.
Do we hear you saying, Chuck, that as Christians we need to use all the brain cells discerningly that God has gifted us with? And simultaneously be loving, compassionate, gracious and serving disciples - living the virtues that Jesus embodied?
The categories of fundamentalism, liberalism, orthodox, etc. while sometimes convenient short-cut summary tags, may actually be/come misleading labels (pejoratives?) and restrictive frameworks.
This is particularly the case in ‘name, frame, blame and shame’ endeavors.

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As Ecclesiastes has noted, Fundamentalists come in many strips. I sense a bit of it in the WO movement where WO is the test of righteousness. Those who disagree are castigated as evil folk. A bit more balance would be in order.


Before we speak of “demonic perversions” it might be good to define some terms - such as fundamentalism. The article describes the results of fundamentalism but no definition.

Allen is possibly right to point out that the fundamentalist produced intransigency shows up in many places and in many ways. I’m not sure anyone has made WO a test of righteousness; nor is dedication to a cause an example of fundamentalism - therefore a definition would be good. Like a lot of labels, this one has taken on many faces.


Immediate classification prejudged all subsequent thinking. Waco has enough history to make sound, clear assessment. Now to apply its lesson properly. That is the difficult part if one is tied to human institutions rather that to the Gospel. Let Grace rein not institutionalism.


Knowing Chuck as well as I do, “fundamentalism” as he defines it cannot be an abandoning of the “fundamentals” of faith. However, in recent history, it has unfortunately acquired a cluster of not only doctrinal but political meanings as well. It sometimes refers politically to those who believe that every word of the constitution is somehow an absolute, unchanging principle that is to be applied to the present as literally as possible. Similarly, in religion, it often refers to those who insist that every “word” (verbal inspiration and its close siblings) of the Bible is an absolute, unchanging principle that is to be applied in the same way. When one begins with such an absolute attitude/assumption, conflict and disagreement is inevitable: witness the divided opinions and interpretations on SCOTUS vis-a-vis the constitution. When people with those convictions hear an authoritative figure cite the Bible literally with persuasive rhetoric, they happily agree because it supports their own convictions. Careful thinking is replaced by emotional “sugar” highs and they become addicted to a figure who promises to give them what they desire most–certainty. That is why it can be demonic, it seems to me.


Thank you for your explanation. The thing about terms is that they become labels that often take on broader meaning filled with cultural connotations. For example, today, a political fundamentalism is another term for a NRA supporter; and a brainless Trump supporter. Once those connotations are fixed there can be no discussion. In SDA circles, a fundamentalist watches 3ABM and is against WO, while politically, is illiterate - at least those are the attachments we have created. But then, I might be mistaken. The bottom line is that labels are dangerous.


So true, Sirje. “Liberals” is another term that has acquired an odious cluster of meanings. Like a heresy, such labels are half-true and half-false. We use them for economy of language and thought. Minutely defining how we use terms like these is exhausting and requires a setting in which true dialogue takes place.

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I would think that all SDAs are fundamentalists, the fundamentals being - the virgin birth - the Trinity - Christ’s miracles - empty tomb - and the ascension. Maybe what is more of a problem for religious fundamentalists is not their beliefs as such, but their literal interpretation of scriptures. I guess some would see the two going hand-in-hand, but a lot of people believe in those fundamentals of Christian belief but are also open to varied interpretations.

It seems to me that most of the controversial disagreements with which we now struggle are those attached to social ethical issues, WO being but one.Historically, that has also been true, once the founders got past the most significant doctrinal challenges posed by the likes of Kellogg, Canright and respected leaders like Uriah Smith who could not agree with the majority in some instances. But racial equality, women’s equality (prior to WO), LGBTQ issues, our relation to the military and to war, how we handle internal questions about our doctrines, how large the tent should be for those who want to enter but cannot agree with everything, and so on, bedevil us constantly. Or so it seems to me.

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As I understand it, holding some beliefs as fundamental, or core, is not really the definition of fundamentalism, and literalism does play a factor. It’s not unlike the way democrat and democracy are different.


The article starts out with this description, which seems accurate and also why I never want to be a fundamentalist:

Fundamentalism usually has a religious connotation that indicates unwavering attachment to a set of irreducible beliefs. However, fundamentalism has come to be applied to a tendency among certain groups—mainly, though not exclusively, in religion—that is characterized by a markedly strict literalism as it is applied to certain specific scriptures, dogmas, or ideologies, and a strong sense of the importance of maintaining ingroup and outgroup distinctions, leading to an emphasis on purity and the desire to return to a previous ideal from which advocates believe members have strayed. Rejection of diversity of opinion as applied to these established “fundamentals” and their accepted interpretation within the group is often the result of this tendency.

This rather accurately describes the apologists here and seen in church, for which I have little remaining patience.

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You make my point. If you keep reading the article, you will find that originally it was a statement of basic Christian beliefs and morphed into a derogatory description by most educated people. It does include literalistic interpretations of everything in the Bible. I suppose that’s how a language changes. In the meantime we keep creating boxes to place everybody in and define everyone by what box we think they fit into on any given subject. This way you never deal with individuals - only their identity dependant on what the label on the box says.


Sirje: You say, “The article describes the results of fundamentalism but no definition.”

Wait a minute. It’s true that I didn’t stamp the word DEFINITION into these remarks. But I did characterize fundamentalism:

“…a man who thought everyone was wrong but him…a man who knew all of the answers and none of the questions.”

“If I am a fundamentalist I take my convictions to be non-negotiable. I reject challenges to my belief before I have considered them. I deny my fallibility and my need to grow.”

How could readers miss what I meant? How could you?


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Dear Chuck.

Your ideas about fundamentalism are your own.

  1. According to Google, a fundamentalist is “a person who believes in the strict, literal interpretation of scripture in a religion.

  2. And according to the Cambridge English Dictionary, fundamentalism is “the belief in old and traditional forms of religion, or the belief that what is written in a holy book, such as the Christian Bible, is completely true:

You could accommodate different view points but still be a fundamentalist in holding everything in the Bible as true. You could be like Richard Dawkins, appear very progressive in your willingness to follow the direction of science, but in disparaging Christians, exhibit a fundamentalist mindset with regards to “the Origin of Species.

Fundamentalism is NOT about refusing to countenance ideas, but about holding certain core ideas to be indisputable. All Christians are fundamentalists when it comes to “Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes way the sin of the world.” Would such a stance be “Demonic Perversion”?

With regards,

James Peterson


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Christainity is quite simple— Freely ye have received freely give. Not neccesarity to institutions but to directly to those in need. Ones spouse. And. Ch ildren. First, then thy neighbor, and then the world field. Charles Colson grasped it correctly.