An examination of the plurality of fundamentalism, its main characteristics and what the progressive wing must not lose sight of in the fight to combat them, were some of the central points of the conversation between Dr Magali Cunha and members of churches, ecumenical communities and organizations during the virtual Faith and Fundamentalism Seminar held on Thursday 15.
The event was the result of a partnership between the Bahia Ecumenical Council of Christian Churches (Conselho Ecumênico Baiano de Igrejas Cristãs: CEBIC) and the Ecumenical Coordination of Service (Coordenadoria Ecumênica de Serviço: CESE) aimed at debating the extent to which fundamentalism affects the churches; how it relates to faith; and how it affects the human rights agenda, among other issues.
Magali Cunha is a journalist with a doctorate in Communication Sciences, Coordinator of the Group of Research, Communication and Religion at the Brazilian Society for Interdisciplinary Studies in Communication (Sociedade Brasileira de Estudos Interdisciplinares da Comunicação: INTERCOM), and member of the International Society for Media, Religion and Culture and the World Association for Christian Communication (WACC).
She noted that the term “fundamentalism” is not new. It grew out of Christian Protestantism in the United States, became popular at the end of the 1970s and began to be more frequently seen in newspapers and the news media following the September 11 attacks in 2001. “Commonly, the term is used to classify attitudes of authoritarianism, intolerance, intransigence, fanaticism, refusal to dialogue, etc.,” she declared.
But she noted that there is a conceptual tension surrounding the term. Studies assert that it cannot explain everything that fundamentalism represents today, since it now reaches beyond the religious sphere, mixes with politics and the economy and influences them, while also maintaining its foundations.
Regarding the Brazilian context, Magali recalled that “back in the 1990s, there was a relationship between neoliberal politics and certain theologies that supported them, such as that of “Prosperity” and “Spiritual War”. She noted that Brazil’s colonial foundations and those of its military dictatorships have structured the reactionary wave that has swept the country since 2010.
Magali was keen to point out that the debate shouldn’t focus on the illusion of the existence of one singular fundamentalism. “It is plural. These are visions of the world based on faith. Different aspects that exist to weaken reproductive and democratic rights, diversity policies. They have something in common: fighting their enemies. What gives them meaning is opposition,” she explained.
Magali listed seven characteristics of fundamentalism: reaction to sexual and reproductive rights; pro-family discourse as an economic and political project; moral panic and permanent clashes with enemies; threats to traditional communities; coordinated action; the appropriation of themes related to the secular state and religious freedom; and the operation of new fundamentalist movements in the United States.
“Regarding moral panic, the emphasis is on the spread of fake news – vaccines as chips, the return of communism; the appropriation of themes related to the secular state are materialized in the creation of supposed “Christianophobia”; threats to traditional communities are seen in alliances with sectors such as mining companies and agribusiness, which finance religious missions because they have an interest in removing the rights of these peoples,” she explained.
Magali pointed out that fundamentalist discourse resonates with the grassroots sectors – “protection for the family”, “entrepreneurship, so as not to depend on the boss” – and also with the middle class – “the necessity of desire,” “the search for happiness”. And this is where there is a need for the progressive wing to consider strategies to reach these audiences.
“We need to take on several challenges. To learn about processes, to expose fundamentalism, to learn to use language in the way these groups do, to convince people. Not to copy, but to touch sensitive issues so that people can hear other messages, in another way, of a non-oppressive gospel. We know how to talk very well, but we don’t know how to listen. Progressive groups need to know how to influence,” she noted.
For Bianca Daébs, CESE’s Ecumenical Advisor and member of CEBIC’s Collegiate Coordination Body, it is crucial for the Christian Churches to reflect on the relationship between politics and economics, and religious fundamentalism. “It is essential for us to be able to confront this moment of crisis, strengthening ecumenical relationships and interreligious dialogue in the daily struggle against religious racism, the patriarchy and impoverishment, and for the promotion and guarantee of rights in our society”.