Protect, Preserve, and Restore: Fundamentalist Arguments in American Discourse

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Fundamentalism and ideas about fundamentalism are significant obstacles to dialogue and deliberation. Previous scholarly work on fundamentalism may have contributed to a general distaste for fundamentalism and fundamentalists. Some scholars define fundamentalists as people unable, or unwilling, to cope with the conditions of modernity and therefore turn to scriptural literalism, separatism, and traditionalism to maintain their sense of identity. This project seeks to contribute to this scholarly discussion by focusing on the rhetorical dimensions of fundamentalism. This project proposes understanding fundamentalism as a rhetorical concept—a type of argument—with themes and strategies that perform specific types of work in the world. Fundamentalist arguments emerge out of a concern for defending what is believed to be the fundamentals of identity. Those issuing fundamentalist arguments conclude that without the fundamentals of identity, a cherished and universalized identity would be profoundly compromised. In fundamentalist arguments, the universalized identity is threatened when some of its members arguably sully the fundamentals of identity by supporting external contaminants. The ultimate calls to action in fundamentalist argument are to preserve, protect, and restore the integrity of the fundamentals.Chapter One examines fundamentalist argument in the anti-abortion rhetoric of evangelical thinker Francis Schaeffer. For Schaeffer, Roe v. Wade symbolized a nation that broke with its foundation—a Christian worldview. Despite its origins in theological debates, Schaeffer’s rhetoric demonstrates the flexibility of fundamentalist argument in addressing partisan issues in American politics. Chapter Two examines fundamentalist argument in white supremacist rhetoric, specifically that of Mississippi judge, Thomas Brady. My analysis reveals how Brady uses several strategies to achieve fundamentalist objectives to preserve, protect, and restore whiteness as a foundation for American culture. In this journey to understand fundamentalist argument, the cases examined so far cohere in that they champion conservative causes. Chapter Three nuances this pattern by exploring fundamentalist argument in environmentalist discourse, specifically that of microbiologist and renowned ecologist Barry Commoner. Commoner’s particular audience—environmentalists—are tasked with defending all of humanity from self-destruction. Commoner’s rhetoric illuminates the ways in which progressives can turn to more reactionary-based arguments. In the Conclusion, I explore what this analysis reveals about fundamentalist argument as a genre of argument. Per contemporary understandings of genre theory, I appraise the cultural, situational, generic contexts that shape and are shaped by fundamentalist argument. I also discuss the strategic nature of fundamentalist argument as a compelling rhetoric to attract adherents to a cause. Lastly, my Conclusion demonstrates the relevance of fundamentalist argument to contemporary public discourse by briefly featuring fundamentalist arguments visible in our current political debates.