If that ticks you off because you keep hearing in the news about the dangers of fundamentalist islam or fundamentalist christianity, then get over it. Atheists are some of the most fundamentalist groups I’ve ever met. Not only that, they can be among the most militant.
Not to mention there’s a whole subset of Christians that protest ardently that they are fundamentalist. They buck against the association with what they perceive as anti-intellectualism, violence, or social awkwardness usually attributed to “fundamentalism”. Can’t blame them, but the truth of the matter is that even this group has characteristics of fundamentalists.
Of course, that really doesn’t answer the question of what a fundamentalist is properly.
The first definition is by far too narrow to be of any use, and it disregards the introduction of the term by people who are not literalists in any way shape or form. In the late 19th century it was the people who were decidedly not literal in their interpretations that declared the need for fundamentals of the Christian faith, markers of orthodoxy for those who were not reading scripture literally to be lead astray in their interpretation.
It is used as a derogatory term in this first sense – a insult which doesn’t allow any deeper reflection.
The second I think is more accurate as a definition. It is the idea that we pick and choose the basic principles through which we understand our faith. It serves as a category that fits the historical idea as well as the first definition. For that reason it may be seen as too inclusive as a concept to be useful, but I think it’s breadth is exactly why it’s useful.
If we start to understand ourselves as fundamentalists, we can examine what we are holding to as our fundamentals. This serves to help me think through what practices and concepts are fundamental to being Christian, and where I see open possibilities for interpretations of scriptures differing from my own.
Getting this label away from the pejorative dismissal given to folks that disagree with us can help us figure out where our real ideological difference sit. Instead of dismissing fundamentalists for being literalists, we could dismiss those literal readers of texts that choose violence. We could also examine those who choose violence for adherence to fundamentalist adherence to political or social reasons we would normally not question.
It’s probably too much of a transformation in the term, but I think the bigger problem we have is that we do not consider what our fundamentals are because we only think “fundamentalists” have fundamentals.