When I was young there were still a fair number of fundamentalist Christian churches around, and by that I mean churches that were proud to be fundamentalist and often even used the term “fundamentalist” as part of the name of their church. To them, fundamentalist meant they had abandoned the accumulated centuries of man-made traditions, and gotten back to the fundamentals of the faith. They had separated the wheat from the chaff, the gold from the ore, the essentials from the distractions. And they were proud of it.
As time went on, though, these groups became famous for other things: narrow-mindedness, judgmentalism, dogmatism, and ignorance. The term “fundamentalist” started accumulating negative connotations, and being linked to stereotypical attitudes and behaviors. Believers grew reluctant to identify themselves as fundamentalists, and wanted to be known as evangelicals instead. Evangelicals, you see, were the ones who understood what was really important about the faith. They wanted to get away from all this divisiveness and denominationalism, and go back to what was truly important about the faith.
As a young believer, I was glad I was an evangelical rather than a fundamentalist. Fundamentalism was bad. Fundamentalists did bad things and had bad attitudes. But you know what? As time went on, I realized that the evangelicals were doing the same things and promoting the same attitudes. Narrow-mindedness. Judgmentalism. Dogmatism. And a really, really proud and defiant ignorance. They weren’t called fundamentalists any more, but they were still doing the same behaviors and preaching the same attitudes, and thus acquiring the same stigma.
What I learned from that experience is that, in the long term, changing the name does no good if the underlying attitudes and behaviors don’t change with it. It happened with fundamentalism and with evangelicalism, and now it’s happening with plain old bigotry.