Set Aside Whether Or Not Mormon Fundamentalists Are Mormon. The Better Question Is, Are They Fundamentalist?
A lot of people would say no, including the last president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Gordon B. Hinckley. Most attention to such arguments is directed at their rejection of the right of “Mormon fundamentalists” to claim that first word. The denial of their right to the second, then, is an effort like unto it, piggybacking on the effort to sever any remaining cultural filaments which connect the polygamist sects of Texas, Arizona, and so on to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Following these arguments, the word ‘fundamentalist’ does not apply for the same reasons that “Mormon” does not. The logic is: you can’t be a fundamentalist X if you are shut out of participation in X in the first place. As the scholar and critic of the fundamentalist Mormons Brian Hales puts it, “Critics of the ‘fundamentalist Mormons’ argue that they do not qualify for the title because they do not adhere to the fundamental teachings of Joseph Smith.” In Hinckley’s words, “This Church has nothing whatever to do with those practicing polygamy. They are not members of this Church. Most of them have never been members.” Therefore, he continues, “There is no such thing as a ‘Mormon Fundamentalist.’ It is a contradiction to use the two words together.”
The problem with this position is that it elects to pick its fight on the Mormon fundamentalists’ home court. Hales’s argument rests upon the premise that fundamentalist Mormons emphasize certain of Joseph Smith’s teachings but reject others, and have developed new doctrines since they became a self-aware movement. But this challenges the fundamentalists by first granting them their presuppositions – that is, that to be a fundamentalist is to cling as closely as possible to whatever the original teachings of a faith might be. Hales rests his case on the presumption that they do not. This is not only a tactical error, but an interpretive one as well.
It’s more useful, I think, to define fundamentalism not in terms of doctrinal oneupsmanship, but rather, as an impulse, an orientation, a way of understanding what it is to practice and believe religion. In the tremendously apologetic (because they seem to view it as presumptuous to try to turn fundamentalism into a cross-cultural, multi-religious phenomenon in the first place, though they rightly point out that everybody’s already doing this anyway) introduction to their series Fundamentalisms, R. Scott Appleby and Martin Marty point out that “fundamentalism” is most useful to describe the way a religious community views itself in relation to the world around it, and the word they use more than any other is “fight.” Fundamentalists differ from conservatives or traditionalists in that they perceive certain aspects of their core identity under threat from outside forces: cultural, institutional, intellectual, and they react by circling the wagons, by forthrightly challenging corruption and insisting upon purity, by emphasizing difference rather than pursuing engagement. And to do this, they sometimes – nay, frequently – innovate in practice, theology, and institution. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Studies of multiple other fundamentalists movements – George Marsden on the granddaddy of them all, Protestant fundamentalism, Ian Lustick on Jewish fundamentalism, Bernard Lewis on Islamic fundamentalism – reveals that innovation, innovation in service of the idealized fundamentalist community, rests near the heart of any movement. This means that noteworthy features of fundamentalism, like theories of scriptural inerrancy, apocalypticism, a revisionist sacred history – and Mormon fundamentalism’s developed theologies of priesthood and polygamy – are symptoms rather than causes, and certainly not internal contradictions.
Ultimately, it seems to me that Hales’s argument emerges from the same place as Hinckley’s; that is, a desire to exile Mormon fundamentalism from the Restoration movement of Joseph Smith. There’s good reason for this; the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, beset by tawdry child abuse scandals, in particular is nobody’s idea of a beloved denominational cousin. But at the same time there’s a natural academic desire to be evenhanded here, to kick back at Hales and Hinckley’s perspectives as ultimately devotional rather than academic, and therefore inimical to scholars’ ability to rise above denominational turf wars and apologetic bickering and evince respect for beliefs we may not share. This is not meant, then, as a presumptuous assertion of academia over some straw man of denominational provincialism, but rather an observation that these sorts of conversations are always, ultimately, ongoing.
 Martin Marty and R Scott Appleby, “Introduction,” Fundamentalisms Observed (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1991) vii-xiv.