The Magazine

Fundamentalists & Other Fun People

To know them is not to despise them.

Nov 22, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 10 • By PAUL MARSHALL
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THE AFTERMATH of the election brought a belated realization that President Bush's victory was based in large part on increased evangelical turnout. Hence, predictably, committed religion is again an incendiary political topic, and again it is mindlessly stereotyped as "fundamentalism" and "religious extremism," characterized by closed-minded certitude--and, thus, the mirror image of Islamist extremism.

Three writers preached petulant sermons on the matter on the same New York Times op-ed page two days after the election. Maureen Dowd called for George W. Bush's excommunication for promoting "a jihad in America so he can fight one in Iraq." Thomas Friedman condemned as apostates from America those "Christian fundamentalists" who "promote divisions and intolerance at home and abroad." Garry Wills, ever inquisitorial, demanded "where else" but in America "do we find fundamentalist zeal, a rage at secularity, religious intolerance, fear of and hatred for modernity?" Can't guess? "We find it in the Muslim world, in al Qaeda, in Saddam Hussein's Sunni loyalists"--and, writes Wills, Americans fear "jihad, no matter whose zeal is being expressed." Meanwhile, Ellen Goodman conjures up apocalyptic visions of a "country racked by the fundamentalist religious wars we see across the world," and Sean Wilentz anathematizes "the religious fanaticism that has seized control of the federal government."

Of course, people say silly things in a bleak post-election dawn. But similar litanies were recited during the campaign. Howell Raines portrayed "God's people" as seeking to enact "theologically based cultural norms." Joe Biden pronounced a "death struggle between freedom and radical fundamentalism." Al Gore pilloried Bush's faith as "the same fundamentalist impulse that we see in Saudi Arabia, in Kashmir, and in religions around the world." Robert Reich pontificated: "Terrorism itself is not the greatest danger we face," the "true battle" is with "those who believe that truth is revealed through Scripture and religious dogma." Bruce Bartlett, who served in the Reagan and Bush I administrations, reportedly averred that Bush II understands Islamic terrorists "because he's just like them," and has visions of a Manichean "battle . . . between modernists and fundamentalists, pragmatists and true believers, reason and religion."

Well, people say silly things in the frenzy of a campaign, too. But these rants express something far deeper than political frustration: A large slice of the punditocracy apparently believes with all its heart and mind and soul and strength that committed religion is akin to Islamist terrorism.

After 9/11, the noted Oxford scientist Richard Dawkins declaimed, "To fill a world with religion, or religions of the Abrahamic kind, is like littering the streets with loaded guns. Do not be surprised if they are used." Thomas Friedman preached, "World War III is a battle against . . . a view of the world . . . that my faith must remain supreme and can be affirmed and held passionately only if all others are negated. That's bin Ladenism." Andrew Sullivan worried that "there is something inherent in religious monotheism that lends itself to this kind of terrorist temptation." Michael Lind announced that the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition have a "fundamentalist ideology . . . essentially identical to that of the Muslim extremists."

WHAT SHOULD BE SAID about such dogmatic assertions, delivered with a finality that no pope or Baptist preacher would wish to match? Well, for starters, that they are intolerant, hypocritical, and wrong.

In claiming that monotheism and reliance on revelation are necessarily terroristic, these secular pundits condemn Christians, Jews, Jehovah's Witnesses, Unitarians, Sabeans, and Bahais, to name a few, along with George Washington, James Madison, and a host of other Founding Fathers, as inherently violent. Notice, however, that the condemnation extends also to the revealed monotheistic religion of Islam--and no one objects. Yet when Jerry Falwell and Franklin Graham said that violence is inherent in Islam, they were pilloried by respectable opinion. These days, religious intolerance and theological illiteracy are far more conspicuous in the pages of the New York Times than among most southern fundamentalists.

There is also hypocrisy and self-contradiction. Friedman seems blissfully unaware that, even as he condemns others for holding out their particular faith as supreme, he is asserting the supremacy of his own passionately held view. His secularist critique attempts the miraculous combination of denouncing others' faith while attacking those who denounce others' faith. Do not try this trick at home. It should be attempted only by seasoned professionals who lack any capacity for self-criticism or even self-awareness.