The Magazine

Fundamentalists & Other Fun People

To know them is not to despise them.

Nov 22, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 10 • By PAUL MARSHALL
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.

However, one can be intolerant and hypocritical--and also correct. The most important thing about these fulminations is that they are utterly, flat out, dead wrong.

Take the vacuous term "fundamentalist." Despite academic efforts to give it content, in practice the word signifies only "someone firmly committed to religious views I do not like." It's an epithet depicting people as abject objects to be labeled rather than listened to, dismissed rather than engaged in discussion.

It originated as a description of a series of Christian booklets called "The Fundamentals" published between 1910 and 1915 and focused on the nature of biblical criticism. They did not spring from the American South. Canadians, usually Episcopalians, wrote many of them, with additional contributors from Germany, Scotland, Ireland, and England. The first, on "The History of the Higher Criticism," was by Canon Dyson Hague, lecturer in liturgics and ecclesiology, Wycliffe College, Toronto, and examining chaplain to the (Anglican) bishop of Huron. It was followed by "The Bible and Modern Criticism" by F. Bettex, D.D., professor emeritus, Stuttgart, Germany.

The author of "Christ and Criticism" was Sir Robert Anderson, KCB, LLD. As a Knight Commander of the Bath (the third-highest British order of chivalry), he seems a far cry from the fundamentalists H.L. Mencken vilified in the 1920s as "halfwits," "yokels," "rustic ignoramuses," "anthropoid rabble," and "gaping primates of the upland valleys," or even the people the Washington Post maligned 70 years later as "largely poor, uneducated, and easy to command."

MY WORK monitoring religious freedom and religious persecution around the world often brings me into contact with "fundamentalists" and "religious extremists." Some of them are indeed the monsters that secularists portray: I have seen enough prisons, killing fields, and bodies, lost enough friends, colleagues, and cases, and fallen asleep in tears on enough silent nights, to have few illusions about the terrors produced by perverted religion (or, for that matter, perverted secularism, which in the last century piled up vastly more corpses than did religious extremism).

But there are also "religious extremists" I remember fondly. One I had the privilege of meeting believes he is the reincarnation of generations of religious leaders and was destined to lead his people. I don't share his views, but I find him wise, with a delightful sense of humor. He is the Dalai Lama.

Jehovah's Witnesses annoy many people by ringing our doorbells while we're having dinner. But the growth of religious freedom in almost every Western country owes much to the Witnesses' peaceful quest to be allowed to be conscientious objectors to military service.

There were Trappist nuns in Java, committed to a life of silence on the slopes of a volcano. It surprised me that they were a major source of information about what really goes on in Indonesia, that land of shadows. But, as the mother superior, a New Yorker, explained, "We can't speak, but we can sure read, watch, and listen. If you don't speak, you'd be amazed how much you can learn." No wonder she left Manhattan.

The Dervishes in Turkey, Sufi Muslims, combine their strange, ecstatic, whirling dance with ecumenical spirituality and uncommon grace at being treated as a tourist attraction. Some of their neighbors, Turkish Christians, are reviving the ascetic practice of living, like Simon Stylites, on top of poles. Not my cup of tea, but they're not hurting anyone.

The Amish are as "fanatical" about their religion as Americans get. They use no electricity, no cars, no colorful clothing, and are fierce pacifists, as are many other "fundamentalists." I'm still tempted to go back with them.

Then there are the practitioners of Falun Gong, the Hindu Shankaracharya of Puri, the Hasidim, and so many others with views that would drive American secularists up the wall. All are resolutely peaceful. I disagree with most, and have spent many happy, and frequently frustrating, hours with them discussing life, the universe, and everything. But I have never felt the slightest need to attack them, nor they me.

In the face of this range of beliefs, it is well nigh meaningless to define bin Laden and his ilk as "fundamentalists" or "religious extremists." He may be both, but so are billions of peaceful and gentle people.

The difference is obvious: The key is not bin Laden's conviction or certitude, but the content of his creed. We are opposed not to "religious extremists" per se, but only to the type of religious extremists who believe in flying planes into buildings and beheading "infidels."

In doing so we are allied with, and in large part defended by, people secularists label "religious extremists." This includes a significant proportion of the American military, especially the Marine Corps, who are, by most accounts, more evangelical than the population at large. Are the New York Times et al. seriously suggesting that the war on Islamofascism is at root a war on people like those in the U.S. armed forces?

In place of such fatuities, American secularists should stop trying to hitch their postmodern prejudices to the war on Islamist terrorism and instead stoop to learn something of the bewildering variety of committed belief. Their insistence on lumping together all religious convictions is bigotry and error, fundamentally so.

Paul Marshall is a senior fellow at Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom and author of many books on religion and politics.