Christian Fundamentalism and the Rise of the Radical Right
An article in the Atlantic Monthly intriguingly subtitled “An explosion of new religions will shake the 21st Century,” revealed that throughout the world new religions are emerging and traditional religious groups are growing, fragmenting and mutating into dozens of variant forms. It is common knowledge that “mainline” Protestant denominations and Roman Catholics have been reporting steady declines in membership and attendance for decades. I have assumed (wrongly, it appears) that religion in the West was slowly losing the battle with our secular modern world and was in a long downward death spiral into irrelevancy, so I was quite surprised by the claim that religious groups that were not taken seriously a few decades ago have managed to sneak in under the radar and have become potent forces in the United States and in large parts of the Third World.
The article points us to the spectacular growth of the mega-churches that are springing up in all parts of the country, but primarily in the Bible Belt, most of them Fundamentalist Protestant Christian (but unaffiliated with traditional denominations) with memberships in the many thousands. The article also points us to the Pentecostal churches, known for displays of incoherent mutterings in the tradition of “speaking in tongues,” faith healing, and literal interpretations of the Bible. In the 1940s they were a small sectarian group localized in the Deep South, but today they are a rapidly growing group largely in the “Third World ” and their adherents number in the millions.
So we learn from the article that Fundamentalist Christian churches are growing in membership and influence despite holding views that are incompatible with any reasonable understanding of our world and how it works. Their intellectual schizophrenia allows them to hold beliefs that are incompatible with the world view that depends on the conclusions and implications of science that we (and they!) rely on daily to function in the modern world. They deny the fundamental premises and conclusions of geology, biology, physics, anthropology, archaeology and astronomy. They deny a world view that most of us take for granted.
The growth of these Fundamentalist groups is counter-intuitive, but may be an unfortunate consequence of a serious decline in general literacy and in the quality, breadth and scope of liberal arts education in the United States. What is particularly disturbing about this anti-intellectual trend is that members of these fundamentalist groups hold views with implications that are dangerous and destructive for our civilization, for our nation, for world peace, and for human rights and freedoms. [ed. note: We will expand on this particular issue in a subsequent article.]
What is the appeal of these fundamentalist religious groups? They are strikingly similar once you get beneath the surface and their shared characteristics may help explain their wide and growing appeal.
Their “closed" belief system provides simple answers to complex political and social problems, but more importantly fundamentalist provides simplistic answers to ultimate questions of meaning and existence. Simplicity helps their adherents resolve the ultimate “problem” of being human, what Existentialists call angst (or ultimate anxiety). Angst means the consciousness of death-- the awareness of being human, of mortality, of non-being. It is comforting to have answers to life’s deepest questions and Fundamentalism provides relief from angst by postulating that there is some form of continued existence in an afterlife after death.
Fundamentalist Christians believe that there is a world beyond our world of experience [“heaven”] in which the injustices and evils of this world will finally be overcome and their God (and ultimate good and ultimate justice) will triumph over the unavoidable evil and injustice of our experience. They view our world as a cosmic struggle with stark contrasts between the antagonists: black and white, good and evil, God and Satan, good guys and bad guys, allies and enemies, us and them—a world in which the religious believer is on the side of right and has a duty to “fight evil” as they define it from their particular vantage point. Fundamentalists have a deep emotional commitment to the ultimate truth and virtue of their particular religious beliefs, which remain unaffected and unreachable by relevant fact, rational argument, daily experience or common sense.
Many of these religious groups combine their fundamentalist religious ideas with a wide range of far right political, economic and social agendas. In the past five years or so these right wing religious-political alliances have used political power aggressively and with considerable success in their attempt to impose their political, social and economic philosophy, their standards of public conduct, and their moral values on the rest of society.
This potent combination of having the answers, knowing what is good and evil, standing on the side of right in a cosmic struggle against the forces of darkness, believing in a world beyond this one, being totally committed to their cause, and using political power to realize their objectives makes them troublesome to deal with in our pluralistic society -- and sometimes it makes them dangerous.
Religious fundamentalists -- whether Islamic, Jewish or Christian -- seem to have few scruples and no moral difficulty using political and police power to force citizens who do not agree with them to live by their social, political or religious rules. Some of the more extreme among them have no difficulty using and justifying the use of force (including deadly force and torture) against those who oppose them or their objectives or whoever they determine to be their enemies.
There is little to distinguish the bomb thrower at a family planning clinic in Atlanta, from the Israeli settler tossing a bomb into the home of a Palestinian family, or the Sunni bomber blowing up a Shiite mosque in Iraq.
Regrettably the frequency of the link between religious fundamentalism and terrorism is not all that surprising if we look at the history of religions, particularly in the Western world.
I want to be clear about the way I use the word terrorism because it is easy to get carried away with the imagery and so dilute the full impact of the picture that word should bring to mind. I mean terrorism in its most precise meaning – the use of deadly force against others in an attempt to achieve political goals, frequently under cover of a religious or other ideological rationale or justification.
In the early days of our own country our forefathers endured the religious excesses of the self- righteous Puritan leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who were quick to punish with enthusiasm (and apparently with an easy conscience) anyone who transgressed their strict behavioral rules defining upright and moral conduct. They had no qualms about burning witches — and their definition of witches seems to have been broad enough that almost any woman who got out of line could find herself burned at the stake by the good Christians of the time, who argued that such barbaric punishment was justified because it ridded their community of great potential evil. These good Christian men (and they were all men!) were confident they were doing god’s work and so they acted with untroubled consciences.
People do terrible things in the name of religion. The arrogance and self-righteousness that presumes to know the mind and will of god is not only self-delusion, it is the cause of much evil in our world.
Watching a recent PBS series on the history of the Papacy I was struck by how essentially evil many of the early popes were – how cavalierly they ruled, how combative they were with whatever secular political force opposed their authority, how immoral many of them were in their personal lives, how often they abused their vows and ignored their duties, how easily they used and abused the power of the Church as they extended their domination both politically and religiously, how greedily they grabbed lands for themselves to build empires both political and financial, how cruelly they treated anyone who opposed their rule, how viciously they dealt with those whose religious beliefs differed from their own, how easily they let debates about the nature of Christ turn into battles over religious turf, political territory and power, how arrogant they were when they presumed to be infallible in matters of faith and morality, how viciously they attempted to force their truth on others, how little they seemed to value humility and virtue.
The Inquisition was an unfortunate time in the history of the Christian Church, when the Popes and their obedient soldiers the Jesuits implemented a plan to purify the Church from unorthodox teachings, particularly teachings about the source of authority for political power and religious teaching (which the Church said lay in the Pope). The object of the Inquisition was to identify wrong belief and conduct using torture as an instrument of the church to save the souls of those unfortunate individuals who had errant beliefs by torturing them until they recanted their error and accepted the true teaching of the Church.
[As an aside, I cannot help noting that the current US government makes substantially the same argument about noble ends justifying whatever means they determine are useful, in order to justify torture and mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay.]
As late as the 1930s we are reminded how easily the dangerous alliance of religion and politics led the Catholic Church into a moral compromise with fascism, as Pope Pius XII negotiated a deal with Mussolini to ensure that the Church kept its land holdings in Rome, now Vatican City, in exchange for an agreement that the Church would stay out of politics in the rest of Italy. We are surprised to hear the Church’s excuse that its compromise was a necessary bargain with the devil in order that a greater good might result. In that same period of time we also saw how easily the Nazis co-opted the Protestant churches of Germany into acquiescence with Nazi practices in exchange for their survival as a state church.
It is amazing that early Christianity survived these unlikely church leaders to become the dominant religion of the Western world. Despite its ill-informed and badly-behaving leaders, Christianity has become the most significant influence in the development of the basic humanitarian, moral and social values of the Western world of today. We look, so far in disappointment, for those who define themselves as Christian leaders today to do better than their predecessors in speaking truth to power.
The lesson here is that for someone with religious authority and political power to believe that he knows the will of God and that he/she is the instrument of God to confront evil and to build god’s kingdom on earth is the product of arrogance and self-delusion. In Christian theology, that self-delusion is precisely what is meant by the concept of sin.
History continues to repeat itself. The arrogance and self-delusion of the powerful that they alone know what is good for others applies to President Bush, who has said on several occasions that he believes that he was chosen at this time and place to be the instrument of God to lead America and to bring democracy and Western values to the Middle East. The self-delusion of the powerful when combined with a sense of theocratic mission and a lack of Christian humility and self-criticism is particularly dangerous in a political leader in a democracy.
If there is anything that the history of Christianity teaches us, it is that power tends to corrupt those who have it. That unhappy combination of political power and religious authority has been responsible for a great deal of mischief in our world and it continues to wreak havoc on us today.