One of the religion beat’s favorite canards is to implicitly equate what it calls American Christian “fundamentalism” with what it calls Muslim or Islamic “fundamentalism.” After all, both are simply species of the genus. For more on this, check out GetReligion (here and here) and the reference to a piece by Philip Jenkins, which notes,
Also, media coverage of any topic, religious or secular, is shaped by the necessity to summarize complex movements and ideologies in a few selected code-words, labels that acquire significance far beyond their precise meaning. Though designed as guideposts for the perplexed, all too often, such words rather tend to stop intellectual processes. One such demon word is fundamentalism, originally a description of a particular approach to reading Christian Scriptures, but now a catch-all description for supernaturally based anti-modernism, repression, and misogyny. Within the past few years, evangelical has been similarly debased, gaining its popular connotations of white conservative politics.
Indeed, evangelical and fundamentalist are often used interchangeably in media parlance.
One way to get at the radical difference, so to speak, between the two groups would be to guage the respective reaction when something sacred is mocked and blasphemed. We have seen what the Islamist reaction to the infamous Mohammed cartoons has been: violent protesting resulting in death. The Danish cartoonists have had to flee into hiding out of fear for their lives, a la Salman Rushdie circa 1989, and certainly with Theo Van Gogh circa November, 2004 in mind. (Update: It looks like they indeed have good reason to fear. A Pakistani cleric has put a $1 million bounty on the head of one of the cartoonists.)
By contrast, Charles Krauthammer has profiled some of the things that are offensive to many Christians, including the publication of pictures of the Virgin Mary covered with dung and the so-called “Piss Christ,” (a crucifix sitting in a jar of urine). The most you are likely to see from Christian “fundamentalists” in reaction to issues like these are public expressions of outrage and disgust, maybe a letter-writing campaign with some vitriolic prose, perhaps some picketing and protesting, and even some threats to pull public funding thrown in for good measure. The upcoming movie The Da Vinci Code, based on a Dan Brown novel, which depicts much of the Bible and church tradition as fictitious, has not resulted in either Tom Hanks or the author fearing for their lives.
The trouble comes, of course, from the connotation of the word fundamentalist. For even liberals have fundamental beliefs.
Perhaps no one gets at the popular connotation of the word fundamentalist better than Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga. In discussing his epistemological model in Warranted Christian Belief, Plantinga writes,
I fully realize that the dreaded f-word will be trotted out to stigmatize any model of this kind. Before responding, however, we must first look into the use of this term ‘fundamentalist’. On the most common contemporary academic use of the term, it is a term of abuse or disapprobation, rather like ‘son of a bitch’, more exactly ‘sonovabitch’, or perhaps still more exactly (at least according to those authorities who look to the Old West as normative on matters of pronunciation) ‘sumbitch’. When the term is used in this way, no definition of it is ordinarily given. (If you called someone a sumbitch, would you feel obliged to first define the term?) Still, there is a bit more to the meaning of ‘fundamentalist’ (in this widely current use): it isn’t simply a term of abuse. In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relative conservative theological views. That makes it more like ‘stupid sumbitch’ (or maybe ‘fascist sumbitch’?) than ‘sumbitch’ simpliciter. It isn’t exactly like that term either, however, because its cognitive content can expand and contract on demand; its content seems to depend on who is using it. In the mouths of certain liberal theologians, for example, it tends to denote any who accept traditional Christianity, including Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Barth; in the mouths of devout secularists like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, it tends to denote anyone who believes there is such a person as God. The explanation is that the term has a certain indexical element: its cognitive content is given by the phrase ‘considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.’ The full meaning of the term, therefore (in this use), can be given by something like ‘stupid sumbitch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine’ (pp. 244-45).
When I see things like this going on, I ask myself, “What makes Christianity different? What makes me different?” Here are some guidelines for a Christian response to slander, hatred, and persecution:
“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:10-12 NIV)
“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.” (Romans 12:14 NIV)
“To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world.” (1 Corinthians 4:11-13 NIV)
In short, it is not for us to seek personal revenge, but to rejoice and pray that our enemies may become brothers and sisters in Christ. As Paul writes: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; / if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. / In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:17-21 NIV)
I consider this to be one of the unique and defining aspects of Christianity. It is fundamentally a religion of forgiving grace and not simply a religion of wrathful justice.
The European press and the blogosphere have been full of stories over the last few days about the controversy started by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. There’s enough material out there that readers of the Acton blog don’t need a full run-down here. (See, for example, the Brussels Journal and Michelle Malkin.)
But since the issue concerns both religion and liberty, how can we not address it?
Yes, there is a right to free speech, which certainly includes the right to examine and criticize religious opinions and beliefs.
Christians are certainly used to having their beliefs examined publicly, if not caricatured and mocked, and there are several Christian groups who organize letter-writing campaigns and boycotts in response to those who cross the line of decency and respect.
But the reaction of some Muslim groups has been much more violent and is intensifying. The cartoons of Mohammed that are causing all the uproar do not seem to me to be all that shocking, but it’s clear that many Muslims are offended by any portayal of their prophet.
What’s missing from this debate is some kind of normative standards for civil discourse, something which has been missing from the Western media for some time. The right to free speech is not absolute; recall Lord Acton’s definition of the proper use of liberty, doing what one ought. And religious believers have a special obligation to treat others charitably, even and sometimes especially those who disagree with us.
Now, I am NOT arguing for any kind of government control of what is or is not decent or respectful, and I refuse to put these words in ironic “smart quotes” because I believe that decency and respect actually do exist. But a free and virtuous society definitely requires citizens and media who are able to regulate and restrain themselves. I personally find it hard to pick a side in this controversy. Sometimes the civil libertarians can be just as fanatical as the Islamists.