Bin Laden & Co. and Jerry Falwell & Co.

[1] Osama bin Laden and his mentor Sayyid Qutb are fundamentalists. So are Jerry Falwell and, in a slightly more complicated (because also pentecostalist), Pat Robertson.

[2] Bin Laden & Co. are Muslims, who would rather kill you than let you connect them in any way with Protestant fundamentalists. Jerry Falwell & Co. are Christians, who would rather see God remove you from the scene than let you associate them with Islamic fundamentalists.

[3] They have good reasons to be kept at a distance from each other. It is not hard to respect those reasons.

[4] Because they are in many ways so far apart, why would it occur to anyone anywhere anytime to associate them and their camps? We can picture a variety of motives for the people of the West to do such linking. (We will let Arab Muslims take care of the interests of al-Qaeda.)

[5] First, people might say the two are “like” each other out of ignorance. They hear the word “fundamentalist” properly associated with both – and I think I can demonstrate why it is in place to use the word “properly” here – and therefore assume there must be some similarity between them. Without prior knowledge of either or close familiarity with both, it is easy to do such association stupidly. Thus: the People’s Republic of China, the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and the United States all described themselves as “republics.” But they have little in common.

[6] A second reason for associating the two is ideological. Since bin Laden is the most to-be-despised name since Hitler, anyone who does not like or who fears Falwell and American fundamentalists can dismiss the latter and, if it suits his or her purposes, can rouse others to despise the close-to-home fundamentalists. Since I am writing in a “Journal of Lutheran Ethics,” I better bring in ethics somewhere and say it strikes me as unethical to slander, and one can slander by falsely associating movements – unless out of simple arrogance.

[7] A third reason is more legitimate: it has to do with the effort by scholars, mass communicators, government personnel, or clergy, to inspire curiosity, to inquire, to find a way help move an inquiring public to proceed from the known to the unknown, to plan strategies for dealing with what one discovers. Wherever that occurs, a journal of ethics would likely encourage such research and probing.

[8] To the point, now: if and insofar as there may be parallels and similarities among them, it is as in place to mention this as it would be foolish in general not to, and unethical in specific when there are dangers against to warn and to ward off, or affirmations due where parallels, if any can be found, to be positive signals.

[9] After having spent six years through twelve conferences with toward-200 scholars around the globe, co-editing a five-volume work for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (University of Chicago Press), with focus on over a score of fundamentalisms, including “Sikh,” “Scientific,” “Buddhist” and the like, I’m game to take a hand at pointing at the elements these fundamentalisms do have in common.

[10] They have roots, they claim unique and absolute and pure roots, in existing religions, always in the conservative, traditionalist, orthodox flanks. “Muslim.” “Southern Baptist.” “Pentecostal.” Check it out. Second, they experience and can convey to others a language to describe a total threat to their individual and collective being. “The West.” “The Infidel.” “The Secular Humanist.” “Religious Liberal.” Third, they criticize moderates in their religious movement for not fighting back. So they fight back, coming to the side and maybe even the rescue of Allah/God, The Prophet/Jesus, the Umma/Church.

[11] Next, being self-described as “fundamentalist,” they pick out their choice of most useful “fundamentals” from a perfect primal moment, community, or, best of all Book. Qur’an-Shari’ah/Hebrew Scriptures-New Testament. These are useful in fighting back. They use the instruments of modernity, e.g., mass media, against modernity. Both draw we-versus-they lines, allowing for no middle ground. They know where history is going: to the eventual triumph against the enemies of God. All that all the fundamentalisms we observed had in common. It is fair to say so, and it is not possible to understand them or the times without having done so.

[12] Now, as for the first difference: from top to bottom they believe different things, adhere to polar-opposite stories and doctrines, and these are of supreme importance to them. That has to be understood and respected.

[13] What brings up this issue in a journal of ethics, however, is not fundamentally doctrinal, but strategic, tactical, and related to fear and hope. Since Islamic fundamentalisms and, e.g., in Gush Emunim on the West Bank, or among Hindu militants, the final logic of the movements licenses and impels people to making war, assassinating, and engaging in terrorism, should we fear that, because of the formal as opposed to substantive similarities, the Christian fundamentalists might some day kill or engage in terrorism.

[14] Some warning signals are out there. Radical Christians on left and right have, through the years, done plenty of killing and terrorist acts. They might again. Today, some Northern Ireland Protestants kill in God’s name. A few abortion-clinic bombers have been in Christian movements. While most of the militia and white racist groups have not been related to Protestantism, they do borrow some symbols and signals from it. Should non-fundamentalists work on spiritual missile defense shields, build psychic bomb-shelters?

[15] I believe that the counsel to engage in counter-action based in terror of terrorism or to promote one’s own political advantage should go unheeded. While one can find as many pro-militancy, pro-killing texts in the Bible as in the Qur’an, and can come across as many blood-stained pages in the traditions issuing from both, some things have occurred in the West that help assure that such widespread phenomena of war and terror are not likely here.

[16] Let me close by giving one reason why this is so, a reason not sure to be popular. Call it American constitutionalism, pluralism, or anything like these. We lucked out, or a kind Providence and reasonably reasonable people through the last two centuries have not credibly worked to rule out “the other,” to successfully establish “us” versus them. While fundamentalists and some of their friends knock the Enlightenment, secularity, the Age of Reason, the academic ethos, I think Christians here should send their agents a card of thanks. They helped us find a polity that allows us to be firm in our convictions without setting out to kill “the other.”

[17] That is one reason why some of us, in the spirit of old counsel to “resist beginnings” are as much opposed to creches on court house lawns as we are for them on any non-governmental property; as anti-posting of the Ten Commandments on the Court House wall as we are for parents teaching them to their children; as critical of legally privileged “school prayer” as we are promoting learning about religion in public school and praying any where but in even implicitly coercive “public” situations. Pluralism is a delicate invention that has been working, even while being tested. It could be that it is one of the better friends of those who care about their faith and freedom, their future as Christians and citizen.