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A Fundamental Problem: the unholy alliance between fundamentalist religion and extremist politics.

By Michael Carberry

 


What do Donald Trump’s runaway victories in the all the Republican Primary elections to date and the slaughter of over thirty thousand Israelis and Palestinians in the current conflict in Gaza have in common?   Answer:  both are fuelled by religious fundamentalism.

 

I was initially prompted to think about this after having read the article Believe it or not (OC 22 May 2023) by my fellow contributor Vincent Guy about his brief flirtation with being a Christian.  Vincent is not the first person I have met who has gone through a similar experience and which has rarely proved to be a happy one. Note that I do not say “his brief flirtation with Christianity” because I would argue that what Vincent and others experienced had little to do with Christianity as preached by mainstream Christian denominations but rather, as he himself acknowledges, with Christian fundamentalism, which is something very different.  In any case Vincent’s article got me thinking about an issue which has caused me increasing concern: the relationship between religious fundamentalism and extremist politics.

 

It is salutary to note how much of the upsurge in political violence we have seen in various countries around the world in recent years has been accompanied and often fuelled by a particularly strident religious rhetoric.  When thinking of religiously- fuelled political extremism many people think instinctively of Islamist terrorism but Muslims are themselves often the victims of religious fundamentalism, as in India or Myanmar where they are the target of Hindu or Buddhist extremists. Christianity is supposed to be about brotherly love, tolerance and forgiveness. Yet ‘Christian’ fundamentalists in the United States are strongly in favour of the death penalty, oppose gun control, and favour draconian or degrading punishments, including long prison sentences  or putting prisoners in chain gangs.  Protestant paramilitaries in Northern Ireland used to make their members swear an oath on the Bible before sending them out to murder innocent civilians.  Muslim fundamentalists support public floggings, cutting off hands, and beheading.  Islamist terrorists shout “God is great!” while carrying out the sort of unspeakable atrocities we saw committed by Hamas fighters on October 7th last year. Ultra-orthodox Jewish settlers are driving Palestinians out of their homes in the West Bank at the point of a gun while opposing a settlement with Hamas which could release more Jewish hostages.

 

Or take the case of Donald Trump. Widely regarded as a narcissist, liar, sexual predator, fraudster and racist, who is facing a criminal prosecution for inciting a mob to violence in order to try and subvert the US Constitution by overturning the results of a democratic election, Trump appears to be the very antithesis of Christian values.  It would seem inconceivable that any sincere Christian could vote for such a man and yet we know that he enjoys the support of over 90% of Evangelicals in the US and many of the more traditionalist Roman Catholics.   Why is this so?

 

Wikipedia gives a useful definition of fundamentalism as “a tendency among certain groups and individuals that is characterized by the application of a strict literal interpretation to scripturesdogmas, or ideologies, along with a strong belief in the importance of distinguishing one's ingroup and outgroup, which leads to an emphasis on some conception of "purity", and a desire to return to a previous ideal from which advocates believe members have strayed. The term is usually used in the context of religion to indicate an unwavering attachment to a set of irreducible beliefs (the "fundamentals").


This definition gives an insight into the way fundamentalists think.  For most mainstream Christians there is no conflict between science and religion.   Indeed, the Christian churches have produced many eminent scientists:  Copernicus in astronomy, Gregor Mendel the father of genetics, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in palaeontology and many others.  Even today the Vatican has a world-class astronomical observatory, while Professor Paolo Benanti, electronic engineer and Franciscan friar is consultant to both the Vatican and the Italian Government on the ethics of Artificial Intelligence.  A French scientist and devout Christian said to me “God gave man intelligence so that he could interrogate his creation.” So, while all Christians believe the Bible to be divinely inspired, most mainstream Christian Churches would acknowledge the human element in the composition of the scriptures over three millennia.  Biblical exegesis such as that by the distinguished Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem (founded by the Dominican Order) has shown that the text we know today has multiple sources and has been edited and re-edited many times.  There are many textual variants or disputed readings and much of the language is of a poetic or hyperbolic nature and not to be taken literally.  But that is not the view of the fundamentalists who reject all science and learning in favour of unquestioning belief in the literal text.  This can sometimes reach the level of the absurd. An American friend was invited to watch a film which turned out to be by “Christian geologists” purporting to demonstrate how the geological record “proved” that the world had been created in seven days.

 

This unquestioning belief in the authority of religious texts or dogmas, entailing as it does the rejection of reasoned or critical thinking, leaves fundamentalists peculiarly susceptible to conspiracy theories and wild assertions.  And their unquestioning acceptance of authority has implications for politics. Many fundamentalists reject democracy, free speech and public debate in favour of “strong” political leadership. The French fundamentalist Catholic Archbishop, Marcel Lefebvre (1905-1991) broke away from the Catholic Church and ordained his own bishops. He supported the authoritarian Vichy regime (1940-1944), urged support for the far-right National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen and railed against Muslim immigration into Europe.  Many autocrats, although themselves totally irreligious, have often made cynical use of religious zealots to further their own cause. The Spanish dictator Francisco Franco proclaimed a “Catholic Crusade”, Vladimir Putin has carefully cultivated the Russian Orthodox Church, and both Trump and Bolsonaro have embraced the Protestant evangelicals.

 

Fundamentalists also tend to uphold the authority of men over women.  Many westerners have been shocked at the treatment of women by the Taliban in Afghanistan or the mullahs in Iran, but such patriarchal attitudes can also be found in many Christian fundamentalist sects. Margaret Attwood’s dystopian futuristic novel The Handmaid’s Tale and the TV series based on it describe what life for women will be like should these attitudes prevail in the USA. The Christian Domestic Discipline Movement (CDD) advocates spanking for wives - and publishes guidebooks on how to do it - and this profound social conservatism is evident in other areas such as gay rights, abortion or trans issues. One of the bishops ordained by Lefebvre (an Englishman) claimed that homosexuality was the result of women wearing trousers.

 

But it is perhaps another aspect of fundamentalist psychology which explains their penchant for violence – the importance of distinguishing one’s ingroup and outgroup.  In contrast to mainstream religious groups fundamentalists are inward looking, focussing on what distinguishes them from others. This means not just   beliefs and dogma but extends also to outward manifestations of differences: symbolic gestures, ritual cleanliness, specific clothing, or dietary restrictions. They are intolerant of non-conformity, often resorting to shunning or publicly shaming group members deemed guilty of backsliding or failing to meet the strict tenets of their faith. The intolerance is even greater with regard to those who do not share their beliefs. The religious rhetoric of many militant groups such as Protestant paramilitaries, Trump supporting militias, Islamist terrorists or Ultra-orthodox Jewish settlers would seem to be less about personal values than about tribalism - defining themselves by those whom they hate. 

 

It is important to recognise that fundamentalists do not speak for their respective mainstream religious communities. In fact, their words and actions are often a grotesque distortion of religious teaching.  A typical example was the US fundamentalist preacher and televangelist Pastor Jerry Falwell, founder of the ‘Moral Majority’ who died in 2007.  Falwell attacked progressive evangelicals like former President Jimmy Carter, pressed for all-out war against Vietnam, claimed that Aids was a divine punishment for homosexuality, promoted and distributed a fake video documentary - The Clinton Chronicles - which purported to connect Bill Clinton to a murder conspiracy and a cocaine-smuggling operation, blamed lesbians gays and feminists for the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York,  courted segregationist politicians, opposed sanctions against Apartheid in South Africa and described Nobel prize-winning Anglican Archbishop Dr Desmond Tutu as a“phony”.  He called Islam “Satanic” and claimed that the prophet Mohammed was a terrorist and that the people of Israel had a not only a theological but also a historic and legal right to the land of Palestine.  There was in fact nothing remotely moral about Falwell’s Moral Majority (the movement is now dissolved) or remotely Christian about his message, which was a catalogue of ignorance, bigotry, intolerance and hate.

 

All the great monotheistic religions -Judaism, Christianity and Islam - share common outward-looking values. Throughout the Bible the People of God are encouraged to look after the widow, the orphan and the stranger, i.e. the most vulnerable in society.  For Christians, the three theological virtues are faith, hope and charity “and the greatest of these is charity.”  Giving alms (zakat) is one of the five basic duties of a Muslim and during Ramadan Muslims are expected share the hunger and thirst of the needy as a reminder of the religious duty to help those less fortunate.  Certainly, as a young student visiting Morrocco in the 1960s, I was overwhelmed by the hospitality and generosity shown to me wherever I went. My Moroccan hosts were always proud to point out that to welcome the stranger was an intrinsic part of their Muslim faith.

 

In contrast to the severe restrictions put on women and girls by the Taliban in Afghanistan, in nearly all other Muslim countries girls go to school and university and occupy an increasingly important place in the workforce, often as professionals, doctors, nurses, teachers and politicians and even as heads of government. Historically, evangelical Christians have a proud and admirable record of fighting for the rights of the poor and underprivileged and in social reform. They were a leading force in the abolition of the slave trade in UK and (at least for Northern evangelicals) in the abolitionist movement in the United States. Even after the split in the 1920s between U.S. northern progressives and southern fundamentalists many of the latter were active in the Civil Rights movement.  However, the southern fundamentalists have now largely usurped the term ‘Evangelical’.

 

Genuinely religious people of all faiths have often found themselves in opposition to the fundamentalists.  During the second World war, ultra-conservative Catholics in France supported the Vichy regime and after the war hid Nazi collaborators. But in Germany it was Christians from both main confessions, such as the Catholic student ‘White Rose Movement’ or the protestant pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who showed great courage in resisting the Nazis and paid with their lives for so doing.  During the Northern Ireland troubles while fundamentalist preachers where whipping up sectarian hatred, it was mainstream clergy and Christians from both communities who sought to alleviate the suffering and to bridge the divide between the  parties, again often at considerable risk to themselves.   A Protestant clergyman who helped broker talks with the IRA which led eventually to the Good Friday peace agreement had to flee the country and emigrate to Canada because of death threats from Protestant paramilitaries.  It is no coincidence that Mahatma Gandhi, who preached non-violence and better treatment for ‘untouchables’, Anwar Sadat, the first Arab leader to visit Jerusalem and reach a lasting peace deal with Israel, and Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister who signed the ‘Oslo Accords’ with Yasser Arafat - the first face-to-face agreement between the Israeli government and the Palestine Liberation Organisation - which offered a brief prospect of a peace settlement in the region, were all assassinated by religious extremists from within their own communities.

 

Despite the divisive and corrosive impact of the fundamentalists, religion has always been and remains an immense influence for good in the world. In medieval Europe the ‘Peace of God’, first proclaimed by the Church in 989, was one of the most influential mass peace movements in history, granting immunity to non-combatants who could not protect themselves; the ‘Truce of God’ established temporary pauses in the endemic warfare between the nobles. Medieval monasteries provided a vast network of poor relief and care for the sick as well as safe spaces for travellers. Today, the vast majority of charitable and humanitarian work around the globe, both domestically and internationally, is undertaken by organisations and individuals of many different faiths motivated by religious conviction. Despite the obvious differences of race, theology, history and culture, people of different faiths, Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and many others can and do work for the common good when they share a common focus.

 

In a recent British television programme, an assorted group of British celebrities of various faiths or none who had made a pilgrimage to Rome were given a private audience with Pope Francis.  One of the group asked the Pope why, as a black gay man he should feel excluded.  Pope Francis replied that there was too much emphasis on the adjectives and not enough on the noun.  Irrespective of how we describe ourselves or how others describe us, the Pope said, we should focus, not on our differences or the things that divide us but, on what we all share; something which no one can take away from us - our common dignity as human beings.  It is a lesson the fundamentalists would do well to heed.

 

 

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