MAXWELL:  Our nation _ and world _ battle religious intolerance

4/2/2000 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Throughout the world, as a new book argues, fundamentalist movements fail due to their own tendency to emulate the very things they say they despise.

After reading in the New York Times and elsewhere that the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition and other fundamentalist groups in the United States are imploding, I wanted to get a deeper sense of the cause.

Most of what I read, until last week, were superficial analyses by journalists and essayists for popular magazines. Karen Armstrong’s new book, The Battle for God, however, is an incisive treatise on the rise of fundamentalist movements in Christianity, Islam and Judaism worldwide. Most chilling is the book’s claim that the fanaticism of these extreme faiths threatens the very existence of civil society everywhere.

With deft scholarship, Armstrong, a professor of theology and a former Roman Catholic nun, concentrates on the fundamentalist tendencies in Egypt, Iran, Israel and the United States. And as the true scholar, she empathizes with the poor and the dispossessed worldwide who are looking for meaning but who are forced to turn to fundamentalism because their governments or other powers and forces have tossed them aside.

Essentially, Armstrong argues that the world’s three great monotheistic religions are incapable of filling the vast spiritual hole of modernity. They cannot uplift people in a world where the new gods are technology, personal wealth and success.

Instead of filling the spiritual void, the big three respond to modernity with doctrines and practices mimicking the very ills of modern life that they abhor. The Christian Coalition and the Moral Majority in the United States, for example, operate and communicate like major corporations. They also have become political machines mired in corruption and abuse.

Protestant fundamentalists, the author writes, have forsaken the premodernist manner of reading the Bible allegorically and mystically. They now read it “in a literal, rational way.” In other words, spirituality is missing _ as it is in most other areas of modern life. And reading the Scripture has become a false science unto itself.

Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was not a madman from the Dark Ages, Armstrong argues: “In fact much of his message and developing ideology was modern. His opposition to Western imperialism and his support of the Palestinians were similar to other third world movements at this time; so was his direct appeal to the people.”

She demonstrates that Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jews, who fancy themselves as having cast off secular society, have established yeshivas that promote volunteer community service. What is more, these Jews “adopted a novel stringency in their observance of the Torah and learned to manipulate the political system in a way that brought them more power than any religious Jew had enjoyed for nearly two millenniums.”

As movements of intolerance, Armstrong says, fundamentalist strains have became vessels of rage. As they try to destroy secular institutions, they unwittingly have forged “a symbiotic relationship with modernity.” Their credos resemble communism and fascism and nationalism. They perpetuate racism, sexism, jingoism, homophobia and other affronts to decency. By trying to change society, they act out its worst traits.

Armstrong states that the fanatics who surround the leader of the Shas Party in Israel, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the Iranian clergy and America’s Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell “have absorbed the pragmatic rationalism of modernity, and, under the guidance of their charismatic leaders, they refine these “fundamentals’ so as to create an ideology that provides the faithful with a plan of action.”

Ironically, as Chris Hodges of the New York Times points out in his review of the book, the battle for God is not between true believers and infidels “but between the anointed and the apostates masquerading as believers. The assassinations of Anwar Sadat and Yitzhak Rabin illustrate . . . the two wars being fought in the Middle East, one between the Arabs and the Jews and the other “between secularists and religious.’ It was the internecine fighting between the powerful television evangelists, not the liberal establishment they set out to topple, that saw the collapse of the empires of Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart. The Christian Right consumed itself.”

Armstrong believes that scientific rationalism and reason cannot fill the spiritual void. To the contrary, these movements have inspired regimes, with the backing of fundamentalists in the major faiths, to commit some of the world’s worst crimes against humankind.

What, then, is missing among the radical groups in the monotheistic trio? Why can they not soothe those seeking certainty in a world that seems to have lost its way?

Armstrong argues that “higher” mythical truth _ which leads to positive faith _ is missing among the fundamentalists. The Falwells and Robertsons, for example, use the Bible to dehumanize homosexuals. They do not use the Bible to inspire. Where is their “higher” mythical truth? Instead of producing a flock that loves and respects, these Christians have spawned vengeance and nasty political agendas.

In Israel, the ultra-Orthodox has divided Jews to the point that, in the world’s only Jewish homeland, the question most often asked is this: Who is a Jew? This single issue _ not the Palestinians _ may yet prove to be the country’s biggest security threat.

Unfortunately, Armstrong doubts that “higher” mythical truth will return to the great monotheistic religions any time soon. The world will continue to see the likes of the radical Christian Identity movement in America, the Gush Emunim in Israel and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

The battle for God is alive and well.