Culture War, Faith, and Terror

As a young pastor and writer who has often defended the notion of “Christendom” and even advocated for something of a recovery of it in our current day, I was particularly alarmed when the ideology of Anders Behring Breivik came out.  The murders in Norway were a tragedy in their own right and we shouldn’t fail to mourn them before rushing to “the big picture” significance, but it is still the case that Breivik is now a symbol for the right wing and perhaps even “Christian” equivalent of Islamic terror.  Correctly or not, he will always play that role in the public discourse and his use of “Christendom” will have to be accounted for before anyone can speak positively of that term again.

Now, Breivik was crazy in the way that all mass-murderers can be called crazy, but he did have a semi-coherent ideology and he was reasonably well-educated.  His beliefs fit with that of the far Right in Europe, though they clearly represent the extreme pole and show a certain lack of true political savvy.  Still, there is a sort of ideological party behind Breivik, and they do bear some responsibility in regards to his actions, as Justin Raimondo has shown here.  He’s more than a lone wacko, even if he was the first and only partisan of this sort to actually take action.

One of the big questions that was relevant to me was, “Is Breivik a Christian?” and, if so, “Can his ideology be considered a Christian one, and an example of Christian terrorism at that?”  This obviously has important implications for the way we will have to address terrorism and religious extremism in general, as well as the relationship that the public will now draw between Islamic ideology and Christian ideology.  For those of us who believe that Christians should have a self-conscious and consistent public philosophy and identity, this is both highly pertinent and highly sensitive.

It has become clear now that Breivik was in no way an orthodox Christian, nor was he inspired by personal faith or piety.  Wikipedia has compiled a number of his statements on the matter, and they show that Breivik essentially uses the term “Christianity” to speak of a certain sort of European culture.  Here are a few examples: “I’m not going to pretend I’m a very religious person, as that would be a lie,” “It is enough that you are a Christian-agnostic or a Christian-atheist,” and ” myself and many more like me do not necessarily have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God.”  Breivik apparently even goes so far as to say that Christianity ought not to impose itself upon the Hindu culture in India, since that culture can combat Marxism perfectly well on its own.  Most people will be able to see in these sorts of statements that Breivik is not himself a Christian nor necessarily being motivated by any uniquely Christian doctrine.

However, that’s actually not quite enough to close the door on the concept of “Christian terrorism.”  Sally Quinn points out that our current standard of determining and identifying Islamic terrorism is none too subtle and that, were we to be completely “even” in the way we construct the dialogue, Breivik actually would qualify as a “Christian terrorist” under its methodology.  This is a fair point.  How many of us know whether the 9-11 hijackers were actually personally faithful to Islam or consistent with its teachings?  What of the rest of the “terrorists” who have forged attacks?  What did they actually believe, and how consistent were they with Islam?  Perhaps a preliminary question ought to be, how much do most of us even know about Islam’s doctrine and teachings on cultural matters?

I am under no illusions that Islam is simply one happy member of the larger liberal utopia.  It has its own distinct history and philosophy, much of which is incompatible with the tenets of Christianity, much less the I’m-ok-you’re-ok-world of modern secularism.  Remi Brague has done an excellent job of showing this in Eccentric Culture and The Legend of the Middle Ages.  Being what Brague calls “a culture of digestion,” Islam can only appropriate the foreign through a sort of violence- by taking ownership of the foreign, renouncing its actual genealogy, and then forbidding any future “translation” of ideas out of the Islamic culture.  It should go without saying, however, that most pundits are not willing to make such a metaphysical critique, nor are most proponents of a Christian worldview quite articulate enough to explain whether or not they possess a similar culture of digestion.  What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem, after all?  I suspect that many Christian fundamentalists, whether they be Baptist or Assemblies of God or beyond, as well as many Reformed Christians, pressing their antithesis, actually do share some of the principles of cultural appropriation through digestion.

It is also the case with Islamic terrorists, and chief among them Osama Bin Laden, that an actual belief in Islam (and Allah) figures prominently in their rhetoric.  Citations from the Koran, along with a belief in other-worldly blessings, will pepper their writings and statements.  However, would this be so difficult to add to Breivik’s manifesto?  I actually have met several Christians who both personally believe in Jesus Christ as their savior and hold to something very close to the ideology of Breivik.  There are certainly small communities of people who would call themselves Christian nationalists and identify their chief enemies as Marxism and multi-culturalism who also subscribe to the Nicene Creed.  They aren’t terribly influential, nor have many of them become actively militant, but they probably do have that potential.  It is also worth remembering that Bin Laden’s typical complaints were not devotional or liturgical, but political, and I’m pretty sure I’ve heard Islamists themselves lambast multi-culturalism and a global liberal hegemony.  They certainly have their differences with Breivik when it comes to the specifics, but the overall commitment to an idealized local past over and against modernity is parallel.  The comparison isn’t totally out of line, and the difference between the relationship of a Christian “worldview” to partisanship and terror and that of Islamism would need to be clearly displayed.

Another pertinent angle is one that I expect Mark Noll and Darryl Hart will be among the first to assume: How is Breivik any less “Christian” than many of the founding fathers that people are so willing to embrace.  Breivik claims to be inspired by the great march of Western Liberalism, citing names out of a Great Books curriculum.  Breivik was even a Freemason!  The usual defense of “Christian America” is that whether or not Jefferson, Franklin, or Adams were personal believers in Jesus Christ, they were nonetheless proponents of an overarching “Christian culture” and “Christian worldview.”  Ahem… That might not be a solid rebuttal in light of the Breivik case.

All of this shows that we need to distinguish between the principles of truly Christian cultural and social order, if there is such a thing, and the reasons why some people might erroneously be attracted to the externals and language of “Christian culture.”  There may very well be Christian terrorists in the world.  The suggestion is not outrageous on its face.  Nevertheless, that would not mean that the teachings of Christianity support such people, nor that any concept of a Christian society (Christendom) would necessarily entail their particular views.  Still less would it mean that informed and traditional proponents of Christendom are morally equal to Islamists.  We would have to identify various guiding principles as well as the particular allowances for freedom and diversity within each society.  All of this would have to be shown to be consistent with the theological and moral teachings of the religion and not just a convenient compromise in the face of modern liberal scrutiny.  Each of these are questions I’d like to take up in future installments, and I’d welcome your participation in the conversation as well.

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One thought on “Culture War, Faith, and Terror

  1. One major problem with our discourse today is that we use extremism without actually mean it. This is true of both Breivik-style “Christian/fundamentalist extremism” and “Islamist extremism.” We prefer to think that the far end of the bell-curve actually reveals something inchoate or latent in the majority. It makes argument easier, for one thing.

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