Fundamentalism

When We Were the Pre-Party to the Tea Party

When I was seven years old in the mid-‘80s, Mom started taking my brother Marco and me to Grace Bible Baptist Church and School in rural New Hampshire. We’d pass by all these well-attended, high-steepled liberal churches to worship in a squat, utilitarian building hidden on a back road in the woods, with a congregation of 30 or 40 strong: The Moral Majority. U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann’s recent claim that we’re living in the end times reminds me of those days. We were the pre-party to the Tea Party. There were Ronald Reagan posters in the lobby. We’d listen to sermons about “back masking” and the Satanist propaganda you’d hear if you played rock records backwards. One week, we came back to church every night after school to watch Russell Daughten’s four-part 1970s Rapture movie series, the original Left Behind: Polyester pandemonium.

Dear Young Christians: Reject Legalism, NOT Discipline!

Illustration of teen arguing with parents, Ron and Joe / Shutterstock.com
Illustration of teen arguing with parents, Ron and Joe / Shutterstock.com

Within the evangelical Christian universe, few things are more damning than being labeled 'Legalistic.' The term evokes images of strict rules, ruthlessness, enforced doctrines, unforgiving judges, and worst of all —unpopularity

When churches, schools, pastors, institutions, and communities are viewed as legalistic, they are demonized and shunned — sometimes rightfully so.

One disturbing trend I’ve noticed — especially among young believers — is to assume that everything associated with a few of legalism’s attributes: structure, requirements, consequences, and work, is legalistic — it’s not.

Christianity's 5 Most Popular Scapegoats

Scapegoat illustration, durantelallera / Shutterstock.com
Scapegoat illustration, durantelallera / Shutterstock.com

Within Christianity it’s easy to criticize. Here are some of the most common scapegoats:

1)  Conservative Fundamentalists

Christianity’s negative public image is — sometimes rightfully — blamed on these people. Perceived as being exclusive, resistant to change, addicted to power, and very aggressive, they’re characterized as anti-women, anti-science, anti-abortion, anti-homosexuality, and anti-evolution.

Ten years ago the top scapegoat would’ve belonged to ‘Progressive Liberals,’ but what a difference a few years make. Despite the dramatic change, we can often be guilty of blaming fundamentalists just as easily and unfairly as they used to blame others.

A Convenient target, we often use them as a punching bag. Many theologians, bloggers, pastors, and leaders have become obsessed with fighting and arguing against fundamentalists, and it ultimately becomes a distraction. It’s so easy to focus on those we disagree with that our entire faith becomes a set of reactions to our opponents instead of a life lived promoting the Gospel of Christ.

Learning to Love Complexity

Blue vintage globe map photo courtesy Shutterstock.
Blue vintage globe map photo courtesy Shutterstock.

Tumult in Egypt reminds me how complicated the world can be, especially for a culture like our own that is shaped by good guy vs. bad guy dramas.

Who are the “good guys” in Cairo? Is the ousted president a good guy for being democratically elected or a bad guy for pursuing isolationist Islamic policies? Is the military saving Egypt or preserving privileges?

It isn’t just the inherent complexity of any human situation. It’s the complexity of societies that have rules and histories quite unlike our own.

Overcoming Violent Fundamentalism

TODAY THE Middle East—where about 60 percent of the population is under the age of 25—is a region dominated by humiliation and anger. Failure plus rage plus the folly of youth equals an incendiary mix.

The roots of anti-American hostilities in the Middle East run deep. We can start with the fact that what we consider our oil lies beneath their sands. Couple that with U.S. support of repressive regimes, the presence of foreign troops on their land and in their holy places, and the endless wars waged there, ultimately fueled by the geopolitics of energy. Add to that the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which continues to drive the deepest emotions of mutual frustration, fear, and retaliation throughout the Middle East and around the world.

Injustices and violence caused by the oil economy have sparked a reaction from dangerous religious fundamentalists in the Muslim world. Fundamentalism—in all our faith traditions—is volatile and hard to contain once it has been unleashed, and it is hard to reverse its essentially reactive and predictably downward cycle.

Three principles may help us navigate a path out of this mess. First, religious extremism will not be defeated by a primarily military response. Ample evidence proves that such a strategy often makes things worse. Religious and political zealots prefer military responses to the threats created by Islamic extremism. Ironically, this holds true on both sides of the conflict; the fundamentalist zealots also prefer the simplistic military approach because they are often able to use it effectively. Fundamentalists actually flourish and win the most new recruits amid overly aggressive military campaigns against them.

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Free-Speech Fundamentalism

DOES THE RIGHT to free speech include the right to yell “Fire!” in a crowded social network?

That’s one of the questions raised by the violent overreaction by some Muslims to the 14-minute YouTube video clip, Innocence of Muslims.

Of course, my question paraphrases the words of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in deciding that speech likely to cause immediate violence could be restricted. However, over the course of the 20th century, the American standard for limiting potentially harmful speech has gotten a lot tougher. For the past 50 years or so, it’s been settled law in the U.S. that the First Amendment protects speech that is, like Innocence of Muslims, false, hateful, malevolent, and even very badly written, acted, and produced. But the Internet Age is bringing new challenges to America’s free-speech fundamentalism.

Tolerance of blasphemous, racist, and defamatory material is commonplace to most Americans. We take it as one of our God-given rights. But, in fact, this is a real example of American exceptionalism. No other liberal democracy in the world protects speech that is plainly intended to wound and insult members of a specific racial or religious group. “Hate speech” prohibitions are the rule throughout the Western world.

The internet, however, is an American invention. It is dominated by American companies, and, when it comes to free speech, the internet plays by American rules (except maybe when it comes to China). We were reminded of this over the summer when a phalanx of Silicon Valley corporate bigwigs joined privacy and civil liberties advocates to promote an international “Declaration of Internet Freedom.” The declaration is a manifesto of general principles that opposes censorship, supports net neutrality, and includes the crucial principle (especially dear to the heart of Google-owned YouTube) that a service provider should never be held responsible for the actions of its users.

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'Love Your Neighbor' Wasn't Just a Suggestion

The most recent discussions of U.S. foreign policy and the Middle East, once again say more about politics during an election year, than they do about the fundamental issues we must confront if we want to see substantial change.

So let’s look at the basic issues and fundamental choices we need to make.

Today the Middle East — where about 60 percent of the population is under the age of 25 — is a region dominated by humiliation and anger.

Failure + rage + the folly of youth = an incendiary mix.

The roots of anti-American hostilities in the Middle East run deep (literally and figuratively). We can start with the fact that our oil (and its economy) lies beneath their sands. Couple that with U.S. support of repressive and backward regimes, the continual presence of foreign troops on their land and in their holy places, and the endless wars waged there, ultimately fueled by the geopolitics of energy.

Add to that incindiary cocktail the unresolved Israeli/Palestinian conflict, which continues to drive the deepest emotions of mutual frustration, fear, and retaliation throughout the Middle East and the rest of the world.

Injustices and violence caused by the oil economy have sparked a reaction from dangerous religious fundamentalists in the Islamic world. Fundamentalism — in all our faith traditions — is both volatile and hard to contain once it has been unleashed, and it becomes hard to reverse its essentially reactive and predictably downward cycle.

Love Casts Out Fear

Sunday School image,  joyart / Shutterstock.com
Sunday School image, joyart / Shutterstock.com

A couple of years ago, I remember speaking to a middle-schooler about his worries of the world. During our conversation, he told me one of his biggest fears centered around Muslims. When I asked why Muslims generated so much fear in him, he said they were scary and are out to hurt people.

"Look at 9/11," he said. "Terrorists may take over the U.S. and then the world."

Around the same time I heard similar concerns from a 10-year old in my Sunday School class who joked about the terrors of Islam and how Muslims were going to take over the world. Again, I asked him where he received these ideas, to which he responded, “from my church back in Southern California.” 

Both times, I had to remind my students that sometimes churches get it wrong. All people are created in the image of God. Every person is a child of God. God’s love brings understanding, reconciliation, and peace among one another. God’s love casts out all fear.

The Face of Hate

Topeka’s Westboro Baptist Church takes in-your-face to a whole new level. The church is nothing if not an equal opportunity offender, from its burning of both a Quran and an American flag on 9/11 to its signs proclaiming God’s hatred for ... well, pretty much everyone. While Westboro, established by a lawyer named Fred Phelps in 1955, claims to be a Primitive Baptist Church, that denomination denounces the actions of the church as “deplorable.” The church boasts of conducting 47,770 demonstrations since 1991 proclaiming its gospel of hate—while taunting on its website that the number zero represents the “nanoseconds of sleep that WBC members lose over your opinions and feeeeellllliiiiiings.”

From Rebecca Barrett-Fox’s first visit to the church in 2004 until defending her dissertation “Pray Not for This People for Their Good” in 2010, the scholar became intimately acquainted with the people of Westboro in a way that few outsiders have. Barrett-Fox, now a professor at two Mennonite colleges in Kansas (Hesston and Bethel) and book review editor of The Journal of Hate Studies, conducted intensive ethnographic research on the church, joining members at Sunday services, pickets at memorials for gay and lesbian people, and outside the Supreme Court when it ruled in favor of the church’s right to demonstrate at military funerals.

Freelance editor and writer Joanie Eppinga (eagleeyeediting.com), who is the former editor and current assistant editor of  The Journal of Hate Studies, met Barrett-Fox through Gonzaga University’s Institute for Hate Studies and interviewed her last April. —The Editors

Joanie Eppinga: How did you become involved with Westboro Baptist Church?

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Christianity As Impurity Cult, or It's Okay to Leave

Host and chalice image, robodread / Shutterstock.com
Host and chalice image, robodread / Shutterstock.com

The Church is not a purity cult. We try to turn our institutions into purity cultus of behavior or belief all the time. We're really good at it. We've fought wars over our theologies wrapped in nationalism. We've crusaded from west to east all in the name of the purity of the Church. "Ex filio" was a war cry a thousand years ago.

Rachel Held Evans is right. Evangelicalism may very well be losing a generation and by extension, we all are. But then some of us have been losing parts of generations for a long time. Some of the Boomers walked never to return. More of Gen X did the same. Now the enormous generation of Millennials is having its say. Many are voting with their feet. They are tired of the culture wars. They are tired of the purity fights. Many people from various generations are. They are all voting with their feet. The same thing is happening in Catholicism though some are choosing to stay. If it weren't for the influx of Catholic immigrants to the US, we'd see the same statistical free fall in Catholicism that the mainline is experiencing.

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