by Mark Malvasi
Religious fundamentalism has displayed a seemingly limitless capacity for simplification and hatred, which has often turned murderous. It is easy for us in the West to condemn Islam, but throughout its long history Christianity has also merited censure. The tumultuous and destructive wars between Catholics and Protestants that extended from the middle of the sixteenth to the middle of the seventeenth century grew out of the shared conviction that diversity within Christendom was intolerable. Motivated by the quest for doctrinal purity and ideological conformity, Protestants, at least Calvinists, and Catholics alike, when compelled to admit that they could not do away with their enemies, undertook to convert them by brute force.
Militants on both sides of the theological divide invoked the name and the blessings of God to slaughter those who opposed them and to make war on established authority. (Jean Bodin, Robert Filmer, and others, for instance, developed the quasi-religious theory of absolute government and the divine right of kings in part to render monarchy unassailable to the attacks of religious radicals. Assaults on the power or person of the sovereign, whom God had anointed to rule, became thereby both treasonable and sacrilegious.) Zealots, of course, found in religion the justification for whatever political creed favored their interests, from limited government to absolute monarchy, from aristocracy to republicanism, from democracy to communism. Christopher Dawson worried lest religion become “a servant or accomplice of the powers of this world.” The history of the European religious wars, as much as the Islamic Jihad, reveals that his concerns were, and remain, well and fully justified. It is the irony of religious fundamentalism that it often culminates in an effort to gain the kingdoms of the world, which, according to scripture, is the promise that Satan made to all who follow him.
An even more serious danger arises from the tendency to link religion not to the apparatus of the state but to identify it with the cause of the nation. This temptation has taken many forms. The Russian Orthodox Church canonized both the Emperor Constantine and Tsar Nicholas II. But there were plenty of churchmen in the West who paid homage to a succession of monarchs and dictators, and bestowed upon them the sanction of their faiths. Despite their emphasis on salvation in the next world, fundamentalists, whether Christian or Muslim, have too often sought to remake this world by violence. For the Tsarnaev brothers, to cite only the most recent example, “Islam” designated not only a religious faith, but also an attempt to recover and reconnect with a national identity. They challenged both the religious and the political status quo, for Allah cannot rule on earth until the infidel has been vanquished.
Behind every form of religious fundamentalism then there lies an unremitting despair, which, when freed from its spiritual moorings, can transform life on earth into a living hell. Extremists of every variety, assured of their own virtue and the righteousness of their cause, would rather transform the world into a battleground than tolerate for a moment the “wicked” and “unregenerate” in their midst. The destructive acts of purification that they carry out are the will of God, which they alone can interpret and understand. Fundamentalists have always convinced themselves that God wishes them to dominate and reform the corrupt environment in which they live, or to die trying, and worse, to take others with them. Their road the heaven is paved with bad intentions.
Religious fundamentalism may satisfy the appetite for spiritual certainty and the yearning for an intimacy with truth in a world often shockingly unpredictable and riddled with complexity and deception. Yet, in pursuit of those ambitions, fundamentalists unwittingly sacrifice the very essence of faith, which does not rest on assurance. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “It is, paradoxically, dangerous to draw nearer to God. Doesn’t one find in one’s own experience that every advance (if one ever has advances) in the spiritual life opens to one the possibility of blacker sins as well as brighter virtues?… We are denied many graces that we ask for because they would be our ruin.” In its stridency, fundamentalism leaves no room for the delights and joys of life. It encourages no understanding of, and no sympathy for, creation, history, or human beings. It fosters arrogance rather than humility. It promotes unconditional belief, discouraging men and women from thinking for themselves. All that remains to it is the iron necessity of dividing the world into good and evil, and the supposition that those who are not with us are against us. For the last 500 years, nothing has proven more merciless or more deadly than efforts to discipline, oppress, punish, and cleanse the spirit in the name of religious uniformity and ideological purity.
Mark Malvasi is a Senior Contributor to The Imaginative Conservative and teaches history at Randolph-Macon College. He is the author of The Unregenerate South: The Agrarian Thought of John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Donald Davidson and Slavery in the Western Hemisphere Circa 1500-1888. His most recent book is The Finder, a collection of poems, published by Cranberry Tree Press in 2013.