Francis and Fundamentalism

Why should we equate Christianity to Islam in terms of its inner dynamic—that is, its core beliefs about God, man, the temporal order, and so forth? Why must we think that Islam and Christianity are equal in terms of moral teachings?

This past week I spent several days with some Fundamentalists. Not only did I converse at length with these strange creatures, I ate meals with them and slept in the same house. They fed me well; they never threatened me; I never heard any of them refer other people as “infidels” or “disciples of Satan”. In fact, my family and I were treated like family. Which makes sense: I was spending time with my parents on the occasion of their 50th wedding anniversary.
As regular readers know—and I go into much more detail in Will Catholics Be “Left Behind”?—I was raised in a Fundamentalist home and attended a Fundamentalist Bible chapel co-founded by my father in the early 1970s. While we rarely, if ever, referred to ourselves as “Fundamentalists”, we were well aware of the term; it was impossible to escape in the 1980s, when Jerry Falwell—founder of the Moral Majority—became, in many ways, the face of American Fundamentalism. It was during that same time, on the heels of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, that the word “fundamentalism” took on an even darker quality, synonymous with religious violence in many circles.  While “fundamentalism” in North America had long been equated with backwoods preachers, semi-literate Christians, and creationist trolls, the somewhat mysterious attachment of “fundamentalism” to “Islamic” seemed to be just as much about tarring certain American Christians as it did with distinguishing moderate and peace-loving Muslims from violent and extremist Muslims.

Put simply, the term fundamentalist has often become, in common parlance, a pejorative term used to effectively place certain groups into that fenced-off area reserved for haters, bigots, homophobes, and uncaring crazies who are either filled with blood lust or have already carried out acts of terror and “absurd violence”. On top of that, it is widely accepted in many quarters that all religions have some form of “fundamentalism”, and it must be sequestered off from those who practice peace, love, and understanding.

This is apparently how Pope Francis understands fundamentalism as well, based on remarks made on several occasions, most recently in his presser on the flight back to the Vatican from his time at World Youth Day in Krakow. As is often the case during such press events, his remarks were fragmentary and not entirely consistent. A reporter asked Francis about “the barbarous assassination of Fr. Jacques Hamel” in France and noted that the pope had recently insisted that all religions want peace; in fact, Francis had placed the blame on economic inequality: “When I speak of war I speak of wars over interests, money, resources, not religion. All religions want peace, it’s the others who want war.” That is, to put it nicely, nonsense (some commentators were harsher in their assessments). The reporter then asked: “So Holy Father … why do you, when you speak of these violent events, always speak of terrorists, but never of Islam, never use the word Islam?”

The answer given by Francis was painfully shallow and evasive:

I don’t like to speak of Islamic violence, because every day, when I browse the newspapers, I see violence, here in Italy… this one who has murdered his girlfriend, another who has murdered the mother-in-law… and these are baptized Catholics! There are violent Catholics! If I speak of Islamic violence, I must speak of Catholic violence . . . and no, not all Muslims are violent, not all Catholics are violent. It is like a fruit salad; there’s everything. There are violent persons of this religion… this is true: I believe that in pretty much every religion there is always a small group of fundamentalists. Fundamentalists. We have them. When fundamentalism comes to kill, it can kill with the language — the Apostle James says this, not me — and even with a knife, no? I do not believe it is right to identify Islam with violence. This is not right or true.

Several observations could be made about the above excerpt; I’ll stick to three. First, Francis either doesn’t understand the simple question or he purposefully reshapes it into a straw man. Every Christian knows (or should) that everyone sins, and that Christians are capable of murder and other horrible sins. We are all deeply flawed and mortally wounded by sin. That is Basic Catholic Theology, just as it is basic common sense, as Chesterton noted in Orthodoxy: “Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.” When Mr. Smith murders Mr. Jones in a fit of jealous rage in a bar in Toledo, Ohio, we don’t think, “Ah, he is following his Christian beliefs to their logical conclusion”, or, “Ha! He merely took the Sermon on the Mount and actualized its inherent violent subtext”, but rather, “Alas, he just committed an act of objective evil and has broken one of the Commandments.”

And, yes, it can be fairly guessed that Muslims commit acts of evil because of jealousy and such. Again, that is commonsense. Now, if Mr. Smith had been spending time on ISIS-related websites and reading the Quran, had insisted that he be called “Omar” or “Ahmed”, and had yelled something about “Allah” before attacking Mr. Jones, we might think: “Yes, a murder took place. But something else is also going on here.” Put another way, we don’t refer to Jack the Ripper as a “fundamentalist” or as a “violent Christian”. Why not?

Secondly, no, the Holy Father does not need to talk about “Catholic violence” because the matter of “Islamic violence” is brought up. Logically, does this also mean that Amish elders and Methodist pastors must speak about “Amish violence” and “Methodist violence”? Why must we accept that all religions are inherently peaceful? If so, why? And does such an assumption say more about wishful thinking than about reality? It brings to mind a June 2014 interview, in which Francis stated that “violence in the name of God” is “a contradiction”:

Violence in the name of God does not correspond with our time. It’s something ancient. With historical perspective, one has to say that Christians, at times, have practiced it. When I think of the Thirty Years War, there was violence in the name of God. Today it is unimaginable, right? We arrive, sometimes, by way of religion to very serious, very grave contradictions. Fundamentalism, for example. The three religions, we have our fundamentalist groups, small in relation to all the rest.

Why is it unimaginable? At what point and in what way has man, as religious animal, evolved to a point where he no longer commits sins he once committed? But perhaps even more importantly, why should we equate Christianity to Islam in terms of its inner dynamic—that is, its core beliefs about God, man, the temporal order, and so forth? Why must we think that Islam and Christianity are equal in terms of moral teachings, understandings of natural law, inner rational coherence, and such? In a very real way, this appears to be closely connected to Francis’ unqualified claim that “we are all children of God”, even though such language really does demand some careful parsing (as Benedict XVI explained in a 2012 General Audience, “God is our Father because he is our Creator”, but, “Nonetheless this is still not enough” because we must become partakers of the divine nature in and through Jesus Christ). In addition, to put it simply, Francis’ remarks about history overlook both the historical record regarding the founding and expansion of Islam, and the growth and expansion of violent Islamic groups in recent decades.

Third, there is Francis’ insistence that a key feature of all fundamentalist groups is violence. Perhaps he senses that he has to widen the net of his definition in order to capture all of the desired fish, because he states that “when fundamentalism comes to kill, it can kill with the language.” In the 2014 interview he makes this even more clear, so to speak: “A fundamentalist group, although it may not kill anyone, although it may not strike anyone, is violent. The mental structure of fundamentalists is violence in the name of God” (emphasis added).

It is here, I think, that Francis reveals how little he knows about fundamentalism, especially as it has been discussed and studied by scholars such as George M. Marsden, author of Fundamentalism and American Culture (Oxford University Press, 1980), Martin Marty, who co-edited a massive multi-volume work titled The Fundamentalism Project, and Malise Ruthven, who has written several books on fundamentalism in general and Islamic fundamentalism (or “Islamofascism”, a term he apparently coined in 1990), to name just three. None of those authors see violence as the key feature of fundamentalism precisely because, first, there are forms of fundamentalism that are not violent and, secondly, because any violence (whether committed by fundamentalists or others) is a means to an end—and that end is what matters if we are going to grasp why certain groups commit acts of violence and terrorism.

What the three scholars do agree upon—and it’s worth nothing that Marsden is an Evangelical Protestant (who taught at Notre Dame), Marty is a Lutheran who likely falls in the “moderate” category theologically, and Ruthven appears to be a secular scholar (based on his writing and what bio I’ve found online)—is notable because it brings some clarity to an admittedly complicated and confusing topic. In short, they describe religious fundamentalism as a negative reaction to modernity and secularism that is rooted in a particular way of viewing history, usually directly related to a literal manner of interpreting sacred writing. Ruthven, in Fundamentalism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2007), writes, “Put at its broadest, [fundamentalism] may be described as a religious way of being that manifests itself in a strategy by which beleaguered believers attempt to preserve their distinctive identities or groups in the face of modernity and secularization.” This strategy is usually closely connected to a desire to recover and bring back a “golden age” of history, a desire that is usually pursued using political means and involving a vision that might be described as “apocalyptic”.

Marty, in a September 30, 2001 interview, says, “The fundamentalist, however, says there was a moment in history when a particular book, leader and original social community was perfect, which in my opinion never existed.” He also emphasizes that while some basic resemblances can be found among “fundamentalisms”, there are often very notable differences: “I couldn’t be more emphatic than to say these fundamentalisms are very, very different from one another. …. We are not saying that just because this form of Islamic fundamentalism shoots at people, that other fundamentalist people are waiting to do so also.” In other words, Francis’ belief that violence is a (or “the”) key feature of fundamentalism is not shared by many scholars who have studied the subject for years or decades.

So, the scholars—and, yes, they were professors at established universities—who wrote the 90 essays in The Fundamentals (1910-15) focused on fundamental beliefs about God, Jesus, and salvation, with a special focus on interpreting the Bible “literally” and on the imminent return of Christ; many of them were premillennial dispensationalists. But they were not violent, nor did they advocate violence, even if they were harsh in their criticisms of Catholicism, secularism, and other groups and movements. Islamic fundamentalists not only read the Quran in a literalist fashion, they also have an eschatology that is rooted in the belief that the world consists of two lands: Dar al Islam (the house of Islam), where Islam is established and dominant, and Dar al Harb (the house of war), which consists of lands where Islam has not yet conquered the infidel. And they, of course, employ violence.

While the term “fundamentalist” was used in the 1920s to describe those American Protestants who adhered to “the fundamentals”, the term “Islamic fundamentalism” was apparently coined in the late 1930s, for reasons that are not entirely clear. The shared usage is unfortunate, to put it mildly; it has been confusing and has now become something of a crutch. “Fundamentalism'”, notes Ruthven, “now encompasses many types of activities, not all of them religious. … It seems doubtful, however, if these non-religious uses of the word are analytically useful.”

On a more useful note, reiterating Marty’s point, Ruthven points out that the “fundamentalist impulse in Islam” has a very different “form” than that found in Protestant Christianity. Although one hears of the “theocratic” impulse in fundamentalist Protestantism, that bears little resemblance to the monolithic and all-encompassing goal of Sharia pursued by Islamic fundamentalists. And what of “Catholic fundamentalism”? Interesting enough, Ruthven doubts that such a thing really exists, in large part because Catholicism is not a religion of the book (think here of the Catechism‘s statement that “the Christian faith is not a ‘religion of the book'” [par 108]), but looks to the Magisterium and Sacred Tradition, along with Sacred Scripture, for authoritative guidance. He does say, however, that if there is a form of Catholic fundamentalism, it might be what is called “intégrisme in French, integralism in English”—the belief that the pope should rule over the world; that is: “papal fundamentalism.” Go figure.

Finally, Francis stated the following about the origins of fundamentalism:

How many young people, how many young people of our Europe, whom we have left empty of ideals, who do not have work… they take drugs, alcohol, or go there to enlist in fundamentalist groups. One can say that the so-called ISIS, but it is an Islamic State which presents itself as violent . . . because when they show us their identity cards, they show us how on the Libyan coast how they slit the Egyptians’ throats or other things… But this is a fundamentalist group which is called ISIS… but you cannot say, I do not believe, that it is true or right that Islam is terrorist.

One problem, of course, is that if poverty were the reason for violent fundamentalist groups, you would expect to see such groups in many other places of the world and by a variety of different groups—not just Islamic groups. Dr. Samuel Gregg recently showed how flawed this explanation really is, concluding:

The vast majority of Muslims aren’t terrorists. But most terrorists today are Muslims whose religious convictions are a major reason why they plunder, torture and murder others — including other Muslims. Imagining that reducing economic inequality in Islamic nations, or that increasing welfare-payments to poor Muslims in Western Europe will somehow diminish terrorism not only doesn’t fit the evidence. It fails to take Islam seriously as a religion.

Exactly right. While there is much to lament in Francis’ comments on these topics, I am especially bothered by how the Holy Father seems unwilling or unable to really grapple with underlying and profound theological differences between Catholicism and Islam. The differences are real, and simply throwing around terms such as “fundamentalism” and making comparisons that defy both evidence and logic is not helping matters. Quite the contrary. 

About Carl E. Olson 1033 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind", co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Word on Fire. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.