The True Believer

The other day I listened spellbound to an interview with Alvin Toeffler, author of the seminal book "Future Shock." It does seem that we are living through many of his prognostications. The societal shifts and dislocations of the modern age explain in large measure the current religious agitation—whether it is Islamic radicalism in the Middle East, an aggressive Christian fundamentalist resurgence in the United States, or a revitalized papacy in the New Europe railing against secularism.

I was taken by Toeffler's acknowledgement that with the breakdown of the family and blurring of gender roles and identity we have entered into what some would call moral decadence—but he took it further and said that we are in a "post-decadent era" where we have moved beyond the old norms and are forming a new structure.

But of course he must be underestimating both the innate appeal of religious faith and the claim that each structure invariably makes to absolute transcendent truth. The brave new world is just waking up to this.

The Islamist rejection of modernization and the Christian West as the proponent of that denial of traditional faith models is deep seated. It is mainstream to Islamic thought—as it has to be if one is consistent with the Holy Quran. To a Muslim the Quran is the direct word from heaven. And the Quran unambiguously condemns Judaism of betraying its moral covenant with God. The Quran unambiguously condemns the people of the book (Christians) for worshipping a false form of God and not following biblical precepts of diet and behavior. No amount of good feeling and conferences can change the indisputable facts of faith for this group. They are under threat from globalization and secularity.

Even in Buddhist lands the once accommodating religion is reacting, sometimes violently, to threats magnified by global change. In Sri Lanka and Cambodia for interest Buddhist priests and pushing back against other faith values and trying to identify their faith with national identity. They feel threatened by out of control change. How else to explain proposed legislation in Sri Lanka that would criminalize conversion?

And the Christian West? Not so free of moral constraint and the burden of faith as Toeffler might think. In reality there are deep chasms in society dividing the new order from the religious faithful and their more outraged fringes. The recent story of the United States, at least for forty years cannot be told without a recognition that there is a deep-seated battle to retain what the Christian center sees as their country and their religion. It can be violent, but its opinions are always in violent opposition to the other.

This magazine has done much to document this debate in the United States. We have tried to separate the very real agony of Christians watching their society slip away, from the methods they increasingly feel called upon to use in resisting. The First Amendment is as valid a tool to protect faith, as it is to empower the very diversity of faith—and non-faith—some Christians fear. I worry that in desperation some religious leaders in the United States are working for the destruction of the separation of church and state principle. They want to reclaim the state as an ally in protecting faith. But what faith?

And so I come back to where this issue began: the Pope's speech at Regensburg, Germany.

Of course the Roman Catholic Church is under attack from the same forces that have agitated Islam and protestant American society. The present Pope is well on record as identifying secularism as the overarching enemy. And he has been consistent in that regard. I wish that both Islam and Protestant America would take this proscription to heart, as therein lies the only satisfactory answer to the global challenge to faith.

The Bible is amazingly clear in defining a true believer as one who has faith and does what God asks. In other words, increased piety and practical Christian living is the best antidote to secular challenge and loss of religious identity. Changing the Constitution or harassing the opposition leads the wrong way.

Islam is not immune to this temptation. It finds ample evidence in the Quran and Haddith that it must push back, violently if necessary. Never comfortable with secular power, much of the Islamic world thinks that Islamic governance can shield them from the ever-increasing allure of the modern. It is an easy slide from that need to violence.

On the face of it, the Pope's speech appeared to address the issue of violence objectively.
But it has several flaws.

True, the spread of Islam was all to often accomplished by the sword of conquest—even if we discount the speech's archaic invocation of a Byzantine emperor ascribing violence to Islam. But the Pope indulged in sleight of hand by positing that Greek and Roman rationality had removed violent propensities from Christianity. Christianity gets no license to violence in the New Testament. It was only as the church structure was itself Hellenized and then taken over by Roman power that it revealed a violent streak that ordered Europe right through to the modern era.

And that violence came directly from the sense of entitlement that every true religion must have, coupled with secular power, to prosecute the aims of faith.

Why did the pope choose to present the Protestant reformers as spearheading the first of three major efforts to "dehellenise" Christianity? His point was all too clear. In dehellenising Christianity, they removed rationality and enabled the visceral, violent elements to reemerge. But this is nonsense.

The Reformation was itself a companion to the emergence of rationality in Western culture. It was a rejection of a political religion that denied the right of the average believer to read and think faith matters for themselves. It rejected an unthinking reliance on church intermediaries and posited each individual choosing to come before God. This rational shift brought about at times violent persecution. So much for Hellenisation and violence.

The mischief in this speech has more to do with modern analogies to the war on terror.

There is no question we are facing a new global threat from violent religion. Islamic Jihaddis have impressed that upon the major powers. It is not yet clear to them how to counteract this new "asymmetrical" attack. Civil liberties are already causalities in this war. Defining the 'them' and 'us' is proceeding apace—and increasingly it comes down to religious identity. And there is reason to see states defining themselves by religious identity. (Dangerous as that it, I fear we can assume that Rome has no problem with church-state Christian identity).

The mischief in the speech is that it implies that Protestantism—maybe protestant America—is more prone to violence, and therefore part of the present threat. He will find a ready ear to this view. And where will this lead in our post-reformation era?

Lincoln E. Steed
Liberty Magazine
Article Author: Lincoln E. Steed

Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."