It was shocking to hear Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson point angry fingers of blame at the United States for our tragedy.
It was not so shocking because these two clerics share something basic with radical religious leaders on the other side of the world: fundamentalism. Christian fundamentalists and Islamic fundamentalists worship different deities but they both live in dread of the anything-goes, individualized and expanding culture of the United States. They believe that America brought upon itself the wrath from the heavens.
This is not me saying so. This is them speaking.
"The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked," said Falwell of the terrorists attacks of Sept. 11. "I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way--all of them who have tried to secularize America--I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen.' "
Appearing on Christian television, Falwell also said, "God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve."
According to transcripts of the program, Robertson replied: "Jerry, that's my feeling. I think we've just seen the antechamber to terror. We haven't even begun to see what they can do to the major population."
At the root, fundamentalism is a struggle against modernity--against individualism, against moral self-determination and, yes, against freedom. Behind fundamentalism is one theological doctrine or another, but Islamic and Christian fundamentalists are cultural and political zealots as well as religious crusaders. Robertson, remember, ran for president in 1988.
Fundamentalists share a belief that religious tenets, whether drawn from the Koran or the Bible, provide the supreme law. Thus fundamentalism is wholly authoritarian. Fundamentalism is radicalism. Look up radical in the dictionary: "the foundation source of something; fundamental; basic."
"Fundamentalism is fundamentalism is fundamentalism," says an Arabist friend of mine who teaches history at a Christian college.
I'm not trying to be provocative. Falwell and Robertson were plenty provocative by themselves. I don't seek to meet their accusations with accusations of my own; there will be people happy to do that. Rather, like many of us, I'm trying to understand just what the United States is up against now.
How, we ask, could this happen? Just what in all the world could propel people to do such misguided things? We shake our heads as if the idea is as foreign and unfathomable as the lives of those robed men whom we see on television in the desert far off.
But I don't think you have to look abroad for all the clues. The same hate-fear that drives fundamentalists in Afghanistan also works on the hearts of Christian fundamentalists in the U.S.
I share with scholars the view that fundamentalism is not aberrant but understandable behavior during times of upheaval in the social order. In fact, I think there is a little fundamentalist in us all. As we face the unknowns of technological change, as we perceive a decline in individual values, as we witness a shift in power from nations to corporations, the old ways seem ever so sensible. Nostalgia has a foot squarely in fundamentalist thinking.
This is not a new phenomenon. Japan, with its highly developed Samurai culture, found itself threatened 400 years ago by globalization and the advent of firearms. It closed its ports to the world for two centuries.
I suppose I must add, so the letter writers don't work themselves into fits, that I am not equating U.S. Christian fundamentalists with Islamic terrorists. Neither am I equating Islamic fundamentalists, or for that matter Jewish fundamentalists, with terrorists. I am saying that Christian fundamentalists see things much as other fundamentalists do. Terrorism arises not from fundamentalism but from extreme fundamentalists, who take it upon themselves to fight for the only order that makes sense to them. Holy warriors.
It is worth reminding ourselves that extreme Christian fundamentalism breeds its own violent cells of terrorists here at home. According to the Abortion Rights League, there have been 2,500 reported attacks and 55,000 acts of illegal disruption against medical clinics since the late 1970s in the United States.
For a free society, fundamentalism poses the most basic of paradoxes: It flourishes by tolerance, but tolerance is what it cannot tolerate.
Perhaps fundamentalism--and the fundamentalism that breeds extremism--is not so hard to fathom after all. It's right here at home.
As Falwell said, "I believe that if America does not repent and return to a genuine faith and dependence on Him, we may expect more tragedies."
So long as fundamentalists insist that this is so, it will surely be true.