common ground


Program 0219 May 7, 2002

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(This text has been professionally transcribed, however, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.)

MARTIN MARTY: Up until September 11, nine out of ten headlines the media ever used or prime time ever used with fundamentalism was a member of a religion fighting a member of a religion.

KEITH PORTER: This week on Common Ground, defining fundamentalism. Plus, the role of religion in world affairs.

ERIC OWENS: Religious people see problems differently than other religious peoples, or nonreligious peoples, or people of different religious faiths.

KRISTIN MCHUGH: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Kristin McHugh.

PORTER: And I’m Keith Porter. The word “fundamentalism” as defined in Webster’s Dictionary is “a movement or attitude stressing strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principles.” As the global war on terrorism continues the word fundamentalism is now synonymous with Islamic extremists and radical political movements in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and elsewhere.

MCHUGH: But did you know fundamentalism traces its roots to America’s Bible belt. Martin Marty is Professor Emeritus of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Marty was one of the participants of The Fundamentalism Project, a multiyear study of fundamentalist movements around the world. I recently spoke with Marty about fundamentalism’s roots and the misconceptions associated with the word today. He begins our conversation with a definition.

MARTY: We had about 200 scholars asking the same question: “Why did the 20th century need a new word when you already had words like ‘conservative,’ ‘traditional,’ and ‘orthodox?’” And they, we, noticed that a new phenomenon is here: basically it is a conservatism or a traditionalism or an orthodoxy whose people and whose leaders are threatened to the core—their values, their identity, their beliefs—are all being challenged by whatever they want to call it. Modernity, pluralism, the West, secularism. Challenged so deeply that they must react. And the key word for us would be “react.” They are impatient with conservatives and moderates because they may agree on the beliefs but they don’t fight back. And they see their god—in Islam, in Judaism, in Christianity—anywhere we look—as calling upon them to face the threat.

MCHUGH: As you just mentioned, fundamentalism is a new word. But it’s one that we use in the media quite often.

MARTY: The word was invented in the summer of July 1920 during a fight in an American Baptism denomination, when somebody said “Everybody wants to be called conservative but they won’t do battle for the Lord. So we must fight.” In the 1920s numbers of these movements took shape: American Protestant fundamentalism. Certainly there had been conservatism all through the century before. But evolution, progressivism, moral change, biblical criticism, all were threats and they reacted. So the word is now nearly universal. We were asked—”we” means this couple of hundred scholars—were asked by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to make this study. Because as familiar as scholars would be with the old style versions, we didn’t know what sense to make of the Ayatollah Khomeni and some of the more moderate American fundamentalisms, in Chu Shemini in Israel. And so we were supposed to, and I think we did, try to formulate and report clearly enough that people in the mass media communication, people in statecraft, people in the Academy, people people, would have a little more clarity in their mind as to what this points to.

MCHUGH: Now, it’s interesting because fundamentalism is often used. But you also hear words like “militant,” and “extremist” to describe. In fact, in a newscast on my way here this person was identified as a militant one minute and an extremist the next minute. What’s the difference between all three of those words?

MARTY: Well, you can be a fundamentalist and not be militant. The basic fundamentalist in the institution in the area where I live, Chicago, for a hundred years has been Moody Bible Institute, and I doubt whether there’s been a slingshot on the premises, to say nothing of guns. These are not people who are gonna be moved to do that. Many, many such movements exist around the world. They would try to get their way by trying to see people out of the world, bringing them into the community, or change their neighborhood or their country through law, through constitution. When those things don’t work or when you have a memory of having run the show and you want to win it back, then you turn militant or extremist, and go into warfare or terrorism. And that’s why so much has happened in the Islamic world, where there’s never been, I guess, what in the West would call separation of church and state.

Certainly in the Arab Islamic world there hasn’t been. But most of Central and Southeast Asia, too, there hasn’t been that. And you try to win that back. And that’s why it’s so interesting that up until September 11, nine out of ten headlines the media ever used or prime time ever used with fundamentalism was a member of a religion fighting a member of a religion. It was Hindu fundamentalists that killed Ghandi. It was Islamic fundamentalists that killed Sadat. They were extremists and so on. So it really wouldn’t be fair to the friendly fundamentalist down the block who’s at the next computer or in the same supermarket or in the same political party as you are to picture that they’re all potential militants and extremists.

MCHUGH: That was one of the points that you made in an article that you coauthored in Foreign Policy recently. And that was that fundamentalism doesn’t necessarily lead to violence.

MARTY: I think it’s very important to make a distinction and since September 11, I think some of us who have been in the project and who care about these things have been trying to stress how important discrimination is. Perceptual differences. If you lump everybody together to the left of you as communist for 70 years or to the right of you as militant-extremist-fundamentalist, you’re just forming enemies instead of trying to keep openness. And so I think we have to be very careful before we apply the adjective “militant” or “extremist” to the noun “fundamentalism.”

MCHUGH: I want to go back to some of the things that you identified in the article in Foreign Policy. Another one is that fundamentalism isn’t always religious.

MARTY: There can be many kinds of fundamentalisms. We tried to be a little lighthearted about some of this because it can be a pretty grim subject. And I like to quote Herbert Hoover, who said that his predecessor, Calvin Coolidge, was a fundamentalism fisherman because he used old-fashioned worms and hooks and would have nothing to do with modern things like reels. More seriously, I think there are people on the far left that I’ve known in liberation theology who said, “This is the right ideology and the actual situation we look at isn’t going to change us. We know this is the truth.”

MCHUGH: There is a perception that fundamentalists don’t want change.

MARTY: To our surprise, we found that fundamentalists are great innovators. They don’t want change in that they get their word from retrieving from the past some perfect moment when the Prophet was here. When Jesus was here. Or a perfect text, when the Koran, or Torah, or New Testament was written. And they like to create the impression therefore, that they’re the old-time religion and that can’t change. And yet that principle selection allows them to draw on so many different parts that they’re very innovative. And a good example would be the use of mass media. If anything symbolizes modernity to moderns its electronic and digital and print revolutions. And yet in any open contest anywhere in the world, they are better at radio, television, the Internet, maybe print media, rapid mails, than are the competitors—the more moderate, mild versions. So that’s one feature of modernity they’re very much at home with.

Among the militants weaponry—they’re not using slingshots and they’re not using rocks—they have high tech. And I think Al Qaeda certainly to the degree that it’s well financed and so on, is extremely sophisticated about it. But also they change, I think, in ideology. And one quick illustration from America will show this. Twenty years ago the then most prominent American fundamentalist was Jerry Falwell. He said twenty years earlier, civil rights era, welfare society, we used to say it was sinful for the church to be in politics. Now we say the opposite. It’s sinful for it not be in politics. That’s a drastic shift.

MCHUGH: What attracts people to fundamentalist movements of all types?

MARTY: The first reaction, let’s say, of someone who had not been in a movement is bewilderment that you get in the face of all the signals that modernity throws at you. The erosion of old landmarks. The corrosion of old containers of beliefs. The winds of doctrine. And someone comes along and says it doesn’t have to be that way. We found that most fundamentalists can be characterized as having low tolerance for ambiguity, for paradox, for contradiction. Now, most of the religions have a lot of contradiction in them. The Koran says the sweetest things about peace and the most militant things about war. The Christian Bible does the same. And most people live with both and say, “Well, we want to work for peace, let’s forget about those militant passages.” But if you’re in a fundamentalist movement you, you take them all head on and say, “That’s what it says and if I’m supposed to kill in God’s or Allah’s name, I may do that.” But the larger group by far are people who are left behind by history. In Islam they see the West having all these technological goodies and they don’t.

MCHUGH: I think that leads to the perception of many people in the public that it’s the poorest of the poor and the least educated that follow these movements. But as you just indicated, there are highly educated people that are fundamentalists.

MARTY: If I want to show you real fundamentalists in America I do not show you any Orthodox Jews—none of them are. I will not take you to the Amish, the most conservative Protestants around—none of them are. I’ll take you to downtown Dallas. I’ll take you to people who own Jaguars and whose church service has to end on time so they can have the prayers at the Dallas Cowboys game. These are people who are, gotta be this or that. Good or evil. Lots of them. You don’t find Unitarians playing in the National Football League or whatever. Yes, more poor than rich in most parts of the world, where there’s a lot of catching up to do. But again, in a nation where 90 percent of the people are poor, 90 percent of the fundamentalists are going to be poor. Often aspiring. And sometimes improving themselves through their movement. But I don’t think you dare equate fundamentalism with mere poverty.

MCHUGH: How has the computer age changed fundamentalism?

MARTY: The computer age has changed fundamentalism first because it makes the whole world very close to you, very accessible. Signals go out very fast. Linda Chavez wrote a column that offended me because she really said they have a holy book that’s nothing but a killing book. I read that on a Saturday. Sunday before church I wrote a column. Monday it went out on my e-mail column, which goes anywhere in the world. Wednesday morning at 6:00 in the morning I’m reading the Chicago Tribune where their Riyadh correspondent is responding to the Chavez-Marty con quitant. Well, it used to be six weeks of mail to get there and back. Etc. On Internet I think you’d find that probably you get more hits on fundamentalist, conservative, traditional, orthodox religion than you would on the liberal any day. They’ll fight over Bible translations and feminism and such issues. Now everybody uses the computer age Internet today. But they were there first, they use it most, and most efficiently.

MCHUGH: And isn’t it somewhat a contradiction?

MARTY: All these uses of media sound like contradictions. But what tends to happen is that they make use of modernity’s instruments while rejecting the philosophy that produced it. I’ve been in places, in churches where the minister in his pulpit can see that there’s a baby crying in nursery 23B because the light went on, or the Jaguar lights are on in Parking Lot 5. He can change the temperature. I’m saying “he” ‘cause it’s always he. He can change the volume. And then he will preach against technology.

He’s not preaching against technology. He’ll say, “Today, I can reach more people from this pulpit than the Apostle Paul could in his lifetime. Technology is a gift.” But behind technology lies a certain kind of industrial ethos which is grounded in a philosophy. They may want the latest medicine. But they don’t want the evolutionary impulse behind microbiology. So, no, it’s not a contradiction. They’re purely pragmatist about the outcome. And they would say these are neutral inventions that the devil can use one way and we can use for God’s purposes.

MCHUGH: Did September 11 change fundamentalism? Did it change the way we view it? Did it change the way that we identify it? Did it change our definition of it?

MARTY: If by “we” we mean nonfundamentalists, and in this case, non-Muslims, we Americans in particular got a quick wake-up call on how much homework we had to do. I think that the President the first three days reacted without much knowledge of this and a couple days later he was reached by Islamic intellectuals who said, “We need a more ample outlook,” and we began to get a more ample outlook. So, we certainly know how lethal Al Qaeda’s form of fundamentalist Islam can be.

Now as far as the fundamentalists themselves are concerned, certainly 9/11 was a mass media incident to end all mass media incidents. If you’re a Muslim fundamentalist and you can exploit that and say, “Look how easy it is to attack the most powerful force in the world.” And I think the game in the first half year and in the next half year is going to be, “How do we keep people who could go either way from being confirmed into that kind of militancy?” So we’re both playing Internet games. We’re both playing media games. Rather desperate urgency at hand.

MCHUGH: Martin Marty is Professor Emeritus of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

PORTER: The sacred and the sovereign, next on Common Ground.

ERIC OWENS: We are also arguing that religion has some constructive things to offer in terms of notions of reconciliation, notions of justice.

PORTER: Printed transcripts and audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details, or visit our Web site at Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts a wide range of programs designed to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.

MCHUGH: In 1648 the nations of the Western world gathered in what is now northwestern Germany to sign the Treaty of Westphalia. The treaty created the modern nation-state and reaffirmed the notion that the power of kings and queens, known as sovereignty, flows directly from God.

PORTER: Does this relationship between sovereignty and religion still matter in the world today? Scholars at the University of Chicago Divinity School are examining this issue in a project called “The Sacred and the Sovereign.” I recently spoke with two of the project’s coordinators, Eric Owens and John Carlson.

JOHN CARLSON: We started this project in response to a lot of trends and events that were taking place following the Cold War. And this Cold War period was, was a growing sense that the traditional Westphalian scheme of sovereignty, which had pretty well governed international relations since the 17th century, was starting to show some wear. Starting to show cracks and fissures. And we wanted to take a look at the religious dimensions of this new understanding of sovereignty, if they were, if these were in fact starting to take root. And to research a little bit into the religious underpinnings of the Westphalian scheme and how religion might be influencing or shaping events today.

PORTER: Eric, anything you want to add to that?

ERIC OWENS: We began working on this topic in, I think it was 1999, and into 2000 when we hosted a big conference here, the Divinity School hosted on the topic of “The Sacred and the Sovereign.” And in October of 2000 was when the intifadah resurged again in the Middle East and coincided with a lot of attention being paid to how religion impacts questions of sovereignty within states. And since that time, of course, issues of terrorism and national security have come into play. And religion has really come front and center, here in the United States as well as abroad. So it’s something that has definitely picked up steam in the past year and a half since we’ve been working on the project. But it really just confirms the fact that religion has never gone away as a factor in international relations but instead is always there if you’re looking for it. And now it’s just come front and center.

PORTER: So you’re really sort of ahead of the curve on this topic.

CARLSON: We started taking up a lot of these questions amidst an era in which humanitarian intervention was the, was the key topic and conversation piece of the day. And that was sort of the, the impetus to frame the questions as we did between the sacred and the sovereign, because we had some intuition, hunch, that’s perhaps been borne out that some understanding of, of human dignity, of something more important, more supreme than the sovereign states and their borders was at work in this, in humanitarian interventions and the decisions to intervene in other nations on behalf of human rights.

PORTER: The very concept of sovereignty in its original form implies some divine, God-given right to rule, doesn’t it? I mean, does that still apply today?

CARLSON: Oh, absolutely. I think it’s important to note that sovereignty as a concept has both religious and political dimensions. Initially the term is, refers to a divine sovereignty, a supremacy of God over all things, ideas, institutions human. And a lot of people have, have argued—and I, I agree with this line of reasoning—that the political sovereign state system, or political sovereignty as a concept really didn’t pick up steam until the 16th, 17th centuries. So there was always this religious conception of God at the top of any sort of hierarchy of human institutions. And with, John referenced Westphalia, with the religious wars of the 16th century, and into the 17th century, that’s when political sovereignty became the touchstone idea about how to maintain peace among different groups and peoples of the world.

PORTER: Is there an East versus West thing going on here? Of traditional religions, the monotheistic traditions, where we know that we have this history where sovereignty is something that, you know, was at least given by God. Is there a similar concept in Eastern religions or in African religions? I mean, do they also have this kind of tradition?

CARLSON: I am not a comparative religion scholar, so I’m going to refrain from speaking about those religions and those parts of the world that I, with which I am less familiar. I will say that I think that the—and that the scholarship right now bears out on this—that the contemporary conceptions of, of sovereignty take their roots in Protestant Reformation theology and the 17th century and the emergence of religious wars and it was kind of a, a kind of modus vivendi that recognized that, that religion can be problematic when it intermixes with politics and that we need to establish some kinds of safeguards and firewalls to, to arrest that. I will say that also, that other parts of the world—China, for example—are, have very deftly and with great articulation, voiced their embrace of the sovereignty language that took its root in Protestant Reformation thought and the times and eras thereafter. So it’s not something that’s unique or only relevant to Western thought.

OWENS: I think John’s right on that, that the, the notion of sovereign states as we know it today sprung from a Western European conception of national sovereignty, state sovereignty. And as John mentioned it, it certainly has spread across the globe in a complete quiltwork to where now every space on the planet is claimed by one or more states with very, very few exceptions that are uninhabitable. And yet the conception of sovereignty as we know it is not, is not a foregone conclusion. I mean, it’s an arrangement that has worked well to keep the peace in many ways and has a lot of problems in many ways that I’m sure will come up in our discussion. Other cultures have, as you implied earlier in your question, other cultures have, have posited different approaches to organizing communities and nations and peoples. That’s a little bit beyond our realm of expertise. But I could certainly point to the fact that there are Islamic conceptions of, of peoplehood and political organization, that are not dominant today but still exist within the tradition.

PORTER: Within the Western tradition, the United Kingdom, the Queen is both the figurehead of the political system and also the ruler of the Church of England, right? I mean, so that’s…

OWENS: Sure.

PORTER: ….a combination of the two. But it really doesn’t have any impact in the world today, does it?

CARLSON: No, and particularly if you look at those European nations that have state churches, they tend to be pretty weak and ineffectual overall in terms of the importance that religion plays in a society, certainly compared to say, the United States, where there’s an overwhelmingly strong religious presence and influence amongst citizens. But also I thought that there, there’s a way in which, returning to this idea that, that institutions themselves might be ordained by God, that also means that they’re—if you accept that idea that, without trying to, as Eric said, get into questions of what’s God’s will at this particular moment or particular time, that is a very dicey question. There’s also a way in which being accountable to God means that states don’t have ultimate powers and ultimate rights to do anything they will. And that it may call, may fall upon other states or international organizations to take some actions to stop states from doing things that they shouldn’t be doing.

PORTER: Well, that’s sort of the area I wanted to go into next, this idea of, of humanitarian intervention at the highest levels of international law and diplomacy. Today one of the most debated topics is when is it, when is it okay to violate sovereignty. When can the world acting together or a group of nations acting collectively like NATO, go uninvited into a country to stop something like genocide or other human rights abuses, or feed hungry people? Is there anything your project has done which adds something positive to this debate about when it’s okay to violate sovereignty?

OWENS: If we envision our project as a collection of, as a fostering of, of dialogue on this issue, I would say certainly, we’ve contributed something positive. We being all of the people participating in this project. In particular one of the, one of the focuses of the group that’s participating has been on thinking about just war traditions. What that has to say about humanitarian intervention. And that’s, just war is perhaps a topic for another, another conversation. But, but basically the idea is that you’re assuming that there’s a presumption against entering another state unless there are certain very high level triggers that would encourage, that would actually force, a group of nations or a single nation to intervene on behalf of a people that can’t protect themselves. So the just war tradition thinks about what types of triggers there are that would require this and would therefore set sovereignty aside or would perhaps recognize that sovereignty is diminished in a state that has collapsed or lacks legitimate authority to represent its people or protect its people. Things like that.

PORTER: Well as I was thinking about the humanitarian intervention topic it just, it occurred to me that so often the people who are taking a moral position on the intervention—they’re saying, “These are people who are in need. They need to be fed.” “These are people who are being abused. We need to stop them.” They’re often driven by religious concerns. And yet they’re coming up against the wall of sovereignty which has this religious backing to that concept as well. I mean, these are—to me these sound like the epic ingredients of history, here.

CARLSON: You have hit the heart of the sacred and the sovereign. This is something that we think is, is very much the case.

OWENS: I think you’re exactly right on. You’re hitting a couple of different angles that we’re trying to, to foster in this sacred-sovereign discussion. Is, number one, how do we describe the problem. And you brought up the problem that religious people see problems differently than other religious peoples or nonreligious peoples or people of different religious faiths. You might characterize a particular instance as one of violation of human rights or human dignity or suffering or whatnot. So there’s a way of describing a problem that might cry out for humanitarian intervention that differs as a religious person or a religious institution. Religions also offer resources for critiquing actions of a state or a, or a group of people. And, in our, in our book we are also arguing that religion has some constructive things to offer in terms of notions of reconciliation, notions of justice. Things like that that, that come into play, that, that is something special that religion in all of its many manifestations and differing views can offer in the situation.

PORTER: John, something else you want to add on that? Especially on the positive things that, that religion can bring to these situations.

CARLSON: Yeah. I do think that there are a number of positive resources. I mean, there are skills that religion can, can help develop in terms of interpretive and critical thinking. Exegetical work in understanding an appreciation of cultures, of histories, of traditions. These are all very influential and important for people when they make decisions. These are the lenses through which many people see the world. You can’t just simply remove that and say that doesn’t matter.

Of course we also have to be mindful of the fact that religion can be very pernicious. It can be, it can be the cause or source of, of great conflict. And it can also add to what are perhaps otherwise secular problems. So it’s a, it’s a real balance, balancing act that has to be maintained.

PORTER: That is John Carlson. Our other guest was Eric Owens. Carlson and Owens coordinate the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life at the University of Chicago’s School of Divinity.

MCHUGH: They are also now editing a book titled The Sacred And The Sovereign: Rethinking Religion And International Politics. The book is due out early next year.

PORTER: Cassettes and transcripts of this program are available. The transcripts are free; cassettes cost $5.00. To place an order or to share your thoughts about the program, write to us at: The Stanley Foundation, 209 Iowa Avenue, Muscatine, Iowa 52761. Please refer to Program Number 0219. That’s Program Number 02-19 To order by credit card you can call us at 563-264-1500. That’s 563-264-1500.

MCHUGH: Transcripts are also available on our Web site: Commongroundradio is all one word. Our e-mail address is For Common Ground, I’m Kristin McHugh.

PORTER: And I’m Keith Porter. Cliff Brockman is our Associate Producer. B.J. Liederman created our theme music. Common Ground is produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.

© 2002 by The Stanley Foundation

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