On Christian fundamentalism

With thanks to Archbishop Cranmer

We are told that Anders Behring Breivik, the man who bombed Norway’s government buildings and then went on to slaughter 92 of Norway’s youth while they were on a summer camp, is a Freemason. Here he is in his regalia. His Lodge must be appalled by the association. Breivik has been variously described as a ‘Christian fundamentalist’, a ‘neo-Nazi’, and a ‘Right-wing extremist’. His Grace has written before on the disconnect between left-right political philosophy and vernacular terminology, and the pervasive demonisation of the Right: how National Socialism is an expression of the political Right is an interesting discussion, but today His Grace would like to focus on the reported ‘Christian fundamentalist’ who is also a mass murderer.

Religious fundamentalism is not a new phenomenon: indeed, it is as old as religion itself, and is concerned with the believer’s adherence to foundational precepts. There is no one school of thought even within one religion: one Muslim fundamentalist may pray five times a day, fast during Ramadan, and adhere to the Five Pillars; another will seek to wage war against the values of liberal democracy, blowing us all to smithereens and martyring himself in the process. The former is ‘devout’ while the latter has become an ‘Islamist’: the one who follows literally the example of Mohammed in bringing the sword to unbelief in order to establish the Caliphate. There are also Sikh fundamentalists and Hindu fundamentalists; indeed, all religions will have those whose belief is concentrated upon the fundamentals of their faith.

Like Christianity itself, Christian fundamentalism is expressed differently within each nation state and community. In South America, adherents of Liberation Theology who seeks social justice for the oppressed are widely considered to be dangerous political subversives and so fundamentalist. In the US, fundamentalism arose as a reaction to religious liberalism and tends towards literalism: that is, every word in the Bible means exactly what it says. For ‘creationists’, this means the world was created in six days. For others, the focus is on issues of morality like abortion and homosexuality: the ‘Religious Right’ are considered fundamentalists simply by virtue of their conservative views on family values. But if such views render Evangelical Protestants fundamentalist, a fortiori must they make Pope Benedict XVI fundamentalist, as many readers of The Tablet may attest. And if he be so, then so are all Roman Catholics who adhere to the traditions and obey literally all the teachings of the Magisterium. In the UK, the socially-conservative, ecumenical parliamentary group Cornerstone is considered somewhat fundamentalist; indeed, Alan Duncan once referred to them as the ‘Tory Taliban’. ‘Fundamentalism’ is a slippery term when applied to Christianity.

But never over recent centuries has ‘Christian fundamentalism’ been used to justify mass murder. We are not talking about bombing Dresden or sinking the Belgrano or any appalling loss of life within a context of war: we are talking about a professing Christian who decides to take the law into his own hands and act unilaterally. Anders Behring Breivik shows a remarkable ignorance of the teachings of Jesus, who exhorted Peter to put away his sword. To be a fundamentalist follower of Jesus would be to dedicate one’s life to celibate pacifism. And not only that, it would be to give away all that one has to the poor and live in a commune where everyone shares everything and all possessions are in common. Socialists often claim their political inspiration from such teachings, ergo the ‘fundamentalist Christian’ would be a ‘Left-wing extremist’ rather than one of the Right. The Christian is concerned with Scripture, tradition, and reason. And there are those who would add experience. But no Christian tradition at all, from the era of the New Testament and the Church Fathers through the Middle Ages, Reformation, Enlightenment, and on to modernity and postmodernity, could possibly, reasonably or scripturally be used to justify the shooting of 92 teenagers enjoying their summer holiday.

The Christian fundamentalist who advocates that such an atrocity may be justified as a reactiontion to multiculturalism is certainly no type of Christian. They may be fundamentalist, but their fundamentals are not founded upon New Testament principles, where we read that we must submit to the ruling authorities, love our neighbours and our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us. The foundation, the crucial things in Christianity, were articulated by Hooker for the Church of England:

This is then the foundation, whereupon the frame of the gospel is erected: that very Jesus whom the Virgin conceived of the Holy Ghost, whom Simeon embraced in his arms, whom Pilate condemned, whom the Jews crucified, whom the Apostles preached, he is Christ, the only Saviour of the world: ‘other foundation can no man lay’.

To believe this is to be a ‘Christian fundamentalist’, and His Grace is proud to be so. Individual believers may hold some things ‘weakly’, but those who deny them absolutely are in certain error. No Christian church can directly deny this foundation without ceasing to be such. Everything else – absolutely everything – is secondary, tertiary, or utterly peripheral.

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