The Spread of Faith Religion, Born Again

By Rainer Traub

Part 3: Part III: Christian Fundamentalism in America


For many Europeans, Christian fundamentalism in the United States is almost as disturbing and alien as Islamic fanaticism.

According to American fundamentalists, people do not become born-again Christians through baptism or education, but through an intense conversion experience or a so-called personal encounter with God that obliges them to lead their lives according to more or less strict interpretations of the Bible. President George W. Bush and other members of his administration regard themselves as born-again in this sense, and take advice from evangelical ministers. This brand of Christianity, with its strict division of the world into good and evil, has influenced the policies of the global superpower for years.

Dormitories for Buddhist monks and nuns dot a hillside in China's Sichuan Province. It is the largest such conglomeration in Tibetan Buddhism.
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Dormitories for Buddhist monks and nuns dot a hillside in China's Sichuan Province. It is the largest such conglomeration in Tibetan Buddhism.

The histories of religion in America and Europe could scarcely differ more. The nation of immigrants in which the pilgrims played such a defining role promised freedom from state interference to religious refugees and sects from every corner of the globe. The United States was secular from day one when it came to the strict separation of church and state - but not at all in the sense of relaxing religious ties. Unlike in post-Reformation Europe, Prot- estant and Catholic churches never secured territorial monopolies in the United States. This allowed a spectrum of denominations and their splinter groups to develop side by side within society.

The battle of Armageddon

While a minority of literalist Christians mobilized against Darwin's theory of evolution in the early 20th century, the majority of Americans never questioned the compatibility of science and religion. As a result, state secularism and religious pluralism were able to flourish unchallenged.

TV audiences around the world saw the two demonstrating compatibility on a global scale following the attacks of 9/11: Representatives of all the world's religions united as equals at the memorial service in New York. But the peaceful coexistence of secularism and pluralism is now threatened by the dramatic rise of Christian fundamentalism. In her book The Last Crusade, U.S. journalist and author Barbara Victor presents compelling demographic findings: Some 60 percent of U.S. residents say that religion plays "a very important role" in their lives - far more than in any other industrialized country; 86 percent profess allegiance to the Christian faith. Born-again Christians form the largest grouping among the country's predominantly Protestant Christians, and made up one in five of the more than 120 million voters in the 2004 presidential elections. According to the survey quoted by Victor, 58.7 percent of born-again Christians are convinced that the world will end with the battle of Armageddon between Jesus and Satan, while 40.9 percent want a constitutional amendment declaring the United States a "Christian nation."

The author points to the mutual stimulation of competing fundamentalisms. Above all, the profound sense of insecurity triggered by two events has contributed to a change in the inner structure of the United States and a religious renaissance during the past 30 years: the U.S. hostage crisis in Tehran in 1979, and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Strictly speaking, "evangelicals" and Christian "fundamentalists" are not identical, because personal conversion experiences are central to the first group, and the second is a subgroup that emphasizes fundamental dogmas. But on political and social issues, both usually voice similar fundamentalist views.

This can even bring them into conflict with conservative government policy, as shown earlier this year in a campaign by the many leading evangelicals who opposed the Bush administration's environmental policies. The positions taken by religious fundamentalists do not automatically defy secular reason - and can serve a purpose. The social role of religion in the United States extends far beyond its current political manifestations.

“The lost hope of resurrection has left behind a palpable void”

Alongside the conservative-cum-nationalist universe of the fundamentalists, there is a liberal-cum-universalist Christian movement that supports the civil rights tradition associated with Martin Luther King. Demonstrators on both sides of a political divide - whether it be the Iraq war, George W. Bush or the death penalty - can therefore cite their Christian beliefs as justification. The risk of political fanatics monopolizing religion in America is therefore remote.

So is Western Europe's fall from faith the exception in a globalized world where diverse forms of faith wield such power? Many observers argue the very opposite, suggesting that a "renaissance of religion" is palpable even in Germany. The emotional response to the death of Pope John Paul II and the enthusiasm greeting his successor at the World Youth Day in Cologne this year are often cited as evidence. But both may have had less to do with a wave of religious fervor than with the banal desire to be part of a well-staged historical event.

Bishop Wolfgang Huber, Chairman of the Council of the Lutheran Church in Germany, may also have been a victim of wishful thinking when he argued this year that there was "hardly any area of society or the arts" in Germany where "signs of a religious revival were not in evidence." To support his contention, Huber referred to religious motifs in new books, plays, movies and TV shows, and to the words of the new German president, Horst Köhler, who referred to religion ("God protect our country!") in his first public address. Such feeble evidence can hardly substantiate claims of a religious resurgence in Germany.

However, there is no convincing evidence either to back the opposing, traditionally secularist position that "we Westerners already inhabit a post-religious world" - a conclusion drawn by German philosopher Herbert Schnädelbach in the German weekly Die Zeit earlier this year.

There may be a different way to look at it, though. Just weeks after 9/11, Jürgen Habermas, Germany's most famous liberal thinker and leading proponent of reason on the international stage, took the opportunity to speak about secularism and religion when accepting the German Book Retailers Peace Prize. He described the tension between the twin powers as a deep conflict "between the productive forces unleashed by capitalism" and the "stabilizing forces of religion and the church."

Both sides of the debate had made the same mistake in viewing secularization as "a kind of zero-sum game," according to Habermas, where "one side can only win at the expense of the other." In fact, it was symptomatic of our "postsecular" society, he continued, that religious communities could flourish "in a progressively secularizing environment."

This observation is not as original as the term "post-secular" would seem to suggest. For many centuries, religions have existed in progressively secular environments. It is Habermas and his new line of thinking that are "post-secular," rather than the society itself.

Did Habermas get religion? No, but he, too, now views its demise with some regret: "When sin became guilt and the violation of God's commandments a breach of human laws, humankind lost something ... the lost hope of resurrection has left behind a palpable void."

Surprising affinities between reason and religion also came to light between Habermas, the philosopher of reason, and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger at their highprofile debate, the Munich Dialog in 2004. The now Pope Benedict XVI conceded that religion needed to be placed under the "tutelage of reason" wherever it helped legitimize terrorism. The secular Habermas, on the other hand, emphasized the social and moral force of religious communities as places where something could still be preserved, even if it had "been lost elsewhere: a sensitivity towards misspent lives, social pathologies, and failed life strategies."

Habermas is calling for a plussum game, where religious and secular worlds learn from each other to benefit mankind. In the uncertain age of globalization, this rapprochement may be the only hope for peaceful coexistence. One thing is certain: Strange bedmates they may be, but faith, reason and doubt will have to put up with each other for some time to come.

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