War against terrorism has become war against exclusivism
Reports of revival in the aftermath of the September 11 terror attacks may have been exaggerated. "Yes, some people are praying more," reports The Dallas Morning News. "But some say they are praying less. Some people report that their faith is stronger, others that their beliefs are more confused. Worship attendance in many places has dropped back nearly to levels before the attacks." The attacks may have been a wake-up call, but many Americans simply hit the snooze button, the newspaper argues.

The Boston Globe also notes that church attendance is back to normal, but says attendance at church educational programs is still surging. "A crash course on the basics of Christianity is booming at Grace Chapel in Lexington; Bible study is up at Armenian Memorial Church in Watertown; and a support group, ostensibly for people dealing with the loss of a spouse, has become more popular at Wellesley Hills Congregational Church. … Gordon-Conwell Theological School has seen high interest in online theology courses."

The Globe interviews Bruce W. B. Jenneker, associate rector at Boston's Trinity Church, to explain the phenomenon. "Many of these people have never been in church before," he says. "What drew them here initially was our community's commitment to finding meaning in the midst of insanity, but once they got here it was ritual and story and symbol and myth, things that point beyond ourselves and put us in touch with the transcendent, that made them stay."

Ah yes, nothing like ritual and story and symbol and myth to help you sleep at night. Nothing like "the transcendent" to comfort our fears about being blown up and poisoned. Heaven forbid that a church might actually point visitors to the Prince of Peace, the Balm of Gilead, our rock and fortress.

If there is a religious trend after 9/11, it's a stepping up of the battle against exclusivism. In publications and in meetings around the world, the high-minded proclaim that the problem of terrorism isn't a problem with Islam—it's a problem with any religion that claims to be the only true religion.

Debris was still falling in Manhattan when anti-exclusivists started their publicity engines. Richard Dawkins, who has made a career out of religion-bashing, wrote an article for the September 15 edition of London's The Guardian explaining that the attacks "came from religion." "To fill a world with religion, or religions of the Abrahamic kind, is like littering the streets with loaded guns," he wrote. "Do not be surprised if they are used."

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A few weeks later, The New York Times Magazine published a similar argument as its cover story. "This surely is a religious war—but not of Islam versus Christianity and Judaism," wrote Andrew Sullivan.

Rather, it is a war of fundamentalism against faiths of all kinds that are at peace with freedom and modernity. This war even has far gentler echoes in America's own religious conflicts—between newer, more virulent strands of Christian fundamentalism and mainstream Protestantism and Catholicism. These conflicts have ancient roots, but they seem to be gaining new force as modernity spreads and deepens. They are our new wars of religion—and their victims are in all likelihood going to mount with each passing year.

At 4,281 words, Sullivan's article is too long to discuss in depth, but he really does believe that those who believe homosexual behavior and abortion are sinful are no different from the followers of Osama bin Laden:

If people truly believe that abortion is the same as mass murder, then you can see the awful logic of the terrorism it has spawned. This is the same logic as bin Laden's. If faith is that strong, and it dictates a choice between action or eternal damnation, then violence can easily be justified. In retrospect, we should be amazed not that violence has occurred—but that it hasn't occurred more often.

In another New York Times opinion piece, Alan Wolfe also argues that we're in a war against fundamentalism of all religious stripes, equating the early Puritans with the Taliban regime. (Yes, this is the same Alan Wolfe who wrote The Atlantic Monthly cover story on Christian colleges.) "The war now going on between Americans and the forces of Osama bin Laden is not between belief and nonbelief," Wolfe wrote in the October 14 edition. "It is instead about two different ways of believing, only one of which allows for individual conscience and freedom. The refusal of the other to make that allowance is what makes terrorism against nonbelievers possible." Wolfe admits that "many evangelical Christians" still allow for individual conscience and freedom (um, yeah, that's kind of the point of modern evangelical Protestantism, isn't it?), but he describes the evil Christian fundies as those "who evangelize, persuaded that those who do not believe as they do are destined for hell." The good guys, he says, "believe that whatever their own path to God, other people will choose different paths that deserve respect." These are mutually exclusive ways of believing? Somebody forgot to tell Weblog.

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The latest volley against exclusivism comes from The International Herald Tribune. "The basic problem resides in the claim by every religion not merely to be the true religion but to be the only true religion," writes Antonio Garrigues Walker. "This claim reduces to a minimum, or eliminates altogether, any possibility of dialogue and understanding. It leads to an impasse and must be corrected." But unlike other writers who fault Islamic fundamentalism as the immediate threat and Christian "fundamentalism" as a potential threat, Walker takes aim squarely at exclusivist Christianity, essentially blaming it for the breakdown in global peace.

Christianity … has to recognize that 70 percent of humanity professes or is influenced by other religions, and that this percentage is likely to increase. … Christianity should assume magnanimously its vocation to usher in a new and profound ecumenical movement. In doing so, the Christian churches should make every effort to show generosity to other religions by ensuring whenever possible—and it is almost always possible—that no emphasis is placed on questions that separate religions, and by encouraging the vast possibilities of cooperation on issues vital to humanity.

First assignment for Mr. Walker: learn what ecumenism is. The word refers to cooperation between Christian churches, not between Christianity and other religions. Second, Christians believe that the issue most vital to humanity is getting people to meet Jesus Christ himself. Whether or not that "separates religions" is beside the point. (A sidenote for conspiracy theorists: Walker is deputy chairman of the European branch of the Trilateral Commission.)

Sullivan: At least Bush isn't a fundamentalist
Though Sullivan attacked evangelicals as fundamentalists in "This Is a Religious War" article, in an article for this week's issue of London's The Sunday Times, he is quick to put President Bush outside the fundamentalist camp. "Nobody should confuse the faith of George W with more conventional Christian right belief," he wrote. "There are times when Bush seems almost embarrassingly ecumenical." But Bush, Sullivan says, is still driven by his faith—especially since September 11.

We ignore this man's spiritual core at our peril. Its main consequence right now has been what insiders are calling a laser-beam concentration on the war on terrorism. Bush believes this is now his mission. It is not a job; it is not an adventure. It is a vocation. Bush seems determined to avoid any hostility with the Democrats. This has many conservatives worried, and it may indeed mean more public spending than is prudent. All this, in his mind, must be subjugated to what God has called him to.
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On a related note, check our site tomorrow (Friday) for our coverage of how the war on terrorism is affecting the president's faith.

Related Elsewhere

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October 19 | 18 | 17 | 16 | 15

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September 14b | 14a | 13 | 12 | 10

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