Sunday, July 26, 2015

Fear and Fundamentalism

By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            Webster defines fundamentalism as “Religious beliefs based on a literal interpretation of the Bible.”  Religious fundamentalism is not limited to Christianity.  There are fundamentalist Jews with their Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament in the Christian Bible) and fundamentalist Muslims with their Qur’an.  In these Religions of the Book, fundamentalism defines and limits God’s word in a sacred holy book.  That makes literal fundamentalism a form of idolatry.

            Fundamentalist Jews believe that the ancient dictates of the Torah (Mosaic Law) as set forth in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy remain God’s law today, just as fundamentalist Christians believe the Bible is the inerrant and infallible word of God, and Muslim fundamentalists believe that the Qur’an is the word of God made Book

            Fundamentalist Jews and Christians are a minority in their faiths while most Muslims are fundamentalists who believe that the Qur’an is God/Allah’s perfect and immutable truth.  Fundamentalist Muslims and Christians are also exclusivists who believe that their religion is the one true faith and that all unbelievers are condemned by God to eternal damnation.

            Religious fundamentalism originated in the 19th century as the product of fear—the fear of dynamic advances in knowledge and reason that challenged the truth of traditional religious doctrines.  The fear of progress and modernity fostered religious beliefs grounded in the certainty of ancient scriptures and doctrines that were immune to change.  Religious fundamentalism puts God’s word in a holy box where it gives believers a sense of security against the unsettling changes that have come with progress and modernity.
            Lovett Weems has referred to Christian fundamentalism as bibliolotry, and that principle of biblical idolatry applies to Jews and Muslims who believe their holy books are the perfect and unchanging word of God.  Weems, like most Christian pastors, considers the Bible the final authority in matters of faith and practice but not the inerrant and infallible word of God; and while Christians consider the teachings of Jesus to be God’s word, there is no verbatim record of his teachings.  The four Gospels are the only source of his teachings, and they should be read critically since they were put on the lips of Jesus by evangelists in the early church.

            The danger of Christian and Islamic fundamentalism is a zealous exclusivism that can motivate believers into being aggressive instruments of a vengeful and judgmental God who condemns unbelievers to hell.  That danger can be alleviated by a faith that understands the mystical and universal power of God through experience and reason.  The Discipline of the United Methodist Church explains this function of a dynamic faith in Our Theological Task.

            John Wesley lived and preached in England over 250 years ago.  He was ahead of his times but behind ours.  Wesley admired John Locke, but he was skeptical of democracy and opposed to American independence.  Even so, Wesley liberated the Anglican religion from its bondage to stiff-necked doctrines with the teachings of Jesus on God’s love and mercy.  Wesley and his Methodists put heart into Anglicanism, and in the process likely prevented a violent revolution that was building in Great Britain against Dickensian excesses of capitalism.

            John Wesley developed the ideas incorporated in the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.  It provides the four elements of Our Theological Task which urge the use of tradition, experience and reason in interpreting scripture.  This enlightened way of understanding scripture prevents believers from succumbing to the temptation of fundamentalism and its false sense of security in the literal meaning of ancient scripture as God’s inerrant and infallible word; but even within Methodism the Confessing Movement advocates more fundamentalist beliefs.

            Fundamentalism is absurd to those who have accepted advances of knowledge and reason on their journey of faith.  But there is reason to worry about fundamentalism in the world in which Christianity and Islam represent over half of the world’s population, and Islam is expected to overtake Christians as the world’s largest religion by 2070.  Unless Islam becomes less fundamentalist, we can expect to see more fear, religious polarization and violence in the future.

            Radical fundamentalists who are committed to kill unbelievers in the name of God represent a clear and present danger to humanity and must be captured or killed.  But we should seek to reconcile with fundamentalists who have not yet allowed their beliefs to justify violence. Both approaches are based on the greatest commandment to love God and others as ourselves which is found in the Hebrew Bible, was taught by Jesus, and offered by Muslim scholars as a common word of faith.  Love for others supports both eliminating those who would do harm to others, and reconciling with those who wish to live in peace in a universal family of God.

            Religious reconciliation based on a common wordof faith can defeat the fear of religious fundamentalism and the violence that it spawns, but it requires understanding one’s neighbor to include unbelievers—even apostates—as illustrated in the story of the good Samaritan.  Sharing a common love of God and neighbor does not resolve all religious differences, but it provides a fundamental common value of faith that enables all believers to overcome fear and be reconciled as spiritual brothers and sisters in the family of God and in the unity of all believers.

            Remember: God is love. And …There is no fear in love.  (I John 4:16-18)

Notes and References to Resources:

See Blog/Archives for related blogs: Religion and Reason, posted December 8, 2014; Faith and Freedom, posted December 15, 2014; The Greatest Commandment, posted January 11, 2015; Religion and New Beginnings: Salvation and Reconciliation into the Family of God, posted January 4, 2015; Love over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy, posted January 18, 2015; Jesus Meets Muhammad: Is there a Common Word of Faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims Today? posted January 25, 2015; Is Religion Good or Evil? posted February 15, 2015; A Fundamental Problem with Religion, posted May 3, 2015; and Christians Meet Muslims Today, posted June 21, 2015. 

In The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism (Random House, NY, 2001), Karen Armstrong has described the nature and origin of fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Dianna Theadora Kerry has related fundamentalism and radicalization to psychology in God, religion and fundamentalism: an unholy trinity, posted in The Conversation on July 2, 2015 at  

For a brief description of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral by Lovett H. Weems, Jr. and a chart of its four elements by George E. Koeler, including the danger of bibliolotry, see Weems, John Wesley’s Message Today, Abingdon Press, 1990, pages 11-13.

On Our Theological Task in The Discipline of the United Methodist Church, see pages 78-91 at

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Religion, Heritage and the Confederate Flag

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr., July 19, 2015

            With the lowering of the Confederate flag on the statehouse grounds in Columbia, S.C., an NAACP official opined that the flag should now be the object of moral introspection.  That may have inspired the KKK and several black activist groups to demonstrate their moral introspection of the flag on the statehouse grounds on July 18. 
            Just what does the Confederate flag represent—Is it hate or heritage?  A CNN poll found that 57% of Americans consider the flag a symbol of Southern pride rather than racial hatred; but racism has been endemic in the South.  Southern heritage is a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly, and the bad and ugly came to a head in the War Between the States, the Civil War, or whatever we call the terrible war that ravaged America from 1860-1865.  During that time more than 500,000 Americans lost their lives—more than in all the wars fought since then.

            The Confederate flag represents a tragedy that was as much about religion as it was about slavery, states’ rights and clashing cultures.  We need to be honest about our history and heritage.  Most Christians in the North and South were reluctant to condemn slavery as immoral since it was not condemned in the Bible, which was for them the source of God’s truth.  In How the North distorts Civil War history, Hugh Howard has noted that Abolitionists were a vocal minority, and President Lincoln was not one of them.  He pursued the Civil War in order to preserve the Union, not to abolish slavery—at least not until it was politically expedient to do so.    

            It is legitimate to ask whether Lincoln’s determination to go to war to preserve the Union was worth the cost.  About 50 years later another President, Woodrow Wilson, advocated self-determination, which was the motivation for secession, as an inalienable right of all people; and later in the 20th century Americans applauded the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  It seemed that political unions were no longer sacred.  If Texas or California sought to secede from the Union today, would the remaining states go to war to prevent it?    

            The vast majority of Confederate soldiers were small farmers without slaves whose social, economic and political interests conflicted with the aristocratic slaveholders.  They were on the verge of their own civil war until the ”fire-eating” aristocrats convinced the dirt-farmers that if they did not join them in seceding from the Union and fighting the North that the slaves—who represented a majority in S.C.—would be emancipated, assume political power and destroy their livelihoods.  So the dirt-farmers went to war for self-preservation, and ironically, to preserve the institution of slavery and the wealth of their adversary slaveholders.

            The belief in white supremacy did not end with slavery and continued to plague politics and religion in the South well after the Civil War.  It spawned the KKK and other white supremacy groups that supported a racist Jim Crow culture; and until the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century most churches did not condemn white supremacy and quietly supported a separate but equal culture.  But there is no Biblical precedent for white supremacy, only the naming of the Semitic Jews as God’s “chosen people;” and Jesus was a Semite, not a Caucasian with blue eyes as he is depicted on many church walls.

            The idea that God favored Semitic Jews over whites may have played a role in the anti-Semitism of the 20th century, especially in Germany, where Jews tended to live in urban ghettos and were not well assimilated with the rest of the Christian population.  Nazism was a secular religion based on white (Aryan) supremacy that could not be reconciled with the idea that Jews were the chosen people of God, and that undoubtedly contributed to the anti-Semitism that led to the hatred and violence directed by Nazis against Jews, which was similar to the hatred and violence directed by the KKK against blacks in the Jim Crow South.      

            There are similarities between the Antebellum South and the Jewish state of Israel today, and it is complicated by religious animosity.  Because Israel is a democracy, Palestinians, who are Muslims, are seen as a threat to Jewish political control of Israel, much as white southerners feared freed blacks in the Ante-Bellum South.  The Palestinians have a higher birth rate than Jews and are destined to outnumber Jews in Israel if they do not have their own state.  That makes the Palestinian threat to Israel as demographic as it is military.

            Culture shapes religion, just as religion shapes culture.  The violent conflict between the ideals and aspirations of radical Islam and those of libertarian democracy can be considered a culture clash.  And while slavery is not a factor in that current culture clash, it is similar to the Antebellum culture clash between the Jeffersonian ideals of an agrarian democracy and the ideals of an industrial North that was just beginning to understand its destiny.
            Religion, politics and race have often made strange—even uncomfortable and sometimes violent—bedfellows.  As students of history, all Americans should consider the Confederate flag as an object of moral introspection.  As for all the nation’s problems that are so often blamed on a degenerate South, It’s not Dixie’s fault.  The South has produced its share of hate, but it has also produced a culture known for its gentility and grace.  Southern religions continue to reflect those disparate qualities, from fundamentalist snake handlers and those who condemn unbelievers to hell, to progressives, both black and white, who focus their faith on reconciling their differences on religion and race through the forgiving love and mercy of God.

Notes and References to Resources:

The CNN poll found that 72% of blacks saw the Confederate flag as racist, while just 25% of whites agreed; of Southern whites 75% saw the flag as a symbol of pride while 18% saw it as racist.  See

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Reconciliation in Race and Religion: The Need for Compatibility, not Conformity

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            Last week’s blog concluded with the observation that Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week—but is that such a bad thing?  Should traditional black churches be expected to conform their unique worship services to a common norm in order to achieve racial reconciliation?  And what about religious differences between Jews, Christians and Muslims? 

            The purpose of reconciliation in matters of race and religion is to achieve compatibility, not conformity.  The diversity, or pluralism, of races and religions has given the U.S. its strength.  It requires the assimilation of different races and religions in a common culture, but not their conformity.  The only mandatory standard of conformity in the U.S. is its rule of law.

            But some racial and religious differences require reconciliation based on a standard of legitimacy beyond that of the law, and that standard is love for one another.  Racism and religious fundamentalism have long plagued our nation and the world with hatred and violence; but after the horrific racist violence at Emanuel AME church on June 17 it was love, not law, that reconciled grieving black and white folks in Charleston, for all the world to see.      

            That demonstration of forgiveness and reconciling love overcame racial and religious differences that have traditionally segregated black and white Christians.  Those differences reflect a so-called “separate but equal” culture forced upon blacks in the Jim Crow South that did not change until the civil rights advances of the mid-twentieth century culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Most blacks now share middle class cultural values with whites, but there remains a black subculture with divergent values, primarily in urban areas, that remains a source of racial unrest.

            The black church has traditionally been the central social and political institution of the black community and has never conformed to an integrated model of the church.  For this reason, few mainline Protestant churches have integrated congregations, and that is reflected in the United Methodist Church (UMC), which is not as united as its name implies.  Most UMC churches are predominately black or white, with integration at conference administrative levels.  In their church activities and worship, black United Methodists seem more like their African Methodist Episcopal (AME) kin than like those whites in their own UMC denomination; but even with their differences, black and white United Methodists are congenial and compatible.   

            Civil rights laws provided the secular standard of legitimacy needed to eliminate racial discrimination, but it was God’s forgiveness and love that has enabled black and white Christians to experience true reconciliation.  A similar common word of faith is needed to reconcile religious differences among Jews, Christians and Muslims, and that common word is the greatest commandment to love God and one’s neighbor as oneself, including one’s unbelieving neighbors as taught by Jesus in the story of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). 

            The main obstacle to religious reconciliation is the belief of religious fundamentalists or exclusivists that theirs is the one true faith and that God condemns all unbelievers to hell.  At their worst, radical Islamist fundamentalists like those in ISIS, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram and el-Shabab consider it a matter of faith to dispatch unbelievers to hell.

            As with race, religious diversity can enrich a culture unless it becomes so divisive as to motivate fear, hatred and violence.  Both the Hebrew Bible and the Qur’an provide examples of divine sanction for violence, and despots have used those precedents to justify violence not only in religious fundamentalism, but also in racism, Fascism, Communism and Nazism. 

            Traditionalism might be included as an “ism.  Like religious fundamentalism, it can motivate zealotry to preserve traditions that block progressive change.  That was evident in the dispute over the Confederate battle flag, which was characterized as a conflict between hate and heritage.  Fortunately reason and compassion carried the day with a spirit of reconciliation exemplified by Governor Haley and most S.C. legislators.  The flag flap was a reminder of the racial division that has plagued the South for many years; and while racial reconciliation has come slowly, most blacks are now assimilated in a pluralistic culture based on shared values.  There is no race war in America, despite the horrific efforts of Dylann Roof to create one.

            Progress toward religious reconciliation is less certain.  While most Muslims in the U.S. share our libertarian values, many are offended by the hedonism and excesses of freedom of a libertarian culture and favor fundamentalist Islamic laws (shari’a) that prohibit individual freedom.  The reconciliation of differences in religion and politics requires a political climate of libertarian democracy and human rights that begin with the freedoms of religion and speech; and those freedoms cannot exist under shari'a, with its oppressive apostasy and blasphemy laws.

            Reconciliation in matters of race and religion is ultimately a matter of the heart, and that requires the transforming power of God’s love and mercy to first reconcile people with God and then with their neighbors.  God’s spiritual power enables us to love all people as our neighbors, regardless of their race, sex, religion or sexual preference, and to accept those of other religions as our spiritual brothers and sisters in the family of God.   But a word of caution to those seeking God’s spiritual power.  Satan does a convincing imitation of God, and does some of his best impersonations in the synagogue, church and mosque.  The way to tell the difference is that God seeks to reconcile and redeem us through love, while Satan seeks to divide and conquer us through fear.  Remember that God is love, and there is no fear in love. (1 John 4:16-21)       

Notes and References to Resources:

For related blogs, see the following at Blog/ArchivesThe greatest commandment, posted January 11, 2015;  Jesus Meets Muhammad: Is There a Common Word of Faith and Politics for Jews, Christians and Muslims Today? posted January 25, 2015; Religion and Human Rights, posted February 22, 2015;  Promoting Religion Through Evangelism: Bringing Light or Darkness? posted February 8, 2015; Is Religion Good or Evil?posted February 15, 2015; Christians Meet Muslims Today, posted June 21, 2015; Confronting the Evil Among Us, posted June 28, 2015; and Racism, Religious Exclusivism and Reconciliation, posted July 5, 2015.  
The cultural and religious diversity of the black church in America is described by E.J. Dionne, Jr., in Liberated by grace, at

Marc Thiessen described “stupid” attitudes tying racism to the Confederate flag after Dylann Roof used that flag to justify his atrocity in Charleston in There’s no race war in America, at

On increasing tensions between Muslims and law enforcement agencies in England over how to counter the draw of Islamist radicalism, see

In Ethnic America, Thomas Sowell explained the correlation between the effective integration and wellbeing of minority groups in America with their willingness to take advantage of the opportunities for education and employment and assimilate into a pluralistic American culture.

The banin Deuteronomy 20:16-18 and its application by Joshua at Jericho (Joshua 6:20-27) are precedents for ethnic cleansing; and the sword verses in the Qur’an call for slaying the infidel unbelievers and are often cited by radical Islamists (9:5; 9:29).  See these and other verses that justify violence in the name of God in the J&M Book at pages 585-592 (Mosaic Law) and at pages 498-502 (Islamic Law).


Sunday, July 5, 2015

Reconciliation as a Remedy for Racism and Religious Exclusivism

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            Last week we looked at what racism and religious exclusivism have in common: They both divide us and are opposed to God’s will to reconcile us.  Both God’s will and secular reason urge us to be reconciled.  Jesus prayed for a unity of all believers, and we celebrate our national political unity and equality under the law on July 4.  Whether we consider religion or reason to be the motivating force for reconciliation, it is a fundamental principle of legitimacy that all people are equal under God and the law, no matter how unequal they might otherwise be.
            White racism is motivated by the belief that God ordained the white race as superior to all others.  The Southern Poverty Law Center considers the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC) a white supremacist group, and reports that the CCC “oppose[s] all efforts to mix the races of mankind,” and that "God is the author of racism. God is the One who divided mankind into different types. ...Mixing the races is rebelliousness against God."  Those white supremacist views were echoed in the manifesto of Dylann Roof to justify his massacre of nine people at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. on June 17, 2015.

            A spokesman for the CCC has denied any affiliation with Roof, who appears to have been a lone-wolf terrorist who was probably motivated more by a demented and narcissistic desire to bring attention to himself than to promote the cause of white supremacy.  Whatever his motivation, the tragic episode illustrated the analogous relationship between the hatred of racism and religious exclusivism; and while racism may not be as likely to produce deadly acts of terrorism as religious extremism, both are instruments of evil that originate with fear and suspicion that can grow into hate and violence.

            Religious exclusivism promotes the supremacy of one religion over others and condemns all unbelievers, and fundamentalists assert the supremacy of holy law over secular law, denying fundamental freedoms.  The evils of religious exclusivism can be countered with a belief in the transforming power of God’s love to reconcile people of competing religions into a universal family of God.  The first step toward reconciliation is finding common ground; and for Jews, Christians and Muslims it is a common word of faith in the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors, with our neighbors including those of other religions.  That same principle applies to racism as a form of belief based on a distorted understanding of God’s will.

            Finding common political and social values is necessary to reconcile the religious and racial differences that divide us.  Religions in libertarian democracies have conformed their doctrines to modern economic and political values that support free enterprise and libertarian democracy, even though they were not mentioned in the ancient scriptures.  That has not happened in the tribal cultures of Islam, where strict adherence to Islamic law (shari’a), with its apostasy and blasphemy laws, has precluded the freedoms of religion and speech.  Many devout Muslims are offended by the materialistic and hedonistic excesses of Western libertarian culture, and believe that a theocratic Islamist culture is superior to that of a libertarian democracy.

            In Islam no distinction is made between the sacred and the secular (religion and politics), while in libertarian democracies governments are prohibited from favoring or promoting any religion.  The reconciliation of religious and political differences in the modern world requires the acceptance of the freedoms of religion and speech, but many devout Muslims accept apostasy and blasphemy laws that prevent those freedoms in order to constrain immoral behavior.

            Those whose power or status is based on racial division or religious exclusivism oppose change.  White supremacists excluded blacks from political power in the Jim Crow South until the civil rights revolution in the 1960s enabled black leaders to gain political power by emphasizing black solidarity in gerrymandered single-member districts that elected black representatives.  But concentrating black voters in single-member districts has produced more predominately white districts with white representatives who have little concern for black interests.  That has institutionalized racial polarization at local, state and national levels, with politicians now more interested in maintaining their polarized racial constituencies than in promoting racial unity.

            The continuation of traditional black educational and social institutions that emphasize their racial identity also contributes to racial polarization, but black leaders resist integrating traditionally black institutions for the same reason that religious leaders resist abandoning the exclusivity of their traditional religious doctrines.  They have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo of racial division and religious exclusivity and see change as a threat to their status.

            Reconciliation is the remedy for racism and religious exclusivity, and it requires finding common values while respecting important cultural and religious differences.  In the political realm that requires sharing a sense of political unity and providing equal justice under law.  In the spiritual realm it requires a colorblind belief in the unity of all believersand a spiritual kinship in a family of God.  Jews, Muslims and Christians can find a common word of faith in the greatest commandment to love God and their neighbor as themselves; but while most blacks and whites share similar Christian beliefs, Sunday morning remains the most segregated hour of the week.      

Notes and References to Resources:

For related blogs, see the following at Blog/Archives: Religion and New Beginnings: Salvation and Reconciliation into the family of God, posted January 4, 2014; Jesus Meets Muhammad: Is There a Common Word of Faith and Politics for Jews, Christians and Muslims Today? posted January 25, 2015; Promoting Religion Through Evangelism: Bringing Light or Darkness? posted February 8, 2015; Is Religion Good or Evil? posted February 15, 2015; Christians Meet Muslims Today, posted June 21, 2015; and Confronting the Evil Among Us, posted June 28, 2015.   

The Southern Poverty Law Center considers the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC) a hate group and a modern reincarnation of the old White Citizens Councils that were formed in the 1950s and 1960s to battle school desegregation in the South.  The group's newspaper, Citizens Informer, regularly publishes articles condemning "race mixing" as elaborated above.  See  Eugene Robinson referred to the CCC in his commentary on racism in The Washington Post, June 22, 2015, at