No, I’m not quoting the latest press release from the ACLU or Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Rather, I’m summarizing what I have officially deemed the “Most Offensive and Bigoted Book of the Semester”. I finished my last final last night (WooHoo!) and before selling back my books later today, I feel inspired to share with you a little taste of Cornell.
This semester, as a requirement for my Near Eastern Studies major, I took a class called “Holy War, Crusade, and Jihad” taught by a professor I truly respect, who also happens to be my advisor. Essentially, we studied religious violence in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. (The song comes to mind, “One of these things is not like the other! One of these things just doesn’t belong!”) In general, the class was fine. In my experience, whenever you take a class about religion in a passionately secular environment, it isn’t going to be a walk in the park. I definitely disagreed with a lot of the arguments Professor Brann presented. I felt like he misinterpreted a lot about fundamentalist Christianity, but that’s to be expected. Overall, I did learn a lot of useful history and theories about religious violence.
The only major problem I had with my “Holy Jihad” class, as I affectionately call it, was one of the assigned readings – Fundamentalism: the Search for Meaning by Malise Ruthven. I ended up using the Ruthven book extensively in my final essay about the perceived tension between religious tradition and modernity and why that tension can sometimes lead to violence or extreme intolerance. Although Ruthven makes a few logical arguments about the most extreme forms of religious fundamentalism, I argued that he tends to over-generalize and in the end, make unsupported, offensive statements about all fundamentalists.
For your reading pleasure, I’m posting a few of the most absurd and asinine claims by Ruthven from his most offensive and anti-Christian chapter, “Controlling Women”:
He discusses the Islamic world’s misogynistic, violent treatment of women — Saudi women being forbidden to drive, girls in boarding schools burning to death because they weren’t dressed modestly enough to escape the fiery building, equating rape with adultery, etc. — and then proceeds to put Christian pro-life activism in the same category:
“Even in the United States, where women have more autonomy and sexual freedom than in most other countries, sixteen states have failed to repeal laws restricting abortion under Christian fundamentalist pressures following the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Roe v. Wade (1973)” (112-113).
Ruthven therefore asks, “What prompts women to sign up to religious movements that many would see as inimical to their interests?” If possible, his answers to this question are even more insulting than equating the pro-life movement to Islamic oppression. Ruthven argues,
“one should not underestimate the attraction that charismatic male preachers have for female followers. In the Pentecostal tradition preachers such as Jimmy Swaggart (before his fall from grace after a much publicized encounter with a prostitute) project a powerful image of masculinity in line with the macho, militant Christianity proclaimed by Billy Sunday early in the twentieth century. A more measured and sober figure like Jerry Falwell may appeal to female followers for his fatherly appearance” (115-116).
In other words, Ruthven seems to think the only reason women are members of fundamentalist congregations is because they are sexually attracted to the preacher or they consider him to be a fatherly figure. Classy argument there.
Finally, Ruthven swoops in on what he denounces as fundamentalists’ homophobia.
“The origins of homophobia in the Judaeo-Christian tradition may lie in the ‘contradictory religious ethos’ experienced by devout Christian males. On the one hand they are expected to love a solitary deity imagined in terms both of father imagery, and perhaps more potently, through the erotically charged figure of a young, almost naked male impaled on an instrument of torment… When homoerotic feelings clash with heterosexual values, homophobia (directed against those who acknowledge and give expression to such forbidden sentiments) provides an all too obvious and easy way out.”
“Christian premillenialists are theological refugees in a world they no longer control. In America, fortunately, their avenues of expression usually fall short of violence (though there have been physical attacks by fundamentalists on doctors performing abortions). They have a baleful influence on American foreign policy, by tilting it towards the Jewish state which they aim eventually to obliterate, by converting ‘righteous’ Jews to Christ. They have damaged the education of American children in some places by adding ’scientific creationism’ to the cirriculum. They inconvenience some women — especially poor women with limited access to travel — by making abortion illegal in certain states. On a planetary level they are selfish, greedy, and stupid, damaging the environment by the excessive use of energy and lobbying against environmental controls. What is the point of saving the planet, they argue, if Jesus is arriving tomorrow?
American fundamentalists are a headache, a thorn in the flesh of the bien-pensant liberals, the subject of bemused concern to ‘Old Europeans’ who have experienced too many real catastrophes to yearn for Armageddon. Given that premillennialism and its associated theologies are significant components of American policy, especially under Republican administrations, it seems fair to state that Protestant fundamentalism is a dangerous religion” (216-217, emphasis added).
I’m not sure if it is even worth responding to, but fundamentalist Christians have no desire to obliterate the State of Israel and abortion is legal in all 50 states (for any reason at any time in the pregnancy). Furthermore, most fundamentalist Christians do respect the environment. They just believe God gave us the environment to use for our benefit, not the other way around.
You might think I am portraying an exceptionally unfair view of Ruthven’s book. Well, I guess he did make one good point in the midst of all his rabid anti-Christian rambling. When discussing the scholarly advancements of Islam, Ruthven states:
“In the post-Rushdie atmosphere of cultural confrontation between Islamic and Western worlds, criticism of the Koran demands considerably more caution than criticism of the Bible” (79-80).
Oh, really? That is interesting, Mr. Ruthven. But it’s the Christians who are dangerous, eh?