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I heard an interview on NPR’s Talk of the Nation last week with Louis Michael Seidman, author of a controversial New York Times editorial and forthcoming book entitled On Constitutional Disobedience. Seidman is a constitutional law professor at Georgetown whose editorial was called, “Let’s Give Up on the Constitution.”

The basic thesis is this:

Our obsession with the Constitution has saddled us with a dysfunctional political system, kept us from debating the merits of divisive issues and inflamed our public discourse. Instead of arguing about what is to be done, we argue about what James Madison might have wanted done 225 years ago.

Seidman argues that good government requires that we commit to certain principles (e.g. free speech, equality under the law) not because a document requires them, but because we all agree they are important. Notice he does not attack the Constitution or its contents, simply the obsession we have developed with adherence to the document and its principles, or the principles of its authors.

constitutionAs one might expect, his editorial has elicited a dramatic reaction, mostly negative. At the opening of the NPR interview, Seidman spoke about hundreds of e-mails he had received, the majority of which are abusive. Many include virulent anti-Semitism and some even threaten physical violence. The anger and hatred are clearly disproportionate to the weight of the editorial.

Seidman summarized his argument in the editorial—that we who are current residents of the country should be free to decide for ourselves what kind of country to have, not be beholden to a group of white men who lived more than 250 years ago. Host Neal Conan responded with a question that led to this exchange:

Conan: If you start ditching some parts because you don’t think they’re right, then how do you then make sure you keep the parts that you do think are right?

Seidman: …Over the years we’ve ditched many parts of the Constitution. There are lots of provisions that are not obeyed. And what we need to do is just acknowledge that fact and talk and make decisions for ourselves about the kind of country we want to live in.

Seidman went on to cite examples of sections of the Constitution we disregard, but it was in that exchange that I realized the connection. I have heard that exact conversation many, many times before, with a minor adjustment:

If you start ditching some parts of the Bible because you don’t think they’re right, then how do you then make sure you keep the parts that you think are right?

Over the years we’ve ditched many parts of the Bible. There are lots of provisions that are not obeyed. (Fill in the blank here: keeping a kosher diet, insisting that women cover their heads, mixing fibers, etc.)

I would argue that what Seidman is encountering in the harsh responses to his work is not hyper-patriotism, it is another variant in the wider worldview that is fundamentalism. Instead of fundamentalist interpretations applied to the Qu’ran or Torah or Bible, they are applied to the Constitution. The anger, defensiveness and either-for-us-or-against-us politics of Seidman’s harsh attackers resembles the decades-long rhetoric and practice of fundamentalist movements.

What-is-fundamentalism-300x199Fundamentalism traces its origins to a Christian reaction to modernism, but the term’s use has broadened to incorporate similar trends in other religious and theopolitical movements. To my knowledge, however, it has not been used to describe a non-religious political position or to describe the right-wing movement in the United States that understands themselves as defenders of the Constitution. However, a closer examination reveals that the sentiment represented by Seidman’s detractors, by some within the Tea Party, and by other right-wing coalitions maps on to the characteristics of other fundamentalist groups.

Karen Armstrong, in her landmark history of fundamentalism The Battle for God, does not give a definition of fundamentalism, but follows the lead of Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby’s Fundamentalism Project and offers a set of characteristics of fundamentalist movements.

They are embattled forms of spirituality, which have emerged as a response to a perceived crisis. They are engaged in a conflict with enemies whose secularist policies and beliefs seem inimical to religion itself. Fundamentalists do not regard this battle as a conventional political struggle, but experience it as a cosmic war between the forces of good and evil. They fear annihilation, and try to fortify their beleaguered identity by means of a selective retrieval of certain doctrines and practices of the past. (xiii, adapted from Marty & Appleby)

Those who seize upon the purity of the Constitution also practice a kind of spirituality. They see central values like freedom, democracy, independence and patriotism (all narrowly defined) under threat from outside forces. Their inerrant scripture is the Constitution, and they appeal to the era of the founding fathers as the authoritative and idyllic.

The most important insight to remember when understanding fundamentalism is that it is a new phenomenon, in spite of its appeals to the past. Fundamentalism is a reactionary move against modernism, a way to fight the cultural changes that threaten former ways of knowing and living. Armstrong distinguishes between mythos and logos. Mythos is the truth that gives meaning to our daily lives. In pre-modern societies, it was the primary form of truth, and never intended to be taken literally. Mythos connects our experiences to timeless, eternal realities larger than ourselves and our era. Logos, by contrast, is the “rational, pragmatic and scientific thought that enabled men and women to function well in the world.” (xvi) Logos looks to control the environment and pursues new ideas and technologies. The pre-modern world placed mythos as the primary form of truth, but embraced logos as well. The modern world has all but dismissed mythos, and taken logos as the primary form of truth.

Fundamentalism is a particular and peculiar reaction to this modernity that seeks to take mythos and turn it into logos. As the mythos no longer matches the logos of science, they shore it up by trying to claim it is logos. For example, the story of a six-day creation in Genesis is a myth. Its primary purpose is to tell us that the world is God’s creation, that it is good, and that we humans were also created by God and reflect God’s goodness. It is a story about meaning. Fundamentalism takes that mythos and makes it into logos by arguing that the story of creation is a factual scientific explanation about the beginning of the universe. It is not even a return to something old (which would be a pre-modern coexistence of mythos and logos, with mythos as primary), it is a creative, novel reaction to modernity.

300px-Washington_Constitutional_Convention_1787One example of this kind of American Constitutional fundamentalism can be found in conversations about the Second Amendment. It has reared up strongly in recent weeks as the country talks about gun control in response to the shooting at Newtown, Connecticut. Many who resist gun control consider themselves defenders of the Second Amendment, and they grow agitated at any suggestion that we might want to control access to certain kinds of weapons or ammunition. Rather than making an argument about how access to those weapons nurtures a free society, they believe themselves to be beseiged, drawing dramatic lines between “us” and “them,” “real Americans” and those who should “leave the country.” Claiming to be standard bearers for the Constitution, this group of gun advocates appeal to the document and the founding fathers, and dismiss any who disagree as unpatriotic, unfaithful to the Constitution, and underminers of liberty.

Just yesterday, a Tennessee man named James Yeager made the news for posting videos on YouTube threatening to “start shooting people” if they tried to take away his guns. His interview with a local television station contains all the characteristics of fundamentalism listed above. Below is the raw interview with the local television station, in which he initially tries to calm his rhetoric, but eventually gets more agitated. (If you don’t want to watch the whole thing, at least watch the section starting around 2:10, where he talks about shooting people to defend the Constitution. You can also watch the edited news story here, which includes clips from his original YouTube postings.) Since that time, the state has withdrawn his gun permit in response to his threats, but as of this writing there has been no attempt to collect his weapons, and we do not know if he intends shoot people if they do.

Mr. Yeager is not unique. The rhetoric he spouts and the appeal he makes to the Constitution can be found throughout right-wing organizations in the United States, including the Tea Party, NRA, and the conservative radio, television and blogosphere. They are another form of fundamentalism, alongside Christian, Jewish and Islamic fundamentalist ideologies. Just as within faith groups, not everyone who is a conservative member of those groups is a fundamentalist, but fundamentalism is a unique segment found within those groups.

Many of us in faith communities have struggled against fundamentalist perversions of our faith for many years, but they persist and even seem to grow stronger. I’m not sure we have much to say that will open up the conversation or create useful common ground to move forward. However, it seems helpful and insightful to identify the parallels between the rhetoric around religion and politics, and to name both as fundamentalist in their reactionary characteristics.

Karen Armstrong, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, Anchor Books, 2010, 222 pp.

This book became a part of our Macedonian Ministries group that went to the Holy Land last winter. We continue to meet, and are charged to undertake a community project. We were all moved by our pilgrimage experience to promote understanding across lines of race, religion and culture, and we have begun to associate ourselves with the Compassionate Cities movement in our area.

The Charter for Compassion was the result of Karen Armstrong’s MacArther “Genius” grant a few years ago. She used the time, publicity and financial resources from that grant to launch a worldwide movement of compassion. Using an interactive website, she solicited input from thousands of people across the world along with a Council of Conscience composed of religious leaders from six major faith traditions. They created a brief Charter for Compassion  that states, clearly and concisely, that “we urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world.” (8) The charter is the catalyst for a movement of people across the world to intentionally grow compassionate practices. At the website, you can sign on to the charter as an individual, a corporation, a city or a university. Our group is contemplating what it would mean to be “compassionate congregations” as part of this movement.

Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life is a longer reflection on the theme of compassion, with an emphasis on steps we all can take to practice compassion more deeply in our everyday interactions. This book is far different from Armstrong’s other books, like her broad history of religion or the west’s holiest city. While her intellect shines as always, this book is not a work of research, it is a work of spiritual discipline.

Armstrong lays out a program to follow to build compassion. The first step starts with learning about compassion, and moves through steps like empathy, mindfulness and action, culminating in the effort to love your enemies. Each chapter explores one step, and Armstrong mixes together perspectives from the various faith traditions with simple exercises that anyone can undertake in their daily lives. The book is not a spiritual masterpiece with the profundity of a guru, but it is a helpful tool to grow compassion in our lives. While I bristled a bit at the parallels to other twelve-step programs (“work this step until you are ready to move to the next chapter”), I found myself contemplating some of the questions and exercises long after I completed reading the book. The second chapter, “Looking at Your Own World,” asks us to begin practicing compassion at home—within our own families, neighborhoods and workplaces. I found this to be a powerful concept in my daily contemplation, and inspiration for a recent sermon.

In this rancorous political season, it’s hard to even ask for civility, much less for compassion. Yet compassion is not about party, race, religion or political persuasion. It is something that every Christian, certainly, can aspire to follow in our lives. This book has inspired me to be more attentive to the practice of compassion in my own life.

Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths by Karen Armstrong, Ballantine Books, 1996, 482 pp.

This was the final book I was asked to read as part of my participation in the Macedonian Ministries project. Whew! What a tome!

Karen Armstrong is always brilliant, always thorough, always helpful in her analysis of broad sweeps of history. I always feel smarter for reading her books—and yet I always find it such hard work. I suspect that the breadth of the material is what makes me feel so overwhelmed by it. I have another Armstrong book on my shelf (The Battle for God). Even though I had hoped to read it before my trip to the Holy Land, I don’t think I have the energy for another one yet.

Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths is exactly what it says it is—a history of this sacred city at the heart of three faith traditions and the center of so much violence and conflict. Armstrong starts with the earliest evidence of settlement in the area, some pottery shards from 5200 years ago. She then traces all the various rulers and peoples in the area that is now Jerusalem. Here is a brief list, which captures in short form a timeline of the various groups who controlled the land: the Canaanite people and the conquest of Joshua; the Jebusites who first settled on the Ophel hill that became Jerusalem; the kingdom of David and the building of Solomon’s Temple; the Assyrian and Babylonian exile and return; Greek and Roman rule; the destruction of the temple and city in 70 CE; the Roman city Aelia Capitolina built on the ruins; the Byzantine rule; Caliph Omar’s peace and tolerance; the mad Caliph al-Hakim and other Fatamid rulers; the Crusades; Saladin’s restoration and peace; the Mamluk conquest; the Ottoman empire; the British Mandate; Zionism and modern Israel.  Each group destroyed some monuments and built others; displaced some residents and brought in others; honored some religion(s) and not others. Armstrong’s chronicle makes it clear that no one faith tradition can lay special claim to the city or its history—each have been responsible for building and cultivating Jerusalem, as well as destroying it.

One of the most interesting themes that winds through the book is the connection between Zion and social justice. From the pre-Yahwist Canaanite worshippers of Ba’al, Mount Zion was a symbol of a heavenly kingdom marked by peace and social justice. Many of the words we hear in Isaiah and the Psalms about the holy city of Jerusalem echo the vision of those Bronze Age Canaanite worshipers of Ba’al, who tied the sacredness of the city to the justice and peace it practiced. All who conquered the city—regardless of their faith—shared scriptures and religious beliefs that implored them to practice justice and peace, to care for the poor and respect their neighbors. Over the centuries, some rulers sought to build that kind of Holy City; others let their jealousy for the land itself override any sense of compassion or justice. The vision of the heavenly city of peace has persisted for thousands of years, yet it still feels very far away.

I felt like this book was excellent preparation for my journey to this city. I had little illusion that I would see the city of Jesus, or that the holy sites we visit will be original and untouched in any way. However, this book gave me a more profound sense of just how political Jerusalem’s holy sites are. Each attempt to build or destroy or even to clean and maintain a square of land is seen as an act of seizing control, usually at someone else’s expense. Every site currently open for tourists is the result of intense and frequently violent negotiations and claims.

I cannot predict how this will impact my experience of the city. It’s possible that knowing the history of battle and bloodshed will make it all seem pointless. It’s also possible that the same history will lend an import and weightiness to the places, no matter their inaccuracy as biblical places. I suspect it will be some mix of the two.

A History of God: The 4,000 Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Karen Armstrong, Ballantine Books, 1993, 461 pp.

Karen Armstrong’s scholarly intellect and breadth of knowledge is always spectacular, and this book is a masterful example of it. Beginning with the dawn of the idea of monotheim, Armstrong traces the development of God throughout Judaism, Christianity and Islam and their multiple streams of thought. It is an intellectual history that crosses cultures and continents over the course of millenia. It is amazing to witness the way Armstrong can weave together vast and disparate threads into a cohesive whole. Rather than a history of religion, this is a history of ideas—the evolution of a particular idea of God.

While the chapters tracing out the development of God in the Hebrew Bible, Temple Judaism and early Christianity were familiar information, Armstrong’s focus on the history of the idea of monotheism offered a different perspective and different insights. Most insightful, however, was the information on the development of traditions that were less familiar to me–especially Islam, Eastern Christianity and post-diaspora Judaism. Armstrong’s chapter on medieval Islamic philosophy (falsafah) opened a whole new world to me, about the depth and breadth of Islamic traditions far removed from the contemporary divide between “modern/Western” and “traditional/fundamentalist.” These categories reflect a Western European colonialism that is only 200 years old, and give a false story about the true development of Islamic thought.

I especially appreciated learning more about the non-Western traditions of mysticism in Judaism, Islam and Eastern Christianity. Every monotheistic tradition of philosophy eventually reaches a place of profound mysticism, even declaring that God is Nothing. In Judaism, Islam and Eastern Christianity, that mystical understanding has become normative—even dogmatic. It is an affront to God to believe that God’s essence can ever be understood, described or named. Western Christianity stands alone in its obsession with rational theology, its attempts to define and explain God. For Judaism, Islam and Eastern Christianity, this is anathema, because God is found in mystery and nothingness. As someone who experiences God in this mystical way, it was comforting to know that our Western (particularly rationalist, American) version of God is in fact a minority opinion.

This book is not a light or easy read. The scope and depth of ideas it contains make it quite complex to follow, but the writing is accessible and open. Armstrong’s scholarly synthesis impresses throughout, and I finish the book feeling a lot smarter about the place and position of my little corner of monotheistic religion in the wider scope of the history of ideas.

About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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