On Mondays, I receive an emailed essay called Sightings from Martin Marty, the eminent University of Chicago religion scholar who distributes his observations and those of others studying or teaching at the University’s Divinity School. This morning, he wrote about a recent article from the Economist on Jews and Israel.
The general discussion was interesting, but the following paragraph struck me:
The editors see reactionary Orthdoxies still winning over moderate movements. No surprise here. In the six-year five-fat-volume study of militant fundamentalisms I co-directed (with R. Scott Appleby) for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences,we found everywhere, in all religions, that it was not conservatism that was growing but extremism based less in history-based traditions but in fear, reaction, and aggression. As I read the Economist and other such literature I think of an observation by Harold Isaacs which we paraphrased as we looked at Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Christian and other militancies: “Around the world there is a massive convulsive ingathering of peoples into their separatenesses and over-againstnesses to protect their pride and power and place from the real or presumed threat of others who are doing the same.
I think that’s a perceptive observation, and it applies to more than religious identity.
In America, in our zeal to label rather than understand, we have seen contemporary radicalism confused with genuine conservatism. We have failed to distinguish between patriotism and nationalism. And we have seen “We the People” redefined to exclude “others”–immigrants, GLBT folks, Muslims, “elitists,” even Southerners. We seem to be growing a variety of fundamentalisms.
Fear, reaction and aggression, leading to extremism and an “us versus them” worldview. Sort of sums up contemporary politics, doesn’t it?
This impulse to label and reject those who do not share our identity may be understandable, but it is deeply corrosive, and it distracts us from the discussions we need to conduct. Distinguishing between mainstream conservatism and liberalism and their extremist manifestations–accurately defining our terms–might be a first step back toward sanity.