Defining Our Terms

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.


  1. Very interesting. Sounds right. NOW…what do we do? The writing aptly describes the
    Tea Party folks that are holding our country hostage. NOW WHAT? They do not want to
    discuss or compromise on anything. I guess we have to defeat them at the ballot box.
    Easier said than done in these days of designer districts.

  2. The observation is perceptive, but respectfully, I think the separation, turning inward and exclusion are the reactions. I see this as a huge manifestation of what Eric Fromm described over 70 years ago in “Escape from Freedom”.

    Modernity, the multiplicity of choices, and the increasing exposure to other thoughts and cultures is scary. President Obama’s much criticized and much misunderstood comments about people “clinging to guns and religion” was really about the desire for the familiar in frightening times. The food from our childhood, Mom’s cooking, is called comfort food for a good reason. Fundamentalism and other reactionary tendencies are the extreme form of eliminating the fear.

    Another cause is the loss of community. We have become increasingly mobile and very often families and friends of our youth have dispersed geographically. The strong sense of community among these groups provides comfort that we used to have from spending generations among the same surrounding and the same people. Along these lines is the social support provided by these groups. Often, this is missing in the larger community of outsiders and not provided by governments in many places.

    Alas, I don’t know what we can do about it, except to not react in kind. Distinguishing between mainstream and extreme manifestations is important, but I fear that it is not sufficient.

  3. First of all, to suggest that any religion comes even close to Islam when dealing with issues of zealotry, hatred, and intolerance betrays an incredible bias. There should be no role for political correctness in academia.

    It does, however, become a delicious piece of irony when in one paragraph we talk about the lack of empathy and tolerance, and then in the next paragraph start trashing on people whose political beliefs differ from ours, lol. That’s awesome.

  4. I doubt any religion or political group has a monopoly on zealots or intolerance. In the last 3 years I’ve come to know a number of Muslims here and abroad. They are delightful, highly hospitable, family-oriented, prayerful people. Jihadists are not true Muslims any more than Ku Klux Klan members are true Christians.

    Using social media in one’s den is replacing face to face interaction with one’s neighbors and wider community. And it’s getting worse. Virtual schools conduct Physical Education ON-LINE. Good grief.

    Cable TV and talk show punditry separate us into isolated, polarized groups who don’t listen to a common news source, let alone each other. One’s news is the other’s diatribe.

    There was a certain civility and self-oversight as well as government oversight with the old fairness doctrine governing the airwaves. While I’m very suspicious of government’s perception of “fairness” which is in the eye of the beholder, the fairness doctrine certainly had its advantages over what we have now. I am very uncomfortable with the hatefulness and vitriol that passes for on-air political news and discourse these days.

  5. I need to respectfully disagree on your first point Ms. Papas. I’m not trying to suggest that zealots are all Muslims or Muslims are all zealots. However, look at the rise to power of Faith-based states centered around a radical interpretation of the Quran. You have people stoned to death in the streets, female circumcision, etc. I will concede the point that these loons are not TRUE Muslims, but it begs the question as to their popularity. I believe the dominance of these ideas should result in much more action on the part of moderate Muslims but it doesn’t (more likelihood because they’re afraid, but sympathy could play a role as well.)

    There is neither any other religion nor anywhere else in the world where these kinds of reprehensible practices are tolerated or widespread.

    For Pete’s sake, they teach their children that Jews make Matzah ball soup from the blood of young Muslim males.

  6. Marco, Muslims are not the enemy. Germany just passed a law that circumcision is mutilation of boys. There are extremists in every walk of life and none of them are more represented than in religions. We all need to remember the golden rule.

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