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Religious Fundamentalism

From: "William R.Polk"

Date: Thu, 17 Nov 2005 10:22:29 +0100
Subject: Religious Fundamentalism
Dear Colleagues,
With all the discussion about religious fundamentalism today, I have
not seen a coherent treatment of its beliefs.  So I put one together.
Perhaps it ought to be widely available.  It follows:

AMERICAN RELIGIOUS FUNDAMENTALISM

With perhaps as many as 50 million Americans describing themselves as
Religious Fundamentalists, and allegedly almost half again as many
calling themselves Evangelical Christians,” I decided that I should try
to understand better the beliefs by which they profess to live.  Like
most Americans, I had some exposure to Sunday School Christianity while
I was growing up but never made a determined effort to study the Bible
in the same “academic” way that, being concerned with Middle Eastern
history, I studied the Qur’an.  So I have recently tried to fill in
this gap in my education.  Let me share with you some preliminary
findings.

The first thing that struck me was how extraordinarily different were
the Old and New Testaments.  I think that any outside observer, unless
he was told differently before he began to read them, would conclude
that they were the texts of separate religions.  It is not only that
the Old Testament portrays itself as the Holy Book of a single people,
the Israelites, whereas the New Testament does not so constrict itself,
but that the philosophy of the two appears contradictory.  Attempting
to bridge this gap, some commentators have said that the God of the Old
Testament is a judge who is intent on warning his people and
threatening them with punishments (Leviticus 26/14-46, Deuteronomy
28/15 ff) whereas the God of the New Testament lays down moral precepts
and focuses not on “justice” but on love.  It is, incidentally, the Old
Testament that is echoed in the Qur’an; the God portrayed there is the
stern judge of the Old Testament and some of the most vivid passages of
the Qur’an speak of the punishments meted out to those who associated
other gods with God (Arabic: shirk) or who killed or drove away the
prophets (including Moses, Jesus and various Arabs) sent to them by
God.

Apart from the philosophical aspects of the differences between the Old
and New Testaments, we know that in the early days of the codification
of Christianity, there was a profound split between those who were more
influenced by the Judaic traditions embodied in the Old Testament,
notably Paul/Saul, and those who opposed them.  The most famous today
of the latter are the people about whom we know from a collection of
documents found in the Egyptian desert at Nag Hamadi.  The people who
wrote them were purged and mostly exterminated, but periodically over
the centuries other groups took up aspects of their beliefs, almost
certainly unaware of the original group, but driven by their readings
of the teachings of Jesus.  Overall, however, it was the Judaizing
tendency that predominated and survived.  It was that tradition that
grew into both the Medieval Catholic church and, paradoxically, was
adopted by most of the Protestant breakaway sects.  Indeed, most of
these groups became even more fundamentalist than the Catholics; they
sought to strip away the “accretions” of theologians, most of them of
course Catholic, to “purify” their beliefs and to get back to the
origins of what they assumed God intended.  The followers of Luther and
Calvin in Europe and the Puritans and Pilgrims in the New World were
the more famous of these groups in Seventeenth century England and
America, but there were a profusion of others that split away from
these and other dissident sects and established themselves in America
in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries.  During his visit to
America in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville was astonished by the diversity
of religious sects, each of which he observed, “adores the Deity in its
own peculiar manner …there is no country in the world where the
Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men
than in America…it must be regarded as the first of their political
institutions.”  As he traveled around America during his nine-month
visit, Tocqueville found that “Although the desire of acquiring the
good things of this world is  the prevailing passion of the American
people…Here and there in the midst of American society you meet with
men full of a fanatical and almost wild spiritualism [and]  From time
to time strange sects arise which endeavor to strike out extraordinary
paths to eternal happiness.  Religious insanity is very common in the
United States.”  He would have been even more impressed by our America
today with people pouring into megachurches or glued to their sets to
give televangelists audience ratings beyond rock stars.

So what can we say about these groups in American society? Begin with
the Puritans. Their most striking endeavor was their attempt to
institutionalize their reading of the Bible in a set of laws, customs
and government and to force others to live by their code in their
theocratic virtual state, the Massachusetts Bay Colony. They attempted
to avoid all compromise and to rigidly enforce the commandments of the
Old Testament while paying relatively little attention to the New
Testament admonitions on love and tolerance.  They took to heart the
injunction (Leviticus 25/18: “ye shall do my statutes, and keep my
judgments, and do them…” That is, they believed that they had to
enforce everything ordained in the Bible. Since they truly believed
that it was the literal word of God, they could not pick and choose
among its commandments.  Each was obligatory.  Yet, no matter how hard
they tried, they were unable to carry all the Biblical injunctions into
force.  And when the first generation of “true believers” passed away,
their children and grandchildren heaved a collective sigh of relief and
set about dismantling the theocracy of their fathers.

It seems to me that their failure highlights the dilemma of
contemporary Fundamentalists as well: just as the conflict between the
letter of the commandments and the values of Seventeenth century
Anglo-American society precluded strict adherence initially and
ultimately forced a willful if unspoken revision of Biblical
injunctions, it is evident that modern Fundamentalists feel the need to
pick and chose among commandments.  I think most would be shocked by
the idea that they should actually follow the ordinances of the Old
Testament. Let me illustrate:

Punishment:  A number of ritual crimes are to be punished by stoning.
Blasphemy is one. (Leviticus 25/14, 16 & 23)  Does anyone among
American Christians today advocate stoning a person to death?  If
asked, I imagine that most of our fellow citizen would think of this as
the ultimate proof of the barbarism of those other Fundamentalists, the
Muslims.  Yet, there it is, undeniably set forth in the Bible as God’s
order.

Allowing one’s children to stray from the path of true religion (that
is Judaism as defined in the Old Testament) by going over to other
faiths, draws the death penalty. (Leviticus 20/2). So Jews who convert
to Christianity are condemned.  Does anyone in America today wish to
carry out this sentence?  The same injunction carries over to Islam and
Muslim Fundamentalists believe it must be effected;  American Christian
missionaries have always been horrified by this aspect of Islam, but it
is also firmly rooted in Christianity.

Violations of ritual strictures can result in exile from the nation or
community.  For example, as set forth in the quaint Elizabethan English
of the King James Bible, when a man “hath discovered her fountain, and
she hath uncovered the fountain of her blood…” (Leviticus 20/18) --
that is.  engaging in sex while  the woman has her menstrual period  --
 results in the two people  being  driven into exile. Her “flowers”
(her menstrual discharge) contaminates everything on which she sits
(Leviticus 15/16).

Working on the Sabbath draws the death penalty (Exodus 35/2).  In the
first case that came before the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s courts on
kidnapping Africans into slavery, the charge against the slavers was
not kidnap but kidnapping on the Sabbath, a more serious (because
Biblical) charge.  Do Fundamentalists today wish to enforce this order?
 It does not appear so.

And, for lesser crimes, a judge can order up to 40 lashes. Again, this
is seen as one of the uglier aspects of Islamic theocracy. I certainly
find it so.  But, let us admit that it was a common form of punishment
both in England in America until recently.  Do  Christian
Fundamentalists feel bound to reinstitute it here?  It is clearly
obligatory by the words of the Bible.  (Deuteronomy 25/2-3)

Social crimes: For example, adultery draws the death penalty (Leviticus
20/10).  According to all the studies I know, Americans are in mortal
danger!

Incest: At least one form of incest draws the ultimate punishment of
being burned to death (Leviticus 20/10).  Other degrees draw the death
penalty (Leviticus 20/11-12), but not necessarily at the stake.  I
think most Americans, including Fundamentalists, would today think of
burning at the stake  as a ghastly memory of the Catholic Inquisition.
They are right, but it was practiced by Protestants too.  A horrifying
response.  Yes, but there is a good deal of evidence that the crime is
far more common than anyone would like to admit.  And, devastating to
families as it undoubtedly is, there are circumstances when the Bible
permits it: to ensure the continuation of a lineage, daughters are
allowed to trick their fathers into incest by getting them drunk.
(Genesis 19/31-36)

The current campaign to get young  people to abstain from sex before
marriage is certainly encouraged in the Bible.  Here the Old Testament
and contemporary social mores are in accord.  But, what happens if a
young woman lapses from this standard is rather different.  When she
gets married, she is tested. To prove that she is a virgin, her “tokens
of virginity,” blood on the sheet on the nuptial bed, should be
exhibited to the community.  If the woman fails this test, “Then they
shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father’s house, and the
men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die (Deuteronomy
22/13-21)  She faces a similar  fate if during her engagement she lies
with another man: “Then ye shall bring them both out unto the gate of
that city, and ye shall stone them with stones that they die.”
(Deuteronomy 22/23-24)
Crimes against deportment: Cursing one’s father or mother, engaging in
homosexuality (Leviticus 18/22 and 20/13), and loose conduct by the
daughter of a high priest (Leviticus 21/9) draw the death penalty.  The
latter also by burning.

Aggression among the citizenry: capital punishment is mandated for
killing a person. (No distinction between homicide and murder is drawn
in Leviticus 25/17 or Exodus 21/12.)  Lesser crimes, presumably arising
from fist fights, are to be punished “Breach for breach, eye for eye,
tooth for tooth…” (Leviticus 25/19-20; Exodus 21/23-25)  If a woman
intervenes in a fight, even to try to save her husband, and grabs the
“secrets” of the other man, her hand is to be cut off. (Deuteronomy
25/12)

Serial punishment: whatever one does wrong, he is not the only one to
be punished. Exodus 34/7 warns that punishment will be inflicted upon
his “children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to
the fourth generation.” An illegitimate child is ritually unclean and
beyond the pale surrounding the community although the nature of his
birth is hardly his fault. “A bastard shall not enter into the
congregation of the Lord; even to his tenth generation shall he not
enter into the congregation of the lord.” (Deuteronomy 23/2).  Given
the nature of American frontier society and the immigration into the
country of a large portion of our citizenry in circumstances that were
not conducive to marriage sacraments, few of us could “enter into the
congregation of the lord” today.

Marriage outside the community effectively cuts both people off from
the community; they cannot eat at the bride’s father’s table (Leviticus
22/12).  Marriage is legal only within the ethnic community (Genesis
24/3); trans-ethnic (and certainly trans-racial) marriage is condemned
(Ezra 9/12 and Nehemiah 10/30). Both participants in such a union may
be legally killed (Numbers 25/1-9). Clearly, American society would be
decimated if this rule were enforced.

Slavery:  Leviticus 25/45-46 says that you may enslave the children of
strangers who live among you. Others can also be enslaved.  For
example, a thief who cannot make restitution for what he has stolen
should be sold into slavery. (Exodus 22/2)  However, one is enslaved,
slavery is not enjoined, but there is not Biblical basis for abolishing
it.

Sexual discrimination: if a man seduces a married slave girl, she is to
be whipped while he is to pay a small penalty (a sacrificial ram) to
the priesthood. (Leviticus 19/20).  In practical terms, a man is
regarded as twice a woman (Leviticus 26/3-4). Sexual differentiation
must be maintained so no cross dressing, thus presumably today’s women
should never wear blue jeans. (Deuteronomy 22/5).

Outcasts: Various categories of people whom most of us think should be
protected and encouraged to realize their full potential in as
meaningful a life as possible – and for whom we have both written laws
and created charitable institutions -- are to be ostracized: in the
community envisaged in the Old Testament,  that means forbidding them
from participating in religious observances.  Thus, no one with a
“blemish” can worship.  This category of deprived or sick people
includes (Leviticus 21/18-21) the blind, the lame, “he that hath a flat
nose, or any thing superfluous, or a man that is brokenfooted or
brokenhanded or crookbackt, or a dwarf, or that hath a blemish in his
eye, or be scurvy, or scabbed, or hath his stones [testes] broken.”
Priests are given the task of checking the community weed out  the ill
in order to ostracize them.  (Leviticus 13-14)

Animals: curious to the modern ear, if an ox gores a person, it is the
ox that is to be stoned to death (Exodus 21/28); if a man (or a woman)
forces an animal into an act of sex, the person and the animal are both
to be put to death. (Leviticus 20/15-16)

Much is made in the press today about Muslims growing great bushy
beards.  To many of us, this is the most evident symbol of Islam.  In
the immediate aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center in New
York, having a beard  got an unfortunate Indian Sikh attacked and
lynched by an American mob.  Beards are not generally favored among us
today, but the Old Testament orders believers: “Ye shall not round the
corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy
beard.” (Leviticus 19/27 and 21/5)  That Sikh was more “Biblical” than
most of us.

Witches are treated as actual, and the community is told, “Thou shalt
not suffer a witch to live.” (Exodus 22/18) So what the New England
Puritans did in rooting out witches, as they decided some of their
neighbors in fact were, was in accordance with Biblical instruction.

As to government, the proper role and attitude of the moral person is
obedience and silence: “Thou shalt not…curse the ruler of thy people.”
(Exodus 22/28)  Some Americans, at least, would like to reinstitute
this commandment, but it is clearly in opposition to the American
Constitution.

It would be fascinating to see the results if this list were presented
to the American Fundamentalists today, without, of course, the Biblical
references, to see how many of these injunctions would be regarded as
just, reasonable, or even enforceable.  Or, if enforced, how many of
them would themselves escape draconian punishment.

My hope for the first question – and hunch for the second -- is that
the answer would be “few.”


                                                       William R. Polk
                                                       November 15, 2005

Best regards,  Bill
William R. Polk
williamrpolk@post.harvard.edu
669 Chemin de la Sine
F-06140 Vence France
fax: +33-493 24 08 77
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