Made-in-America Wahhabism

The Christian right is our own brand of extremism.

By William Thatcher Dowell

Los Angeles Times

March 8, 2005

There is a certain irony in the debate over installing the Ten Commandments in public buildings. The Second Commandment in the King James edition of the Bible states quite clearly: "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the Earth below, or that is in the water under the Earth." Few people take this as a prohibition against images of stars and fishes. Rather it cautions against endowing a physical object, be it a golden calf or a two-ton slab of granite, with spiritual power.

In trying to promote the commandments, the Christian right seems to have forgotten what they are really about. It has also overlooked the fact that there are several versions: Exodus 20:2-17, Exodus 34:12-26, and Deuteronomy 5:6-21. Different language in Catholic Bibles and the Jewish Torah offer more variants.

Which should be enshrined? That is just the kind of debate that has been responsible for religious massacres through the ages. It was, in fact, the mindless slaughter resulting from King Charles' efforts to impose the Church of England's prayer book on Calvinist Scots in the 17th century that played an important role in convincing the founding fathers to separate church and state.

The current debate, of course, has little to do with genuine religion. What it is really about is an effort to assert a cultural point of view. It is part of a reaction against social change, an American counter-reformation of sorts against the way our society has been evolving. Those pushing to blur the boundaries between church and state feel that they are losing out — much as, in the Middle East, Islamic fundamentalists fear they are losing out to "Western values."

The reactions are remarkably similar. In the Arab Middle East and Iran, the response is an insistence on the establishment of Islamic law as the basis for political life; in the United States, school districts assert religious over scientific theory in biology class, tax dollars are going to the faith-based, and the Ten Commandments are a putative founding document.

In fact, George W. Bush may now find himself in the same kind of trap that ensnared Saudi Arabia's founder, King Abdulaziz ibn Saud. To gain political support, Saud mobilized the fanatical, ultrareligious Wahhabi movement — the movement that is spiritually at the core of Al Qaeda. Once the bargain was done, the Saudi royal family repeatedly found itself held political hostage to an extremist, barely controllable movement populated by radical ideologues. The evangelical movement in the U.S. nudged the president back into the White House, and Bush must now try to pay off the political bill for its support.

In Saudi Arabia, what drives the Wahhabis is a deep sense of grievance and an underlying conviction that a return to spiritual purity will restore the lost power they believe once belonged to their forefathers. A belief system that calls for stoning a woman for adultery or severing the hand of a vagrant accused of stealing depends on extreme interpretations of texts that are at best ambiguous. What is at stake is not so much service to God as the conviction that it is still possible to enforce discipline in a world that seems increasingly chaotic.

The Christian right is equally prone to selective interpretations of Scripture. In its concern for a fetus, for example, the fate of the child who emerges from an unwanted pregnancy gets lost. Some fundamentalists are even ready to kill those who do not agree with them, or at least destroy their careers. They seem to delight in the death penalty, despite the fact that the Bible prohibits killing and Christ advised his followers to leave vengeance to God.

Just as in the Middle East, the core of U.S. puritanism stems from a nostalgia for an imaginary past — in our case, a made-up United States peopled mostly by Northern Europeans alike in the God they worshiped and in their understanding of what he stood for. The founding fathers, of course, preferred the ideas of the secular Enlightenment, which, instead of anointing one religious interpretation, provided the space and security for each person to seek God in his or her own way.

Perhaps the strongest rationale for separating religious values from politics is that politics inevitably involves compromise, while religion involves a spiritual ideal that can be harmed by compromise. No less a fundamentalist than Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini once stated that if forced to choose between Islamic law and Islamic rule, he would choose Islamic rule. Yet the effect of that decision has been to betray Islam, as genuine Islamic scholars in Iran have found themselves under continual pressure to change their interpretation of God and God's will in order to conform to political realities.

Religion, when incorporated into a political structure, is almost invariably diluted and deformed and ultimately loses its most essential power. Worse, as we have seen recently in the Islamic world (as in the Spanish Inquisition and the Salem witch trials in the Christian world), a fanatical passion for one's own interpretation of justice under God often leads to horror.

The fact is that, as St. Paul so eloquently put it, "now we see through a glass darkly." Men and women interpret the deity, but they are only human and, by their nature, they are flawed. In that context, isn't it best to keep our minds open, the Ten Commandments out of our public buildings or off our governmental lawns and to lead by example rather than pressuring others to see life the way we do?

As Christ once put it, "And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?"

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William Thatcher Dowell edits Global Beat for New York University's Center for War, Peace and the News Media. He was a Middle East correspondent for Time magazine from 1989 through 1993. A longer version of this essay appears at www.tomdispatch.com