Center for the Study of
One of the biggest changes in politics in my lifetime is that the delusional is no longer marginal. It has come in from the fringe, to sit in the seat of power in the Oval Office and in Congress. For the first time in our history, ideology and theology hold a monopoly of power in Washington. Theology asserts propositions that cannot be proven true; ideologues hold stoutly to a worldview despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality. When ideology and theology couple, their offspring are not always bad but they are always blind. And there is the danger: voters and politicians alike, oblivious to the facts.
-- Bill Moyers, Harvard University, 2005
Wisdom University is establishing a Center for the Study of Religious Fundamentalism. The University is setting up such a Center because of concern regarding the growing power of Christian fundamentalism in the corridors of power in Washington and the way in which the Christian right dominates the values question among the American electorate. The Christian right played a decisive role in the re-election of President George W. Bush and has an active national and international strategy to disseminate an end-of-the-world theology that has serious political, social and environmental implications.
The fundamentalists have very skillfully framed the public debate through their own think tanks, language professionals, writers and ad agencies. They have quite literally worked a revolution in American thought and language over the past thirty years, both by capturing and defining the language of the debate and by skillfully manipulating wedge issues, and have done so in a way that has left the progressives, the liberals, and the Democrats largely ineffectual and seemingly effete.
Fundamentalism is not just a problem in the United States. Fundamentalism in other religious traditions is on the rise worldwide and is actively affecting politics and the geo-strategic issues pertaining to war and peace in Europe, the Middle East and South Asia.
The Center for the Study of Religious Fundamentalism will seek to analyze fundamentalism in three specific areas:
" The theological teachings of the fundamentalists and the political, social, and environmental implications of what they believe;
" The intention and scope of their power and the nature and extent of their political and economic alliances;
" The affect of fundamentalism in the mainstream media and on the values debate.
The Center will conduct research, publish White Papers, convene seminars and conferences, and seek actively to inform the public both in the United States and abroad about the internal logic, political power and ultimate objectives of fundamentalist groups, with specific initial focus on the Christian right in the United States. The Center will establish partnerships in Europe, the Middle East and South Asia to study fundamentalist teachings and activity in those regions.
The Scope of the Problem
In the exit polling after the last presidential election on November 2, 2004, upwards of 20% of the electorate indicated that they voted according to certain values. These values were associated with Republican family values and clustered around support for the pro-life movement, being against gay marriage, support for religious expression in schools and government, strict constructionism in the courts, conservative sexual morays, and for faith based social welfare. According to post election analyses, the support of evangelical fundamentalist Christians was vital in the re-election of George W. Bush who counts himself publicly as one of them and who heads an administration that prides itself in being faith based rather than reality based.
The phenomenon of rising fundamentalism in the United States is replicated in other areas of the world. The Abrahamic religions in particular Judaism, Christianity and Islam, -- are to a significant extent currently gripped by the divisiveness and sectarianism inherent in their fundamentalist traditions. There are, of course, myriad differentiations and permutations between them, but what they share in common is a dogmatism that precludes meaningful debate with contrary voices.
These three fundamentalist traditions all divide the world into us and them and are concerned with how to belong to an in group separated from the other groups by certain commonly held beliefs and rituals. They are absolutely sure of their theological correctness, are inserting themselves aggressively in the political process, and are convinced of their ultimate earthly as well as cosmic triumph. Their interaction is contributing to the spiral of destruction and hate that is threatening the entire Middle East with conflagration. Religious and ethnic fundamentalism is also present in parts of Africa, in Buddhism and Hinduism, and in Japan. Fundamentalisms divisive dogmatism upsets the moral and socio-political equilibrium of the world.
As the twenty first century unfolds, we bear witness to a great struggle between nation states and armed groups intent on conflict and destruction. This struggle has many social, political and environmental causes and repercussions. Undergirding and shaping this complexity lies a religious and cultural tension between those who emphasize the exclusivity of sect and those who embrace the inclusivity of wisdom. It is between literalist and non-literalist, between the fundamentalists and the universalists, between those who seek distinctions in order to divide and those who seek commonalities in order to unite. Indeed, what challenges global integration more than any other single reality is not so much a clash of civilizations as a clash of fundamentalisms.
Against this fundamentalist trend stands wisdom. In the wisdom traditions, the issue is not how to be saved or how to defeat the infidel. The focus of wisdom is how to live in harmony with nature and all other sentient beings. Wisdom in all the great religious traditions concerns the process by which one comes to identify with the whole human community and to understand values common to all humanity. It is that aspect of human reflection that emphasizes the process of personal and communal transformation within a divine presence that encompasses all life and is available to all who seek its transformative power. In Judaism, for instance, this understanding is expressed as Sophia. In Christianity, it is expressed as the Cosmic Christ. In Islam, Sufism has refined universal values. Wisdom traditions have thus always had a dialectical relationship with the strictures of sect and ritual. For wisdom traditions, there is no in group. There is only the transformative experience of mystery symbolized by the alchemical process of transforming base metal into gold.
Illuminating wisdom in this time of intolerance, extremism and conflict will not be an easy process. The endeavor will be fraught with difficulties and dangers. There are many forces, institutions and leaders who are motivated by the acquisition of power and have much invested in sectarian divisions and the politics of fear. We are thus in a time of over-weaning pride and the willingness to use force, a time of competition, exclusion and degradation of community and the environment alike.
What is needed more than anything else is a sense of interdependence, of proportion, of humility in the face of lifes complexities and human diversity. It is not an over-statement to say that in this time of both crisis and opportunity, wisdom can illuminate the way. Wisdom may, in the end, be humanitys only source of peace and hope. It is the most precious natural resource we have, for depending on how we embrace and apply it, all other resources, indeed human relations itself, are affected for good or for ill.
It is both to illuminate the dogmatism that fundamentalism demands and to clarify the alternative that wisdom offers that Wisdom University is establishing its Center for the Study of Religious Fundamentalism.
The Specific Issue in the United States:
Fundamentalist Christian Apocalypticism
There is something very strange happening to America. The United States is emerging as the most powerful nation in the world at exactly the moment when tens of millions of American Christian fundamentalists believe it is the end of the world. The president leading the nation counts himself as one of them.
The events of 9/11, combined with the aggressive and highly militarized response of the Bush Administration, have radically changed American attitudes and behavior. The invasion of Iraq signaled that institutions such as the UN and NATO, formerly considered pillars of international stability, have been marginalized in favor of U.S. led coalitions of the willing. The United States, previously viewed with respect and admiration, is now viewed with a high degree of suspicion and mistrust in almost every country around the world, even in England, Americas strongest ally. The shock and awe strategy of the Bush Administration has deconstructed an international order that the international community, under U.S. leadership, had been building since the First World War. Domestically, the Bush Administration is using the Patriot Act to launch an unprecedented assault on civil liberties.
This radical shift in American policy and behavior coincides with an upsurge in American evangelical Christian preoccupation with end of time theology. According to a Times/CNN poll released in July, 2002, 36% of all Americans believe that the Bible is the word of God and to be interpreted literally. Fifty nine percent believe that the prophecies of the book of Revelation will come true. Seventeen percent believe that the end of the world will take place in their lifetime. Thirty six percent support Israel because they believe in biblical prophecies that the Jews must control all of Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount, before Jesus will come again. Twenty five percent believe that the events of September 11, 2001 were prophesied in the Bible.
Books and websites abound that focus on interpreting current events within the context of expectations that our generation will see the end of the world. The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsay was the biggest selling book of the 1970s. The Left Behind series by Tim LeHaye and Jerry Jenkins, begun in 1995 with the book Left Behind: A Novel of the Earths Last Days, and followed by ten other books to date, has sold over 42 million copies. The ninth book of the series, Desecration, was the best selling book of 2001, selling 3.1 million copies, and the tenth book, The Remnant, was the biggest selling book of 2002, with an initial print run of 2.75 million in hard cover.
One website, raptureready.com, has a Rapture Index that tracks indicators that contribute to instability and turbulence such as earthquakes, floods, plagues, wars, civil unrest and unemployment. Any reading over 154 means that the end could come at any time. The Index hit an all-time high on September 24, 2001with a count of 182. Over 8 million people visited the site in that single day. The Index stood at 151 on March 15, 2005. In addition to websites, there are more than 1,600 evangelical Christian radio stations and over 250 evangelical Christian television shows.
The theology expressed in the Left Behind series, the Rapture Index, the myriad radio stations and television shows, and preached from thousands of pulpits throughout evangelical America is based on a very specific interpretation of the Bible, especially the book of Revelation, but also including the Gospels and the prophetic books of the Old Testament such as Daniel, Ezekiel, Jeremiah and Isaiah. The basic belief is that God created the world, and God will end the world. A key indicator of the end was the return of the Jews to Palestine and the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. This marked the beginning of the last generation before the apocalyptic destruction of the world. As the final drama of history unfolds, the planetary ecology will become increasingly turbulent and human affairs will become increasingly destructive.
In the midst of planetary turmoil, Jesus Christ will return from heaven and in a great rapture, all the Christians will be snatched up and taken back to heaven with him. Then begins a seven year tribulation period, during which an antichrist figure emerges who promises peace but delivers war. God pours out the vials of divine wrath all over the world, creating unprecedented environmental dislocation and societal havoc. At the end of the seven years, Jesus returns a second time and establishes a thousand year reign of peace. A new heaven and a new earth are created for the believers. Satan and his angels, along with the disbelievers, are thrown into a bottomless pit burning with fire and brimstone forever.
The political ideology expressed through this apocalyptic theology combines a radical pessimism concerning human nature and current events with an equally radical optimism concerning Gods plan for the elect. Quite literally, the worse the situation becomes, the better these believers feel because the closer they are to Jesus coming again and taking them to heaven. There is little regard for the environment because they believe that the environment is meant to be destroyed anyway. There is little sympathy for the poor and the dispossessed because they believe that economic dislocation and civil unrest are indicators of human depravity and a signal that the end is nigh. There is little support for the protection of civil liberties because they believe strong action must be taken against the infidels and potential terrorists.
A central part of the politics of evangelical apocalyptic belief is radical support for Israel. Forty two percent of all Americans support Israel because they believe that the Jews are Gods chosen people. This support includes the belief that Israel is destined to take over all the land of Greater Israel, which extends into Syria and includes all of the West Bank. It is believed that Israel will one day soon build a replica of Solomons temple on the Dome of the Rock, where the al Aqsa Mosque currently stands, considered holy by the Muslims.
Another tenet of evangelical politics is a deep suspicion and mistrust of the United Nations. In the Left Behind books, the antichrist is a Russian diplomat who is elected to be the Secretary General of the United Nations. The establishment of the European Union, in particular the adoption of the Euro as the single currency for Europe, is taken as one of the signs of the end.
What is striking is that disregard for the environment, uncritical support for Israel and hostility toward the United Nations are the hallmarks of the Bush Administration. The President is a born again Christian with deep sympathies with the evangelical tradition. Many of his cabinet are similarly oriented. This is reminiscent of the Reagan Administration, in which the President, Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger and Secretary of Interior James Watt all spoke publicly of their resonance with evangelical Christianity and apocalyptic theology. Reagan made his evil empire speech before the National Association of Evangelicals.
Religion has always played an important role in American politics. Beginning with the Puritans in colonial America, the abolitionists and the missionary movement of the 1800s, and the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition of the 1980s, religion has been a potent political instrument. In the case of President Bush, the power of the neo-conservative thinkers and policy makes in Washington, both inside and outside the Administration, largely resides in the alliance between the Christian right and the conservative wing of the Republican Party.
There are roughly 250 legislators in the U.S. Congress today who enjoy significant backing of the religious right. Forty-five senators and 186 members of the 108th Congress earned 80 to 100 percent approval ratings from the three most influential Christian right advocacy groups. They include Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Assistant Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Conference Chair Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Policy Chair Jon Kyl of Arizona, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, Majority Leader Tom DeLay, and Majority Whip Roy Blunt.
While powerful, this way of thinking is fundamentally at odds with the founding principles of American democracy and the essential decency of the American people. America was founded as a nation of tolerance and light and should not allow itself to become preoccupied with dark visions of the future. At its moment of global power, America should commit itself to extending to the world the democratic principles it pioneered, not alienate itself from the world to pursue a strategy of divisiveness and destruction.
The evangelical preoccupation with the apocalypse is a theology of hopelessness, leading to politics of cynicism. It is influencing the Bush Administration to preside over the militarization of American foreign policy, the erosion of American civil liberties, and the degradation of the environment. Americans must understand this and take action to reclaim the soul of the nation. The Center for the Study of Religious Fundamentalism seeks to be part of the re-awakening of America.
The project will be headed by an Executive Director familiar with fundamentalist history and trends in religion and philosophy and who will lead a team of researchers and graduate students to explore the following:
" The history, nature and internal logic of fundamentalist theology as it is currently represented in the three Abrahamic religions, with particular initial emphasis on the American Christian evangelical Right. This will entail an examination of the scope of evangelical theology, the extent of its reach in the American religious community, and how it compares with the fundamentalist mentalities of Judaism and Islam. It will also entail an examination of how the theological tenets of fundamentalism translate into political ideology, social values, and environmental policy.
" The structure and alliances that are in place that translate fundamentalist belief into political power. Research will be conducted into the rise of the Christian Right as a political force in American politics, beginning with the Reagan Administration, continuing through the re-election of President George W. Bush. Analysis will be conducted into the political lobbying in Washington in an effort to map out the inter-relationships between the evangelical churches, the lobbying entities, the money flows, and the international connections.
" The growing power of the Christian Right in the media and the values debate. The increasing power of Fox TV, the conservative radio talk shows, and the omnipresence of the tele-evangelists have opened the way for evangelical spokespeople to have unprecedented access to the living rooms of the American public. This needs to be understood, both in terms of the inter-connections between the major media corporations and the Right as well as in terms of the development of media content and the actual shaping of the news and therefore the perceptions of the public about domestic and international events.
The format the Center will utilize as research findings are completed will be to release White Papers to the media and interested public and academic organizations; and to convene briefings and conferences so that scholars and professionals can discuss the findings. Regular press communications will be conducted.
Never before in modern American history has theology, ideology and politics conjoined to produce such potent cynicism. Never before have the stakes been so high and the potential consequences so great. Wisdom University seeks to contribute to the education of the American people and the international interested public by analyzing the theological principles, the political alliances the social implications, and the environmental impact of religious fundamentalism, beginning with evangelical Christian fundamentalists in the United States but also including fundamentalism as it is expressed in other major religious traditions around the world.
The budget for the first year of operations of the Center comes to $285,500. A detailed budget is available upon request.
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