Norway: “A Christian Fundamentalist”

As I suggested in my weekly recap last Saturday, I’ve had a hard time convincing myself to write a second post about the man who committed the massacre in Norway last month: Anders Behring Breivik. Intending to analyze his targeting of “cultural Marxists” in addition to Muslims, I attempted to read through parts of Breivik’s enormous, sometimes coherent manifesto. Frankly, while some historians make a specialty out of this kind of thing, I just found it unpleasant to peruse the mind of a mass murderer and stopped.

Oslo the Day After the Bombing
Memorials outside Oslo Cathedral, the day after the bombing (the targeted prime minister's office is in the background) - Creative Commons (Johannes Grødem)

So I’m going to steer clear of that kind of post. Instead, I want to follow up on the reason for my first post: helping me think through how to answer the inevitable questions about Breivik that I’ll soon get from students, particularly in my upper-division modern European history course… And I suspect that they’ll want to talk about Breivik’s religious affiliation. Just a few thoughts on that, drawing on some already widely disseminated quotations from the 2083 manifesto.

“A Christian Fundamentalist”

If I’ve read the reporting correctly, it was a Norwegian security official who first alleged that Breivik was a “Christian fundamentalist.” Not surprisingly, this claim has prompted all sorts of responses. (Do a search on Google combining the name and the phrase and you’ll get over 160,000 hits.) Many Christians were quick to deny that Breivik was a “true” Christian, let alone of the fundamentalist variety. (It wasn’t only evangelicals making this claim. Guardian “Belief” columnist Andrew Brown, himself an occasional critic of conservative Christians in Britain, scoffed that Breivik’s ideology had “nothing to do with Christianity but was based on an atavistic horror of Muslims and a loathing of ‘Marxists’, by which he meant anyone to the left of Genghis Khan.”) While others understandably wondered why such writers were as quick to label other terrorists Muslim and proclaim Islam a religion of violence as they were to distance themselves and their faith from Breivik. (For a summary of this debate, with quotations from leading lights on both sides but tending to sympathize more with the latter, see this reflection from religion reporter David Gibson.)

It seems like there are at least two real issues here. The first is whether Breivik was a “fundamentalist.”

The Fundamentals, vol. 2
The second volume of R.A. Torrey's edited collection (1917) of the pamphlets that gave Fundamentalism its name

As the word was originally used, it’s obviously a poor fit for Breivik. At least in Anglo-American Protestantism, “fundamentalist” refers to a certain subset of theological conservatives that has few adherents on the Continent and to which Breivik, by all evidence, including his own self-description, does not belong. He clearly does not regard the Bible as inerrant; indeed, his writing seems to demonstrate greater familiarity (breeding contempt, in this case) with Herbert Marcuse than the Scriptures. He hearkens back to a pre-Reformation ideal past, while fundamentalists would certainly not view the Middle Ages so fondly. He does not even describe himself as being particularly religious, and he hoped to make common cause with anti-Muslim adherents of other religions in his putative holy war.

But “fundamentalist” has taken on meanings going far beyond the historical-theological one. A few months after 9/11, Jim Wallis of Sojourners gathered a panel of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim thinkers to reflect on the meaning of fundamentalism, and it clearly had far transcended debates over the Virgin Birth and dispensationalism. Indeed, writer Karen Armstrong defined it apart from any reference to distinctive Christian theological debates:

Fundamentalism represents a kind of revolt or rebellion against the secular hegemony of the modern world. Fundamentalists typically want to see God, or religion, reflected more centrally in public life. They want to drag religion from the sidelines, to which it’s been relegated in a secular culture, and back to center stage….

She claimed to find this kind of fundamentalism at work in Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Confucianism, not just Christianity. (And Wallis added “secular fundamentalists” — e.g., the Khmer Rouge. Incidentally, the editor of Modern Reformation has labeled Breivik an “Enlightenment fundamentalist.”)

I tend to disagree with Armstrong’s definition: all sorts of pluralistic people—some religious, some secular—have recognized that it’s possible for religion(s) to play a role in public life without that role being hegemonic. (See, for example, Nick Kristof’s column on evangelicalism this past weekend.) And the broadening of “fundamentalism” risks rendering the term useless.

Martin MartySo feared Lutheran scholar Martin Marty (here again, no uncritical observer of conservative Christianity) in a 2008 essay. Not only did he find little evidence in Europe of Christian “fundamentalism” as it’s long been understood in church history or historical theology, but he warned against stretching the term so that it is “used pejoratively and polemically to cluster everyone, especially the religious, whom one does not like”:

Reading on the subject in recent months, I did not lack references to Islamic fundamentalism, which is indisputably present in Western Europe, where non-Muslims and more moderate Muslims are reacting against the reactors. What I did discover on Western European web-sites and in publications is that, absent large-scale Protestant and clear-style Catholic fundamentalism, more and more commentators are stretching the meaning of the word. They apply it wherever staunch conservatism links with political power and threatens liberal polities and policies….

There are real threats out there, without question, but we do societies no service if we lump all movements to the Right together, homogenize them, and mis-label some of them. Dealing honestly with others and carefully with labels are positive ways to react. Then, again, the European colleagues may instruct me otherwise.

Still, what Armstrong’s describing certainly does seem apropos of the “Christian fundamentalist” vision that Breivik laid out in his manifesto. He yearns (and kills) for the revival of Christendom: a world in which Christianity has returned to its central position in Western cultural and political life (not so clear on economic life).

But if not “fundamentalist,” what sort of Christianity?

We’re not going to settle that evergreen question of “What does it mean to be a Christian?” here, but Breivik’s own use of the term “Christian” to describe himself ought, if nothing else, to remind my students that “being Christian” means many things to many people. Mostly evangelicals, “being Christian” for them probably implies emphases on conversion, Scripture, the Cross, and activities like evangelism and social reform. But that famous “quadrilateral” from David Bebbington doesn’t capture most or all Christians. (Not that it’s meant to—contra the people Marty critiqued above, Bebbington was trying to provide a definition of evangelicalism broad enough to account for recurrence of the phenomenon but specific enough to keep it a useful distinction.) Instead, Breivik might serve to illustrate a particular type of Christian with which most of my students are unfamiliar but is hardly unknown in modern European history: the “cultural Christian” (to quote Breivik, describing himself) who doesn’t regard Scripture, tradition, or church teachings as normative or participate regularly in the sacraments or other spiritual practices, but does adopt “Christian” as a descriptor and assumes that Christianity and even the Christian church plays a central role in his society.

So Breivik claimed that “It is enough that you are a Christian-agnostic or a Christian atheist (an atheist who wants to preserve at least the basics of the European Christian cultural legacy)” to join him as “a supporter of a monocultural Christian Europe.” (Without wanting to read more of his writing, I am curious what Breivik thinks about the enormous growth of Pentecostal-Charismatic Christianity in Europe, since it’s largely fueled by African immigrants. It would likely horrify traditional fundamentalists, given the prevalence of cessationism in their ranks.)

In the European context, a Christian monoculture could entail something quite different from the “Christian nation” that many conservative Christians in this country believe America to be—or wish it to become. A right-wing European “cultural Christian” like Breivik may distrust Muslims and even seek to restore something like an established state church; that doesn’t necessarily mean that he wants all laws to be founded on Scripture, or even that politicians (like the congresswoman representing the suburbs to the north and east of my neck of the Twin Cities) should make their private faith a part of their public persona, even employ it to cultivate political support.

5 thoughts on “Norway: “A Christian Fundamentalist”

  1. I’ve had to deal with this question when writing my dissertation, one chapter of which deals with a group I call the “New Agnostics” (Armstrong, Terry Eagleton, Robert Wright, James Carse, and others) who make what I consider rather strange defenses of religious expression against Ditchkins, et al. These writers are quick to point out that they are not defending “fundamentalist” religion, but other than the Armstrong quote you give above, none of them are particularly interested in describing what they mean by that word.

    As I write, Eagleton’s “commitment to liberation theology leads him, i think, to draw a false dichotomy between Christian views that are compatible with socialism and a very broadly and vaguely defined ‘fundamentalism,’ a word he uses pejoratively throughout Reason, Faith and Revolution without ever really defining it. The closest he comes is to say that ‘Fundamentalism is among other things the faith of those driven into zealotry by a shallow technological rationality which sets all the great spiritual questions cynically to one side, and in doing so leaves those questions open to being monopolized by bigots’ (149). He seems unaware that ‘fundamentalist’ has a real and specific meaning in Christian theology, and while his description is probably meant to cover bombers of abortion clinics and the like, the word itself actually refers to believers who accept as doctrine the beliefs set forth in the 1915 essay collection The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth. The fundamentals are certainly worth debating, but it is not fair to lump those who subscribe to them in with, say, Muslim suicide bombers, as Eagleton comes close to doing here.”

    That very long and self-promotional quotation is just to say that “fundamentalist” tends to mean “incompatible with whatever version of religious expression I want to promote”–just as “Puritan” tends to mean “anyone who thinks I misbehave in my private life.”

    “Evangelical” is a word that is similarly bereft of meaning in common parlance, although it’s harder to define anyway, since there’s not a single book you can point to. I suspect in the coming years “Evangelical” is going to mean “Christian with political views to the right of mine,” but we’ll see.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Michial. I tend to be more optimistic that “evangelical” in some form will survive for some time yet, since (as used by those who study religion, and not politics) it does seem to point to some useful distinctions, and since it’s got a considerably longer lifespan already than “fundamentalist.” (Understanding that Continental “Evangelical” does not always equal Anglo-American “Evangelical.”)

      1. But that very discrepancy suggests that the term is pretty slippery. For example, Karl Barth wrote a book called “Evangelical Theology: An Introduction.” How many Evangelicals would be comfortable claiming him as their own?

  2. I don’t know if they’d comfortably claim him as a fellow evangelical (not that some evangelicals claim them either!), but Roger Olson, Donald Dayton, and Donald Bloesch would at least view Barth as a “conversation partner.” Dayton has talked in several places (including his foreword to the 2004 translation of Eberhard Busch’s book on Karl Barth and Pietism) about understanding “evangelical” less in terms of the postfundamentalist response to modernism in the 20th century (Henry, Ockenga, Graham, et al) than as a synonym for “Pietist” as used in 18th century awakenings. But I’m getting way beyond my expertise here. Talk to my colleague Christian Winn on this subject!

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