The Truth, Mainly - 12/10/2001

On September 11 and religious totalitarianism
by Leon Satterfield

I've never accused the Rev. Billy Graham of being the brightest street light in the City on the Hill—mainly, I suppose, because I'm so taken by the audacity of Roland Barthes' zinger: "If God really does speak through the mouth of Dr. Graham, then God is a real blockhead."

But I like Billy Graham. He's a lot less smarmy than, say, the Reverends Falwell and Robertson. And he's nicer than they are to other religions. For example, after Sept. 11, Billy decided to stop using the word "crusade" to label his revival meetings. He knows the historical baggage the word has for Islam.

But Billy's son, Franklin, is taking over the Billy Graham Evangelical Association-and Franklin appears to lack his daddy's sensibilities.

Last month, Franklin told NBC that "the God of Islam is. . .a different God, and I believe it is a very evil and wicked religion."

I suppose he thinks Islam is very evil and wicked because the fanatics who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks were presumably of the Islamic faith. Funny how that works. You hardly ever hear anyone say Christianity is very evil and wicked because the fanatics who carried out the Holocaust were presumably of the Christian faith.

Don't get me wrong. I think something very evil and wicked happened on Sept. 11. But it didn't grow out of the teachings of a religion. It grew out of the absolute certitude of some religionists that because their religion is so right, all other religions are so wrong—and thus very evil and wicked.

Which is the point Thomas Friedman was making in his Nov. 27 column in the New York Times: "We're not fighting to eradicate 'terrorism.' Terrorism is just a tool. We're fighting to defeat an ideology: religious totalitarianism." Which he defines as the view "that my faith must reign supreme and can be affirmed and held passionately only if all others are negated."

Friedman quotes Rabbi David Hartman of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem: "All faiths that come out of the biblical tradition—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—have the tendency to believe that they have the exclusive truth. . . .The opposite of religious totalitarianism is an ideology of pluralism—an ideology that embraces religious diversity and the idea that my faith can be nurtured without claiming exclusive truth. America is the Mecca of that ideology, and that is what bin Laden hates. . . ."

Not everyone in America likes it either. Some of our loudest voices oppose the ideology of religious pluralism.

Listen to Franklin Graham say that Islam is "very evil and wicked."

Ponder the church sign in Boise that reads "The spirit of Islam is the spirit of the Antichrist."

And listen to Georgia Representative Saxby Chambliss, chairman of the House subcommittee on terrorism and homeland security, giving us his proposal for combating terrorism: "Just turn [the sheriff] loose and let him arrest every Muslim that crosses the state line."

He later said that was just a little joke. Heh heh.

Okay, that's all pretty heavy. Time for a little comic relief. Time to dig out last Monday's Journal-Star, turn to page 2B, and consider the Associated Press story headlined "WTC site prayer launches criticism."

It's a story about both religious pluralism and religious totalitarianism, writ small. It goes like this:

Two Missouri-Synod Lutheran pastors—the Rev. David Benke and the Rev. Gerald Kieschnick (who is president of the 2.6 million-member denomination)—stirred up a theological dispute in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

Rev. Kieschnick prayed on Sept. 19 with clergy, relief workers, and other representatives of the other Lutheran denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Rev. Benke was among the interfaith clergymen who prayed in front of 20,000 people in Yankee Stadium at the Sept. 23 "Prayer for America" service.

For those bits of religious pluralism, both pastors got themselves in hot water with several other clergymen, also Missouri Synod Lutherans.

Six of them petitioned to have Rev. Benke expelled from the church, because the Yankee Stadium service included clergy of other religions, thus giving "the impression that the Christian faith is just one among many by which people may pray to God."

Rev. Kieschnick is charged with supporting "unionism" by worshipping with Evangelical Lutheran Church folks.

Two Missouri Synod pastors—one from Missouri and one from Minnesota—want the Rev. Kieschnick's church membership revoked. A third pastor—from Nebraska—just wants him to resign.

And did I read that a fourth pastor wants to make the Reverends Benke and Kieschnick invisible by forcing them to wear blue burqas (with little veiled eyeholes) that cover their bodies from head to toe?

Nah. Probably not.


Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail address is:

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