VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (ABP) – Religious conservatives in the United States went on the defensive after media described the suspect in last week’s shooting rampage in Norway as a Christian fundamentalist.
Christian Broadcasting Network veteran Dale Hurd called usage of religious terms to identify confessed murderer Anders Behring Breivik “really sloppy and probably opportunistic journalism by the left-wing media.”
“I have covered the so-called far right all across Europe and it is full of people who call themselves Christians who never go to church, clearly do not have a personal relationship [with] Christ, and they call themselves a Christian almost in a patriotic sense that they stand with their country in the way that it was founded,” Hurd said.
Denny Burk, associate professor of New Testament at Boyce College, the undergraduate arm of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., said in a blog that “at most, he is Christian in name only.”
Burk said the term “Christian” carries different meanings in popular and biblical language. He said the Bible uses the term to denote a follower of Christ, not as someone identified as a Christian because of cultural heritage, family tradition or national identity.
Breivik said as much in a 1,500-page document that he posted on the Internet before setting off a bomb in Oslo’s governmental district and then opening fire at a Labour Party youth camp, killing a total of 76 Norwegians.
In the document, Breivik distinguished between “cultural Christians” and “religious Christians.”
“If you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God then you are a religious Christian,” Breivik wrote. “Myself and many more like me do not necessarily have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God. We do however believe in Christianity as a cultural, social, identity and moral platform. This makes us Christian.”
Writing for Religion Dispatches, University of California, Santa Barbara Professor Mark Juergenmeyer said the same argument could be made about individuals commonly labeled as Islamic terrorists. Osama bin Laden was an engineer and businessman and current al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was a medical doctor, Juergenmeyer said. Neither was a theologian or clergyman.
Juergenmeyer said it is accurate to describe individuals like Breivik and Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh as “Christian terrorists.”
Susan Brooks Thislethaite, a professor at Chicago Theological Seminary, said in a Washington Post blog that Christians are often reluctant to acknowledge connections between their religion and extreme violence. “They will dismiss it as ‘madness’ rather than confront the Christian element directly,” she wrote.
That is not an indictment of Christianity as a whole, she said, but rather an acknowledgement that certain Christian theologies can “give a divine justification to the use of lethal force.” That doesn’t make Christianity inherently violent, she said, but neither is it beside the point.
“It is absolutely critical that Christians not turn away from the Christian theological elements in such religiously inspired terrorism,” she said. “We must acknowledge these elements in Christianity and forthrightly reject these extremist interpretations of our religion. How can we ask Muslims to do the same with Islam, if we won’t confront extremists distorting Christianity?”
Ed Stetzer of LifeWay Research observed in his blog that some might say with justification that Muslims feel the same when Christians call theirs a violent religion. Still, he wondered about the media’s quick embrace of the “Christian fundamentalist” label for the Norwegian terrorist.
“I know some Christian fundamentalists, but I have never met one that sounds anything like Breivik,” Stetzer said. “Perhaps ‘fundamentalist’ means something else in Norway, but I don’t know any ‘Christian fundamentalist’ that has connections to Freemasonry, watches True Blood on HBO and thinks the church should return ‘back’ to Roman Catholicism.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of Associated Baptist Press.