Jul 7, 2015

Give Me That Old-Time Religion

From ISIS to the Christian right, three new books explore the modern urge to go back to an original, uncorrupted version of faith.

JUL 7, 2015

Julie J. Ingersoll
Oxford University Press
Gerhard Bowering
Princeton University Press
Jonathan A.C. Brown
Oneworld Publications
They have a long-term vision for social change. Some of them believe that adulterers, homosexuals, and blasphemers should be stoned to death. They reject liberal ideas and seek a return to religious fundamentals. Secular governments, they feel, should be replaced with theocracy; legal systems should be replaced with religious law; the education of all children should be guided by the precepts of faith. God, they proclaim, is the only authority.
ISIS ideologues? Taliban clerics? No, these are the Christian Reconstructionists, adherents of an American religious movement whose ideas, thanks to the efforts of the Chalcedon Foundation, have for decades slowly been gaining traction among a portion of the Christian religious right in the United States.
All too often today, whenever the subject of “religious fundamentalism” comes up, Americans are quick to think of conservative Muslims overseas. But, as Julie Ingersoll makes clear in Building God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstruction, they would do well to broaden their outlook to include other brands of extreme views—especially those that have arisen much closer to home. Ingersoll takes the Christian Reconstructionists as a case in point, in part because she knows them well (she was once married to a Reconstructionist and co-founded a private Christian school) and in part because she feels they have exerted a surprisingly powerful effect on American political discourse.
Reconstructionism’s founder, Rousas John Rushdoony, was born in the United States to a family that had just fed the Armenian genocide—a trauma that inspired Rushdoony to want to re-build society from the ground up, according to fundamental Christian principles. With secular politics and morality having failed humanity so spectacularly, it was time to run the world again the way God wanted it to be run. He laid out his program in a monumental 1,879-page work entitledThe Institutes of Biblical Law.
Rushdoony and his followers began their efforts with a focus on the grass roots. They eschewed direct political engagement and took a longer-term view of their enterprise. In a savvy tactic used the world over by religious movements interested in effecting social change, the group has devoted much of its time and energy to the family unit and education. Reconstructionists were instrumental in fighting the early battles of what became the homeschooling movement, for example, and Rushdoony himself actively took part in the legal challenges that first allowed the movement to spread in the United States.
In terms of sheer numbers, the Reconstructionism is not a major factor on the American religious scene; it’s not a denomination and has very little active presence in actual churches. But in Building God’s Kingdom, Ingersoll makes the case that core Reconstructionist ideas have exerted an outsized influence on political, cultural, and legal life in the U.S., through their leadership presence at the forefront of key issues. Homeschooling is one obvious example, but Ingersoll cites others: the work of the Tea Party activist David Barton, who has championed the idea of America as a fundamentally Christian nation; the creationist movement, the revival of whose literal interpretation of scripture owes much to Rushdoony; and the development of “biblical” arguments against government welfare and taxation. Ingersoll even discerns Reconstructionist roots in some of the particularities of the language used by the American religious right. When their affiliates refer to public schools as “government schools,” or argue that they are “Marxist-socialist,” for example, Ingersoll contends that they are echoing phrases used by Rushdoony. Ingersoll also detects Reconstructionist influences on the secessionist Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and the Republican senator Rand Paul.
Studying the Reconstructionists can help us understand the motivations and tactics of religious groups trying to return to an “authentic” experience—among them the West’s current obsessions, ISIS and the Taliban. But trying to make sense of the Islamic State or the Taliban without a thorough understanding of the political traditions from which they derive is foolhardy. Hence the importance of Islamic Political Thought: An Introduction, a new collection of essays edited by Gerhard Bowering, which presents a nuanced guide to the many approaches to political life that have evolved during Islam’s almost 1,500-year history. In many ways, this amounts to an entire history of ideas, full of foreign terms and unfamiliar characters, that most Westerners simply aren’t taught. Trying to absorb it can be overwhelming, and the editors of this volume haven’t helped matters by ordering it alphabetically rather than thematically. But their efforts do have one very important merit: They make abundantly clear that Muslims themselves have long grappled with questions about the relationship of religion and politics.
The first issue to contend with is the fact that the Qur’an itself offers few details about what sort of political system Muslims should adopt. Instead, over time, scholars and theologians engaged in a vast collective effort to establish the history of the religion and to define its political principles—much of which is now found in the sunna and hadith—and the precedents established by the initial four rulers of the new polity. The early religious community was forced to adapt to the challenges of ruling over vast swathes of territory, and in doing so they inevitably absorbed ideas and practices from those they conquered and studied. Plato and Aristotle’s idea of a rational philosopher-king as ruler was an important influence, this volume shows, as was the Persian culture of bureaucracy, which allowed the growing Islamic empire to administer its territory.
As the centuries wore on, the burgeoning enterprise of Qur’anic interpretation and Islamic political theorizing generated an entire class of Islamic scholars, who, in turn, set about consolidating their position as the arbiters of religious authority and political power. They did this in part by engaging in increasingly abstract debates that alienated lay believers—and, as routinely happens in all religious traditions, those believers began calling for a return to an “original,” uncorrupted version of the faith, especially in the 20th century. At the same time, literacy rates and communication techniques improved, enabling fundamentalists to spread their message with unprecedented power and speed—which is how the Islamic State and the Taliban today have managed to lay claim, however misguidedly, to “authentic” Islamic imperatives.

But what is “authentic” in Islamic history and interpretation? That’s the subject of Jonathan A.C. Brown’s Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenge and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy. Brown expounds on several key moments of debate in Islamic history to illustrate a flexibility and variety of interpretation that is almost always forgotten, ignored, or denied in Western discourse about Islam. Brown can be overly loquacious, but still, Misquoting Muhammad is a book I wish I had the money to buy for all my friends and colleagues, because he presents readers with a guide to Islamic thought that portrays it not as a fixed entity but as a complex product of utterly human machinations.
Consider the case of what is sometimes referred to as the “wife-beating verse” in the Qur’an (4:34). The text seems to support the idea of men beating their wives in the event of disobedience, yet Brown shows how Muslim scholars and followers have often rejected that apparent meaning in favor of one in which affection and mercy are the norm. Where there’s a will, there’s always a way around literalism.
The examples Brown cites in Misquoting Muhammad are instructive: They’re a reminder of the ultimate importance of context. As the anthropologist and scholar of religions Talal Asad has noted, it’s in studying the gradations of belief and interpretation—and the attempts to deny those gradations—that we can begin to understand a religion. Ultimately, Brown teaches a simple, if vital, lesson: Authenticity is elusive in religion, and those who claim it tend not to be searching for the truth but grasping for power.

No comments: