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The Christian Right Needs 'Enemies'

By the Rev. Howard Bess
August 30, 2010

Editor’s Note: For the past 16 centuries – since Christianity merged with the power of the Roman Empire in the Fourth Century – a paradox of the religion has been its foundation on the teachings of a pacifist rabbi, yet its frequent resort to torture, terrorism and war to assert Christianity’s power.

Especially among American Christian fundamentalists, that paradox continues to this day – with the bumper-sticker question, “what would Jesus do?” combined with a determination to destroy perceived “enemies,” as the Rev. Howard Bess notes in this guest essay:

At the heart of American Christian Fundamentalism is a basic religious dualism that is obsessed with a never-ending struggle between Good and Evil. These Christian fundamentalists must always have an “enemy” with whom to fight.

Without doubt, there are biblical precedents for this view, especially in the Old Testament recounting Israel’s ancient history of bloody battles with its neighbors. Even the New Testament ends with Revelation, depicting a final battle between Good and Evil with a triumphant Jesus Christ the winner over every opposing force. 
However, there also were voices of dissent against this dualism throughout the Old and the New Testaments. Indeed, the final witness is Jesus, the rabbi from Nazareth who advocated that evil was to be overcome not with a fight but with the doing of good.

Yet Christian fundamentalists – while embracing Jesus’s peaceful approach in word – have often deviated from those teachings in practice, a pattern most apparent in modern-day America where I have witnessed this endless need for “enemies” first hand.

My roots are in Midwestern Christian Fundamentalism. My family was Baptist and Republican. My father and grandfather believed every word that Joseph McCarthy said about the Communist threat to America. 

The pastor, who had the most influence over me, was trained at Moody Bible Institute and was an ardent believer in dispensationalism, a belief in the “end times” that views the Book of Revelation as foretelling future events with modern figures embodying Evil. [See's "The Troubling Mystery of Revelation."]

Franklin Roosevelt was Satan in disguise. At different times, Adolf Hitler, the Pope, and Joseph Stalin were identified as the Antichrist.

Through my college and graduate education, my world view was significantly altered. Still, my roots have left me with an abiding interest in the dynamics of American Christian Fundamentalism. 
During the Great Depression and the World War that followed, enemies abounded and the fight against evil was in vogue. But Christian Fundamentalism had a great problem after World War II. For a time, fundamentalists had no devil to engage. A righteous America had won. 

However, Joseph Stalin and the Soviet dictators who followed quickly filled the void. World Communism became the world’s great evil.

In the early 1950s, Sen. Joseph McCarthy, R-Wisconsin, convinced millions of Americans that the U.S. government was significantly infiltrated by Communists. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover went on an obsessive hunt for Communists. 

A young Richard Nixon was elected to Congress by depicting his opponent as a Communist sympathizer. Opponents of racial integration made charges against Martin Luther King Jr. as having Communist ties. 

The threat of Communism was everywhere. It was completely in control in the Soviet Union, North Korea, China and Vietnam. And in the forefront of the battle against godless Communists were Christian fundamentalists.

The anti-communist theme suffered a great loss in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed and the world was clearly changing. China was still communist, but it was a different-style Communism.

Christian Fundamentalism had lost their primary devil, but it soon discovered a new set of enemies.

By the early 1990s, I had been involved with the struggle to gain gay acceptance in our churches for several years. The movement for acceptance was growing, but progress was slow. Then, Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals identified the new devil in the abomination of homosexuality and the gay agenda.

Once the new devil was named, a flurry of activity followed. I have a whole shelf of books written during the 1990s by theologians, Bible scholars, psychologists and sociologists. Meetings of denominations could not keep homosexuality off their agendas. Ministries to change gay persons to straight persons mushroomed. 

In 1995, I jumped into the fray and published my own book, Pastor, I Am Gay. The result was that my church was dis-fellowshipped by our Alaska state association and I was personally shunned by the local ministerial group.
However, Christian fundamentalists largely have lost their war against the gay population. And they have lost on every front. Theologically, biblically, psychologically, sociologically AND in the opinion polls. 

The Public Religion Research Institute has just published a summary of 20 years of polling of American public opinion about gay persons. The polling shows that steadily, but surely, American opinion has embraced gay participation in the U.S. military, equal benefits for gay couples, adoption rights for gay couples, and marriage for gay couples.

The numbers are most telling among young people.

So, American Christian fundamentalists badly needed another new “enemy,” and they have now identified their next “war.”

The front cover headline of a recent Time magazine tells the story: “Is America Islamophobic?” With Christian fundamentalists in the lead, the answer is a clear “yes.”

Tensions between Christian fundamentalists and Muslim fundamentalists have been brewing for years, but the proposal to build a mosque and Islamic center two blocks from Ground Zero on Lower Manhattan has defined the conflict. 

As a tearful Jesus might have lamented, “O that they might know the ways of peace.”

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His e-mail address is             

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