One Standard, Not Two, for Christianity and Islam

Roundup
tags: Islam, religion, Christianity



Jeffrey Herf is Distinguished University Professor in the Department of History at the University of Maryland, College Park.

For six years, President Obama has refused to connect interpretations of the religion of Islam to the varieties of terror that have emerged in recent decades claiming it as their inspiration. Although anyone who has read or heard about al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, the government of Iran, and now ISIS knows that these various groups are inspired by their interpretations of the religion of Islam, the White House continues to speak in euphemisms about a “war on terror” or unspecified “violent extremism.”

On February 5, however, the President chose to speak clearly and without euphemism about the impact of religion in history at the National Prayer Breakfast. In responding to discussions of the role of radical Islam in this era of terror he said: “Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often were justified in the name of Christ.” Probably because his blunt talk about Christianity contrasted so sharply with White House avoidance of similar frankness regarding Islam, the President received quite a bit of criticism. Some of the criticism appeared to come from those who were reluctant to acknowledge that Obama had simply stated what anyone with a decent knowledge of European and American history knows is the truth.

Yet we must give the President credit for being willing to speak the obvious truth about what intellectual and cultural historians call “the labor of selective tradition.” The British literary critic Raymond Williams coined the phrase in the 1970s. It captures the efforts of succeeding generations to selectively interpret major traditions, actively shaping them by choosing to accentuate some elements and de-emphasize others. For better or worse, these successors selectively draw on texts or parts of texts that already exist, and in so doing can change the meaning of traditions such as Christianity and Islam.

President Obama is right that European and American advocates of slavery and, later, American proponents of segregation selectively read key texts of Christianity to justify those practices. Yet, as the President also knows, the opponents of the slave trade in Britain, abolitionists in the United States before the Civil War, and the black churches during the Civil Rights Movement all selectively read the Christian tradition very differently as they opposed enslavement and racial injustice. Both advocates and opponents of slavery and Jim Crow referred to various texts of the Christian tradition to support their views. Just as it would be complacent to argue that Christianity had nothing to do with racial persecution, so it would be mistaken to neglect the enormously important role Christianity played in the movements that worked to oppose slavery and racism.

The President did not speak about Christianity, anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust but the concept of the labor of selective tradition is just as evident in the massive scholarship on these subjects. Historians have shown that Hitler and the ideological core of the Nazi regime in the SS were contemptuous of key elements of Christianity, especially the idea, which it inherited from Judaism, that all human beings were God’s creation. That religious belief was, they understood, incompatible with biological racism and the notion of a master race. The anti-Christian elements of Nazism were an important aspect of its revolt against Western civilization and played a key role in justifying biologically based racial ideology and policy. ...




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