Features

Media Christophobia

Special Issue | The Greatest Spin Ever Sold

Issue: "Osama bin Ashcroft?," April 27, 2002

Is media Christophobia a new, post-Sept. 11 phenomenon? In one sense, no. During the Clinton impeachment debates of 1998, outright Clinton defenders and forthright Clinton opponents pretty much balanced each other. The crucial role fell to those who did not like Mr. Clinton but hated and feared far more Ken Starr, the "fundamentalist" who demanded that Americans take a hard look at the facts and bring justice to a wrongdoer. Those in the middle did not want to take a stand but they wanted to feel downright upright, and they killed the impeachment drive rather than link up with Christian conservatives.

Christophobia came to the fore again during the first quarter of 2000, the months of the John McCain craze among journalists. Arizona Sen. McCain started out running as a moderate conservative but then decided to attack fundamentalists; according to reporter Richard Sisk, "McCain said his candidacy has undergone a transformation," and that he had become "determined to rid the GOP of big money and the Christian right influence." This was sensational, because that Christian right had been a large source of GOP volunteers and probably the Republican Party's moral center as well.

Christophobia has also been apparent among journalists who continue to connect strong Christian belief with persecution of minorities-perhaps not realizing that Christians are probably the most persecuted group around the world today (see our timeline, p. 32). One classic media statement came from NBC's Katie Couric, who began an interview by commenting on "a climate that some say has been established by religious zealots or Christian conservatives [and has led to] the dragging death of James Byrd Junior...." Christian conservatives, it seems, are Klansmen, with or without robes.

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As Michael Horowitz of the Hudson Institute points out, many Washington and New York leaders speak of Bible-believing Christians the way earlier establishments spoke about Jews. They vent their scorn in those same Georgetown salons and carry it into media outlets they control.

But the new press attacks are extraordinary in their breadth, and their sense that conservative Christians are not merely attempting to act unjustly in specific situations but are in league with the Taliban in attempting to overthrow our entire society. Andrew Sullivan's view is typical: "What is really at issue here is the simple but immensely difficult principle of the separation of politics and religion. We are fighting not for our country as such or for our flag. We are fighting for the universal principles of our Constitution-and the possibility of free religious faith it guarantees."

The new press assaults are also striking because their journalistic generals almost never define what they are attacking. The original "Fundamentalists" were not uneducated folks, as reporters assume, but literate leaders who adhered to the 14-point creed of the Niagara Bible Conference of 1878, the five-point statement of the Presbyterian General Assembly of 1910, and the 12 volumes of essays ("the Fundamentals") written from 1910 to 1915 by 64 British and American ministers and theologians. They believed that the Bible is inspired by God and that strict-but not unthinking or unreasonable-adherence to its teachings therefore makes great sense.

Scholars today know that "fundamentalist" is not a particularly useful definer. As Fred M. Donner, chairman of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago, told one reporter, "The word fundamentalist tends to be a pejorative. There are dozens of different kinds. Some are very pacifistic, some are very unpacifistic. They disagree among themselves. To condemn people as fundamentalists is painting with a broad brush."

The term makes even less sense in regard to Judaism, and it makes no sense regarding Islam. Christians sometimes disagree about the meaning of scriptural "inspiration," but those debates are absent from Islam because Muslims believe the Quran was not only inspired by Allah but directly dictated by him. Interpretation nuances are irrelevant, since Muslims either believe the Quran comes from Allah or they do not. Fundamentalist is a term imported from the United States to describe those who in Muslim terminology are "good Muslims" (according to their supporters) or "extremists."

Equation of Islamic and Christian fundamentalists is mindless for several other reasons as well. The former applaud the killing of Israelis, the latter these days are extraordinarily pro-Israel. The former embrace terrorism, the latter tend to support John Ashcroft's tough actions against it. The former kill writers who criticize Muhammad and demand that governments burn books considered un-Islamic, while the latter favor restrictions on government power.

Neither Islamic nor Christian "fundamentalists" see themselves as having much in common with the other. Sayyid Qutb, the Islamic Brotherhood theorist who has been called the father of Muslim fundamentalism, lived in the United States for 2 1/2 years beginning in 1948 and called American churches "entertainment centres and sexual playgrounds." Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell have vigorously criticized Islamic true believers.

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