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Could fundamentalist Christians help Mideast politics?
Egyptian activists in Cairo on March 27.
April 16th, 2011
01:00 AM ET

Could fundamentalist Christians help Mideast politics?

By John Blake, CNN

(CNN) - As protesters battle repressive regimes in the Middle East, some commentators fear that the collapse of these regimes could pave the way for radical Islamic groups to take power.

But anyone who believes that democracy and religious fundamentalism cannot co-exist has not been paying attention to how fundamentalist Christians have strengthened American democracy, Jonathan Zimmerman, a history professor at New York University says in a provocative recent  Christian Science Monitor article.

Zimmerman writes that Americans don’t have to look at Muslim countries like Turkey to see how fervent religious parties can be peacefully integrated into a democracy:

We need only look in the mirror. Over the past four decades, fundamentalist Christians have surged into United States politics. And, in the process, they have enriched - not constricted - our democracy.

Zimmerman says the Christian Right employed virtues normally associated with liberals - reason, tolerance and mutual respect - when they decided to enter the political arena about 40 years ago.  (Many scholars would say that true fundamentalists make up a small subset of the Christian Right, but Zimmerman uses the terms interchangeably.)

Zimmerman, author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory,” writes:

I can hear you scoffing. These are the same people who want to ban abortion, gay marriage and stem-cell research. What’s liberal about that?

Zimmerman says fundamentalist Christians are tolerant when it comes to tactics. They avoid heavy-handed religious appeals, believing those turn off ordinary people. They mix their religious claims with appeals to reason.

He cites a book called “The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right” to back up his point. Jon Shields, the book’s author, spent years examining anti-abortion activists at rallies and discovered they didn’t rely on explicitly Christian appeals  to argue their causes, emphasizing reason instead, Zimmerman says.

So anti-pornography organizers indict the industry’s degradation of women; opponents of gay marriage say it harms children; campaigners against gambling stress its addictive qualities, and anti-abortion activists argue that the procedure harms mothers as well as the unborn.

Zimmerman says there are Christian Right groups like Operation Rescue, which blocked abortion clinics around the country, that were explicitly religious. But he says they “alienated most members of the Christian Right.”

And what does this have to do with the uprisings in the Middle East? Zimmerman asks:

Will conservative Islamic parties like the Muslim Brotherhood follow the example of our own right-wing Christians, accommodating democratic practice in order to press their case? Or will they resort to violence and terrorism?

He ends by saying:

Let’s lay to rest the unfair caricature of the Christian Right, which has generally played by the rules of democracy. And let’s hope that the Middle East’s own religious conservatives will do the same.

- CNN Writer

Filed under: Abortion • Christianity • Culture wars • Egypt • Fundamentalism • Iran • Islam • Middle East

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soundoff (449 Responses)
  1. jay

    Lets send them all over to the middle east to see what they can do.

    April 16, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
  2. Jay Alexander Brown

    Final sentence of the article: "And let’s hope that the Middle East’s own religious conservatives will [play by the rules of democracy]."

    Yes... CONSERVATIVELY religious Muslims in the Middle East will likely play by the rules of democracy. But so-called RADICAL Muslims may very well not. This is a KEY distinction to draw, one without real analogy to Christianity. But scholars generally divide Islamist politics into liberal, conservative, and radical camps. The conservatives play within the system, try to build religiosity from the ground up... just like the American Christian Right he's talking about. The radicals try to OVERTHROW the system, because they believe the system itself is PREVENTING the expression of religion!

    April 16, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
  3. Viruma

    But why a "Jonathan Zimmerman" asking the fundamentalist Christians? Is that to watch the fun of Christians and Muslims fight each other from the sidelines and benefit from it? Aren't they already doing this in America and other places in the world?

    April 16, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
  4. Doc Button

    Religion is the source of conflicts, not the solution.

    April 16, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
  5. Reality

    As with most Islam-based upheavals, the Sunnis and Shiites will continue their hatred for each other ending in more bloody civil wars. As usual, the Christians will be the collateral damage.

    Some examples:

    Iraq, Pakistan, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon:

    From: http://www.cnn.com/2007/WORLD/meast/02/03/iraq.cleric.ap/index.html

    "Al-Sistani was apparently referring to Abdullah bin Jabrain, a key member of Saudi Arabia's clerical establishment, who last month joined a chorus of other senior figures from the hardline Wahhabi school of Sunni Islam that regards Shiites as infidels.

    Bin Jabrain described Shiites as "the most vicious enemy of Muslims."

    And it "ain't any better" in Palestine:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/22/world/middleeast/22jihadists.html?ex=1311220800&en=477ff07cfa579449&ei=5088&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss

    An excerpt:

    "The conflict in Lebanon has ignited a robust debate on jihadist Web sites over backing for Hezbollah, the Shiite group that set off the crisis when it seized two Israeli soldiers on July 12. The discussions reflect the widening divide between Shiite and Sunni Arabs in parts of the Middle East. Accusing Palestinians of being anti-Shiite, one Iraqi Shiite militant bitterly wrote, “It is better to concentrate one’s efforts on helping the Shiite kinfolk rather than the Sunnis.”

    More examples:

    Eliminate the 800 year old blood feud between the Sunnis and Shiites, and we will be able to bring our troops home.

    Iraq Sunni minority, Shiite majority, 24/7 blood letting, 4000 American soldiers dead, 100,000 Iraqi civilians, dead.

    Iran, Shiite theocracy, 24/7 support of global terror.

    OBL, Sunni/"Wannabee" madman, 24/7 support of global terror.

    Fill in the answers below:

    Hamas, Sunni or Shiite??

    Fatah, Sunni or Shiite??

    Pakistan, Sunni or Shiite? Which group assassinated Bhutto??

    Malaysia, nearing a Sunni theocracy?

    Bahrain, Sunni or Shiite???

    Phillipines, Sunni or Shiite???

    Taliban, Sunni or Shiite???

    Somalia, Sunni or Shiite???

    April 16, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
    • airwx

      Congrats Reality,...that's the most original piece I've seen from you in months...I would offer one small change...the blood fued has been going on for almost 1300 years...early 700 ad timeframe

      April 16, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
  6. Colin

    1. I disagree with the Christian Taliban's stance on most things from the important to the trivial – (i) abortion; (ii) stem cell research; (iii) gay rights; (iv) my ability to buy a nice Chilean red wine on a Sunday; (v) censorship and access to the arts free of charges of blasphemy/p-o-rnogrfy; (vi) availability of contraceptives and their use to reduce AIDS; (vii) the teaching of biology in schools free of the nonsense of "creation science".
    I could go on, but their is a fundamental issue that underwrites all of these differences of opinion. They base their views solely on the Bible, a series of books by largely unknown people, written during the Iron Age and compiled during the Dark Ages.
    For so long as this is the basis for their belief, intelligent discourse with them is impossible, and all we can hope to do is mitigate their influence until society gets to a level of education where the Christian Taliban is as marginalized as the Branch Davidians of Waco.

    April 16, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
    • M22

      colin: "They base their views solely on the Bible, a series of books by largely unknown people, written during the Iron Age and compiled during the Dark Ages."

      A running theme in all your posts are haughty ad hominems aimed at everything but the substance of the "Christian Taliban's" beliefs.

      "For so long as this is the basis for their belief, intelligent discourse with them is impossible"

      How narrow minded of you. The Bible is the basis of their beliefs, therefore their beliefs are invalid ab initio.

      Rather than evaluate the beliefs themselves, you dismiss them outright and proclaim yourself the intellectual superior.

      Ironic, isn't it?

      April 16, 2011 at 5:52 pm |
  7. james234234

    Quite ironic how liberals bash the Christian Right, yet support muslims who are 100 times worse in every way.

    April 16, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
    • Colin

      I think you will find most liberals regard fundamentalist Islam as worse than fundamentalist Christianity, but mainstream Islam much less offensive than fundamentalist Christianity. Its all about how much you try to control others.

      April 16, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
    • a liberal

      Most of us consider fundamentalists of all types to be repulsive.

      April 16, 2011 at 6:58 pm |
  8. common sense

    good article but

    April 16, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
  9. Carlton

    The Christian Right is just another man-made religion. God's Kingdom is being established and is advancing. Only those who are in this Kingdom will be able to stand and remain until He returns. Everything and everyone who is not a part of His Kingdom is being removed, again before His return.

    April 16, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
  10. Pastor Evans

    Many people in the world don't really know what is going on. The whole world will see God's glory before He returns. His Kingdom which is a kingdom of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit will be witnessed by everyone through the Lords sons and daughters. And He knows who really belong to Him and who do not.

    April 16, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
  11. someoneelse

    We all remember the last time the Christian Right went to that area...

    April 16, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
  12. Amber

    When I think of the Christian Right I think of "reason, tolerance and mutual respect". Just ask any gay personv(or person of color or woman for that matter)

    April 16, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
  13. FixTheDebt

    I stopped reading when it said, "We need only look in the mirror. Over the past four decades, fundamentalist Christians have surged into United States politics. And, in the process, they have enriched – not constricted – our democracy." Enriched huh? I guess we have two different definitions of that word.

    April 16, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
  14. james234234

    Islam does not preach tolerance. So, no, the Christian RIght has not place in Islamic countries, just as Jews, women, gays, and anything else that does not fit into Islamic dogma.

    April 16, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
  15. james234234

    Will never happen. The Christian right is far too liberal for the middle east.

    April 16, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
  16. What.

    The Christian Right is neither "Christian" or "Right".

    April 16, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
  17. jon

    To compare "fundamentalist" Christians with radical Muslims is a totally unfair comparison. The real issue is not how passionately these groups believe in their system. Rather, the issue is theological. Christians of all stripes thrive in a democracy because many core democratic principles – respect for the individual, personal choice and responsibility, etc. – mesh with Christian theology. I'm not sure how much democratic principles has in common with fundamentalist Islamic theology.

    April 16, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
  18. Allen N Wollscheidt

    The "Christian Right" is hardly Christian.
    .

    April 16, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
    • Marggie

      I agree. I don't think its right for a follower of Christ to get into politics like this. I have my opinions about politics and where the world is going, but never would I think to actually attempt to change it. I thought the Bible taught "ye are not of this world"....

      SIGH! oh well. such a complicated issue!

      April 16, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
  19. Colin

    Interesting Orwellian logic. The Christian taliban is "good" for democracy because of the nice tactics they use in seeking to deny people their rights. Look, there is nothing democratic about a group that hopes to impose its Iron age supersti-tions on the rest of us.

    It is not enough that they don't want to have an abortion – they want to prevent anybody from doing so; not enough that they don't drink on Sanday, all should be banned, not enough that they can't understand evolution, nobody should be taught it. As we all know, I could go on and on.

    Fear the Christian right. Fear them with every part of your intellectual development that made it past fifth grade, where theirs stopped.

    April 16, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
    • Stewart

      Thank you for that. This article is a joke.

      April 16, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
    • Herp Derp

      Thank you it's good too see at least some people still have some intelligence and common sense left....

      April 16, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
    • Steve (the real one)

      Stewart
      Thank you for that. This article is a joke
      --------–
      as a Christian, I agree this article is a joke but with a slight twist. I am not sure why the Christian right was mentioned. Especially in the light of failure to shape anything by when Shiites and Sunni Muslims! The left has no success either!

      April 16, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
    • M22

      colin: "The Christian taliban is "good" for democracy because of the nice tactics they use in seeking to deny people their rights. Look, there is nothing democratic about a group that hopes to impose its Iron age supersti-tions on the rest of us."

      There are two fallacies here:

      1) You assume, without proving, that you have "rights" that they want to take away,

      and, 2) because of this you ignore the merits of their argument and run away with a strawman and loaded language instead.

      "The Christian taliban is "good" for democracy because of the nice tactics they use in seeking to deny people their rights."

      All democracy is is the vote. Whether some group of people have persuaded voters that the laws should be one way or another has nothing to do with whether or not there is a democracy.

      Much less, the existence of opposing and contradictory viewpoints is "good" for democracy because it puts current beliefs to the test, exposes voters to different viewpoints, and forces them to choose between the options they're presented with.

      "It is not enough that they don't want to have an abortion"

      And? They don't want you to have an abortion because they believe, rightly or wrongly, that a harm is being committed. And because preventing harm is within the power of the state, they have every right to try and stop as many abortions as they can.

      Mischaracterizing and disparaging your opponent's positions really shows how shallow your intelligence actually is.

      April 16, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
    • Colin

      @M22. Your point on abortion is valid to some degree. Reasonable minds differ on this and the rights of a third party (the unborn) are arguably implicated.

      But, there are many areas where they want to prevent others from doing thigs which the Christian Taliban does not like. I gave two examples, but you can add seeing art they don't like, using contraceptives they think are immoral, ending one's own life early due to avoid the last stages of a terminal illness.

      They cannot see the distinction between telling others what they "should do" and what they MUST do. This is why I oppose these small minded theocrats at every possible opportunity.

      April 16, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
    • M22

      colin: "But, there are many areas where they want to prevent others from doing thigs which the Christian Taliban does not like."

      Which is different from any other political party or organization how? Every voter, every legislator, every person in politics is trying to change the law to how they think it "should" be. That necessarily entails telling other people what they can and cannot do, and is usually based on what the person "dislikes".

      "I gave two examples, but you can add seeing art they don't like, using contraceptives they think are immoral, ending one's own life early due to avoid the last stages of a terminal illness."

      This is a fallacious overgeneralization. Much less, even if it were accurate, it doesn't respond to the merits of their beliefs in the slightest bit. Why do they believe assisted suicide should be stopped? Why do they believe contraceptive distribution should be limited? Ignoring the reasons for their positions is useless and makes you look dogmatic.

      "They cannot see the distinction between telling others what they "should do" and what they MUST do. This is why I oppose these small minded theocrats at every possible opportunity."

      I'm sorry to say I don't even know what this means.

      If the ethical matter (what you "should" do) overlaps with the political (what you "must" do) what problem is there? If a legislator proposes banning murder, r- ape or pedophilia, he's introducing a law telling you what you "must do" based on what you "should do". And yet that doesn't invalidate the law in the slightest bit, does it?

      If you're proposing that what you "should do" should be divorced from what you "must do" you'll be advocating for a law that's hopelessly arbitrary and unprincipled.

      April 16, 2011 at 5:48 pm |
  20. Scott Johnston

    The article says: "Zimmerman writes that Americans don’t have to look at Muslim countries like Turkey to see how fervent religious parties can be peacefully integrated into a democracy". But Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians are not allowed to have seminaries for edicating future priests, and they need state approval to build churches and they are not allowed to proselytize (or to put it another way, Muslims are not allowed to convert to Christianity of any kind). The Turks are not yet secular enough. They are, however, better than Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, the best jobs, including teaching, go to Muslims, not Christians.

    April 16, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
    • Reed

      Isn't it funny how you're talking about Christian rights in Turkey when Muslims in the supposedly "most democratic" country don't get these rights still. There was a whole controversy around building a mosque in New York with most Americans against it for absolutely no reason. And don't forget about politicians still being heavily scrutinized and insulted over being Muslim... yes you know who I'm talking about. People use the President's religion as a way to attack his legimaticy, like that bigot Donald Trump who has sent "people" to research his background. What a joke, but hey, that's what Americans are good at, being hypocritical and exempting themselves from giving the same rights and freedoms they keep saying other countries don't have.

      April 16, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
    • Brandon

      @ Reed, there are so many incorrect parts of your statement I do not even know where to start.

      April 16, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.