One of the more absurd intellectual tics of the Left is lumping together strong religious sentiment with violent religious fanaticism — witness the rhetorical lather New York Times columnists worked up over the protestors outside Terri Schiavo’s hospice in Florida.
“Democratic societies have a hard time dealing with extremists in their midst,” wrote Paul Krugman. “Nobody wants to talk about the threat posed by those whose beliefs include contempt for democracy itself. We can see this failing clearly in … the Netherlands [which ignored] the growing influence of Islamic extremists until they turned murderous. But it is also true of the United States, where dangerous extremists belong to the majority religion and the majority ethnic group and wield great political influence.”
Not to be outdone, Maureen Dowd chimed in with: “As the Bush White House desperately maneuvers in Iraq to prevent the new government from being run according to the dictates of religious fundamentalists, it desperately maneuvers here to pander to religious fundamentalists who want to dictate how the government should be run.”
After noting that only 27 percent of Americans thought Congress should get involved in the Schiavo case, Frank Rich wrote that “a majority of American colonists didn’t believe in witches during the Salem trials either — any more than the Taliban reflected the views of a majority of Afghans. At a certain point — and we seem to be at that point — fear takes over, allowing a mob to bully the majority over the short term.”
So what became of that mob after Schiavo expired last week?
They wept and prayed, hugged one another, and went home.
Such “extremism” was mirrored by President Bush, who reacted to Schiavo’s passing with this expression of fanatical religiosity: “The essence of civilization is that the strong have a duty to protect the weak. In cases where there are serious doubts and questions, the presumption should be in the favor of life.”
What the cognitive shut-ins at the Times cannot seem to grasp is that commitment to articles of faith, like those professed by the President or enacted by the protestors, doesn’t equate with contempt for the Enlightenment. On the contrary, the actuating principle of the Enlightenment, the proposition that all human beings are created equal, is itself an article of faith — since human beings are not created equal intellectually or physically or in any measurable way. Enlightenment values of reason and tolerance now infuse the belief systems of Jews and Christians.
Take, for example, the words of Leviticus 20:13, which declare that the punishment for homosexual behavior is death. Somehow, however, there’s no serious debate in the Judeo-Christian world over whether homosexuals should be executed. Despite the fact that literalism still thrives among certain sects of Jews and Christians, Leviticus 20:13 is never taken literally. To be sure, the passage might be cited to justify resistance to legalizing gay marriage, or disapproval of homosexuality, or even personal dislike of homosexuals. But no credible spokesperson for Jewish or Christian fundamentalism will stand up in a temple or church and demand death sentences for homosexual behavior.
Why? Because Jews and Christians have incorporated the Enlightenment into their understanding of their respective religious traditions. The Bible might be the alpha and omega of their moral selves, but fatal literalism of the kind that would kill homosexuals is off the table.
By contrast, fatal literalism is very much in play among Islamic fundamentalists — whose religious tradition hasn’t incorporated Enlightenment values. The Koran, for example, instructs women to cover their heads out of modesty (Sura 33:59). This seems at first no more onerous than the requirement, say, that Jewish men wear yarmulkes. But consider an incident from March 2002: Fourteen young girls burned to death during a fire at a middle school in Mecca when the city’s religious police wouldn’t allow them to escape the flaming building.
Because the girls weren’t wearing proper head coverings — and thus couldn’t be seen in public.
The Enlightenment has, in effect, defanged the Bible. The Koran’s fangs are still very much in place — which is why comparisons between Judeo-Christian fundamentalism and Islamic fundamentalism are always ludicrous.
But par for the course at the Times.
Mark Goldblatt (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of Africa Speaks, a satire of black urban culture.