Is Norway attacker a 'Christian terrorist'?: Discuss faith in the news with Lisa Miller

Jul 28, 2011

Calling himself an anti-Muslim "crusader" for "Christendom," Anders Behring Breivik killed 76 people in Norway last week. Should Breivik be called a "Christian terrorist"?

Join religion columnist Lisa Miller as she chats about how religion impacts the news. Have a question? Join her each Thursday at noon ET as she answers your questions and discusses the week's big religious story.

One thing I've noticed over the years, is that if a candidate for office isn't mainstream Protestant, there seems to be an emphasis on that. Catholics are forced to explain that no, they're not ruled by the Pope, and Jews are forced to state that they will not act always in Israel's best interests. There is one Muslim in Congress (I think that's right) and he probably had to defend his religion as well. Why is that? Why does it keep happening? Why isn't a fundamentalist Christian forced to assert that no, he's not going to be ruled by his pastor/televangelist, whatever?

This is a really interesting question.  Protestantism has always been "mainstream religion" in America -- even as the demographic makeup of the country is changing. We know, for example, that the number of Catholics and Jews in Congress is rising, and the number of Protestants are shrinking, but still Protestantism is held up as the norm. I think Americans feel comfortable with a religion that's pretty innocuous -- a civil religion, in combination with a pretty broad Christianity and they don't like religions with which they are unfamiliar ot that they don't understand

Who gets to decide who is or is not a "Christian"? Are Mormons? Catholics? Protestants? Isn't enough to self identify?

another really interesting question -- and one that causes a lot of strife, especially in politics. Barack Obama is a Christian but to some he's not Christian enough. Mormans insist they're Christian, but certain conservative evangelicals regard them as heretics. These lines are evident even in Judaism: to some orthodox Jews, progressive Jews aren't sufficiently Jewish.

Rob Bell, who as you may know wrote a book about heaven that caused a huge sensation several months ago, got into deep water because he calls himself an evangelical Christian but some evangelicals don't regard him as sufficiently orthodox.

For me, personally, it's enough to self-identify. But that's a personal opinion and it sets me apart from conservatives who believe that faith is defined by certain creeds, and a literal view of scripture.

The Mormans have had that pressure. Imagine what Fox would do to an Agnostic!

Because, I think, as I said earlier, a kind of mainstream  Protestantism is what's expected of our politicians -- even when the demographic/religious makeup of the country is changing. I do think certain extreme or fundamentalist Christian beliefs would also be called into question. Look at how Sarah Palin was criticized for the African pastor who blessed her in her Alaska church. In mainstream charismatic circles, that blessing was seen as totally normal, but to a broad swath of Americans,  it looked freakish.

Are we wrong to look at these as religious attacks? Or to think of them as a representation of the whole?

I think this is the crux of it. When someone does something really evil in the name of God, any God, can we attribute religion as the cause? This question has been widely, hotly debated around the 9/11 terrorists: were they motivated by Islam? Or were they motivated by a hatred of the kinds of things America has come to represent? I think the answer is, unfortunately, both. Religious texts, and certain religious strands of belief do encourage/exacerbate violent tendencies. That's why it's crucial that our governments do everything they can to demonstrate democratic values of equality and justice and open-ness.  So that patches of aliented and isolated people don't thrive.

Do you think religious beliefs have pervaded our political system too much? Looking at Michele Bachmann as an example, it seems that many beliefs that aren't shared by many are being forced upon the country. Is this true?

this is really complicated. i think that in politics, and on tv, religious difference gets a lot of play. But in real life, in  our homes and our friendships, people are actually much more flexible and undestanding and able to live with nuance and difference.

I saw a guy with a tee shirt that said: "1776--One Nation Under God." Doesn't he know that phrase was added to the Pledge of Alligience in 1954?!?

yes, a lot of the symbols of our "public religion" are relatively recent additions.

Michele Bachman insists that she is the kind of wife that is subservient to her husband and that he even decided she should go into tax law. Should the voters vet her or Marcus when considering who to vote for for President?

This is the inherent tension for women in all conservative religion. You articulate certain creeds and certain fundamental beliefs. But at the same time, you live in the world, you've gotten an education -- Bachmann is an attorney -- and you need to reconcile those things. This is true for Mormon women and orthodox Jewish women and very observant Muslim women as well. How they continue to struggle with this is a source of great interest to me.

Not by an awful lot of us -- Jews, Catholics, Muslims, agnostics, atheists and even those who just believe in the separation of church & state. Isn't it long past time that we --all of us! stop requiring that our government be composed of Protestants, whether mainstream or far-right?

maybe, but according to polls, people would just as soon have an atheist for president as a martian. I'm exaggerating, but just a little. as I said earlier, we are much better able to get over our differences in our lives than we are on TV or in politics.

Isn't it safe to understand that no one can really be a Christian terrorist, because Christianity is about peace? May I then suggest we understand that Islamic terrorists are not really Islamics, because Islam is also about peace?

Well, for a good counterargument, let me recommend Sam Harris's book "The End of Faith." I don't agree with everything in it, but it's a brilliant book and it makes a good case for violence inherent in most Western religious texts.

Have politicians who claim to be Christian turned Christian values on their head? For example, by holding greed a virtue and sharing a sin? By preaching hating, instead of loving, your neighbor?

well, this is back to who calls who a Christian, isn't it? Is a Christian someone who believes firmly that the bible says that men shouldn't marry other men? (and, similarly, women?) Or is a Christian someone who thinks that the Jesus preached equality for all,  especially for those on the margins of things. This is the heart of our culture wars, right here.

What is the difference between Muslims saying that people like Osama Bin Laden or Anwar Al Alwaki are not following the teachings of Islam and Christians who are now saying Noweigian guy wasn't a "true Christian"? When do our faith communities stand up to the bigotry and hate?

Well, they do. Countless Christians have said that the Norway terrorist wasn't living out the Bible's mandates. Countless Muslims have said the same thing about the 9/11 terrorists.

But I am always accutely aware that the antichoice terrorists who kill doctors do so because of their extreme Fundamentalist Christian views.

Well, I think that's true. But are the anti-choice terrorists who kill doctors labeled "Christian terrorists"? Not usually, I don't think. They're anti-abortion terrorists or some such. 

Isn't self-identification the hallmark of true faith in Christianity, Judaism and Islam? God does not grant us salvation collectively--because we belong to the right church or temple--but because we accept him in our hearts and witness his love for us in our lives. We go to church to experience this love as a community, and to help us practice this witnessing, but none of it matters if you don't love Him with your heart. The notion that someone can't be Christian because he doesn't attend church enough is therefore fundamentally false.

This is interesting to me, especially because so much faith is being lived on line these days. Can you have a "religion" that exists exclusively on the Internet? Or do you need an actual, physical community of faith. I do believe -- again, a personal view -- that faith communities  (actual people worshiping together) are really important.


I frequently contend with others who share my faith (I am a Christian - self-identified and hopefully seen by others in the way) about the concept of the US being "founded upon Christian principles." I see a problem with founding fathers who promoted individual freedom while owning slaves, along with having people understand that religious beliefs are somehow subservient to the general idea that the US is a "republic" and not a theocracy. Where does religion fit into the founding of our nation and its continuance?

The founders were all nominally Christian (and Protestant) but there the similarity ends. Jefferson famously took a blade to the bible, excising all the parts that he believed weren't authentically from Jesus -- and especially the miracles. John Adams was much more conventionally pious. They weren't as diverse as we are -- because the country wasn't as diverse at the time, but there were a variety of views about God represented and the basic idea was to accommodate that variety of views.

Religious hermits don't have such communities but I wouldn't call them "living on the Internet."

Yes, but hermits are -- and have always been -- outliers. Important and inspirational outliers, but outliers. Thomas Merton famously WANTED to be a hermit and his Abbot mostly wouldn't let him, encouraged him to stay within the community of brothers.

has really been going on for quite some time. The Evangelicals blast the extremist Muslims who bomb buildings, yet extremist fundamentlist Christians are the ones who bomb clinics and gun down abortion doctors. The extreme Muslim bombers are no more mainstream Muslim than the evangelical bombers are mainstream Christians, right?

Right, I think. The real worry is organized networks, and dangerous veins of thought -- extreme religiosity or any other rigid ideology --  motivating groups of people. One nut who believes in some marginal view of a religion is a tragedy but not a systemic problem. Groups of people who reinforce in each other dangerous beliefs are seriously dangerous.

Doesn't this bode poorly for Eric Cantor's chances for higher office, being that he's currently the only Jewish Republican in either the House or Senate?

Not sure. By all accounts, Joe Lieberman was very nearly the Republican vice presidential candidate in 2008.  It will be an interesting test, when it happens, and I will surely write about it!!

It's interesting that you frame the "who decides who is truly X religion" as a question that is wholly about "conservatives who believe that faith is defined by certain creeds, and a literal view of scripture." And yet, if you ask a Reform Jew whether a Messianic Jew is actually a Jew, the answer is frequently a very frank "no". If you ask mainstream Mormans whether those involved in fundamentalist polygamist sects are Mormans, you'll get a universal "no" (I believe the church has made several statements to this effect). The question of who is really X religion frequently goes both ways.

totally agree with this. i've written articles saying mormons are christian and gotten a ton of email saying "no they're not." i've written articles saying some evangels don't think mormons are christian, and gotten tons of articles from mormons saying "yes we are." it's just that for a lot of religious groups, self-identification isn't enough -- to many people, there's an objective truth out there about religious identity.

I don't care how they struggle with this; they're hypocrites who say one thing and do another, and we don't need that in our politicians or governors.

not necessarily and i think it's worth looking at carefully. we all hold beliefs that inconsistent and we live with them in the world. one of the biggest problems in our "culture wars" is that we regard the "other" as stupid, irrational and somehow threatening. it's not helpful.

Your response to the "Christian Terrorism" question is interesting. The extremist who is revered as the "Savior" by Christians can be called nothing less than an extremist. His views were extreme to the orthodox views of the Jewish religious leaders at the time. How do we revere this type of extremism and condemn others?

I agree that Jesus was a radical thinker -- but his radicalism amounted to wanting to turn society as it was on its head -- the first shall be last, etc.  It didn't involve murdering people in cold blood, no matter what you think of Jesus. 

In This Chat
Lisa Miller
Lisa Miller is a contributing editor at New York magazine and the author of "Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife." She was a senior editor at Newsweek, overseeing the magazine's religion coverage, writing the weekly "Belief Watch" column and editing Newsweek's prominent "Spirituality in America" double issue.

Before joining Newsweek, Miller covered religion for The Wall Street Journal. She has also worked with The New Yorker, Self magazine and Harvard Business Review.

An award-winning journalist, she is the recipient of the 2010 Wilbur Award for outstanding magazine column. She is a frequent guest on television and radio, including the Colbert Report, the O'Reilly Factor, MSNBC, CNN, Fox News, NPR and others.
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