Typically, the media asked the wrong questions about Jerry Falwell and his recent racist remarks about Islam and the Prophet Mohamed. The issue at hand is not one of dialogue or conflict between Christianity and Islam, since neither religion is uniform and there are many versions of both. Christians in Jordan or Syria are different from those in Poland or Latin America, and both are different from American Protestants. Islam also changes from rural to urban areas, across social classes and over time.
Jerry Farwell’s version of Christianity, however, is specific and peculiar, and it is closer, in both tone and substance, to extremist versions of other creeds than it is to Christianity’s mainstream churches. The story of Falwell’s brand of Christianity goes back to the 17th century, when a number of fundamentalist Protestant sects grew up in the United States, preaching “a return”, in letter and spirit, to the Scriptures.
Since Christ and the Apostles did not outline a detailed way of life for their early Christian followers, this being something that was taken up later by St Paul, the New Testament of the Bible reads as a universal message of love and understanding. What the fundamentalist US Protestant sects did was to stress instead the moral code expressed in the Old Testament, extracting from it a detailed schedule of approval and disapproval. The result was an emphasis on austerity and strict morality and a denunciation of what was considered to be the hierarchy and theatricality of Roman Catholicism.
While early US Protestantism was mostly moderate in form, it gave rise to many sects promoting ever- harsher interpretations of Christianity, many of them based on the Old Testament. Some of these sects were anti-Semitic, while others propagated a form of Judeo-Christianity, sharing a common, apocalyptic vision of the future in which the arrival of the Messiah will end the suffering of believers and create a heavenly order on earth. This apocalyptic view of history has also crossed over to Islam, with fundamentalists seeking salvation on earth and not in heaven.
Much of this background is common knowledge, but what is of interest here is how contemporary American fundamentalist Protestants, among them Jerry Falwell, have used pop culture and the mass media in their preaching in a remarkable departure from the calm manners of mainstream Protestantism. Falwell and his fellow US television preachers treat Christianity as a consumer item, marketing it through spectacular staging and TV gimmickry.
Indeed, a new form of Christianity has appeared in America, one that exploits individual isolation and that has benefited from the disintegration of more mainstream Christian congregations. This new form of religion is the spiritual equivalent of self-help groups, offering spiritual guidance at a price that is both financial and political.
We are all familiar with how US television sit-coms cue the audience with recorded laughter in all the right places, producing the effect of shared enjoyment even at the end of a cathode-ray tube. Transfer this device to TV preaching, and the result is the staged histrionics of American fundamentalist Protestantism, a kind of emotional charlatanry that puts to shame the wildest teenage rock concert. Successful American preachers, such as those of Falwell’s standing, have been rewarded with considerable money and power.
The US evangelist Billy Graham first took TV preaching to the heights of popular demagoguery in the 1950s, discovering that fire and brimstone sell well if they are aired live and backed with sufficient emotional display. Later, Graham’s discoveries were adopted by others, and not just Christians, inside and outside the United States. His caricatural delivery and oversimplified message did much to further the cause of fundamentalists of all brands and creeds.
What could be more tempting to US-based fundamentalist preachers today than attacks on Muslims? The idea of an apocalyptic struggle between good and evil has always been central to the fundamentalist cause, in all such creeds the world being seen in terms of a struggle that will resolve itself in victory for the righteous. All the better if this apocalyptic vision of things can be overlaid with a political message.
The first European settlers in the United States were fond of biblical names, theirs being, at least in part, a search for the promised land and for the kingdom of God on earth. These early settlers were not fond of Judaism, and many of them were fervently anti-Semitic. However, in the 20th century Hollywood, particularly over the past few decades, has managed to twist the US obsession with the Bible into something akin to political Zionism and support for Israel.
While the mainstream Christian churches in the United States are aware of the perils of fundamentalism and demagogic popular preaching, respecting the country’s secular tradition and steering a mostly non-political path, far-right Christian fundamentalists constantly lobby US congressmen and the White House to further their beliefs. The time has come for the mainstream churches to try to reverse this trend in the US of politicised Christian fundamentalism, such as that promoted by Graham, Falwell, and the rest. The Arabs, for their part, should be aware of the domestic means by which American Christian fundamentalists are seeking to influence US policy towards Israel.
However, the silence of liberal Jews concerning the determined attempts of the far right to stifle liberalism in America is also odd and worrying. Right- wing Christian fundamentalism is a threat, not just to Arab-Americans, but also to all democratic groups in the United States, and liberal Jews, by maintaining their silence, are allowing US Jewry too to slip into right-wing positions, losing touch with other minority groups in America.
What the Arabs should do to combat the kind of racism promoted by Falwell and other American TV evangelists is to seek closer bonds with other minorities within the United States. In order to do so, they should make further efforts to convince America’s other minorities and mainstream Christian churches alike that they are similarly committed to democracy, religious tolerance and secularism in the face of the right-wing Christian fundamentalist threat.
The writer is a Palestinian Israeli and member of the Knesset.