Many in the west fear the threat posed by political Islam. But there is a more ominous menace closer to home: Christian fundamentalism.
After every terror attack by Islamists, fears are raised in conservative circles about “Islamisation” of our culture with the presence of hundreds of thousands of Muslims in the UK and millions across Europe.
Despite what the selective reading of some surveys might suggest, most western Muslims share the same liberal values as the rest of society and radical Islam appeals only to a small minority. Political Islam can and does pose a threat to secular values – but in Muslim countries, not here. In Europe, we need to look west for our religious menaces.
As the creationism debate clearly demonstrates, the USA is home to a well-organised and motivated movement with intelligent designs on power. It is becoming increasingly difficult to write off Christian fundamentalism and other conservative Christian groups – aka the Christian right – as some kind of loony fringe as its agenda “Christianises” the mainstream. It is no accident that just about every single presidential hopeful in the US has asked God to endorse his or her campaign.
The vision of marrying church and state and constructing a “Christian nation” – every bit as contrary to modern secular values as Islamism – may still seem remote, partly thanks to the tough constitutional protections against such an eventuality, but it is surprisingly enduring.
“We have a Biblical duty, we are called by God to conquer this country,” thundered Randall Terry, religious activist and founder of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue. “We must have a Christian nation built on God's law, on the Ten Commandments, no apologies.”
And what would a “Christian nation” be like to its citizens?
Well, it wouldn't be very friendly to atheists, homosexuals, secularists, women and non-Christians. “No, I don't think that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God,” George Bush Snr once remarked.
“Aids is not just God's punishment for homosexuality; it is God's punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuality,” concluded the late televangelist Jerry Falwell. “This vile and satanic system will one day be utterly annihilated and there'll be a celebration in heaven.” This is also the man who saw the creation of Israel in 1948 as the greatest “single sign indicating the imminent return of Jesus Christ”. The ongoing violence in the Middle East – stoked by the US invasion of Iraq – was also seen by him as part of God's apocalyptic designs.
And how about those foreign “heathens”?
According to Ann Coulter, writing after the September 11 attacks: “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.” She added for good measure that: “Congress could pass a law tomorrow requiring that all aliens from Arabic [sic] countries leave.”
It would be folly to dismiss these voices as a lunatic fringe, particularly given the string of victories Christian fundamentalists have scored over the last quarter of a century or so. After all, the current US president famously claimed that he was told by God to fight al-Qaida and invade Iraq.
Even as late in the day as 1979, few saw Iran's Islamic revolution coming and Iran was wrongly viewed as a stable and secular society by many in the west. Could we similarly be ignoring telltale and worrying signs from across the Atlantic?
Interestingly, while the world's attention was drawn to Tehran, a quieter religious revolution was set in motion in the United States.
Televangelist Pat Robertson boasted during the 1980 election that: “We have enough votes to run this country.” A Gallup poll at the time seemed to give some credence to his view: a third of American adults described themselves as “born again” and half believed the Bible was inerrant, ie perfect or above question.
If these trends continue and the US succumbs increasingly to its Christian right while Europe secularises, what kind of rift could that create in transatlantic relations? Even if it does not directly affect official policy, how about at the grassroots: could we start seeing a more aggressive transatlantic alliance between American Christian extremists and the European far right?
Of course, there is always the classic argument to dismiss worries about to Christian fundamentalism: they may be mad, but they're not bad – at least, they don't go around killing people.
That is true only up to a point. Christian fundamentalists do their violence abroad by proxy and, in America, they are not persecuted, unlike many of their equivalents in Muslim countries.
In the Muslim world, it took one disgruntled intellectual, Sayyid Qutb, and one book, which he produced while in political detention being tortured, to transform the benign grassroots movement of the Muslim Brotherhood as conceived by Hassan al-Banna into the deadly ideology of takfir in which all Muslim societies were declared heathen and worthy of violence.
Could this happen in Christianity?
Well, the idea that mainstream society is hedonistic and ungodly is a common refrain among Christian fundamentalists in America. Their earlier response, as in the 1950s, was usually to withdraw from society. The civil rights movement and sexual liberties of the 1960s brought them out of hibernation. And the subsequent liberalisation and secularisation of society has terrified them. Some, such as anti-abortion activists, have taken the law into their own hands.
Pro-lifer Paul Hill of the Army of God murdered an abortion doctor in 2003 and was executed for his crime. “I expect a great reward in heaven … I look forward to glory,” he said on the way to his death.
Could the Army of God be a precursor of worse to come on other contentious issues as we throw off the shackles of tradition, science takes us into uncharted frontiers, the religious become more embattled and the world appears to become a more dangerous place? It is hard to say. But it raises the important point that our obsession with Islamism in the west is distracting us for other worrying trends, mainly because it is dressed in a familiar skin.
We should not stigmatise or further marginalise religious extremists, as the strident atheists seem to be encouraging, but we should dialogue with them and show them that their fears are exaggerated and misplaced.
“It is important that we understand the dread and anxiety that lie at the heart of the fundamentalist vision,” Karen Armstrong writes in The Battle for God, “because only then will we begin to comprehend its passionate rage, its frantic desire to fill the void with certainty, and its conviction of ever-encroaching evil.”
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 14 July 2007