by Monte Sahlin
I know this problem well and I will confess right at the beginning that I own it. I was raised by parents who loved me deeply, gave me every advantage and were steeped in a Christian Fundamentalist world view. The Adventist movement has never been entirely Fundamentalist—it is probably more correctly understood as primarily in the Anabaptist frame—but there have always been some Fundamentalists among Adventists.
In a way my heart goes out to the Muslim Fundamentalists in Egypt today. They played by the rules of democracy in many ways. They elected one of their own as president of the country, and a year into his term the rest of the country rose up against him. The military who deposed him announced that they would respect the rights of public protest, and then the authorities fired on those protesting the ouster of the duly elected president.
What the Muslim Brotherhood fails to understand is that democracy is more than winning a free election. Democracy cannot survive in today’s world simply on the basis of winners and losers. Winning an important election, being democratically elected to authority, does not give a mandate to impose anything on those who believe differently.
Once upon a time a more authoritarian approach to society was possible because the cultures of the world were largely cut off from each other. Each nation was a unitary culture and every child grew up being taught a particular world view and way of life. Although some Muslim nations want to continue that Medieval pattern, it is really no longer possible. People travel, immigrate and connect through high-speed media in a way that makes every nation (sooner or later) a pluralistic society where attempts at an overly structured way of life will result in the worst kind of warfare; tooth and nail civil wars fought in communities on top of families and children.
In the Midwest suburb where I live, the school board is embattled because it is attempting to introduce courses that teach American history from a certain ideological viewpoint, include creation alongside evolution in the curriculum and get rid of the teachers union that it perceives as too liberal. This is a conservative town, but the predictable reaction has now bubbled over, causing people who never used to be politically active to go to meetings and circulate petitions and hire lawyers. In today’s paper the school board announced that it was cancelling the contract with the organization that was hired to teach the courses on the constitution. Another story says that the state labor regulatory body is investigating the board’s approach to the teacher’s union because the board broke the law on those matters.
I am not addressing the topic of whether the libertarian values and Evangelical theology of the these neighbors of mine is right or wrong. (Commenters, if you get off on that line of argument, you are off the reservation!) I suspect there is more among their beliefs that I would agree with than disagree with.
My observation is that there are civic limits to using democracy to enforce a particular pattern of faith and values. Somehow the Fundamentalist world view does not understand that you can only push your neighbor so far. You can vote a constitutional amendment outlawing the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages, but that will not make your neighbors become teetotalers. It only creates an unanticipated outcome; the invention of modern organized crime to serve the illegal market created for alcohol.
The true believers in the pro-life movement—who I largely agree with on moral grounds, despite their widespread hypocrisy on capital punishment and feeding babies once they are born—believe that if Roe v Wade is rescinded or restrictive laws such as recently voted in Texas are adopted that it will impose moral order on a society where traditional ideas about sexuality have been discarded by most Americans. They simply don’t get the fact that it will change nothing about the sexual behavior of most people and it will create unanticipated outcomes, possibly more terrible than the present situation.
Fundamentalists believe that they can control society’s sinfulness. Jesus knows otherwise. He says, Peter put away your sword. "He who is without sin, cast the first stone." Love your enemies. Turn the other cheek. Go the second mile.
The genuinely Christian response to the evil in the world is a commitment to live a life of compassion. We can work for justice, but we cannot impose righteousness. Attempts to impose righteousness inevitably become unjust, dictatorial and a cure worse than the sickness. This is, at least in part, why the Muslim Brotherhood has failed in Egypt.
Unfortunately, Fundamentalists never seem to be able to learn the lesson or even see the problem. They are somehow blind to the way their efforts are counterproductive and that they become the very evil monsters they set out to get rid of. A great many heartsick members of the Muslim Brotherhood are in deep despair and others are boiling angry. I can understand their feelings, but it is a dangerous instinct. Even if you are an American and not angry, it is still a dangerous instinct.
What Christ asks us to do is live our faith, share our hope, find creative ways to witness in the pluralistic context without seeking to impose anything on others; to live in peace with all people. When Fundamentalists seek to use political processes to impose their ideas of right on others, they leave the path of Jesus no matter how righteous they think they are.