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Norway’s "crusader for Christendom" is no Christian

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Charles C. Haynes
July 30, 2011

Within hours of last week’s mass murder in Norway, headlines around the world proclaimed the accused killer, Anders Behring Breivik, a “Christian terrorist.”


The “Christian” label apparently came from initial statements by a Norwegian police official describing Breivik as a right-wing, Christian fundamentalist – a characterization based on the official’s quick read of Breivik’s Internet postings.


A closer look, however, reveals that Breivik sees himself as a cultural, not a religious, Christian. “Myself and many more like me do not necessarily have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God,” he writes in his manifesto. “We do however believe in Christianity as a cultural, social, identity and moral platform. This makes us Christian.”


Styling himself as a “crusader” for Christendom, Breivik claims to have reconstituted the medieval “Knights Templar,” cells of like-minded warriors committed to fight what he sees as the Islamic threat to Christian Europe. Borrowing Islamophobic rhetoric from American anti-Muslim groups, Breivik rages against “multiculturalism” that he warns will result in a Muslim takeover of Christian Europe.


If this is “Christian,” it is a Middle Ages throwback bearing little or no resemblance to the Christian faith practiced by millions of Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox believers throughout the world.


Breivik’s delusional manipulation of Christianity is, in fact, a mirror image of al-Qaida. Just as Osama bin Laden twisted Islam to fit his violent political agenda, so Breivik distorts Christianity to advance his racist vision of a “Christian Europe.” And just as bin Laden was determined to remove all Westerners and non-Muslims from the holy lands of Islam, so Breivik seeks to remove Muslims from Europe by any means necessary.


Parts of Breivik’s manifesto are drawn from al-Qaida’s playbook. Like Muslim extremists who murder in the name of restoring a lost Caliphate, Breivik killed at least 76 innocent people in service of his demented defense of Christendom.


Of course, this toxic mix of religion and politics isn’t new. As Roger Williams observed nearly four centuries ago, much of history is a tragic story of rivers of blood spilled in the name of one religion fighting against another in an endless struggle for political domination.


That’s why when he founded Rhode Island in 1635, Williams was determined to build what he described as “a wall or hedge of separation” between the “garden of the church” and the wilderness of the world.” Williams condemned the idea of “Christendom” as profoundly unchristian because, he argued, state appropriation of religion inevitably corrupts faith and coerces conscience.


With no established faith and “soul liberty” for all, Rhode Island would become the proving ground for the American experiment in religious pluralism and freedom. By separating the institutions of religion and government, Americans have been able to live with deep religious differences – without violent holy wars.


But then, as now, there are those among us who fear and oppose a multi-religious, multicultural society. Growing numbers of Europeans and Americans might readily agree with those 18th century critics of Rhode Island who disdained the colony as “the sewer of New England.” Although few would endorse Breivik’s violent tactics, many accept his analysis of Europe’s “Muslim problem” and sympathize with his demand for a society that is racially and religiously pure.


For Breivik, “multiculturalism” is the filthiest word in any language. For Williams, who welcomed all “consciences” (including those with whom he deeply disagreed), “Christendom” was the word he most despised. In the United States, religious freedom makes possible the first while preventing the second.


As we absorb the larger meaning and scope of this tragedy, let’s remember that Breivik may be a self-appointed defender of Christendom, but he’s no Christian. He may have been baptized as a Protestant at age 15, but in the words of Roger Williams, “Christenings make not Christians.”


The initial headlines got it very wrong. Labeling Breivik a “Christian terrorist” – or, for that matter, to label others “Muslim terrorists” – not only unfairly demonizes an entire religion, it also fuels the hate and anger of those who seek a “clash of civilizations.”


Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C., 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: chaynes@freedomforum.org.

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