When is Terrorism ‘Christian’?

I am coming late to the reporting and analysis of the Norway bombing, but allow me to connect current events with some of the themes I have been writing about in recent years.

The Norway bombing in all of its dimensions — the initial false assumption and reporting that it was Islamic terrorism; media reliance on experts with an anti-Islamic bias; the specifics and complexities of the ideology; the evolution of terms we have already used to describe the episode and the suspect — and how the assumptions that the terms we choose reflect on us, have surfaced rapidly since the bombing and mass murders in Norway.  

How we understand violence and underlying issues of ideology can be particularly fraught, particularly in heated political environments in which name calling and dubious forms of political “messaging” tend to predominate over well informed analysis and more considered uses of terms.

What follows is a brief, revised discussion of terms and issues related to religiously motivated violence, from last year.

Many challenges face those who think about, analyze and report on the Religious Right (let alone those who want to take appropriate political action.)  One problem is acquiring some foundational knowledge.  Another is finding generally agreed upon terms and definitions of those terms. These matters are running themes at Talk to Action — where we have taken the view from the beginning, that labeling, demonization and epithets are poor and often counterproductive substitutes for terms that allow for actual discussion and help us all to better understand the Religious Right in its many, and ever evolving, factions, leaders, ideologies and so on.

Chip Berlet and I posted essays at Religion Dispatches that delved into some of the questions of terminology raised by the 2010 arrest and indictment of the Michigan-based Hutaree Militia.

Our essays were titled, respectively, ‘Christian Warriors’:  Who Are The Hutaree Militia And Where Did They Come From?, and The Faith-Based Militia:  When is Terrorism `Christian’?

Here are excerpts:


The arrest of the Michigan-based Hutaree Militia has drawn worldwide attention and in so doing, surfaced one of the knottiest issues we face as a culture to which religious freedom and free speech are so central: How do we think about and describe religiously motivated violence?

The Hutaree’s plans to murder a police officer and use IEDs to attack the funeral procession in order to catalyze an uprising against the federal government was shocking and made headlines around the world. Their action plan, while preposterous on its face, is not terribly surprising, and is in many respects a logical outgrowth of the eschatology of a wide swath of the Christian Right. But what has been most striking to me is the media’s high profile use of the term “Christian militia.” This suggests to me that a tectonic shift may be underway in our underlying culture and politics as we continue to struggle with how to acknowledge the realities of actual and threatened religiously-motivated violence in the U.S.

Until now, of course, the elephant in the room has been our double standard, at least since 9/11. We’ve had little difficulty acknowledging religious motivations when Muslims are involved, but it’s been rare to find the word “Christian” modifying terms like “militia” and “terrorism” in mainstream discourse.

In the 90s other terms were used to describe what we might now call Christian militias. The most famous militia group at the time, the Michigan Militia, had views similar to those of the Hutaree. It was founded and led by a Baptist minister named Norm Olsen and a deacon of his church and they’d made an indoctrination video of its chaplain addressing new recruits explaining that abortion necessitated the founding of the militia. Nevertheless, it was typically described as “anti-government.” And while that was certainly fair, (as it would be to describe the Hutaree militia as anti-government), it also tended to obscure the indisputable religious motivations of this and many other militia groups large and small. Reporting on these groups at the time also tended to downplay their religious eschatology.

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