There’s often a meanness to literalist religions. A sense that if they can keep their particular interpretation of God’s will, then anybody can. No compassion. No forgiveness. Considering the base messages of nearly all those religions that harbor fundamentalists, that attitude is quite surprising. Indeed, it ceases to be religion at all and becomes merely a facade of one. The recovery of the body of Khaled al-Asaad is what brought this to mind. Back in 2015 al-Asaad, an 82-year old archaeologist, was beheaded by the extremist Islamic State group in Syria. Al-Asaad had spent his life excavating and attempting to understand the site of Palmyra. The Islamic State was determined to destroy what they considered “idols” or offensive images. When the octogenarian refused to tell them where they could find further antiquities to destroy, they beheaded him.
This isn’t finger-pointing at Islam. Islam is a highly moral religion that values peace. What it has in common with Christianity, apart from some shared history and theology, is that it fosters extremists. Extremism may be fueled by religion but it’s not religious. The adherents are often mean, hard-line individuals who have trouble distinguishing the shades of gray that make up so much of life. As a result of the Islamic State movement, many antiquities that had survived for thousands of years were destroyed forever. There were heroes like Khaled al-Asaad (we might even call them saints) who tried to protect these irreplaceable artifacts. Religion has no feud with the past. In fact, religions consciously build on their pasts. Continuity is important to them.
Extremism of this kind is a fairly new blending of religion and politics. As recently as the sixties it was felt that religion and politics should be compartmentalized. Kept separate. When the Republican Party realized in the seventies that evangelicals could be made into a voting bloc, religion became politicized. This happened elsewhere around the world. “True believers”—the very term suggests the rest of us believers aren’t true—tasting political power, realized they could use their meanness to make the rest of the world in their own unforgiving image. We’ve been living with the consequences ever since. Even now Republican lawmakers fear reprisals of Trump supporters if they dare accept the truth. In other words, extremist religion has pitched its battle against the truth itself. That would be ironic if it weren’t so terrifying. No religion that I know has meanness among its central tenets. It takes literalism to make it one.