Dangerous Religion--It isn't who you think.

Kelly Baker

In the media storm about the Lower Manhattan mosque, Gary Laderman, at Religion Dispatches, offers an interesting take on "dangerous religion" in the U.S. His assessment of dangerous religion might surprise some, but probably not those familiar with Laderman's other work. His target is white (Anglo-Saxon) Protestant men.

Here's a snippet:
“Christianity” of course is a meaningless label, as I’ve written before. Like “Islam” it is too broad a category to cover the radically diverse practices, beliefs, and interpretive communities associated with it. So let me be even bolder and say that Protestants, and even more specifically, Anglo-European Protestant men, would appear to be the most dangerous religious individuals in American history. Without question white Protestant males from the colonial era to the dawn of the twenty-first century have inflicted more pain, more suffering, more terror than any other individuals in this so-called “city on a hill.” >>>

While Laderman admits no one really wants to answer the question about "dangerous religion", it is a question that is asked by the general public and often our students. Even working on what I do, I avoid this question and focus more on ambiguity. Yet, I can't help but wonder about the function of the label "dangerous" in tandem with religion. What do we gain analytically by declaring danger? How does it relate to legitimacy (or so-called illegitimacy) of religious movements?

Blog editors, contributors and readers, what do you think about this assessment? How does Laderman's perspective further the discussion of what is at stake in the current media portrayals of Islam in the debate about Park51? Does applying the label to a group that most assume is innocuous help our understanding of the current controversy or does it muddy the analytical waters?


Randall at: August 20, 2010 at 3:53 PM said...

I don't know. Laderman's remarks seem like a religious studies version of the Zinn-Jennings-Lynd thesis. It seems to reduce history to a long tale of heroes and villains. That strikes me as ahistorical. History is so much more than a blame game, whether we're talking about a blame game of the right or the left.

I think it's fun to throw things like the victimization bit out there. It generates a lot of in-class discussion. But I don't think it helps us understand the past very well.

Some things to think about with regard to Laderman's comments. White Protestants were THE faction in power through most of American history. White Protestants did not have a corner on the violence market. Of course, they could do more to maintain power than other groups could.

Was America unique as a land awash in blood? What did the US look like when compared to South American nations, Mexico, France, England, or China? America's Civil War pales when compared to the Taiping Rebellion, which took an estimated 20 million lives.

Still, I would love to see an on-line debate about this.

Michael J. Altman at: August 20, 2010 at 6:16 PM said...

Randall, I totally agree with you about the dangers of the "religoius studies version of the Zinn-Jennings-Lynd thesis." I think the historical question that Gary brings up is why do we talk about Christianity and Islam the ways that we do in public. No one has the corner on the violence market--power works in innumerable ways. So it becomes important (historically and politically) to think through when, why, and how we talk about who is violent, who is victimized, and who isn't.

I read Gary's post as turning the heroes/villains tale on its head. Near the bottom he makes the point that it would be inaccurate to identify Christianity only with the laundry list of violence he outlines.

Using the same logic as those who group all Muslims under one America-hating banner, the answer would appear to be yes. And if we follow this same ignorant logic, it would indeed make sense to begin protesting the building of Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist churches near hallowed sites that are supposed to symbolize the highest ideals and values of the American experiment: religious freedom, opportunity for all, equality before the law, sacrifice for a greater good, and so on. Forget about diversity within white Protestantism—the Social Gospel and pacifists, or communitarian movements and Unitarianism—in this worldview.

I think he's trying to be provocative and I think his point is less historical and more political. It's historical insofar as he's highlighting a lack of history in contemporary discussion of Islam.

I think Gary would say, and I'd agree with him, that trying to tie any violence throughout history to a single tradition is a mistake because these traditions aren't as solid as we sometimes think they are. They are imagined by practitioners, scholars, and others. The history comes in when we get in there and figure out how and why they get imagined the way they do. Why does "Islam" become the violent religion? I think Gary shows that it could just as easily have been Christianity.

Tom Van Dyke at: August 21, 2010 at 12:59 AM said...

Laderman writes:

Using the same logic as those who group all Muslims under one America-hating banner


the vile rhetoric spewing from those who oppose ensuring Muslims have the same rights as other Americans

...he should back that up with facts.

because otherwise, it just sounds like vile rhetoric being spewed at a straw man by some partisan fool.

Randall at: August 21, 2010 at 7:07 AM said...

Michael: Thanks for that clarification. Your last para sums it up well.

Randall at: August 21, 2010 at 8:46 AM said...

His comment about "vile rhetoric" seems pretty obvious to me. Watch any of the debates about this on Fox News or the Newshour and you get the picture. It does seem vile to compare Muslims to Nazis.

January at: August 21, 2010 at 12:15 PM said...

Any religion that teaches a heaven awaits those who die in battle is a warrior religion. I believe that warrior religions are dangerous.

However, Christianity, as Christian pacifism has taught us, need not be a warrior religion. The issue, as always for religion, is whether it encourages us to be ourselves (loving, kind, peaceful) or not to be ourselves (hateful, mean, violent).

Kevin at: August 31, 2010 at 11:27 PM said...

Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war. As a person of Irish descent, I can testify to the benevolence heaped upon my mother country by the blessed anglo-saxons.

Anonymous at: December 7, 2011 at 3:04 PM said...

Religion is something the government makes up, so the human race is less scared to die

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