The Moral Therapeutic Deism of ISIS

Rod Dreher, in a characteristically brilliant post entitled When ISIS Ran the American South, reminds us that no society is too far removed, historically-speaking, from the brutality inflicted by the likes of ISIS.  There is a time within recorded memory, not ancient history, when Americans did unspeakable things to each other and made a religion out of their actions. Lest we forget, lest we start to navel gaze too much.

ISIS filmed that poor Jordanian pilot burning to death as an act of revenge and terror. We call those Islamist fanatics animals. But white people did this often, and sometimes even made a public spectacle of it. “The white men, women, and children present watched the horrific murders while enjoying deviled eggs, lemonade, and whiskey in a picnic-like atmosphere.”

By Fred Gildersleeve (1881-1958) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The whole post and the comments section are well worthy of your time. Of particular import is this comment:

I had to understand how all of this happened. How could Baptists and Methodists and Presbyterians in the South NOT have put a stop to this when they had the social and cultural power to do so? Why did Southern Evangelicals become chaplains to the racist South? So, I investigated it and wrote a book about it. I had to get answers. What I ultimately found is that their main concern, initially, was that they protect their own way of life and their own prosperity. Racism was a way to do that for Southern whites and religion became useful when it was seen as was a way to give their impulse sanction. But, we still do this today. We still remake God in our own image and see Him as a means to an end – our own end of blessing our life. That is what Southern Christians (and non-Christians did – but you know like I do that everyone thought they were a Christian, or claimed to be. Almost everyone, anyway). They were the original Moralistic Therapeutic Deists. They devised a religion that worked for them and supported them in the construction of the society that they wanted. It was a mess. [emphasis mine]

It occurs to me that this is the very thing which ISIS is doing. Not simply that they are using my religion, but that they are constructing their very own religion. Years ago, while traveling through Morocco, I watched a BBC Asia interview of a Malaysian Islamic terrorist who was serving a long prison sentence. The interviewer held up a Qur’an and asked the man to point out what passage he used to justify his violent views. The terrorist declared that his justification lay not in the Qur’an. But that he and his ilk were following the teachings and orders of Osama Bin Laden and other ‘leaders’ who had called for violent jihad. It’s worth repeating the comment from above:

They devised a religion that worked for them and supported them in the construction of the society that they wanted. It was a mess.

Islamic emblem crescentA religion that is constructed wholly to maintain an existing social order or to harken back to an old one (which probably never truly existed) is one that is bound to fail. It has no leg, besides violence and coercion, on which to stand. This is why the Qu’ran says, “La-ikraha fid’deen” – Let there be no compulsion in religion.

Islam did not light the world on fire and endure for so long after Prophet Muhammad’s death simply out of compulsion. While there is no denying that Muslims have and do commit atrocities and that the reach of the ancient Muslim states was advanced, at times, by the sword, Islam itself would have fallen just as easily as its polytheistic fore-runner if it did not make compelling claims on Truth, outside of the mundane orderings of society.

And yet.

The Fourth Crusade and the Sacking of ConstantinopleI have a friend who once told me that although he didn’t necessarily follow shari’a, he didn’t agree with re-interpreting many of its accepted precepts because this was wisdom handed down from our ancestors. There is a danger in both blindly accepting the wisdom of our forbears – as my friend and many of the religiously conservative do – and throwing out the baby with the bathwater, as the un-religulous do.

The claims and pursuit of Truth must be balanced against the administration of the state for we cannot survive on intellect alone. But if the construction of social order (be it futuristic or antediluvian in outlook) is dissociated from the very moorings upon which it is supposedly built, the entire edifice is naught but a house of cards. The results – southern lynchings, Al-Qaeda, ISIS, the Fourth Crusade and the Sacking of Constantinople, Mao’s Great Leap Forward – pockmark human history.

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