One of the books I read this summer was Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel. It is basically her autobiography about growing up Muslim and then growing up beyond Muslim. You may remember the brutal murder of her artist friend, Theodore Van Gogh, at the hands of a Muslim extremist in Holland a few years ago. There was a good deal of approval for this killing in the Dutch Muslim community. Van Gogh's crime? He made a movie, a very short movie, about the abuse of Muslim women. He and Ali dared to challenge Islam. For that he died and for that, and Ayaan's continued outspoken criticism against the abuses of Islam, she must have constant protection. She has now left Holland and lives in the US where she works with the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington, DC.
The book is a page turner. It stuns. But it is not only the issues that flame between her and Islam that ignite the pages. It is the parallels with evangelical Christianity. She, I must quickly point out, does not draw these parallels. But for myself the connections between major aspects of evangelicalism and rank and file fundamentalist Islam are too obvious to ignore. It almost made me break into a cold sweat as I read the book.
What parallels? For starters, intolerance. Evangelicals are very good at not giving any space to people who think and act differently than they do. Though there is supposed to be a separation of church and state in the west, there are many who would, like Islam, love to erase that distinction, make both one, and rule nations with their brand of evangelical Christianity - and a very ruthless brand it can be.
The subjection of women. Because subjection it is. Women can't teach men - women can't preach - women can't be pastors - women can't lead. We find a few verses in the New Testament, ignore a multitude of others, and condemn women to a second tier existence in the Body of Christ. And call it God.
Homosexuality. An Islamic Republic would execute them. When you listen to some of the rhetoric coming out of the evangelical camp, you wonder if they wouldn't do the same in a Christian Republic.
Not allowing people to choose. Evangelicals may not like abortion - I don't - but you cannot force a woman to bear a child. You cannot put a gun to her head, say she cannot have an abortion, and call it God. You cannot put the same gun to the gay man's head, to the gay woman's head, and say you cannot be homosexual, or have a gay marriage, and call it God. Christians have as ugly a history as Islam in this regard - the butchery of Jews and Muslims in Christ's name, forced conversions, forced mass baptisms, the slaughter of Christians by Christians - all because some people wanted to believe differently, be baptized differently, read a different translation of the Bible, take a different stance on the nature of God. I'm afraid that spirit of intolerance still broods in the evangelical breast. In fact, many would call it a mark of true spirituality - such people are celebrated as being closer to God.
Anti-intellectualism. Anti-imagination. Anti-literature. Anti-arts. I know as well as anyone the new flowering of the arts and intellect, yes, and even of tolerance, among evangelical Christians. I also know it is in relatively short supply and that mediocrity and ignorance still reign supreme. Evangelicals acclaim the depth and value of shallow and tepid books, they thump their chests and point to sales of the Left Behind series and say, "Look, we've made it, this is our literature, and it's making a lot of money." Crass, cruel, craven and commercial. Exalting materialism and ignorance and intolerance. Worshipping the shallow, affixing God to a bumper sticker or T shirt, hating gays, screaming at women who have abortions, calling themselves pro-life but supporting war and the death penalty, making abortion, gay marriage and stem cell research the most important issues, but saying little enough about Darfur and human rights issues and the environment, turning their back on centuries of sculpture and painting and writing by Christians (and everybody else). And calling it God.
Sweeping generalizations? No, not really. I grow tired of people always saying, "Oh, but not all evangelicals are like that." The truth is, quite a few are. And a smattering of Christian liberal arts colleges and a new generation of Phds doesn't change that. The rareified air of an academic institution may lull some into thinking rank and file evangelicalism is just like what happens in those classrooms, but that's just not the case. The same thinking and exploring and listening is not out there in the mosque and the chapel. A few interesting writers who have Christian beliefs - Walker Percy, Wendell Berry, Frederick Buechner to mention three - doesn't change what fills the fiction shelves of most Christian bookstores (and trinket emporiums) and it has no bearing whatsoever on the formula fiction evangelical publishers churn out by the bushel - it's all about $$$$ and maintaining an insipid evangelical status quo. Painting? Painting is what evangelicals do to their kitchen walls when they want to change the colour scheme of their homes. It's what they sell in the bookstores - shepherds and sheep and fat cutesy angels and chrome crosses. A few good paintings hung in a few evangelical colleges and institutions does not change what the majority are buying and hanging and calling sublime.
No wonder I felt panic when I read Ayaan's book. Islam and evangelicalism have so much in common it's scary. And this sort of religious, political and cultural fascism is not diminishing among Christian evangelicals. Despite well-wishers to the contrary, it's on the increase, and a handful of thinkers and writers and sculptors have not changed the face of evangelical Christianity from cruel to kind. Not yet.