January 2016 Church & State - January 2016

Fear Factor: Enlist Basic American Values In The War On Terror

  Barry W. Lynn

My wife Joanne and I are film buffs, but we rarely go to two movies in two days. That was the pattern, though, recently when we saw both “Spotlight” and “Trumbo.”

The first is a well-crafted film about the courageous journalists at The Boston Globe who penned a series of articles that demonstrated the scope of the scandal involving Catholic priests and the sexual abuse of children. 

Those writers had gotten many leads from the founder of the group Survivors Network of Those Abused By Priests (SNAP). I had the honor of addressing that organization’s national convention a few years ago and was profoundly moved by the stories I heard from victims.

At the end of the film, there is a listing of places where abuse has been chronicled in the United States and around the globe. Although the list was long, I realized, based on what many SNAP supporters had told me, that it is incomplete: Many African and Latin American nations don’t have databases of priests who have been moved out of churches in order to protect abusers. Therefore, plenty of work remains to be done.

The next night we attended “Trumbo,” the film about writer Dalton Trumbo, who won the National Book Award for his anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun. He went on to become a well-respected screenwriter in Hollywood until he was blacklisted for leftist leanings. During his ordeal, Trumbo was badgered to name “Communist sympathizers” he knew – but refused. For that he was convicted of, and subsequently imprisoned for, contempt of Congress. Trumbo’s screenwriting, at least under his own name, became unwelcome in all of Hollywood.

As I watched these films, I couldn’t help but think about some parallels to recent events. Sometimes religious people do terrible things. Many of the priests who abused children never received the punishment they deserved. Too many church leaders covered up for them. They too were never punished by the secular arm of the law.

But that doesn’t mean members of the church are fine with that. Indeed, whenever I discuss this issue with rank-and-file Catholics, I can hear the anguish in their voices. Aside from a few apologists who blame the victims, the majority of Catholics aren’t proud of their church’s behavior in this scandal. Some pushed for reform and continue to do so.

It would be a mistake, then, to tar all Catholics for the vile and evil actions of a few. And it would also be a mistake to assume, as the politicians who tormented Dalton Trumbo did, that a witch hunt is a proper reaction to some menacing force that we fear.

Yes, people do awful things in the name of religion. As a Christian minster, I’m well-versed in church history. I’ve never seen the value in trying to sugarcoat it. People have killed in the name Christ. They have engaged in torture. They have committed great evils.

People have done these things in the name of Allah as well. They have done them in the name of Vishnu. They have done them in the name of secular leaders.

Our challenge is to condemn these acts but not to fall into the trap of expanding the net of condemnation so widely that innocent people fall into it.

John Lewis Dear muttered about “baby parts” after he gunned down people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs. He has since admitted his guilt, calling himself a “warrior for the babies.”

Dear is no warrior for babies. He is an emissary of death and terror. Dear may hold himself out as a Christian, but he represents no coherent Christian theology that I recognize.

Similarly, terrorists like Syed Rizwad Farook and Tashfeen Malik were affiliated with a strain of Islam – a disturbing, twisted theology of hate sponsored by ISIS that does indeed promote murder and terror – but it would be foolish and dangerous to assume that the Muslim families in our communities agree with them.

In fact, The Nation reported recently that most Muslims in America aren’t extremists. They tend to be well-educated and affluent. Politically, 70 percent identify as moderate to liberal. Many of them are here because they fled oppressive regimes like the ayatollah’s Iran.

An Islam influenced by American values of tolerance and respect for the right of conscience is one of our best weapons against radical, fundamentalist, terror-endorsing Islam. Millions of American Muslims are already living under a tolerant version of Islam here and in other nations. But it will never flourish in the places that need it the most if we give into dark talk of closing mosques, creating databases of Muslims and barring Muslims from traveling to America.

Terror inspired by fanatics who embrace extreme interpretations of religion is a danger, and we must overcome it. I’m confident that our nation will do just that. But we won’t do it by surrendering to fear or following demagogues. We’ll do it by clinging tightly to fundamental values like the right of conscience and freedom of religion – and proudly waving them high for all to see, respect and emulate.


Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

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