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World Views: Santorum's Foreign Policy, Charles Kimball on 'When Religion Becomes Lethal' (Mar 05, 2012)
Our analysis of the foreign policy of the 2012 Republican presidential candidates continues as Zach Messitte, Ariel Ahram, and Monica Sharp examine Rick Santorum.  The University of Oklahoma's Director of Religious Studies Charles Kimball joins Messitte and Joshua Landis for a conversation on his latest book.  When Religion Becomes Lethal explores the ways politics interacts with Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

ZACH MESSITE, HOST: Charles Kimball, welcome to World Views.

CHARLES KIMBALL: Good to be here, thank you.

MESSITTE: In the introduction to your new book, you asked the readers a series of questions and we could actually do a show on any of these questions to be honest, and I wanted to pick one, and that is the following: you said “Why are the turbulent religious forces seemingly more threatening than ever before?” and I want to just tweak this just a little bit and ask you what are these turbulent religious forces and what are they threatening to do?

KIMBALL: I think we’ve been in a period for the last couple of decades now where we’ve seen globally an increase in what is commonly called fundamentalist movements in the various religious traditions, and there are a number of reasons for that, and good studies that have been done about that, but I think that a big part of that is a response or reaction to modernity, and to the fact that everything that we think that we know is kind of coming loose in some ways. When does life begin? When does life end? And a lot of things now are up for grabs. So those of who come along and say, “Look, I know exactly what God wants, I know exactly what we need to do, here’s right, here’s wrong.” They find a certain audience and all we have to do is look around the world today, in 2012 ,at the political turmoil, the changes that are underway in a number of countries, and there are many people, we see it in our own country and in our own political process. There are many people who respond to those who have the simplest, most straightforward answers, “I can cut through all the red tape and just tell you here’s what it is that we need to do, here’s what the Quran teaches, or here’s what the Bible requires.” Unfortunately, what we’ve also seen, and I have talked about this obviously in the book, historically is that religion is a very, very powerful force.  It can be a force for good.  I think a lot of the best things that have happened in human history have been done by people who are inspired by their faith or claiming some guidance from their faith, but also we have seen religion is often the source for the justification of some of the more horrific things human beings  have done or tried to justify, and we see that now. Part of what makes it even more  explosive and dangerous today than in previous generations is the number of ways that small numbers of people can actually wreak havoc on a widespread scale. That’s a new dimension. Obviously, the events of 9/11 dramatically got the attention of everybody in the world, and yet we’ve also known on a deeper level that you don’t have to have chemical weapons, or nuclear weapons, or biological weapons for small numbers of deeply committed people to do something.

: If this is true then, and you’ve asked this question as well, how do you speak of this idea of a Christian or Muslim or Jewish approach to political organization if you’re talking about small numbers and factions that are splinters of splinters? How do you categorize these things?

Well, I think that is apart of the challenge, and part of what I’m suggestions and trying to identify in the book, is to take a step back and say historically and is the case today, I think that religion and politics are connected, they are connected in a lot of different ways and people are making claims all over the place about the relationship between religion and politics and what their religion requires. So I try to take a step back and say: well what do the religious sources actually say? What does the Bible say? What does the Quran say? The Hadith? And then do in different chapters a quick historical survey to say, well what have Jews actually done when they have had political power? What have Christians of various stripes actually done? What have Muslims actually done? And part of the point is that there is no template. That in fact in none of these traditions do we actually get a template for exactly how you’re suppose to do religion and politics. It is always a work in progress. It’s always experimental. It has to be adjusted and adapted, and so that’s part of the challenge. There will be a relationship. There are people obviously who argue in particularly in the Western world that we should completely separate religion out of the picture. It should have nothing to do. But that functionally is irrelevant.  It may be the case in fifty years that that’s a practical approach somewhere, but the overwhelming majority of people perceive themselves to be religious. We know in our own country that any candidate that said, “Let’s just get one thing straight. I’m an atheist, I think religion is nonsense”, well, good luck getting elected in the United States and much more so in other places. So, how do you negotiate that? What can we draw from the religious traditions? What can we learn from history to draw in the best ways, what those traditions can offer us in our time, in our place, in our circumstances, so that we can move forward in a more constructive and less destructive way? And part of that is to counter the claims of those who say they have all the answers, we know exactly, and this is going on within Israel, this is going on within the United States very much, and certainly in various predominantly Muslim countries. There are people who say “it’s my way or the highway and here’s what it is.”  Part of my argument is they’re by definition wrong, because there is no template in any of these traditions but we do have principles; we have values that we can draw from. What can we learn from history that can help us as we move forward in a more thoughtful approach to drawing from those traditions rather than kind of simplistic rhetoric that a lot of people are throwing out there?

: Let’s get back to the basics here a little bit. Do the people of the book, the Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam believe in the same god? Christian often say “Well, we share a god with the Jews, but not the Muslims.”  Muslims of course say “Our God is one” when they are talking to Jews and Christians. It says that in the Quran. Is that true or is it not true?

: I would say and say this very clearly and cogently that Jews, Christians, and Muslims are talking about the same god. There’s little ambiguity, in fact no ambiguity in my mind about that. Each of these traditions is talking about the god of Abraham. Each of them is talking about the god of Moses. The god of David. The God of the Bible. Now every six months or so, it hasn’t happened quite so much recently, but during the last decade about every six months I would get drawn into a national conversation because one religious leader or another, a Pat Robinson or somebody would pop up and make a comment something like “Well George Bush, who said Islam is a good and peaceful religion is just wrong. He maybe the commander and chief but he is not the theologian and chief,” and then they would go off on how Islam is not the same and the god Allah is not the same as the God in the Bible and that we are not even talking about the same God. Well, I was on a lot of programs with the late Jerry Falwell and others about this very issue, and part of what you just put your finger on is that if you approach Islam and try to understand from Islamic self-understanding there is just no ambiguity about this. Judaism and Christianity are results of the same revelation and Islamic understanding that produced Islam, that Jesus, that Moses, that Mohammad are all prophets who speak the word of God, the revelation comes to them.  Mohammad is the last of these. But that isn’t the understanding obviously that most Christians have had historically in the same way that most Jews have not understood Christianity and Jesus as the savior figure that Christians point to in the Hebrew Bible. Most Jews will say that he is a great teacher perhaps but he is not the Savior, he is not the son of God.

: And that’s what I was going to ask you. So, what do you do then with the fact that neither Jews, nor Muslims, recognize Jesus as God?  And how can you have the same god if they don’t say Jesus is God?

: This is one of the places where several times I think that I flummoxed Jerry Falwell on national conversations because he would go on, and on, and on about that god Allah in not the same as God of the Bible, that we are talking about a different god here, and I would say “Well why is that?”  He said, “If you don’t include the divinity of Jesus in your understanding of God, it’s a different god.”  At which point I would say the very thing that you just alluded to. Mainly I would say, “Then well I guess Jews and Christians aren’t talking about the same God either,”  And he didn’t want to go down that road either, because in his view of course Jews and Christians are talking about the same god, and so he would just change the subject at that point. There is actually a lot more flexibility in Christian thinking when you look at it in those terms, but there is a deep antipathy I think that is built in towards Islam historically that makes it difficult for a lot of people to sort of come over that hurdle and what really shouldn’t be that difficult to do.

: Let me ask you a hypothetical here: Jews and Christians, of course, two-thousand years of bad relations; Christians have accused Jews of deicide, of killing their God. The reconciliation is quite phenomenal that’s gone on in the West and in America over the last hundred years.  Both sides recognizing that Jesus as a Jew, focusing on the positive, the things in common, history books changing Before Christ/After Christ to the Common Era, talking about Judeo-Christian culture.  This has been an extraordinary accomplishment on the part of American culture. Do you ever see a day in which Muslims are folded into that, and we talk about a Judeo-Christian-Muslin culture, or is that just too big to contemplate?

: No, I do, and I would say I preface it by saying that I have always been a very optimistic person, having worked on Middle East issues for the last forty years. By definition, you have to be optimistic when you’re dealing with somewhat intractable problems in various parts of the Middle East. But I and many other people currently write and talk all the time about a Judeo-Christian-Islamic heritage in the West. Much of Western civilization as you know is very much shaped by Islamic influences, and so we’re are very much so heirs of that as well as Greek philosophy, and all kinds of other things that have filtered into what became Western civilization as we know it. So, I think that is possible and one of the places that gives me the most hope is the presence of a very visible, vocal in some ways, and increasingly important segment in the Islamic world.  Namely, Muslims who live in the West.  People who are in the United States and Canada, and more and more people interact with Muslims, and Hindus, and others, I think some of those barriers are coming down in a way that, you’re right, quite remarkable changes in last fifty or sixty years in many quarters. That isn’t to say that anti-Semitism/anti-Jewish thought is not present. It obviously is still very much present in many different ways but dramatic changes have occurred in the last half-century or more. And I think that there has been a fair bit of progress. I will say in the last two or three years it feels like we had maybe taken two or three steps forward within the United States, we’ve also seen two or three steps backwards with this very strong anti-Islamic vitriol that’s been out there with people planning to burn Qurans, or the huge controversy erupting over the Park 51 Islamic center in New York, and the way the issues get sort of shifted off into another corner and people are hyperventilating in ways that are irrelevant. And we see it even not just in Oklahoma, but there are now 22 or 23 states that have now legislation pending the ban of Sharia Law, when at least in my experience traveling around the country, I’d be interested if you shared this view; the vast majority of people couldn’t even tell you what Sharia Law is, what constitutes Sharia Law, or why its so threatening, and yet they are convinced by things they are hearing that this is there and it’s dangerous.  So there is a long way to go, and education ultimately I think is the key, not in just terms of intellectual understanding but this comes back to my reason for hope but through personal engagement and encounter and getting to know people across religious lines. When you humanize the other, I think does a lot to sort of take away the fear that gets built up in people minds when the other is this faceless, nameless, threatening, whatever it is that’s out there and its going to take over something, but when its your pharmacist, or your physician, your heart surgeon, then he’s a good guy, I don’t see a problem with that. So more of that, and the whole dynamic of globalization and diversity within our own society bodes well in the longer term, but the real danger is in the short term as I mentioned early on are very real and quite explosive.

: You’re listening to World Views on KGOU and we’re talking to Charles Kimball. He is a Presidential Professor and Director of Religious Studies at the University of Oklahoma and his latest book is When Religion Becomes Lethal. I want to shift a little bit and talk about the United States and religion, and I want to introduce it by telling a story. I was recently at an Oklahoma City Thunder basketball game.  There was a benediction at the beginning of the game, and it struck me as someone not from Oklahoma that this is not something you would see at Madison Square Garden in New York, or the Staple Center in Los Angeles and then in reading your book the question of: is the United States a Christian nation? Is it? And what does this mean?

: Well, this is actually a pretty hot topic, especially in the world of talk radio and religious broadcasting.  One can tune in religious broadcasting almost any time, day or night, and you won’t have to wait long before someone is making the claim that we were founded as a Christian nation, we have lost our way and here’s what we have to do to reclaim that. One reason I focus a chapter in the book on these very issues, and it’s a great illustration too of how it’s always work in progress.  The United States is a very distinctive experiment in terms of religion and politics and world history. The founders and the most influential thinkers and shapers, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison very much engaged theses questions. They were very biblically literate.  They very keenly aware of a long history of religious conflict in Europe, and they were very well aware of religious persecution, how some of the people have come to the United States to escape religious persecution, but they were also aware that there had been multiple experiments. The United States Revolution and Constitution didn’t just happen one day out of the blue.  The people had been here and colonized and had been here a century and a half before these events took place, and they looked around and saw that in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Puritans had left and came here and indeed many of them were escaping religious persecution. So they set up a state in which they persecuted people who disagreed with them.  Virginia was still under Anglican influence, and there were incredible religious laws and restrictions that were applicable in Virginia, very much shaped Jefferson and Madison and others who came out of that context. They were very well aware of that history. Pennsylvania was a totally different experiment. William Penn, a Quaker, had left, had a lot of money, was given a land grant, and Pennsylvania had became known as a place that will provide protection for especially the peace churches, the Bretheren, the Quakers, the Mennonites, and they’re still there and in abundance today. No wonder they found a home there. In other words, when the nation was founded they were very well aware of a long history.  They were Enlightenment thinkers, that’s important to understand.  They valued reason tremendously, they draw from the wisdom of the Bible but were not Biblical literalists, many of them were Deists, and they said we don’t want any of these kind of models, so the model they tended to settle on was the Rhode Island experiment of Roger Williams, who was kicked out of Massachusetts, and basically this was where the notion of the separation of church and state…

…well they were also capitalist. This is the other thing right? In Maryland the same kind of idea; that it’s a Catholic colony but you still want to sale your goods to the Protestants and the Jews as well right?

: And the Native Americans if they have money or whatever, sure. And this is where we are seeing in these debates on talk radio and religious broadcasting we’re getting a complete reinvention of history and that’s one reason I devote some time to this because we need to go back and really realize and understand that they were very conscious about these debates.  They argued these things out a great deal, and it wasn’t they didn’t want to think about God, but it’s clear that they didn’t want to put God into the Constitution.  Part of what I argue in the end of the book is that the experiment in the United States which provides a way of trying to negotiate, not only freedom of religion but freedom from religion, is a model that the world desperately needs today where we see there is a relationship, but it shouldn’t be in the hands of the state in dictating what is and isn’t acceptable, and so forth and so what the challenge becomes living up to that which we haven’t always done very well, and we see it play out every year. There are court cases where do you draw those lines? How do you determine is it appropriate at a private basketball game?   Sure, it may be OK; it may be weird to some people to have a benediction. Is it appropriate at a public school? What’s appropriate? Is it appropriate to pray in Jesus’ name before a high school football game? So these things kind of flare up every year and people draw the line. Should the Ten Commandments be posted in the Supreme Court of Alabama and elsewhere?  Those kinds of questions. But, my point is that what we try to do en masse in the United States is to debate those issues, work them out in a non-violent way as opposed to saying, “Hey, agree with me, or I will kill you,” and that’s parts of the danger today.

: Well, Dr. Charles Kimball, the Presidential Professor and Director of Religious Studies at the University of Oklahoma, thank you for joining us on World Views today.

: My pleasure.

Copyright © 2012 KGOU Radio. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to KGOU Radio. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only. Any other use requires KGOU's prior permission.

KGOU transcripts are created on a rush deadline by our staff, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of KGOU's programming is the audio.

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