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The Social Darwinian & the Mistaken Christian Identity

My droopy eyelids immediately popped open as horrifying scenes from Norway interrupted late night news.

My mind instantly returned to the massacre of Columbine High School, as I watched breaking news about a relentless shooter at a youth camp in Norway.

Norwegian policemen quickly described the shooter, Anders Behring Breivik, as a Christian fundamentalist. While other news outlets picked up this label without hesitation, it is Breivik himself who set the record straight in his 1,500+ page manifesto. While people claiming any religious affiliation, or lack thereof, are capable, albeit unfortunately – and tragically so – of any crime, it is important for the thinking person to question the appropriateness of this claim.

Does Christianity, properly understood, lead to violence? More germane to this post, did authentic Christianity lead Anders Behring Breivik to mass murder? Religion Editor for CNN, Dan Gilgoff, answers this question with an emphatic, “No.” In his article, he provides the following quotes and commentary on Breivik’s manifesto:

“It is true that he sees himself as a crusader and some sort of Templar knight…But he doesn’t seem to have any insight into Christian theology or any ideas of how the Christian faith should play any role in Norwegian or European society. His links to Christianity are much more based on being against Islam and what he perceives of as ‘cultural Marxism…This is the first time we’ve heard of Christianity/religion as a driving force behind right-wing extremism. The mainstream right-wing movements in the Nordic countries (very small and disorganized groups in Norway) would generally point to the Old Norse beliefs, if anything.”  Marcus Buck, a political science professor at Norway’s University of Tromso

“My impression is that Christianity is used more as a vehicle to unjustly assign some religious moral weight. It is a signifier of Western culture and values, which is what they pretend to defend. I would say they are more anti-Islam than pro-Christian. – Anders Romarheim, a fellow at the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies

“He was a flaky extremist who might as well have claimed to be fighting for the honor of Hogwarts as for the cause of Christ. He did not represent a religious movement…People should not follow that Christian fundamentalist red herring.”  Philip Jenkins, Pennsylvania State University professor

Regarding the right wing Norwegian political movement that Breivik identifies himself with, CNN’s religion editor provides the clarification for American readers:

“But those right-wing movements are mostly secular. Europe’s hard right does not have deep ties to Christianity in the way that the United States’ conservative movement is entwined with evangelical Christianity and other theologically conservative religious movements.”

Others have raised concerns about the misplaced Christian label, such as John G. West of the Discovery Institute, who provides a helpful analysis of Breivik’s worldview in the Autumn 2011 edition of Salvo Magazine. In his article, he makes the following observations:

“Unfortunately, the effort to uncover the motivations for a horrific act sometimes reveals more about a culture’s own stereotypes than about the inner workings of a perpetrator’s brain. That has certainly been the case with Breivik, who has been depicted by CNN, The Washington Post, and other media outlets as “Christian fundamentalist.” Think Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson with a machine gun. The rush to link Breivik to fundamentalist Christianity was all too predictable. Since at least the 1980s, “Christian fundamentalism” has become the bogeyman of choice among many secular and religious liberals in the United States.”

West goes on to quote from Breivik’s manifesto wherein he describes himself with terms such as “cultural Christian” and “Christian atheist.” Breivik openly admits:

“I’m not going to pretend I’m a very religious person as that would be a lie. I’ve always been very pragmatic and influenced by my secular surroundings and environment.”

Regarding social Darwinism, applying natural selection to social theory, Breivik pines:

“Social-Darwinism was the norm before the [sic] 1950. Back then, it was allowed to say what we feel. Now, however, we have to disguise our preferences to avoid the horrible consequences of being labeled as a genetical preferentialist…The never-ending collective pursuit for scientific evolution and perfection should become the benchmark and essence of our existence.”

West concludes his article with these words,

“But if you really want to understand Breivik’s twisted worldview, you’ll see that it owes a lot more to Social Darwinism and scientism than to the Bible or ‘Christian fundamentalism.’”

Ideas have consequences. While extremists should not become the benchmark for understanding any movement, it is important to use proper labels. For Breivik, “Christian” is not a good fit.

Discerning readers will determine for themselves which ideologies loomed large in influencing his tragic actions.