At this point, I think most journalists have reached the point that they know that Anders Behring Breivik (a) has self-identified as a ‘Christian,’ (b) yet he also made it clear that he is not a Christian believer, in terms of beliefs and practice and (c) that it is bizarre to call him a “fundamentalist,” in any historic sense of the word.
This is a far cry from initial reports. CNN is my preferred news station and I could not count how many times I heard the word “Christian fundamentalist.” We are told we should renounce the “Christian terrorist,” and lest anyone be unclear, I (and all Christians) do. That label “Christian fundamentalist” traveled around the world before anyone asked if it was correct. Now, calmer voices have emerged. CNN’s Belief Blog brings the clarity:
“ 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,” said Philip Jenkins, a Pennsylvania State University professor who studies global religion and politics, describing the suspected Norway attacker. “He did not represent a religious movement. … People should not follow that Christian fundamentalist red herring.”
Agreed. It’s a red herring. But, I don’t think that ends the conversation for the mainstream media. As I wrote last week (as did many others with bigger megaphones), this identification was obviously incorrect, yet the media pursued and propogated THAT VERY red herring… and the question I would like to ask is, “why?”
To be fair, this is what the initial police report said. However, that was soon debunked by those who took the the time to read what Breivik actually wrote. And, reporters are a fiercely independent bunch–except when there is a preconceived perception. We all tend to see the world through our preconceptions. For example, I am more likely to believe something questionable when I already have a perception or belief about an issue.
In other words, when new information (the police officer’s solitary comment) reinforces how we already see the world (Christian fundamentalists are dangerous). I think there are three reasons that many in the media were so quick to assume and report this unsubstantiated label.
1. Many in the media have deep suspicions about what they call “fundamentalism.” They do not understand these strange people and are afraid of what they might do. If you are reading this blog, you are probably what the media would call a “fundamentalist.”
2. Some desire to create a moral equivalence. There are Muslim fundamentalists and they are bad. There must be Christian fundamentalists who are equally bad.
3. Many believe that Christian fundamentalists are just a moment away from violence. Franky Schaeffer continues to be a sad spectacle of evangelical hate, comparing conservative evangelicals to the Taliban.
A narrative is being fashioned about conservative Christians (and to the media, just about all evangelicals would be very conservative). That narrative is that they are simple, angry, persecute gays, cling to God and guns, and are close to violence at any moment. So, to the media, this was an “aha” moment–they saw it coming all along. However, their response says more about the media than it does about Breivik.
Now, all this to say, I think an important moment of self-examination needs to take place in the media. Simply put, in regards to labeling Breivik a fundamentalist, “Why so eager?” I think we can all see why–I just hope that those in the mainstream media can as well.