Authoritarian Impulse Tarnishes Abrahamic Creeds

By Pettifer, Ann | National Catholic Reporter, February 25, 2000 | Go to article overview

Authoritarian Impulse Tarnishes Abrahamic Creeds


Pettifer, Ann, National Catholic Reporter


The best hope for church reform may be serendipity

Jonathan Glover, an English moral philosopher (his book, Humanity: a Moral History of the 20th Century, has just been published) thinks communities that resist committing atrocities or falling prey to dictatorships "nurture the benign rebel in their children."

He continues: "If you look at the people who sheltered Jews under the Nazis, you find a number of things about them. They tended to be brought up in a non-authoritarian way, brought up to have sympathy for other people and to discuss things rather than just do what they were told."

Those of us who claim an affiliation with one of the Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, should be made uneasy by what Glover has to say. One doesn't have to be especially perspicacious to observe that all three religions of the Book have a propensity for the authoritarian posture; youthful rebellion is discouraged, and dogmatism, under the rubric of orthodoxy or fundamentalism, forecloses the possibility of sympathetic discussion with folk who think differently.

John Cornwall's recent book Hitler's Pope is a reminder of how compatible Roman Catholicism and fascism were. (Sadly, Catholic reviews of the book have been reluctant to acknowledge this fact.) Fascism, which took root in the anti-Semitic soil of Catholic, Christian Europe, bore more than a passing resemblance to the prevailing anti-modernist Vatican ideology: It, too, was authoritarian, patriarchal and absolutist. So, in no way was it a stretch for a Roman pontiff to accommodate a fuhrer, a duce or a caudillo -- or for German, Italian and Spanish Catholics to give assent to the degenerate, reactionary politics that overtook their countries.

Islam's record for violence this century, particularly during the second half, has been considerable. The monstrous Taliban in Afghanistan is making life for women intolerable. In the Sudan, Arab Muslims, in their effort to dominate the largely non-Islamic South, have terrorized the region and in some areas reinvented slavery. Saudi Arabia publicly beheads malefactors, and Iran issues fatwas. All this suggests a religion incapable of peace on anything but its own harsh terms.

In 1996, I spent the summer in Birmingham, England, where I was born. The city has become a model of multiculturalism -- mosques and synagogues dot the landscape. However, while I was traveling on a main road, I noticed a prominent mosque was flying a banner that proclaimed there was only one God -- Allah. At first I dismissed this as mere bad taste, but after passing it several times a week, the banner began to appear more menacing.

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