What he said (about Norway)

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.

The early facts indicate that this was a political radical committing an act of political terrorism for political motives, motives that happen to include some idealized vision of resurrecting some kind of old, glorified, “Christian” European culture.

Yes, I know plenty of activist and advocate journalists are sticking with the “Christianist” template. Also, there are academics who are sharpening their swords and taking the usual swings at orthodox forms of religion (“When Christianity becomes lethal“) Nevertheless, most mainstream journalists seem to be staying in the middle of things and, perhaps, waiting for facts about this terrorist and whatever ties he did or did not have to real people and institutions outside of history books and cyberspace.

At this stage, I would like to point readers toward the following Dan Gilgoff essay at the CNN.com religion blog: “Is ‘Christian fundamentalist’ label correct for Norway terror suspect?” It contains tons of interesting voices and thoughts. I’ll complete this plug for it with the following slice:

“It is true that he sees himself as a crusader and some sort of Templar knight,” said Marcus Buck, a political science professor at Norway’s University of Tromso, referring to an online manifesto that Breivik appears to have authored and which draws inspiration from medieval Christian crusaders.

“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,” Buck wrote in an email message. “His links to Christianity are much more based on being against Islam and what he perceives of as ‘cultural Marxism.’”

From what the 1,500-page manifesto says, Breivik appears to have been motivated more by an extreme loathing of European multiculturalism that has accompanied rapid immigration from the developing world, and of the European Union’s growing powers, than by Christianity.

“My impression is that Christianity is used more as a vehicle to unjustly assign some religious moral weight,” to his political views, said Anders Romarheim, a fellow at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies. “It is a signifier of Western culture and values, which is what they pretend to defend.”

Toward the end, a major American scholar enters the debate:

Experts on religion in Europe said those faith-infused views are likely peculiar to the suspected gunman and do not appear reflect wider religious movements, even as they echoes grievances of Europe’s right-wing political groups.

“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.”

By all means, give this one a careful reading.

All of this is good, but I can hear copy-desk pros muttering in the background, saying, “Academics, smackademics! Get real. What are we supposed to CALL this guy in a headline?

Over at the Huffington Post, an evangelical thinker from the Greater European Mission has weighed in with another option on that front.

Frankly, I don’t think his language works for journalists — outside of quoted material in news features, when there is a bit of space in which to breathe. It takes too much interpretation. However, his content is crucial. Here is a slice of what Ben Stevens has to say in his piece, “Is Anders Breivik a European Fundamentalist?

Let’s start with a quote from page page 1,307 of Breivik’s manifesto, and then the minister’s take:

A majority of so called agnostics and atheists in Europe are cultural conservative Christians without even knowing it. So what is the difference between cultural Christians and religious Christians? If you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God then you are a religious Christian. Myself and many more like me do not necessarily have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God. We do however believe in Christianity as a cultural, social, identity and moral platform. This makes us Christian.

Breivik asserts that a majority of the atheists in Europe are cultural conservative Christians. This comes as a surprise to us all, I suppose. The key to understanding his manifesto, his mania and the confusion currently dominating news headlines lies in the reality that by “Christian” he almost always means “European.” In the massive introduction to his manifesto, for example, there is not a single quotation from Scripture, mention of the creeds, allusion to the Church or reference to Jesus Christ himself. And we learn, through the video he posted, that his heroes are not religious figures like Paul or Martin Luther but political figures like Charles Martel and Nicholas I.

Anders Breivik is a cultural fundamentalist. He is a European fundamentalist. But he disowns orthodox Christianity, and this makes it all the more ironic, and disgusting, that he saw himself as a kind of representative against threats to “Christendom.”

These pieces will, I am sure, continue.

Truth is, I still do not know the language that I would put into a one- or two-column bold headline, in this case. I pity copy editors who have to make that call. I honestly do.

Once again, for those who have forgotten GetReligion’s take on all of this, from the start of this story, we remain very interested in knowing the basic facts about how religion influenced this man’s life, if there are any. Here is how I put that on day one:

In terms of the religion angle of this story, what are journalists looking for? I would say they are seeking the exact kinds of facts and leads that they would be seeking if this person was alleged to be a radical Muslim. We need to know what he has said, what he has read, what sanctuaries he has chosen and the religious leaders who have guided him.

Also, follow the money, since Breivik certainly seems to have some. To what religious causes has he made donations? Is he a contributing member of a specific congregation in a specific denomination? Were the contributions accepted or rejected?

Well, we now know more about what he has said — the manifesto plugged that hole, for journalists. We know a bit about what he may or may not have been reading. We know nothing whatsoever about his own religious life and the practice of his faith, if he ever did so. There are no signs of institutional links or real, live clergy of any kind. Again I urge journalists to look for financial ties.

The ultimate question, in terms of religion: Was this man truly a loner, a man living out a brand of faith that he created on his own and, in the end, one in which he serves as the prophet who produces the private scriptures that guide his life and work? In other words, if he calls himself a “Christian,” where is his church, his pew, his altar and his pastor-priest?

Journalists must keep looking for the facts.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Julia

    “Fundamentalism, especially the kind which appropriates itself of a religious matrix, is never acceptable. It is a stance exploited merely as a means to justify extremism or even failure of a personal life or vision of the future.” These were the words of Archbishop Emil Paul Tscherrig, the Vatican representative in Nordic countries in an interview with SIR, the Italian Episcopal Conference news agency.

    The diplomat repeated what was really “said by Popes of all generations and in particular recently by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, both in reference to Islam and to Christianity”: “you cannot make war and use violence in the name of God.”


    From La Stampa, a mainstream newspaper in Italy, which is now offering a bundle of their reports on Catholicism on-line in several languages.

    It looks like the Italians as well as the Norwegians think that Christian fundamentalists are violent. Maybe this use of “fundamentalism” does not derive from our use of it in the US? Perhaps it means something else to Europeans?

    Or if the term is borrowed from US idioms, do they think US back-to-basics Christians are all violent right-wingers? Much as they think we are all cowboy gunslingers over here?

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com bob smietana

    Great quote from Jenkins.
    Steven Prothero, also on CNN.com, disagrees.

    Depends, I suppose, on what the word “Christian” means. Is it a cultural term, a demographic term, or a theological term. If theological – whose theology? Is a confession of faith and believer’s baptism enough (that’s what Breivik says he had) or is some official connection to a congregation required.

  • http://religionnewsblog.blogspot.com Justin

    We know from his Declaration that he:

    was baptized as a teenager/young adult, prayed for strength once in the days leading up to his terrorist attack, and believes the Bible is the word of God not men.

    He also states he:
    is not a faithful Christian by belief, and he is using Christianity as a cultural/moral force to maximize the audience for his message and organization.

    There is really no mystery about WHAT he is, because he states it plainly in multiple locations:
    a European Nationalist who believes in MONOculturalism.

    He views a Catholic Church-led strong patriarchy is the best vehicle for his Nationalist agenda.

    I realize it is a long book, but it is all right there if people would bother reading it.

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/beliefbeat/ Nicole Neroulias

    Can’t this semantic handwringing over Breivik be summarized by asking whether we describe folks like Osama bin Laden and the 9/11 attackers as “Muslim fundamentalists” and “Muslim terrorists?”

    In either scenario, you have “real” Muslims/Christians disavowing the murderers, claiming that such terrorists don’t follow the faith’s true teachings — and yet the murderers obviously consider themselves to be true believers, and use religion to justify their actions.

    In other words, if you have qualms describing Breivik in terms of his (self-proclaimed) Christianity, do you have similar qualms about using Muslim/Islamic descriptors in those other examples?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    There’s no question he self-identifies as Christian although I can say after reading the manifesto that his views on what that means are highly idiosyncratic in toto. I agree with Bob that it all depends on what we mean when we say “Christian.” I actually think that some folks might have trouble because they might share Breivik’s view of Christianity as more cultural than actual adherence to doctrines and the like? I don’t know. And, again, who’s to say?

    I think that copy editors should just do their best to take the time to explain what they mean when they use the words they do. It’s not easy, but a picture is definitely emerging.

    As for whether he’s the equivalent of OBL, I don’t think it’s on its face ridiculous and I even see similarities between the two, from their pre-modern obsessions to revolutionary vision and attempt to justify their behavior through academic-type work. The big difference, at this point at least, would be between the hordes of followers and supporters OBL had and the seeming lack of any that here.

    There was that Pew poll from December that showed that while support of OBL was down in the six countries it surveyed, he still had like 100-150 million people supporting him. In just six countries.

    Now maybe we’ll find out that Breivik has a supporter or a couple of supporters. Or even, I guess, a handful? I don’t know. But I’ve yet to see any evidence he has 10 supporters for his movement, much less 100 million in six countries.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Has there been a major terrorist act my a Muslim who, in no way, was practicing what they considered to be the Muslim faith in ways that could be demonstrated with facts?

    In other words, you have worship, community, prayers, beliefs that connect them to an historic school of Islam, links to organizations, etc.

    As a totally secular Muslim been active in terrorist acts?

    Again, I want to stress that they are practicing a form of Islam that links them to a leader, a mosque, a network, or something that frames the faith in a way that justifies their actions.

  • Dan

    This effort to use tragedy to score political points through smears is really sickening. Anyone can see that this guy was a nut. How again is Christianity itself responsible if a nut who happens to cite Christianity as a major cultural influence on society (which in fact it is) massacres scores of people? Let us even suppose that he had said the he was directly inspired to do this by orthodox Christian teaching. Given the transparent illogic of the statement, only another nut – or an anti-Christian bigot – would accept this as an indictment of Christianity. Significantly, where there is a logical ideological tie between violence and a cause that is popular with the left, the press never attributes the violence to others who pursue the cause non-violently. Has anyone ever blamed the Humane Society for crimes committed by radical animal rights activists?

    It so happens that this fellow believes quite a number of things that are quite reasonable – and believed by many highly respected people, both religious and non-religious. As I understand it, he was concerned with the de-Christianization of society and the manner in which Islam is filling the resulting vacuum. This is a wide spread concern, and not only among the religious. In this regard, Marcello Pera comes to mind. Mr. Pera, a self-described agnostic, was the leader of the Italian Senate and is a professor of philosophy at the University of Pisa. He is considered a leading opponent of post-modernism and cultural relativism and has expressed the view that de-Christianization of society threatens the West. This close to one strain of the thought of Breivik. But what does it have to do with massacre?

  • Norman

    Nicole, the thing is that he self-proclaims his self-proclaimed Christianity to be completely cynical and indifferent to any supernatural belief:

    If you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God then you are a religious Christian. Myself and many more like me do not necessarily have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God. We do however believe in Christianity as a cultural, social, identity and moral platform. This makes us Christian.

    The cultural factors are more important than your personal relationship with God, Jesus or the holy spirit.

    As a cultural Christian, I believe Christendom is essential for cultural reasons. After all, Christianity is the ONLY cultural platform that can unite all Europeans, which will be needed in the coming period during the third expulsion of the Muslims.
    It is not required that you have a personal relationship with God or Jesus in order to fight for our Christian cultural heritage and the European way. In many ways, our modern societies and European secularism is a result of European Christendom and the enlightenment. It is therefore essential to understand the difference between a “Christian fundamentalist theocracy” (everything we do not want) and a secular European society based on our Christian cultural heritage (what we do want).
    So no, you don’t need to have a personal relationship with God or Jesus to fight for our Christian cultural heritage. It is enough that you are a Christian-agnostic or a Christian atheist (an atheist who wants to preserve at least the basics of the European Christian cultural legacy (Christian holidays, Christmas and Easter)). The PCCTS, Knights Templar is therefore not a religious organisation but rather a Christian “culturalist” military order.

    His only interest is in using Christianity as a rallying flag for “indigineous” Europeans who are being, in his view, disposessed. He is very explicit about this.

    Why did he adopt this language? Here are some clues:

    The word “race”, “white”, “ethnic” or “nationalist” for that matter should never be used in modern debates with adversaries or individuals who may have been subject to severe indoctrination. These words are so stained by history and post-war media coverage that you are basically just undermining yourself and the message you seek to communicate by actively using them.

    Also, I’ve said this before several times. It’s a strategic mistake to use “nationalist” or “national” in a political party name – the case with BNP and National Front. There is too much stigma attached to the word and many people will subliminously see parallels with Nazi Germany.

    This is cynicism, a marketing scheme. He admits himself he has no faith in traditional Christian beliefs, which he follows Nietzsche in labeling suicidal:

    The Judeo-Christian religions played an important and influential role in building the once mighty West but we also discovered that these religions contained a serious flaw that has sewed the seeds of the suicidal demise of the indigenous peoples of Western Europe and our cultures. This flaw was identified by the brilliant German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who described it as “an inversion of morality” whereby the weak, the poor, the meek, the oppressed and the wretched are virtuous and blessed by God whereas the strong, the wealthy, the noble and the powerful are the immoral and damned by the vengeful almighty Yahweh for eternity.

    So that’s all that love thy neighbor, turn the other cheek stuff that’s out the window, then. Along with that belief in Christ as Lord and Savior, and all of that other stuff in the Apostles Creed, too. So what’s left but the name?

  • Bill

    There is a risk of looking to deeply at Breivik’s motivations and trying to fit them into a rational narrative. It fills up white space and airtime, but I’m reminded of David Gelernter’s response when the media was absorbed in analyzing the Unabomber – the man who maimed him:

    “Who can say what might provoke such as Hut Man, and who cares? Here is a man whose life’s work is the creation of misery. To adjust your own work to his whims is not only impossible, but morally unthinkable.” David Gelernter, Drawing Life: Surviving the Unabomber

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/beliefbeat/ Nicole Neroulias

    I’m not saying that Breivik should be described as a Christian terrorist — just that it’s a journalistic debate worth having about other groups, too.

    If Breivik isn’t linked to a wider religious community or even a local church, that doesn’t mean he isn’t Christian and wasn’t motivated by what he considered to be Christian values (even if more cultural than theological). It’s a slippery slope to have editors step in and decide which definition constitutes a “real” member of a religion. You’re always going to have groups disavowing a bad seed, or people of one branch of a faith disowning someone they disagree with or who doesn’t follow their traditional definition of adherence (Christians who say President Obama isn’t a Christian, Catholics who object to pro-choice Catholics, the blurry distinctions between Jewish vs. Jew-ish, etc.). That’s why self-identification is the basic model, not only in journalism but also in research studies.

    Out of curiosity, what about calling Scott Roeder (George Tiller’s assassin) a Christian terrorist?

  • Norman

    Out of curiosity, what about calling Scott Roeder (George Tiller’s assassin) a Christian terrorist?

    Have at it, that shoe fits.

    If Breivik isn’t linked to a wider religious community or even a local church, that doesn’t mean he isn’t Christian and wasn’t motivated by what he considered to be Christian values (even if more cultural than theological). If Breivik isn’t linked to a wider religious community or even a local church, that doesn’t mean he isn’t Christian and wasn’t motivated by what he considered to be Christian values (even if more cultural than theological). It’s a slippery slope to have editors step in and decide which definition constitutes a “real” member of a religion.

    I think there is a responsibility to present his views in the context of his own words. Just today we have Alex Pareene writing:

    Does he go to church? Does he believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ? Is he a biblical literalist? I have no idea.

    That’s just willful ignorance. Breivik’s manifesto has been out there for days now and has been dissected all over the web. Anybody who writes about this should deal with what the man actually said beyond his simply repeating the personal details on his Facebook page/

  • MT

    It’s difficult to compare the ideology of a global organization with the ideology of a single person. Al Qaeda has a fairly clear, logical, comprehensive and hateful manifesto. Brevik seems equally hateful, but his manifesto appears to be a hodgepodge of ideas, some Christian, some not.

    Additionally, Al Qaeda has a history of terrorism that can be measured in decades; Brevik’s history of terrorism is only days old. There is no pattern of attacks to help us clarify his motivations.

    If a pattern does emerge — which is to say, if we see more acts of terrorism committed by Europeans with similar agendas — it may be easier to put a label on this particular brand of terrorism. And “Christian terrorism” might be the most appropriate label.

    Let’s hope that doesn’t happen. Right now we’re comparing a single apple to a bag of oranges. And I’m not convinced that it’s a fruitful conversation.

  • other Chris

    I was pleasantly surprised to come across the Gilgoff essay you feature. I usually just visit CNN.com to plumb the depths of mass-media idiocy.

    Of course, the same CNN has a story on its front page today with this gem: “He also claims to be a moderately religious Protestant who would like to see the denomination absorbed by Catholicism.”

    Protestantism is a denomination now.

  • http://catherineguiles.com Cathy G.

    Speaking as a copy editor, it’s probably just easiest for us to leave religion out of the headline and let the reporter explain it – or give more context in a photo caption.

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/beliefbeat/ Nicole Neroulias

    David Gibson also raised some of these points in a Religion News Service feature today.

  • Pete

    … The last two Popes (at least) have said that you cannot use violence in God’s name. This man’s manifesto mentioned that he saw a Catholic patriarchy as a vehicle for his nationalism. It makes more sense to me that he was highly selective in what he chose as motivators based on an a priori
    secular European assumption. For if he had primary religious motivations and had been a religious Catholic or sympathiser, he’d have listened to the Pope in the first place.

    He had no problem with atheists and agnostics and their attacks on religion either. He did not appear to mind a secular Europe, he just didn’t want a Europe with a foreign or Marxist flavour. It seems his motivations were not primarily religious.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Try not to argue the ISSUE, but stick to the journalism.

    Why, for example, are many commentators so offended by GR’s emphasis on facts rather than labels?

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Re: Protestantism is a denomination now.

    Some European countries (I believe Norway) has a state church, so I would imagine in a country like that “Protestant” is more or less equivalent to “Lutheran”.

  • http://demographymatters.blogspot.com R.F. McDonald

    tmatt: “Why, for example, are many commentators so offended by GR’s emphasis on facts rather than labels?”

    As I see it?

    There may be a certain tendency by some moderators to treat what some people identify–legitimately, fairly–as facts as labels, and to dispose of their contributions to the dialogue accordingly. In this case, for instance, Breivik’s manifesto is the documented product of a fairly coherent global ideology warning that–at best–incompetent “cultural Marxists” in Europe are destroying the entire continent and are importing unassmilable and excessively fecund/border-crossing Muslims to overrun the remainders, this ideology fitting considerably less tightly into ancient religiously-defined identity complexes. His manifesto was a cut-and-paste of these different theorists, even!

    Get Religion is the blog of the Get Religion-ists, I get that. I agree fully with the commenting policy of the Volokh Conspiracy blog, wherein people unhappy with the criticism and deletion of their comments are told that they’re more than happy to go and make their own blogs. If the bloggers at Get Religion are willing to risk switching their blog from a forum where people of different perspectives are able to debate freely and respectfully to a much narrower community made of ideologically like-minded people, that’s their choice.

    I would submit that doing so would be a bad idea. Is Get Religion supposed to be a forum for discourse or an echo chamber? I’d hope for the former–that’s why I was referred to this blog by a more conservatve friend.

  • http://demographymatters.blogspot.com R.F. McDonald

    Hector: The general sense in the media is that you can profess any religion while still engaging in any number of apparent contradictions with your faith, from eating shellfish to engaging in mass murder.

    That reflects a general sense in many societies–largely non-American ones, I’m tempted to argue–where the idea of a simple binary answer to the question of whether one belongs or not to a particular religious community doesn’t make sense. People in Québec (to name a single example) don`t necessarily see contradictions between knowledge of a shared Roman Catholic heritage and maintaining cultural elements–common-law relationships as normal, same-sex marriage and abortion as acceptable, the elimination of denominational education n public schools–which directly contravene the stated desires of the individuals in the organization charged with running the living heritage.

    People are full of contradictions. Media coverage just highlights these.

  • Maureen

    He sounds like he’s a sort of militant sleeper-in. Especially the bit where he explained that he’d become a Catholic if the pope led a conquering army, if celibacy and chastity wasn’t important, if you didn’t have to go to church every Sunday, if….

  • dalea

    The only term I can come up with for Breitvik’s religion is bourgeois faith. By that I mean a view that is mainly concerned with superficial appearances not content. He seems to want a world in which everyone appears to be a Christian, where no one is public in disbelief, where there is a public commitment with no corresponding private obligations. This is a term I have seen used in the GL press but no where else.

  • Julia

    I was looking at the comments in Amazon about a book about murders in Utah by self-defined Fundamentalist Mormons. The official

    It might help explain why the media thinks it’s perfectly logical to report people’s religious affiliation exactly as the person says they are affiliated. The media doesn’t accept the hierarchical nature of some religions.

    it is important to understand that the LDS church (the Mormons) are and always have been organizationally hierarchical, led by a leader and leadership group that has the right to define the entire church’s doctrine and practice. The LDS Church is not built or expanded bottom-up by local ministers that interpret scripture the way they see it, and then form churches around their view, as the evangelical churches are and do. Therefore, there is no such thing as a Fundamentalist Mormon. One is either in line with the leadership of the church theologically and practically, or one is not. Nobody can be more “fundamental” than the leadership, who defines what and who is and is not a Mormon. Consequently, to use the term “Fundementalist Mormon” is both inaccurate, illogical, and perhaps even bad-faith.

    Not saying I agree totally, but it could be that the modern attitude to religion as a DIY project prevents media from realizing that the leadership of religious organizations have the same right as the Oddfellows or the Elks to say who are members and who are not members.

  • http://demographymatters.blogspot.com R.F. McDonald

    “[I]t could be that the modern attitude to religion as a DIY project prevents media from realizing that the leadership of religious organizations have the same right as the Oddfellows or the Elks to say who are members and who are not members.”

    I don’t think that it is so much a DIY aesthetic as a sense that religious identity is something that’s complex beyond the ability of even gatekeeper religious organizations to determine by themselves.

  • Bern

    “it could be that the modern attitude to religion as a DIY project prevents media from realizing that the leadership of religious organizations have the same right as the Oddfellows or the Elks to say who are members and who are not members”

    In other words, you can say you are an Elk but if you haven’t paid your dues, come to meetings, and generally fit in with a lodge, then you ain’t. You can say you are a Christian (Muslim) but if you don’t regularly attend a church (mosque), ; have a pastor (imam), or a similarly committed community that identifies with you, and (to me the most important) at least attempt to conform your behavior to the stated precepts of that religious community, then you are not a Christian (Muslim).

    That’s a lot of criteria; and a secular reporter/editor is just not going to want to go there–and there is sufficient disagreement to make the labels pretty much meaningless anyway. Then WHO in a non-hierchachal structure gets to be the bookkeeper? Or are non-hierarchical structures inherently not “religious”?

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/beliefbeat/ Nicole Neroulias

    But Bern, different religious denominations — between and among themselves — have extremely varied criteria for what constitutes an adherent. In the variable case of Christianity, you have enough infighting to make it even more impossible to start playing God with self-identification: Was Thomas Jefferson a Christian? Are Mormons Christians? Are pro-choice politicians denied communion still Catholics? Etc.

    Keeping that in mind, no journalist is going to decline to call a self-identified Christian a “Christian” simply because he/she doesn’t attend church and acts in a way that contradicts “love thy neighbor.” There would be stricter journalistic standards for identifying someone as a member of a certain denomination, and much stricter standards for calling someone a member of a particular church.