As journalists began digging into the who, what, when, where, why and how of Anders Behring Breivik, the deputy police chief of Oslo faced a media scrum and served up the day’s hottest sound bite.
“What we know is that he is right wing and he is a Christian fundamentalist,” he said, the morning after the hellish attack on Norway’s Labor Party and on the children that were its future.
That was the English version of the quote that jumped into American news reports and wire service stories around the globe.
Breivik was officially a “Christian fundamentalist.” He was also a “Christian extremist” in a New York Times headline, a “religious conservative” on an ABC newscast and a “Christian terrorist” in an Associated Press report.
However, the pivotal “fundamentalist” phrase sounded a bit different in the context of the televised Norwegian press conference that ignited this media storm, said the Rev. Arne H. Fjeldstad, a minister in the Church of Norway and a former senior editor at the major Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten. He is also one of my colleagues in the GetReligion.org project to study the mainstream media’s coverage of religion news.
Translating from the Norwegian, Fjeldstad said the police claimed that Breivik was part of a “Christian, fundamentalist, extreme-right environment in Norway.” The key was his violent opposition to the political policies known as “multiculturalism.”
“I am not sure this police official knew what he was saying when he used the word ‘fundamentalist,’ ” said Fjeldstad. “I think he was trying to say that this was a crazy, lunatic, radical guy on the political fringe and he is calling himself a Christian.”
It’s crucial to know, he added, that “fundamentalist” has literally been pulled into the Norwegian language from English — even if there is very little history of Protestant fundamentalism in Norway.
During debates inside the Church of Norway, said Fjeldstad, the term is primarily used by liberals to describe conservatives who stress the Bible’s authority as the “inspired word of God” and who defend traditional Christian doctrines on moral issues. While there are Christian groups in America who identify themselves as “fundamentalists,” this is not the case in Norway.
As media around the world quickly reported, Breivik did identify himself as a Christian — period — on his Facebook page. He also added other details about his religious and cultural beliefs in his 1,500-page online manifesto, “2083 — A European Declaration of Independence.”At the age of 15, Breivik apparently chose to be baptized and confirmed into the state church. However, the writings left behind by the 32-year-old radical also stress that he does not hold traditional Christian beliefs or practice the faith. Instead, he carefully identifies himself as a “Christian agnostic” or a “Christian atheist (cultural Christian).” In his manifesto, Breivik emphasizes his identity as a Free Mason, his interest in Odinist Norse traditions and his role as a “Justiciar Knight” in a new crusade against Islam.
“If you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God then you are a religious Christian,” he wrote, in a passage that found its way into a few media reports. “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 explicitly separates himself from conservative forms of Christianity, at one point noting: “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.”
In other words, noted Fjeldstad, for Breivik the “Christian” label is cultural or political — but not a statement of personal faith in his case.
“If you are going to use the word ‘fundamentalist’ it must be used to describe someone who is a very conservative Christian when he is talking about the Bible and the practice of the faith,” he said. Thus, a fundamentalist Christian “would always place a heavy emphasis on having a personal faith in Jesus Christ. …
“So whatever Anders Breivik is, the last thing you can call him is a ‘fundamentalist’ Christian.”