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Jewish World Review April 3, 2000/ 24 Adar II, 5760

Suzanne Fields

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The last permissible bigotry -- BIGOTRY IS BAD. Everybody knows that much. That's why political correctness thrives. It's supposed to protect the feelings as well as the rights of vulnerable minorities, whoever they may be.

Political correctness was born on the left and can be extremely narrow-minded, but the motivation behind it is not always bad. It strives to reduce offense, and sometimes it works. It's no longer socially permissible to be blatantly anti-Semitic or anti-papist. Rarely do you hear the insults and epithets that our grandparents often did -- such as "kikes,'' "fish-eaters,'' "holy rollers,'' "Bible thumpers,'' "wops,'' "harps,'' "Chinks,'' and "dagos.''

But conspicuously alive and well in this land of the free and home of the brave is one last permissible bigotry, one target of prejudice on the receiving end of acceptable slurs. It's open season on Christian fundamentalists.

I rarely sit at a bar or restaurant, or in a political meeting on a college campus, or engage in a cosmopolitan give-and-take social life in New York and Washington without hearing casual references to religious right "wackos,'' fundamentalist "kooks,'' or those "nutsos'' who follow Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. You won't hear anything like that aimed at Jews, whether Orthodox, Conservative or Reform -- or the followers of Al Sharpton, for that matter. Catholics, as well as Methodists or Presbyterians, who are as politically active as the fundamentalists, are a protected species in the popular vernacular.

How did it happen that white Christian fundamentalists get no respect? I took an informal survey of sophisticated friends and acquaintances and the answers are all over the map. Some blame the abortion issue and the "crazies'' who bomb abortion clinics.

But every religion suffers its fringe groups and we usually don't tar the whole religion. Most Catholics and many Orthodox Jews oppose abortion and they're not lumped together with the tiny number of the criminally crazed who bomb clinics. Thoughtful men and women of a variety of religions and of no religion debate the ethical consequences of pro-choice and pro-life. These issues cut across theology.

Others tell me that the Christian fundamentalists are merely fanatics who refuse to enter the 21st century. But a literal belief in the Bible hardly makes a believer fanatic. Whether you believe that G-d literally created the universe in six days or that six days is a metaphor for a designated period, or whether Moses saw a burning bush that was not consumed by fire, or whether G-d actually parted the Red Sea does not affect what you eat or where you sleep, or even who you want to be president of the United States.

Still others accuse the fundamentalists of wanting to separate themselves from secular society (you might think they would see this as a good thing), home-schooling their children or pressuring local governments to censor textbooks and library books. But concern for what their children read is as old as the public school system and subject to legitimate debate. Home-schooling is popular for many reasons, not the least of which are dismal scores and violence in the public schools.

Karen Armstrong, in a provocative new book, "The Battle for G-d,'' argues that fundamentalists and secular religious people were not polarized in America until after the famous Scopes trial in Tennessee 75 years ago, when the fundamentalists were humiliated even though John Scopes was convicted of breaking state law against teaching Darwin. Consequently, they were forced into a kind of silent underground, where the more extreme ideas in defense of Creationism flourished.

"Few fundamentalists had believed in the so-called 'creation science,' which argued that Genesis was scientifically sound in every detail,'' she writes. The fundamentalists of that era were less concerned with Creationism vs. Darwinism than they were their right to reject an "unsupported hypothesis'' which they believed would have immoral consequences.

But after the Scopes trial the liberal secularists heaped scorn on fundamentalists as a "lunatic fringe.'' Something like that is at work again today. Fundamentalist Christians have turned, usually reluctantly, to politics because they are again concerned with what they regard as the immoral impact of secular ideas on our common society. Their opponents stereotype them as "Neanderthals'' and bigoted attacks win tacit public approval, or at least toleration.

But we should remind ourselves of what Karen Armstrong calls "the moral and spiritual imperatives'' of religious people who are frightened that their spiritual survival is threatened by unthinking secularism in the interests of "unfettered rationalism.'' In refusing to recognize their humanity, we become blind to our own.


03/30/00: Seeking the political Oscar
03/23/00: The gaying of America
03/20/00: Pointy-eared quadrupeds on campus
03/16/00: The shocking art of the establishment
03/13/00: Sawdust on the campaign trail
03/10/00: Campaign rhetoric of manhood
03/06/00: The Amphetamine of the People
03/02/00: Elegy for Amadou
02/29/00: With only a million, what's a poor girl to do?
02/24/00: The changing politics of change
02/16/00: Tip from Hillary: 'Let 'em eat eggs'
02/10/00: No seances with Eleanor
02/07/00: Campaigning like our founding fathers
02/03/00: When neo-Nazis have short memories
01/31/00: George W. -- 'Ladies man' and 'man's man'
01/27/00: Dead white males and live white politicians
01/25/00: Smarting over presidential smarts
01/21/00: A post-modern song for `The Sopranos'
01/19/00: When personality is a long-distance plus
01/13/00: French lessons in amour --- and marriage
01/10/00: Reaching for the Big Golden Apple
01/07/00: Liddy Dole as the face of feminism
01/04/00: Hillary: From victim to victor
12/30/99: 'Dream catchers' for the millennium
12/27/99: In search of a candidate with strength and eloquence
12/21/99: The president as First Lady
12/16/99: Columbine with blurred hindsight
12/09/99: Homeless deserve discriminating attention
12/07/99: Casual censors and deadly know-nothings
12/02/99: Why mom didn't make general: A reality tale
11/30/99: Potholes on the road to the Promised Land
11/25/99: A feast for the spirit and the stomach
11/23/99: Fathers need to say 'I (can) do'
11/18/99: Adventures of a conservative pundit
11/15/99: Traveling with Jefferson on the information highway
11/11/99: Wanted: 'Foliage of forbiddinness' for the oval office
11/09/99: Eggs, art and rotten commerce
11/05/99: Al Gore, 'Alpha Male'. Bow wow.
11/01/99: Gay love
10/28/99: Lose one Dole, lose two
10/26/99: Rebels with a violent cause
10/21/99: Reforming parents, reforming schools
10/19/99: The male mystique -- he shops
10/13/99:The campaign of the Teletubbies
10/08/99: Money is in the eye of the art dealer
10/01/99: Lincoln's 'Almost Chosen People'
09/29/99: Introducing Bill and Hillary Bickerson
09/27/99: Must we wait for the next massacre?
09/24/99: Miss America meets Miss'd America
09/21/99: Princeton's 'professor death'
09/16/99: The Cisneros lesson
09/13/99: No clemency for personal politics
09/08/99: M-M-M is for manhood
08/30/99: Blocking the schoolhouse door
08/27/99: No kick from cocaine
08/23/99: Movies don't kill people
08/19/99: A rude awakening
08/16/99: Dubyah and that 'language' thing
08/09/99: Chauvinist sows -- oink oink

©1999, Suzanne Fields. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate