Religion and Violence: The American Scene

Aired: March 27, 2011

The U.S. prides itself on religious pluralism, seeing the diversity of faiths practiced within its borders as a mark of its democratic principles. Within this diversity, however, a small minority of believers sometimes take their faith to the extreme, at times leading to violence and terrorism. In this episode, Dr. James Johnson, professor of religion and political science at Rutgers University, and Dr. James Jones, professor of religion and clinical psychology at Rutgers University and senior research fellow at the Center on Terrorism at John Jay College, consider the connections between religion and violence in America. From apocalyptic video games marketed to Christians to the use of the word “jihad” by the Aryan Nation, Johnson and Jones examine American religious debates on violence and just war from the nuclear age to today.

The Left Behind series of Christian-themed books, films and video games begins with the end: the apocalypse. In a substantial revision of traditional Christian teachings, during the rapture believers are saved, while the rest of the population engages in a worldwide conflict against the antichrist. Immensely popular, the Left Behind series, Jones argues, offers insights into American apocalyptic Christianity, in which Christians are justified in using total warfare to fight a Manichean enemy

Many believers would identify Christianity most closely with pacifism, citing everything from the Sermon on the Mount to the “just war” tradition. Just war, rediscovered in the 1960s and 1970s, argues that there are certain criteria that must be met in order to insure that warfare is waged in a limited, just way. Johnson discusses Christianity, pacifism and the just war tradition, arguing that contemporary international rules regarding combat are directly related.

In the Koran, jihad only refers to an individual’s struggle to maintain his or her faith. It was more than 150 years later that the meaning of holy war came into use, though this withered until the anti-colonialist struggles of the 20th century. As Jones and Johnson discuss, today the concept has been revised again, through the internet, to refer to an individual’s duty to wage war and has even been adopted by groups, such as the Aryan Nation.


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