This is part 3 of my blog series based on the lecture of Dr. Martin Marty. His lecture was titled, “Religion and Violence and the global searches for peace.” He gave this lecture at Wesley United Methodist Church in Urbana. Part 1 was called, “Why talk about it?”. Part 2 was called, “What is religious violence?”
There are certain years that just hold a certain amount of power. People recognize them as turning points. American history has a few, like 1492, 1776, 1849, 1865, 1929, 1941, and 1963 (in order, Columbus landing in the “new” world, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the California gold rush, the end of the Civil War, the stock market crash, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the assassination of JFK). On lists like this, few outside of Pittsburgh would include 1979 (the Pirates win the World Series to the soundtrack of “We Are Family).
Yet one event in 1979 began a new era of religion and violence. After decades of feeling as if the last war to be waged was the one against godless Communism, America was introduced to a new enemy that had their very own god.
The Iranian Revolution sent shockwaves across the world. Until 1979, there was a general concept in society that, by and large, religion was becoming less and less important. This was actually seen as a trend since the Enlightenment. When science and logic ushered in the modern era, most thinkers believed that religion – and all the violence that came with it – was going to slowly die. The theory of secularization was that society would grow in secularization, and religious fervor and phanaticism would lose its influence.
The Iranian revolution proved the theory of secularization wrong. In fact, it proved that the exact opposite was actually taking place. While secularization coninued through much of the world, the result was not the deadening of the extremes, but a push toward the extremes. Secularization took people out of the middle-of-the-road religion. Mainstream churches started to die, moderation became a sign of weakness.
At the same time, the extremes started to close rank. They drew their lines, and more clearly defined themselves. Taking up the name “Fundamentalists,” they made lists of what is the right way of believing and acting, and anyone outside these definitions were deemed “non-believers,” or “heathen,” or “infidels.” This was not unique to any one religion. Fundamentalism took hold in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism.
So instead of dulling the edges, secularization actually sharpened them. This created a turbulent environment across the world. In the United States, this battle was fought largely in the 1960s during battles over race and sexuality. While some would argue that the Civil Rights Movement and the sexual revolution had nothing to do with Religion, I would beg to differ. Both of these issues were deeply rooted in religion, the image of God, interpretation of the Bible, a sense of the holy, and the nature of humankind.
In Iran, it culminated in the rise of Islamic fascism. The revolution showed that religious phanatacism was, in fact, an important aspect of geo-politics and national security.
According to Marty, most experts in national security in the 60s and 70s were interested in Communismand the nuclear arms race. Religious skirmishes in places like Ireland, Bosnia, and even the Middle East, were seen as regional affairs that had little affect on United States national security. According to Dr. Marty, 1979 was the year that the CIA “got religion.”
2 responses to “Part 3 – 1979”
Thanks for continuing the series:)
I would have to agree that most attention was focused on Communism pre-79 as far as Western intelligence agencies go. It’s also correct in my view that people thought religion was dying out. Of course, this was never the case.
The idea that secularization sharpened the edges religious beliefs and eroded a middle-way I find more dubious. There have always been radical and extreme elements in any religion. The enemy simply switched from other religions to a political philosophy. Did Marty say that there was merely more because of secularization? I’m not sure I buy it.
I also think it’s a bit presumptious to call an event occurring in Islam in Iran a general trend about other world religions. I wouldn’t posit a connection between a reestablishment of fundamentalist beliefs in Iran with fundamentalism elsewhere. This was simply an event that woke many state agents up to the fact that religion was not going away. It focused attention on a misinterpretation or misunderstanding of some world events.
Basically, I don’t agree that any new era was ushered in. It was merely more of the same, but we just had our attention focused elsewhere.
Other opinions or responses?
I appreciate the nuance your comment brings to what I had to say. Naming a specific event or year as a “turning point,” can be very sloppy history because it fails to recognize that all history is built upon an intricate network of events. Pointing to any one event and making generalizations across cultures and religious boundaries is, as you said “presumptious.”
While it may not be a “new era,” I do think there is something markedly different about recent history. I also think that there are signs that the middle-way has been eroded. In Europe and the United States it has been the mainline, middle-way churches that have seen the sharpest decline. I’m not willing to dismiss the connection between the decline of mainline churches with secularization.
Perhaps I am looking at this at too narrow a focus. I see from your blog that you are a scholar of ancient history, and certainly have a different perspective. Thanks for adding to the discussion.
As for what Marty said, I have to be careful now because the lecture was so long ago. This posting series was inspired by Marty’s lecture, but I find even myself having trouble distinguishing what came directly from the lecture and was has been my own conjecture. I understand that this is not a good academic practice. I have not been faithful in my practice of citations. Part of what I’m doing with this blog is trying to open up some dialog and present new ideas. This is an extremely cursory look at a much larger issue.