Angry protestors line the sidewalk of a San Francisco street. Behind barricades and a line of policemen, they vent their rage at a group of young Christians in town for a rally. Cries of Christian fascist fly across the road, and on the other side, a teenager leads her group in a prayer: God, I ask that as we do this BattleCry, Lord, that you would reveal yourself to the teenagers, God, here, God. They dont belong here, one of the San Franciscan protestors, quivering with anger, tells Christiane Amanpour, the host of CNNs recent three-part series Gods Warriors .
This is the intersection of the secular and the religious world, Amanpour solemnly intones. And so it is¯or, at least, an intersection between the extremes of those worlds. The San Francisco scene appeared toward the end of the third installment of Gods Warriors , which aired on August 23. Amanpour, who spent eight months gathering interviews around the United States and the Middle East, made three reports on how groups on the fringes of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity work their religious beliefs into modern society. Gods Warriors did not offer much that was new, at least for those who have been keeping tabs on religion in public life. It did, however, serve as a reminder of how the three faiths differ in the ways they enter the public square.
When speaking in her own voice, Amanpour generally echoes the claims heard often in the media. In the first installment, for instance, she begins by defining the common trait of all three types: They have in common . . . the belief that modern society has lost its way. They say that God is the answer. They want God part of their daily lives, back in the seat of power.
Perhaps. And yet, except for that last clause, this definition describes many religious believers, not all of them extremists. There seemed to be few threads that connected Gods warriors, beside the fact that religion informed their politics to some degree. Indeed, Amanpour tends to over-generalize the parallels among the three groups she examines. She looks, for example, at the rules about skirt length and unsupervised Internet use for the Christian teenagers in BattleCry. These rules immediately remind Amanpour of the Taliban¯although they are, in fact, little different from rules that one might find at any Christian school. Longer skirts, one must note, do not automatically portend theocracy.
Amanpours standards of extremism are equally unhelpful when it comes to political issues. If you care about the environment, you are free to have your inspiration come from the Bible. Rich Cizik, the National Evangelical Associations vice-president for governmental relations, derives his policy for the environment from his conviction that God tells us in the Book of Genesis to be stewards of the Earth. And he never seems extreme to Amanpour. But if the issue is abortion or gay marriage¯the issues she cites the most¯biblical inspiration becomes an improper imposition of religion.
And yet, despite her occasional bias, Christiane Amanpours interviews with the warriors themselves are interesting and informative¯especially since, in those interviews, we see more differences than similarities among the three faiths. A week before he died, the Rev. Jerry Falwell gave his final interview to Amanpour for Gods Warriors . In it, Falwell spoke of how he intends his students at Liberty University to influence American politics in the future, chiefly through arguments and appointments in the Supreme Court. Even when talking in explicitly religious terms¯such as God removing his shield of protection from America because of the countrys high number of abortions¯Falwell demands that his followers argue abortion policy on the soft but intelligent sell of facts. They must make arguments that depend on public reason, not religious faith. He wants, in other words, to maintain the structure and operation of the state¯just to have it run on different values.
Contrast that with another man who appears in Gods Warriors , Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, the president of Iran. The Muslim segment shows him voicing opinions like these, from a recent New York Times article (subscription required):
Liberalism and Western-style democracy have not been able to help realize the ideals of humanity. Today, these two concepts have failed. Those with insight can already hear the sounds of the shattering and fall of the ideology and thoughts of the liberal democratic system . . . . Whether we like it or not, the world is gravitating towards faith in the Almighty and justice and the will of God will prevail over all things.
Missing is any desire for the intelligent sell of facts. Ahmedinejad makes it clear that both the structures and the values of a secular democracy are bankrupt. He wants his country under the will of God, and hes willing to use force to get it there. Mahmoud Ahmedinejad leads a country where clerics hold the highest political posts; Jerry Falwell insists that were trying to elect a commander-in-chief, not a pastor-in-chief.
The juxtaposition of the two demonstrates the difference between true theocracy and religiously informed politics. In truth, the whole of Gods Warriors shows that being Gods warrior means very different things to Jews, Muslims, and Christians. No Christian on the program ever says that being Gods warrior should involve killing an enemy, while many of the Jews and Muslims interviewed see violence as an acceptable part of doing Gods work.
For example, Amanpour interviews a Christian couple who homeschools their children to prepare them to live their faith in the world. When their son grows up, he wants to be a preacher like daddy. She also interviews a Palestinian Muslim family whose son gunned down civilians in an Israeli marketplace before being killed by the police. While his family did not encourage him to embrace violence, his mother and sisters are proud that he died a martyrs death, giving his most precious possession, his soul, to God.
Toward the end of the final segment of Gods Warriors , Christiane Amanpour speaks to Mindy Peterson, a teenage organizer for Teen Mania, the evangelical organization that hosted the BattleCry rally against which the San Francisco protestors railed. Peterson is, she says, the product of an affair between her mother and an abortionist who wanted to have her aborted. Arguments over abortion, therefore, are more than political theory for Mindy Peterson. After the San Francisco protest, Peterson told Amanpour, These people think that our war is against other people. They think that our war is against man. And our war isnt. Our wars against . . . the pain in teenagers hearts, like depression, alcoholism. Those things that¯that are, like, tearing our teenagers apart.
Mindy Petersons words suggest that it means something very different to be Gods warrior for Christians in the United States. In the Middle East, the war is against flesh and blood; in America, the war is against principalities and powers.
Nathaniel Peters is a Junior Fellow at First Things .