How do you explain the rise of fundamentalism?
Jon Meacham is the Editor of Newsweek magazine. Since starting there as a writer in 1995, he has also served as the national affairs editor and managing editor. He now supervises and occasionally contributes to Newsweek’s coverage of politics, international affairs, and breaking news. Meacham is the author of two New York Times bestsellers: American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation (2006), and Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship (2003), which won the 2005 Emery Reves Award and the William H. Colby Military Writers Symposium’s Book of the Year Award. His latest book, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, was published by Random House on November 11, 2008.
Meacham has written for The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, and The Washington Post Book World. He is also a contributing editor for The Washington Monthly. In 2001, he edited Voices in Our Blood: America’s Best on the Civil Rights Movement (Random House), a collection of distinguished nonfiction about the mid-century struggle against Jim Crow. Born in Chattanooga in 1969, Meacham graduated from The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, with a degree summa cum laude in English Literature. He is also a member of the Board of Regents of The University of the South, the Vestry of Trinity Church Wall Street, the Leadership Council of the Harvard Divinity School and the Council on Foreign Relations. He received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University in 2005 and also holds three honorary doctorates. He and his wife live in New York City with their two children.
Jon Meacham: I think that literalism – fundamentalism – is the refuge for people who are fearful. I think that it’s much easier to put on a coat of amour and stand still, or to fight blindly or reflexively, than to judge the slings and arrows of fortune as they come because that part’s scary. It’s hard to try to reconcile . . . I believe in a god who ultimately is a force of love and justice, and yet children have cancer and children starve. I mean that’s an utterly . . . they seem utterly incompatible. And that’s very hard, and it’s a mystery, and I have no earthly idea how to reconcile them; but I’m gonna try because to be fundamentalist on either side is to foreclose whole realms of experience, and thought, and potential illumination. If one’s entirely secular, then you foreclose the possibility of the miraculous. If you’re entirely fundamentalist in Christian terms, then you are accepting as inerrant a book and a tradition that is clearly the product of human hands and hearts. So that, to me, is an irrational reaction to scripture. Scripture is fascinating, but it’s a historical document; and it’s as flawed as any other historical document. So my sense of fundamentalism is people who want a comfortable way to react to an ever-changing world tend to seek refuge in a more fundamentalist world view than I’m comfortable with. Literalism. Literalism. Yeah, that’s good a moment ago. Islamic literalism. It’s Christian literalism. It’s this idea that we have access to the complete truth and all the answers, and that those who do not agree with us are somehow subhuman, are infidels, are justifiable targets. And we got in trouble in epically tragic terms in the 20th Century when various people, various systems dehumanized others, and that’s essentially what we’re living with now. And the engine of that dehumanization is a fundamentalist view in one’s own virtue and one’s own . . . the correctness of one’s own. So to me the largest story of our time will be a reformation, a moderation of forces of extremism around the world, including some at home, but chiefly around the world. Because people are sometimes a little, I think, too sanguine about terrorism. The idea is, well, al-Qaeda is “small beer”, I think the Economist put it recently. Yeah, unless you lost someone, or unless there’s a weapon of mass destruction that falls into the wrong hands. So whatever we can do to reduce the oxygen flow to those pockets of hate and destruction, I think we’ll be what this generation is remembered for or not.
Recorded on: 7/3/2007
Literalism is a refuge for those who are fearful.
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