The Dangers of Religious Passion

"One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them..."

So wrote J.R.R. Tolkien of Sauron's plot to rule from Mordor. Tolkien's words come to mind as I look over the depressing catalogue of horrors that is the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom's annual report on abuses around the world. Tales of torture, massacre, forced renunciation, and summary execution abound. The leading offenders are in the main either Islamic or communist nations. Isn't that curious? A naive observer might think that Islam and communism would be opposites. What do they have in common? The answer gets at something elemental.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a fantasy, of course, but it embodies an unending human struggle. That tension lies between the gravitational force of authority and the centrifugal force of freedom. Finding a structural balance between the two was the genius of the American Revolution.

All too often since, however, nations have imploded into totalitarian black holes -- Nazi Germany, the Soviet Empire, or North Korea, to name a few -- or exploded into chaotic anarchy. (Hello, Somalia.) Why is it so hard to get it right? The answer, I contend, has much to do with passion.

We are a social species, but like our primate cousins we have a hierarchical bent. It's in our genes. This means, on the one hand, that we have an unending supply of would-be tyrants. On the other hand, the rest of us have a psychological vulnerability to domination. When the alpha dog growls, most of us tend to whimper and bow.

Only it's not quite so simple. We're all status seekers (that's in our genes as well), and if we can't be the king, many of us seek to be rebels, outlaws, or stubborn individualists. So, what's a tyrant to do? And, for that matter, how is a revolutionary to get a cowering populace behind her?

They both reach for the old tried-and-true -- an ideology of passion. Now, we usually associate passion with romantic love, but a lynch mob is as passionate any Romeo. Passion simply denotes powerful emotion, anything from raw hatred to pure love. Those who would manipulate the masses to their own advantage invariably draw on the immense power of passion.

And here we come to religion. To be sure, an ideology of passion need not be religious. In the 20th century, millions of people were inspired to terrible deeds by nationalism, fascism, or Marxism. The dying embers of these ideologies of passion still glow. But for most of history, and never more than now, religion is the passion of choice. Today, it burns most brightly in the three Abrahamic religions -- the People of the Book.

Islamic firebrands like the one portrayed in last Sunday's New York Times reach into the hearts of young Muslims and ignite a sense of humiliation. Once that is aflame, the rest is easy. They paint a mythology of a glorious past, invoke the will of God, and dehumanize the enemy. The last step is to direct their impassioned followers to seek purification through acts of bravery and self-sacrifice.

Understandably, the scariest threats to us Americans are the ones that come from Islam. After all, young men nurtured in Western society who suddenly turn into jihadi terrorists are both infuriating and frightening. But we should not lose sight of the fact that passion threatens from all directions. Right-wing, Christian-based hate groups are multiplying nearly as fast as Islamofascist cells. And don't think they are content to vent on talk radio and the Internet. Last year, they killed six police officers, and if the allegations against a Michigan militia are true, they aimed at nothing less than war against the U.S. government.

Passion, like fire, is a wonderful thing when reasonably constrained. But out-of-control passion is as dangerous as any scalding volcano. Worse yet, malevolently orchestrated passion can engulf whole societies, as the Taliban did in Afghanistan. So, maybe we should ease up on the passion a little and just take Steven Stills' advice: Love the One You're With.

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