Breivik's Christianity: The Broad-Brush Label Sticks

Martin Marty


Breivik's Christianity: The Broad-Brush Label Sticks | Martin Marty, Anders Behring Breivik, Norway

Several buildings were damaged in the car bomb that exploded in downtown Oslo, killing eight people. (Photo: Frida Tørring)
Question: What do the following have in common: Anders Behring Breivik, killer of scores of innocents in Norway; assassins Lee Harvey Oswald (JFK) and Sirhan Sirhan (RFK); serial killers Dennis Rader (murdered 10 in Kansas); Charles Starkweather (11 in Nebraska); Jeffrey Dahmer (17 in Wisconsin); and Dylan Klebold (13 in Colorado)?

Answer: They were all Lutheran Christians.

Regular readers know that I try to be objective, fair-minded and the like, so I remind readers of this in my duty to be a conscientious reporter and commentator.

Ergo, this register of crazy villains is not here to give Lutherans a bad name. If I weren't "objective" and "fair-minded," I'd give the game away and admit what some have detected: that I like to give Lutherans a good name.

So why bring this up?

First, a word about the use of "Christian" and, specifically, "Lutheran" with these names.

Read the biographies or news reports at the time of these crimes. You will see that the label has to be qualified with reminders that some were Lutheran because their mothers placed them in a Lutheran orphanage or academy or they attended a Lutheran church and its educational agencies when young.

We'd have to call them "accidental" or "automatic" or "casual" Lutherans somewhere along the way. But the label sticks.

Think of Breivik, who was one of the 90,757,570 reported Lutherans in the world (as of 2005) and who must have been one of the 3,991,545 members of the State Church in Norway, which is Lutheran, as 79.2 percent of Norwegians are. It is hard not to be baptized and a registered member of that church.

Then think further; it is hard to picture that Breivik was anything but one of the 97 percent of the members who never shows up.

That he caught many ideas from this religious background is clear from citations in his monstrous manifesto and elsewhere.

But he probably could not even recite Luther's Catechism and may not have been seen at the communion table since who knows when – if ever.

Never mind. Split seconds after the murders were reported, many American commentators, especially prominent Islamophobes or generic Muslim-haters assumed and announced that al-Qaida legions had done the killing.

The implied message and command: "Get 'em," with "'em" being Muslims anywhere and everywhere.

Then, split seconds after his "Christian" religious identity became the prime subject on cable TV and in the press, it was turnaround time as the formerly embarrassed Muslim world(s) played "Gotcha!" to embarrass Christians.

Never any to take these attacks lying down, the embarrassed Christians quickly got back into action to prove that Breivik wasn't really a Christian, that he was a nut, and that only Muslims were sane attackers.

The back-and-forth polemics continues.

To what point? Each "side" finds it important and urgent to use a broad brush to paint the "other" most monstrously, in order to deflect criticism from themselves and to assure themselves of their own virtue.

That obscures what should be a clear-eyed critique of "self-and-other" among all when clarity is so important.

The instant and inaccurate portrayal of "the other" makes the self look good in his or her own eyes.

It does not provide the accurate data about and sane perceptions of people we need to understand more than we need to fire people up, motivated by Islamophobia and Christianophobia, neither of which needs more heat in our flammable or inflammable world.

Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. His column first appeared in Sightings.