The right's new religious war: Why they see ISIS as Christianity's big threat

From Ann Coulter to Ted Cruz, a new strain of far-right thinking is developing a scary foreign policy

By Heather Digby Parton


Published September 24, 2014 3:11PM (EDT)

Ted Cruz, Ann Coulter                     (Reuters/Jason Reed/Jeff Malet, montage by Salon)
Ted Cruz, Ann Coulter (Reuters/Jason Reed/Jeff Malet, montage by Salon)

"We need to go back to work tomorrow and we will. But we need to be alert to the fact that these evil-doers still exist. We haven't seen this kind of barbarism in a long period of time. No one could have conceivably imagined suicide bombers burrowing into our society and then emerging all in the same day to fly their aircraft — fly U.S. aircraft into buildings full of innocent people — and show no remorse. This is a new kind of — a new kind of evil. And we understand. And the American people are beginning to understand.

This crusade, this war on terrorism is going to take a while ..."

-- George W. Bush, Sept. 16, 2001

Most people probably recall that comment pretty vividly, as it provoked an outcry among America's allies in both Europe and the Middle East for obvious reasons. The word "crusade" in that particular context is an explicit historical reference that places the war on terrorism in the category of a religious conflict. Bush, to his credit, never used the word again and went out of his way throughout his term to downplay any talk that he was waging a religious war.

Not that it stopped the usual suspects from saying so, of course. Ann Coulter issued a notorious cri de guerre on behalf of the entire conservative movement in October of 2001 saying, "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity!" Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association, whose radio show is frequented by Republican officials and conservative luminaries, has been preaching this gospel for some time as well. He put it like this:

The only thing that will give us a shot at building a democracy in an Islamic land is a mass conversion of its people to biblical Christianity. So that means if we want to see freedom come to those darkened, benighted lands, we should be sending missionaries in right after we send in the Marines to neutralize whatever threat has been raised against the United States. So we say to them, look, if you don’t want our missionaries, fine, that’s your choice, we’ll take our missionaries and our Marines, we’ll take them home, but we’re gonna let you know we have no hesitation about returning with lethal force if the forces in your country threaten us again. This time it’s Marines and missionaries, next time it’ll be Marines and missiles.

He's also for mass forced conversion here in the U.S.

But this has been a fringe position even among the right-wingers who bandy about phrases like "dhimmitude" and talk about the president being a secret Muslim. Most conservatives have been wise enough to endorse the fact that radical Islam is the problem not of Islam itself, which, after all, has 1.6 billion adherents around the world while only a tiny handful of extremists are engaged in violence.

Unfortunately, the idea of reviving the crusades seems to be gaining some steam in some surprisingly influential corners. They may not be openly advocating for forced conversions but the implication that the fight is between Christianity and Islam is obvious.

Perhaps the most startling is the contention that Pope Francis himself is advocating for a new crusade including a call for military force. Max Fisher at Vox characterized his comments about the threat of ISIS in exactly those terms:

“There is good precedent for this. During the Middle Ages, between 1096 and 1272 AD, popes also endorsed the use of Western military action to destroy Middle Eastern caliphates. Those were known as the crusades; there were nine, which means that this would be number 10.”

(Actually, Alexander Cockburn was calling the war on terror the "10th crusade" for over a decade -- and not in a nice way. But that's a different story.) This analysis of the pope's comments by Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig makes a good case for the pope being a little less aggressively militant than a call for a new crusade against Islam, and considering the history of the crusades and popes and the like it's probably best to assume she's right.

But what can we say about these rather startling comments from presidential candidate Ted Cruz?

It’s not our job to be social workers in Iraq and put them all on expanded Medicaid. It is our job to kill terrorists who have declared war on America and who have demonstrated the intention and capability to murder innocent Americans...ISIS right now is the face of evil. They are crucifying Christians, they are persecuting Christians, they are beheading children. They have promised to take Jihad to our shores ...”

He also has said that they are "right now crucifying Christians in Iraq, literally nailing Christians to trees." Having seen no corroborating reports of Christians being crucified, Politifact checked out Cruz's contention and found that in the city of Raqqa, ISIS headquarters, the terrorist groups had tied some dead Muslim rivals up on crosses but there was no record of nailing anyone to them -- or on trees either.

What makes Cruz's comments so interesting is that he's also said the U.S. should "bomb ISIS back into the stone age" which means that's he's for all-out holy war. As Peter Beinert observed in this piece about Cruz's crusade, Cruz is a "militaristic pessimist" because he has no interest in the idea of helping the warring parties to find some reconciliation. In his view, they've been fighting for centuries and they can keep fighting for centuries more. It's only the fact that they're allegedly killing Christians that makes it necessary to unleash hell -- which he clearly is in favor of unleashing with everything we can bring to bear.

It's not waging war that's the problem for Cruz, it's the idea that we might need to help clean up the mess when it's over. And he's not alone. Beinert writes:

With his combination of military interventionism and diplomatic isolationism, Cruz probably better reflects the views of GOP voters than any of his potential 2016 rivals. According to polls, Republicans are more likely than Democrats to see ISIS as a threat to the U.S. and to back airstrikes against it, but less likely to support arming Syria’s non-jihadist rebels. As Republican strategist Ford O’Connell recently told The Hill, “Ted Cruz is probably most in line with the Republican base in the sense he doesn’t want to have a discussion of Syria versus Iraq. He wants to dismantle and destroy ISIS. Period.”

And if a new ISIS rises like a phoenix from the rubble once again, we'll kill it too. We'll "kill them all and let God sort them out."

Ted Cruz is the guy who best represents what so many in the Beltway persist in seeing as a new "isolationism" in the GOP. It's isolationist in the sense that the only American overseas involvement they countenance is military action. We should not offer foreign aid or diplomatic initiative or humanitarian help but our war machine should be used liberally and without prejudice whenever it suits our interest to use it. That's what it's there for.

It's a mistake to ever think the right's lack of interest in foreign affairs is somehow equivalent to pacifism or a strain of isolationism that was bred out of their political DNA sometime during the McCarthy era. It's the opposite. Take a look at yesterday's Gallup poll to see just how "reluctant" they are:

Does everyone know the words to "Onward Christian Soldiers"? You might need to know them sometime soon.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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