When I was a child, the phrase “Defender of the Faith” did not conjure images of the Latin title Fidei defensor or of the British crown. Rather, it somehow got tangled up with another prominent idiom of my youth, “Masters of the Universe,” which referred to the popular Mattel media franchise starring He-Man. A defender of the faith was a kind of superhero, a person of great strength with an important mission.
These days, the phrase invokes yet another, completely different meaning to me. I now think of a defender of the faith as anyone who attempts to wrestle the reputation of his faith out of the hands of those who, through their actions or speech, disparage it.
Take, for example, the phenomenon that accompanies many terrorist attacks, attempted or carried out, in our contemporary media landscape. After each incident — the latest in Times Square is no exception — scores of moderate Muslims take to the airwaves to defend their faith against the violent portrayal of the (would-be) terrorists. It is sad to say that mainstream media outlets seem to have developed a routine for reporting on such incidents. Hearing from outraged and apologetic followers of Islam is a prominent feature of that routine.
But this phenomenon isn’t unique to Muslims; many Christians also feel the need to salvage their faith’s reputation from extremists. Certainly, this includes the kind of extremism seen back in March in the form of the “Huratee,” the Christian militia whose outfit was raided in Michigan. Other non-violent forms of extremism, however, warrant Christian defenders of the faith as well, like in Austin Carty’s recent Huffington Post article entitled “Nice Christians: We’re Out There.”
Lately I have been asking myself: what is the point of these predictable defenses? Is anyone’s opinion changed in this way? I don’t think so. It is not as if a person who believes that all Muslims are extremists is going to listen to a self-proclaimed moderate Muslim and feel certain that his assumptions were wrong. Neither will being reassured by a talking head that there are extremists in every faith comfort someone who already knows this to be true.
Rather than increasing tolerance or expanding dialogue, this knee-jerk defense actually plays further into the broad dichotomy that the American public has come to expect from mainstream news sources. When a moderate Christian such as Mr. Carty makes a well-meaning case for others like himself in the Huffington Post, he’s not making it easier for acceptance and understanding to grow. He is distancing himself from those he’d rather not associate with. In this way, the defense that is made is not a defense of one’s faith but of one’s self at the expense of those other religious people whose practice he judges to be misguided.
Yet, certainly I have found myself on the wrong side of this coin on more than one occasion. I can distinctly remember several conversations with my best friend, a Roman Catholic, in which we tried to imagine a different way to define ourselves that would highlight the commonalities of our faiths rather than differences. But even that endeavor was a reaction to those around us, those intolerant people on both sides, Catholic and Protestant, who, for one reason or another, discounted the other. We lamented that the term “Christian” — let alone “born-again” or “evangelical” — was lost to negative stereotypes and a bad reputation, and thus we wanted to update it.
Nowadays, I laugh to myself when a Christian friend on Facebook identifies his or her religious views as “Christ follower,” for it is this same sense of self-defense that pushes me to disassociate from those intolerant believers of whom I am embarrassed.
Let us not alienate fundamentalists within our own faiths. Instead of separating ourselves and pointing the finger of blame at those with whom we disagree, perhaps a true defense of faith is called for — a more complete wish to understand how someone could aggravate the tenets of a religion to a violent state.
We have an opportunity with each unfortunate and sometimes-deadly act by extremists of all religions to, rather than estrange ourselves from them, attempt to bring them back into the fold by means of understanding our common identities as adherents of a particular religion. Only then will we truly be defenders of the faith.
Jonathan D. Fitzgerald is a writer and educator living in Jersey City with his wife Stephanie. He is managing editor of Patrol Magazine and has written for The Wall Street Journal and Christianity Today. Follow him on Twitter.
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