Where does this incredible smugness come from? Last week at the Values Voter Summit, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum told an ostensibly Christian, very pro-war-with-Islam crowd that, though it took a millennium or two, Christianity was officially not as bad as the forces of "radical Islam."
Proving that irony is his middle name, Mr. Santorum contrasted the tolerance for religious and ideological differences one finds in the West against the lack of such freedoms in Islamic states as proof of the superiority of our values over theirs.
Mr. Santorum, who came in second during the 2012 Republican presidential nomination race and whom many believe is positioning himself for another run in 2016, said there is "a fundamental foundational problem in Islam of embracing issues of freedom of conscience and religious persecution."
Never mind the very inconvenient fact that Mr. Santorum has already gone on record describing the separation of church and state in this country as a liberal distortion of the founders' intentions. When you look at Mr. Santorum's positions on birth control, gay marriage and whether the Supreme Court's decision to strike down sodomy laws is correct, his newfound devotion to "freedom of conscience" sounds a teeny bit hollow.
But the comment that returned Mr. Santorum to the headlines played to the crowd's overweening sense of self-righteousness: "Christendom [once] expanded by the sword, that doesn't happen anymore," he said. "You don't have any Baptist ministers going on jihad."
What a line, right? Finally, a quip that neatly separates the forces of light (The West/Christianity) from the forces of darkness (Islam). Finally, a distillation of history that is irrefutable in the face of the barbarism of the Islamic State.
Who would argue, Mr. Santorum seemed to be saying, that compared to ISIS/ISIL/Islamic State, the most dangerous Christian fundamentalist militia member would be laughed out of the Terror Olympics for showing up with only one or two abortion doctors' scalps under his belt?
This is what this line of argument boils down to: Because our tribe is no longer currently engaged in religious wars in Europe, Inquisitions, expelling Jews from Western countries, condoning slavery, committing genocide of aboriginal people or forcing Muslims to "convert or die" (sorry, Ann Coulter), we have it all over them.
"Lord, thank you for making us righteous Westerners with a Christian conscience and a secular democracy and not like those brutish Muslims over there," we say in smug defiance of our very long and bloody history.
And while it is technically true that you won't find American Baptists going on jihads, you will find them and other denominational ministers advising, say, the Uganda government on how best to keep its homosexual population in line, up to and including the death penalty as prescribed in Deuteronomy and Leviticus.
While persecution based on sexual identity pales next to what the Islamic State would do to those who don't adhere to its ideological/religious line, it really is a difference of scale and degree of oppression. If you're the victim of either one, you're none too happy about it, though I'm sure most would rather take their chances with Christian fascism.
I knew a lot of fellow Christians in the 1980s who wanted to see Old Testament biblical law imposed eventually on all of American civil society. Fortunately, their fantasy went nowhere, though it still echoes in the fringier regions of the Republican/Tea Party coalition. I'm sure folks with those views applauded Mr. Santorum's quip the most enthusiastically.
Another reason I found Mr. Santorum's statement odd is that it completely ignored the recent history of Christian jihads. Orthodox Christians didn't exactly turn the other cheek in Bosnia. The "troubles" between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland ended only recently after decades of bloodshed. OK, no "Baptists" in either group, but plenty of Christians are walking around with blood on their hands.
This is obviously not exclusive to Christians or Muslims. Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims have had wars in Asia, too. Before there were any religions, humans had what Nietzsche called a "Will to Power." Cruelty, whether religiously inspired or not, is what humans do.