Christians and the lunatic fringe
Elements of the American right seem happy to adopt anti-semitic priests in Europe as heroes and martyrs.
June 29, 2007 9:00 AM
There are some crazy Lutheran priests in Germany. Last autumn, Pastor Roland Weisselberg burned himself to death outside Martin Luther's old monastery in Erfurt as a protest against the Islamicisation of Europe.
It's not completely clear that this is what he meant: he left no note, and as the flames consumed him only cried two words - "Jesus!" and "Oskar" (a reference to another Lutheran priest who burned himself to death as a protest against Communism). But his last sermon had been a rant against the Islamic hordes, and he was known to be obsessed by them, even though Erfurt, in the former East Germany, has hardly any Muslim immigrants.
The case was not noticed in Germany much, and not at all in Britain, but it did excite American interest. Right-wing websites promoted Weisselberg as a martyr. After all, he was saying with his grotesque funeral pyre no more than influential right-wing commentators like Mark Steyn say every week in print
Last week, an even stranger martyr was offered for the adoration of the faithful. Dr Johannes Lerle was jailed for a year by a court in Erlangen.
You might think this was unremarkable. Dr Lerle is an unabashed and deeply anti-semitic holocaust denier. He takes the view that the only good Jew is a Christian convert. All others are children of the devil: "Jews" with scare quotes round them, to distinguish them from Christians. Those "Jews", his website explains, control the world's press, and the American government, are murderers, hypocrites, liars and bent on world domination for religious reasons. All this and more is on his website but it's in German - a language few Americans read.
And so this rabid nutcase has been taken up by elements of the American right as a hero and a martyr. William Dembski, the leading proponent of "intelligent design", has argued on his blog that the jailing of Lerle proves that advocating intelligent design would soon also be classed as a hate-crime in Europe, and punishable by jail.
This is because he has been told -- by a far-right website in Brussels - that Dr Lerle was jailed because he compared abortion to the holocaust. He did that, too, and published on his website the names of women who had had abortions, and of doctors who had performed them. But that was not illegal. He was not jailed for being "pro-life" but for being anti-semitic.
There is a pleasant irony in seeing such a man taken up as a hero by people who believe that the Germans are all Nazis under the skin. But the phenomenon is more than funny, in a hideously twisted way. It is also a deeply worrying example of a rising tide of Christianism - the belief that Europe is menaced equally by Muslims and by secularisation, which is so widespread as to be self-evident in parts of the American right.
Christianism isn't nearly so urgent nor so violent a problem as Islamism. But it is a real problem, and one that will grow. Very few Americans know or care anything much about Europe anyway. But it does, I think, matter that a minority of the minority who know anything are so actively misinformed and malevolent. They are no more typical of Americans as a whole than the lunatic pastors are typical of their church; some of the bravest and most genuinely noble women I have ever met were Lutherans hunger striking in a church in East Berlin towards the end of the Communist regime.
But when that kind of selflessness is offered in the service of an evil cause or of a lunatic idea, we all have a problem. The Christianist belief that Europe is about to be overwhelmed by wildly breeding Muslims and that the decadent secular elite will stand by and let this happen is wrong but it is not entirely implausible. It feeds into atavistic fears that everyone shares.
What's frightening about the way that the stories of the lunatic pastors have spread is that it shows there are people deliberately stoking these fears, among Christians as among Muslims, and in an age when more and more people learn about the world from the Internet, huge hideous myths can spread beneath the notice of the respectable media; and now these myths are gaining fraudulent martyrs.