Is There a Christian Double Standard on Religious Violence?

Shortly after September 11, 2001, then President George W. Bush spoke directly to Muslims. “We respect your faith,” he said, calling it “good and peaceful.” Terrorists, he added, “are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself.”

Recently, TODAY’s Matt Lauer reminded Bush of his words. “I understood right off the bat, Matt, that this was an ideological conflict—that people who murder the innocent are not religious people,” Bush explained.

Those words epitomize an important, but controversial question: is someone who acts violently in the name of a faith truly a member of that faith? According to recently highlighted data from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI)—which focuses primarily on Christian responses to that yes/no question—potential answers may result in a “double standard.” Christians are more likely to say that other Christians acting violently are not true Christians, while failing to provide the same latitude for Muslims.

But how closely does this represent the reality? When I asked Christian theologians the why behind that simple survey, the answers were—perhaps surprisingly—more complicated and diverse.

According to PRRI, 50 percent of Americans in general say that violence in the name of Islam does not represent Islam—75 percent say the same of Christianity. The numbers shift, however, the more specific the demographic gets, creating the alleged “double standard.” White mainline Protestants (77 percent) and Catholics (79 percent) reject the idea that true Christians act violently, with 41 percent and 58 percent respectively being willing to say the same of Muslims.

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