Eli Berman


On his book Radical, Religious, and Violent: The New Economics of Terrorism

Cover Interview of December 13, 2009

A close-up

The final chapter of Radical, Religious, and Violent examines religious radicalism in a historical context.  Having established earlier in the book why religious radicals can be lethal terrorists and especially effective rebels if they so choose, I proceed to examine the sources of religious radicalism.

Adam Smith, the originator of modern economics, was concerned about religious freedom and political violence.  “Times of violent religious controversy have generally been times of equally violent political faction,” wrote Smith in 1776.

And Menno Simons, the original Mennonite, railed like a modern Jihadist against the corruption and moral bankruptcy of the established order.  Consider Simons’s words in his 1539 Foundation of Christian Doctrine:

“We find in your houses and courts nothing but sparkling pomp and showy dress, boldness and presumptuousness of heart, insatiable avarice, hatred and envy, backbiting, betraying, harloting, seduction, gaming, carousing, dancing, swearing, stabbing, and violence…. The pitiful moaning and misery of the wretched men does not reach your ears. The sweat of the poor we find in your house, and the innocent blood on your hands.”

The Mennonites are pacifists today, though their fellow Anabaptists were often violent in the chaotic period during which both sects first emerged.  Anabaptist sects were cruelly repressed in Europe, even when they practiced strict pacifism.  Why are some religious radicals benign, like the present day Amish, while others are violent, like Hezbollah, Lashkar e Taiba, or the Münster rebels of 1532?

rorotoko.com St. Lambert’s Cathedral in Münster, Germany, reproduced in the book on page 210.  Above the clock are three cages where the bodies of Anabaptist rebel leader Jan Bockelson and others were left to rot.  The Münster rebellion established a theocracy in the city in 1532.  It was violently suppressed in June 1535 (Al Chernov, inset- Rudiger Wolk).

To answer those questions I return to Menno Simons and the sixteenth-century European roots of modern Christian religious radicalism, looking for lessons for how governments should approach twenty-first-century radical Islam.

Surprisingly, Adam Smith and David Hume, the giants of eighteenth-century social science, each had an answer.  Hume argued for state religion, as it would transform rabble-rousing clerics into harmless and indolent civil servants.  Smith made a classic argument for religious freedom, on the grounds that competition would breed tolerance.  In retrospect, countries that have followed Smith’s advice about competitive markets and religious tolerance have created a shared juggernaut of prosperity, technological progress and cultural creativity.