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The Low Bar For Extremeism

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What happened in Nice – That’s extremist.  Whether the perp was a jihadi, a wanna-be jihadi, jihadi inspired, or just a nutcase with an obviously Islamic name what he did was extremist.  But apparently most Americans cannot tell the difference between that and peaceful efforts at religious conversion.  Seriously – a Barna study released last February indicates that between 50 and 79% or Americans consider the following religious activities, beliefs or expressions “extreme“:

  • Demonstrate outside an organization they consider immoral
  • Preach a religious message in a public place
  • Attempt to convert others to their faith
  • Teaching their children that sexual relationships between people of the same sex are morally wrong
  • Distribute religious material door-to-door
  • Pray out loud in public for a stranger
  • Believe that sexual relationships between people of the same sex are immoral
  • Protest government policies that conflict with their religion

In none of those activities do people get hurt or die, and yet they are extremist?  I look at that list and I cannot tell if people are using the label “extremist” to banish that which they find irritating (I know I find it a little irritating when the doorbell rings and I get handed a pamphlet) or if people are really so intellectually lazy that they just want to dump all religion into the “extremist” bin and be done with it.

But regardless, the consequences of this are frightening.  And it is not frightening purely because of what it says about the place of religion in our society; it is frightening because it reflects muddled thinking on very deep and disturbing levels – apparently in a effort simply to achieve convenient ends.  It warps language by dumping tract distribution and mass murder into the same linguistic bin.  It warps morality in the same confusion – making merely irritating behavior morally equivalent to murderous behavior.  Moreover, to a large extent it confuses religion and morality; people without faith often behave morally and sadly people of faith often do not.

So what are the convenient ends to all this muddled thinking?  Well, it certainly seems convenient to equate your standard Christian behavior with murderous Muslim extremism if you do not want to be bothered having your own personal moral behavior questioned.  Are you deeply depressed?  It cannot possibly be your behavior, it must be those darn standards. You want same-sex marriage in the nation?  Never let a genuine crisis go to waste, not when nonsensical moral equivalence will allow you to achieve that end.

I cannot help but reflect that some of this has its roots in a gross misunderstanding of the Bible verse:

All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

So many Evangelicals, myself among them in my younger days, have used this verse to muddle our own moral thinking.  It is as if given that all of us are born into a state of “sin,” that is to say separation from God, and that that state will inevitably lead to immoral behavior on some level (which is what this verse is pointing out), we need not bother to distinguish greater or lesser immoral behavior.  We have confused a theological statement with a moral one and in so doing lack the intellectual tools to combat the mess that surrounds us.

All of this has very real consequences.  We are having a hard time in this nation mustering the national will to combat the deadly extremism we have just witnessed in Nice.  That has to be due, at least in part, to the fact that we draw little distinction between such murderous rampages and simple, non-violent efforts at religious conversion.  Such lack of distinction has the most unfortunate effect of making the horrible look not-so-bad far more than it does making the irritating look horrible.

When I was a young fiery Evangelical I bemoaned the “merely moralistic” faith that I saw in so many around me.  I was driven by my desire to have such Christians experience the deep emotional and spiritual uplift that I got from my faith.  Well, apparently my desires have been fulfilled, and the unintended consequences are knocking on my door.

But more importantly, those unintended consequences are knocking on the world’s door.  And they are very dangerous consequences.  The world can no longer afford such muddled thinking.


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