Extremism: A 21st Century Ideology

My book Faith in the Public Square first appeared as the 2012 primary season was getting underway. It's been four years, and our political squabbles continue unabated. It seems as if we're as divided today as ever, at least in the popular mind. With that in mind, and with a hope we can build some bridges even as we take on important issues that affect people's lives, I invite you to read this chapter from my book.  

"If totalitarianism was the great problem of the twentieth century, then extremism is, so far, the great problem of the twenty-first."
                This is our future, says former Newsweek editor Jon Meacham. News reports would seem to support his analysis. Jihads, Crusades, and Culture Wars dominate daily conversation, while ideology polarizes us. You’re either for or against us, and either red or blue, with no room for purple.

                While Hitler, Mussolini, Mao, and Stalin dominated the last century, religious and cultural extremism now grab the headlines. Osama bin Laden was more driven by religious fanaticism than desire for power, with his followers willing to sacrifice their lives for the cause through suicide bombings. Though it’s easy to point the finger at an Osama Bin Laden, he’s not alone. I might be comparing apples and oranges, but listen for a moment to Pat Robertson. Zealotry is very much part of his ideology, as seen in the encouragement he gave (despite a later apology) for the assassination of a foreign head of state and his prayers for “miraculous” openings on the Supreme Court. Though Robertson’s followers haven’t strapped on bomb-laden vests, there is a violent tendency to his rhetoric. And if we think that our own religious tradition is incapable of violence, then a close reading of Mark Juergensmeyer’s Terror in the Mind of God is urgently needed. He demonstrates that the impulse to extremist violence is present in every religious tradition and not just Islam.

                But what is extremism? Barry Goldwater once said “that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And . . . moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Now, if moderation means acquiescence to injustice, then surely extremism might be the better course of action. Ironically, years later the late Senator from Arizona decried the extremism he believed had overtaken his party: “When you say 'radical right' today, I think of these moneymaking ventures by fellows like Pat Robertson and others who are trying to take the Republican Party away from the Republican Party and make a religious organization out of it. If that ever happens, kiss politics goodbye” (Washington Post, July 28, 1994).

                In his day Martin Luther King, Jr. was considered by many to be an extremist. So extreme was he that the FBI kept him under constant surveillance. Writing from his Birmingham jail cell, King defended his extremism: “The question is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice–or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?”

                The definition of extremism would appear to be a matter of interpretation, with the times and context influencing our definitions; remember that to most people in England George Washington was an extremist. Strong opposition to injustice and oppression can be seen by some as fanaticism, and it’s easy to paint advocates of change with the charge of extremism, but true extremism emerges from a narrow and polarizing ideology that can easily become coercive and even violent. Whereas the last century’s ideologies were often rooted in radical secularism, this century’s radicals are too often motivated by religion.

                We all know about Muslim extremists who blow themselves up pursuit of their cause, but there have also been extremist Christians who show vulgar intolerance and even violence in pursuit of their causes. Anti-abortionist Paul Hill felt driven to kill a physician, while Fred Phelps offers up hate-filled messages to gays and lesbians. These may not be run of the mill Christians, but they claim the name and justify their views and actions by turning to the Bible.

                There is nothing wrong with being committed to one’s faith or one’s political principles, but if one’s zeal turns into a fanaticism that threatens to tear apart the fabric of human society, then things have gone too far. For, instead of being the glue that holds society together and the voice that challenges injustice; religion becomes a centrifugal force that drives society apart in the name of God. Religion should fight for justice, but it should also build bridges and cement disparate elements of society. The hope for the future requires us to chart a middle course.

[Faith in the Public Square (Energion Publications, 2012), pp. 125-127. The book itself is very much in print, and is, I think pertinent to our day].


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