Confronting Extremism

A recent conversation with a fundamentalist Christian has left me  wondering why it seems we fail to recognize the dangers of extremism?  Americans expect Muslims to call out radical Islamic extremists, but we seem unable or unwilling to do the same in the case of Christian extremists.  Christians who deny the reality of climate change, who believe that humans have a God-given right to exploit the earth no matter the consequences pose a danger to society.  I think it’s time we talk about that.

Most reasonably intelligent people I encounter are comfortable talking about how human over-consumption is harming our planet and threatening our future.  But we are less comfortable talking about people whose extreme religious views (and the politicians they support) are undermining our country’s  response to climate change.  What do we say to Christians who mistakenly use the Bible to justify exploiting the Earth regardless of the damage?

Fundamentalist Christians believe God put humans in charge, and this means that we can exploit the earth and animals without restraint.   They do not believe God wants to preserve life on earth because Jesus is going to return on Judgement Day to destroy the earth and take true believers to Paradise.  Therefore, there is no reason to change our consumption or protect other life on the earth.  I think this is an extreme and dangerous view, and I do not believe Jesus ever taught his followers to think this way.

Many Christians, not only Catholic, were inspired by Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home.” summarizes his comments:

“The earth, which was created to support life and give praise to God, is crying out with pain because human activity is destroying it. All who believe in God and all people of good will have an obligation to take steps to mitigate climate change, clean the land and the seas, and start treating all of creation – including poor people – with respect and concern.  A lack of respect for creation is a lack of respect for God who created all that exists.  The pope decries centuries of exploiting the earth, exploiting other people and acting as if the point of human life is to buy and consume as much as possible.  While acknowledging science is not the Catholic Church’s area of expertise, Pope Francis says ‘a very solid scientific consensus’ points to global warming and indicates ‘human activity’ has seriously contributed to it, threatening the planet and all life on it.”

I don’t need to be Catholic or Christian to be inspired by Pope Francis.  We should not ignore the environmental damage humans are causing or be unwilling to change.  It would be one thing if only extremists were affected by climate change, but unfortunately when politicians with extreme religious views take over our government, we are all paying the price.

So why aren’t more Christians speaking out against Christian extremism?  Why does it not shock our sensibilities and motivate us to speak out when Christians extremist claim to follow the teachings of Jesus, yet support political candidates who profess hatred, racism, bigotry, and misogyny?  Why are good Christians unwilling to to criticize them?

I remember how difficult is was for me at the age of 20 to renounce the Lutheran church and declare to my family I was no longer Christian. It was difficult.  They took it very hard.  But at the time, I felt it important to take a stand against the belief that Christianity is the only true religion, the only path to God.  I no longer believed it to be true, and I couldn’t support it.  It wasn’t until I started reading Thomas Merton and Richard Rohr that I once again found common ground with deeper Christian truths.

Some people give up Christianity by simply not going to Church, preferring to live in the closet, so to speak. Some come out and declare they are agnostic or atheist.  Atheists do not believe in theism, but it does not mean they do not believe in morality.  Some people find ways of exploring spirituality that have nothing to do with formal religion, for example nature based spirituality.

In searching for my own spiritual path I studied many of the world’s religions.  I found at their core that the world’s major religions teach many of the same truths, but in different wording.  It’s true that spiritual experiences can lead to certainty, and we think “my path” must be right.  Our ego fixes onto ideas we think are true.  If others don’t agree they must be wrong.  But as Franciscan Friar Richard Rohr says, “we have to find our ego before we can give it up.” Letting go of ego and getting past narrow thinking is part of maturing into adulthood.

If you listen, you will hear many Christian extremists use a litmus test to determine which political candidate they will support.   Is the candidate against abortion?  Are they against homosexuality?  Do they side with authoritarian actions by government?  These positions are not those of the majority of Americans; they are the positions of parochial extremists.

When asked what he thought about homosexuals, Pope Francis replied “Who am I to judge?”  Indeed, who are we to judge?  Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.  Remove the log from your own eye before pointing at the splinter in another’s eye.  If one wants to follow the teachings of Christ, it requires tolerance and self-reflection as Jesus taught and practiced.

When our country is governed by religious extremists, it weakens separation between church and State.  An ultraconservative Republican controlled Congress and Administration that is allowed to select Supreme Court Justices who favor ultraconservative views places our freedoms in danger.  Our vote and our ability to choose the government we want is weakened when we lose economic power.  Republicans who cut taxes for the wealthy are putting more power in their hands.  Money in politics only benefits those with money.  When our country is governed by the wealth holders, they have little concern for those without it.  How can self-proclaimed Christians readily support enriching the wealthy while exploiting low and middle income people, which is directly contradictory to the most fundamental teachings of Jesus?

I don’t want to be governed by people who proudly display hatred, bigotry, racism, or misogyny.  I’m quite sure the Bill of Rights wasn’t meant to only favor white, wealthy, male Christians.  The framers of our Constitution separated church from state to protect our right to religious freedoms and to protect us from religious zealots.  I support every person’s right to worship as they chose.  I do not want extreme religious views controlling any part of our government.  Fundamentalist religious views should play no role in lawmaking or governance.  Government in a free society should be protecting and supporting the rights of everyone and to ensure that the perceived rights of one group do not harm another group.

In confronting Christian, Islamic, or any other type of extremism perhaps we need to think about religion as worship and reverence.  Religion is the path we choose to practice our reverence.  God, or whatever label we chose for that which is unfathomable, is the infinite mystery yet to be revealed.  That is why we search.  That is why we believe.  That is why we suffer when others suffer.  Reverence for life has no place in condemning, judging, or exterminating other’s who believe differently.

What has become clear to me watching politics this year is that far too many ultraconservative Republicans are determined to double down on fossil fuels, continue business as usual economic growth, ignore the warning signs of our changing climate, and to make war on any Americans who stand in their way.  Such actions pose a clear threat to our democracy, stability in the world, and all life on our planet.

It is time to recognize Christian extremism for what it is: the deplorable promotion of hatred, bigotry, racism, and misogyny in the name of Jesus.  It is time to remind politicians that the Constitution separates church and state.  It’s time to make our voices heard and our votes count.

8 Replies to “Confronting Extremism”

  1. Hi Jody, this is a brave and timely post. We are only at the beginning of a period of systemic stress that comes with environmental degradation. I believe that we in the US are particularly vulnerable to a certain kind of Christian fundamentalism and theocracy, descending from the original white colonists of the continent. On the other hand we also have the principle of the separation of Church and State, which counteracts this vulnerability. But we are at a moment when that separation is being tested.
    The way I read it, actually, is that Christian fundamentalism is being used as a strategic tool to enforce white cultural and political dominance – and a great deal of that dominance is predicated on maintaining the right to exploit the environment without regulations or remediation costs. Trump is a perfect example of this strategy as he is both using and being used by white supremacist, alt-right, and “Christian” social groups, along with the most ruthless exploiters of the billionaire class to consolidate their power.
    On the other hand, the economic system that is so ruthlessly exploitative of the environment has franchises around the world and your fundamentalist interlocutor may well have been non-white. Just as, as you mention, there are religious fundamentalists who are willing to murder in the name of their version of Islam.
    But in the US we seem to have developed a very dangerous combination of religious fundamentalism, racial resentment, and economic ruthlessness. And we must find a way – and this year will be crucial – to stem this tide that can do so much damage. Yes, by speaking up and standing up and voting and whatever other ways we can create and invent.

  2. Michelle,
    Your comment adds some wonderful clarity to the discussion. Indeed it is very important that we recognize how Christian fundamentalists are being used by others to promote environmental and economic ruthlessness.
    If we can get people to open up and talk about these issues perhaps we can prevent a civil war from breaking out in our country. I don’t think the term “civil war” is too extreme when we look at the hatred exhibited by a person willing to drive his vehicle into a crowd of people in Charlottesville. Do we really know what the shooter in Las Vegas was thinking when he decided to kill as many people as possible?
    We seem to have entered a dangerous time in our history where even with the abundance of information available to us political polarization is pushing us further and further apart towards the extremes. If we don’t start communicating about our differences things will get much worse.
    Thanks for your input.

    1. Hi, brave indeed. Living in the Deep South I’ve talked with many fundamentalist and heard this very idea that we have no need preserve the earth because we’re in the End Times. Not only is this one of basic beliefs, but further, aiding in the bringing of the End Times is encouraged. Having politicians in position to encourage or acquiesce to escalating tensions in the Mid East and else where is acceptable, in order to hasten the Coming and the End Times. Extremism no matter of what religion is anathema to stable and evolving societies trying to find their ways forward. Have really enjoyed reading everyone’s thoughtful and compassionate posts

      1. Hi Colby,
        Welcome to the conversation. Your point about Fundamentalist beliefs further aiding the bringing of the End of Times reminds me of some people who believe resource depletion and climate change is a problem but don’t want to change because they believe the faster our economy and civilization collapse the less damage humans will do to the earth. They have compassion for the earth but not humans, who will suffer horribly if our civilization collapsed catastrophically.
        I agree, stable evolving societies will need compassion and love to find their way forward. We must all work together.

  3. Hi Colby,
    You know I was meaning to comment that coming from Hawaii I have a hard time believing that anyone would say such things out loud. It would not be socially acceptable here, generally speaking.

    And this is because the traditional culture of the native Hawaiian people – the host culture of this place – still has considerable influence, even if you are not native Hawaiian by blood. Theirs was not a perfect society of course, but there was a deep reverence for the land and ocean, and this is transmitted to the general culture of Hawaii especially through songs, which are part of the popular culture, and through the hula, which is not mere entertainment or exercise but a powerful cultural and even spiritual influence.

    What cultural resources the people of the Southern US could tap into I’m not sure but perhaps it would have to be the stewardship tradition within Christianity with its idea that we humans are responsible for doing a good job with stewarding the Creation.

  4. I think American religious extremism is perhaps the principle threat to the earth’s next few centuries, at least. This country’s inane refusal to answer tough questions on anthropogenic climate change is unconscionable. It’s pretty clear that our head-in-the-sand response thus far is driven by our particular sense of entitlement (ie Manifest Destiny, City Upon a Hill and all that bullshit) that the Christian extreme has distilled into a very real & potent political and cultural narrative. That there are now thresholds we’ve crossed over that we can not come back from such as ocean acidification, loss of biodiversity and atmospheric warming and that there is absolutely zero, zero mention of anywhere slowing down anything is, I think, powered by the American narrative of selfishness masquerading as self-reliance. I see this every day where I live in Utah, which has a particularly edgy feel to it partly, I argue, because these LDSers actually live into that mid-19c story of, “yea, I’m going to go out west and take what’s mine and screw everything and everyone else”. Utah is, in some years, the driest state in the US and simultaneously has higher per capita outdoor residential water use of any state in the US. Why? Because we can. Because God gave this place to us. He also gave us Bears Ears and Grand Staircase. Thus, there’s no reason why the federal government should tell us what to do with our chosen land. This is “God’s Country”. Just ask the virulent LDS extremist Cliven Bundy who was just released without so much as a slap on the wrist for essentially denying the legitimacy of the government.

    I too am tired of this kind of rhetoric.

    The narrative is of a piece with the Christian extreme’s sense of this earth as a waypoint on the path toward salvation – indeed the more I think about it the more I think we’re locked inside some kind of testosterone-laden ouroboric rhetorical merry-go-round. The Secretary of the Interior’s continuing efforts to gut our national monument system with an aw-shucks smile while simultaneously touting himself as some kind of righteous, god-fearing cowboy is a particularly glaring example.

    The Christian extreme’s story is also a narrative of profound fear. Fear is pervasive in most declining civilizations, all of which are also incredibly vulnerable to these kinds of totalizing narratives. I recommend Donna Armstrong’s “Seducing Ourselves: Understanding Public Denial in a Declining Complex Society” if you’d like to read more in this line of thinking.

    Thank you for pointing out this tricky bit of ourselves. It is brave, as Michelle said. However, if we don’t start asking tough questions life is going to continue to get much, much harder for us and for our children as we forge our way blindly into the Anthropocene.

    1. Andrew –
      From your front row seat on Utah’s political scenery for 2018, do you imagine Orrin Hatch’s retirement will make much of a difference? We’re hearing (reading, actually) that Mitt Romney will likely be the Republican nominee to replace him – and that as the R candidate he would be Hatch’s most likely replacement. Not asking for a crystal ball analysis here, but given current affairs I’m curious what the Utah polity is buzzing about these days.

  5. Andrew,
    Yes, fear pushes a lot of our buttons. We circle our wagons and prepare to defend our position. Take any problem we face and we will find some group that is willing to fight for a narrow position. When we co-mingle religious ideology with political ideology we are really in for trouble!
    thanks for your response,

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