Are Conservative Christians ‘Religious Extremists'?

New data show that most Americans consider the beliefs and practices of traditionalist Christians to be ‘extreme’—but is that warranted?

Members of the crowd cheer during a Christian conservatives rally in Nashville in September 2015. (Erik Schelzig / AP)

Conservative Christians share striking similarities with Taliban terrorists. Or at least, that’s the argument laid out by Kimberly Blaker in her 2003 book, The Fundamentals of Extremism: The Christian Right in America. Conflating leaders like James Dobson of Focus on the Family with Islamic fundamentalists, Blaker argued that America’s traditionalist Christians also seek to indoctrinate youth with oppressive views of women, minorities, and LGBT persons through mind-control tactics and intimidation.

When Blaker’s book was released, America had an outspoken conservative Christian president with an approval rating of more than 60 percent, the post-9/11 church attendance spike had not yet receded, and religious-right leaders still seemed to hold sway in American public square. It was easy to dismiss her argument as outside the mainstream debate.

But 13 years later, according to a new study by Barna Research, Americans believe that many Christians’ beliefs and practices are so far outside of the norm that they deserve one of modern society’s ugliest epithets: “extremist.”

The study’s findings are detailed in a new book, Good Faith: Being a Christian When Society Think You’re Irrelevant and Extreme, by Barna’s president David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons. While Kinnaman and Lyons purport to speak about “Christians,” the behaviors and beliefs they probe make clear they are mostly talking about a particular kind of Christian—the conservative kind.

For example, the poll of 1,000 U.S. adults finds that 64 percent of Americans believe it is extreme to “demonstrate outside an organization they consider immoral” and 51 percent believe it is extreme to “protest government policies that conflict with their religion.” Many conservative Christians lament what they perceive to be the secularization, liberalizing, or “moral decline” of American society. Some have protested government policies on divisive social issues like abortion and have organized demonstrations outside Planned Parenthood clinics.

Nowhere in the poll is this more stark than with the respect to same-sex relationships. Fifty-two percent of Americans think it is extreme to “believe that sexual relationships between people of the same sex are morally wrong.” A number of conservative Christian business owners have made headlines for refusing to provide flower arrangements, cakes, or photography services to LGBT couples seeking to wed. Eighty-three percent of Americans believe it is extreme to “refuse to serve someone because the customer’s lifestyle conflicts with their beliefs.”

Public opinion polls are blunt tools, often raising as many questions as they answer. Does this mean that opposing same-sex marriage—however misguided—is now considered violent? Are Americans conflating religious activism with religious terrorism? Or is society just applying the same word in different ways to different categories?

Because Americans think many Christians’ beliefs are “extreme,” it makes sense they would apply the same label to anyone looking to spread those beliefs to others. According to the study, if you “attempt to convert others” to your faith, 60 percent of Americans now believe you are also extreme. This view specifically places evangelicals in the crosshairs of public opinion, since proselytizing is one of the key characteristics of that subset of Christianity.

If most Americans would apply the same descriptor to ISIS militiamen and soup kitchen volunteers who believe it is their duty to convert non-believers, something is amiss.

A sizeable portion, though not a majority, of Americans also believe even more mundane but common beliefs and practices are “extreme.” Forty-two percent would apply that label to anyone who might “quit a good-paying job to pursue mission work in another country.” Roughly a third would bestow the moniker on anyone who wears special clothes or adheres to dietary restrictions for religious reasons. And if your teenage daughter commits to abstain from sex until marriage, a quarter of Americans say she’s an extremist too.

According to Barna, three-quarters of Americans believe “being religiously extreme is a threat to society.” Which means that many Americans now believe that Christians who advocate for sexual abstinence or value missions work over money constitute, in some way, a social threat.

The problem with religious “extremism” is that there is no agreement about its definition—and most are dreadfully inadequate. One psychologist and Huffington Post blogger says, “A religious extremist is a self-righteous person gone too far.” Depending on how one defines the highly subjective phrases “self-righteous” and “too far,” that could be applied to just about any believer. The Oxford Dictionary defines an “extremist” as “a person who holds extreme or fanatical political or religious views, especially one who resorts to or advocates extreme action.” Using the word “extreme” twice to define whether the adjective describes someone or something is hardly helpful.

But reaching some consensus around the definition of “religious extremism” could not be more important. Because whether the term can be precisely defined or not, there is no shortage of genuinely horrifying acts of religious extremism in the world. Bombing abortion clinics in the name of Jesus is extreme, as is forcing people to flee their homes if they don’t convert to Islam.

In an age of religious terrorism, “extremist” is too damaging a word to be tossed around with such little discretion. When society slaps the E-word on something, it marks it for marginalization. And if the data is right, tens of millions of religious Americans may be at risk of being ostracized, sidelined, or banished from social acceptability because of their beliefs. These are the very communities best positioned to attack genuine religious extremism. But labeling them ‘extremist’ simply encourages alienation and radicalization.

One of the great ironies of this politically correct age is how those who most champion tolerance are often in such great need of the virtue themselves. Society calls “extremist” those believers they consider to be rigid, narrow-minded, and unaccepting of others.

Carelessly painting such wide swaths with a caustic descriptor is its own form of intolerance. It’s refusing to accept those who are less accepting. It’s coercing someone to convert to your way of thinking to keep them from converting others to their own. It’s marginalizing one group to keep them from shaming some other marginalized group. It contributes to the very problem it’s trying to solve.