The dictionary defines an extremist as “a person who holds extreme political or religious views, especially one who advocates illegal, violent, or other extreme action.”
Search for photos tagged as “extremist” (as I did for this post) and the majority of the photos are of Americans protesting against their government, especially their President. The one I used is one of the milder and least extreme!
But ask Americans what actions they think are “extremist” and you’ll get some interesting, and perhaps surprising, answers.
Barna Group research
The Barna Group is a US public opinion research company that specialises in studies of religion. In a recent study, Americans were asked how “extreme”, or not, they regarded certain behaviours, beliefs and attitudes. The results were reported for Americans generally, and for several different sub-groups, including evangelicals (7% of Americans) and those of no faith (12% of Americans).
As you’d expect, there were some behaviours and beliefs (e.g. using religion to justify violence, or refusing healthcare for children) that were regarded as “extreme” by more than 90% of those surveyed, and others (e.g. volunteering to help people in need, or attending a religious service weekly) that were considered as “extreme” by less than 10%
But other results were troubling to me, and I would think to most christians.
60% thought attempting to convert others to their faith is extreme. There is, apparently, no suggestion that evangelism was done in an insensitive or aggravating manner, just that the idea of it is offensive. About 40% of Americans believe giving up a good job to do mission work overseas in “extreme”.
A clue to understanding this view may be seen in the fact that many behaviours considered extremist by most Americans who are not evangelicals relate to religion in public – e.g. political demonstrating, public speaking about religion, or praying in public. Perhaps religion is being seen more and more as a private matter.
In all these questions, only a small minority of evangelicals thought these behaviours were extreme.
About a quarter to a half of Americans thought some religious practices (e.g. speaking in tongues, fasting or religious dietary restrictions, or wearing special clothes or heads coverings for religious readings) were extreme. Here, the differences between evangelicals and the rest of the population were not so marked.
The ethics of sex
About half of Americans think the conservative christian views on homosexuality are “extreme”, but sexual abstinence before marriage is only seen as extreme by about a quarter. Here, evangelical belief is probably most different from the general population.
An irrelevant minority?
One of the starkest illustrations of how evangelical thought is becoming marginalised in the US is a series of graphics showing how the adult population’s view compares to that of evangelicals and “sceptics” on the matters where these two groups have the most divergent views.
In every one of the ten factors listed, the general population is closer to the sceptical view than the evangelical view.
Is this typical of other English-speaking countries?
It is hard to find comparable data for elsewhere.
A Barna survey in the UK didn’t address this question directly, but did seem to show that while the UK is less religious and less christian than the US, the general population generally had a moderately positive view of christians.
I checked out several religious surveys in Australia, and I could find nothing relevant, but my perception from living here is that christianity is seen as irrelevant rather than extremist, and “extremism” is generally reserved for terrorist groups.
Concerns for christians
Many christians will feel concerned at these results, particularly the marginalisation of public religion and the view that proselytising is “extreme”.
I share that concern to some degree, but think there is a deeper issue.
Why do Americans feel this way?
My guess is that the US is the odd country out on this view of some aspects of christianity being extremist, perhaps because it is a more obviously a religious country, a more violent country and one apparently more fearful of terrorism. I think non-religious, or mildly religious, Americans feel more wary of overtly religious behaviour than they used to.
This is particularly clear at a time like now when the Presidential candidates are being chosen. Political campaigns are prone to producing extreme or exaggerated positions. If bellicose rhetoric about terrorism, or threats to America are accompanied by professions of religious fervour, the general public is likely to feel sensitised to these issues.
Lessons for christians
It is easy for christians to bemoan the secularisation of society and to attempt to reverse the tide via the political process. I think this will only reinforce these perceptions.
If christians don’t want to be viewed as extremists, the clues are in this survey. Virtually no-one regards helping people in need as extremist. If christians and churches were known for how we/they positively contribute to society, if we spent less time trying to force christian ethics on those who have freely and democratically chosen differently, and if our public statements and actions on ethical and political questions were seen to be sensitive and loving, I don’t think there would be such a reaction to them.
I don’t feel like an extremist, but according to this survey, many Americans would think I was. That saddens me a little.
Please respond (politely)
What do you think?
- How do you feel about these assessments of extremist behaviours and beliefs?
- How do you think christians might change their public image?