Who’s Afraid of a Christian Extremist?

westboro baptist church and me

Image by Burstein! via Flickr

A friend of mine recently shared that he was as afraid of Christian extremists as he was of Muslim extremists. This is a common view; American Christian extremists are viewed as a group of bigoted, intolerant people who would see the majority of Muslims as terrorists and homosexuals as a grave threat to society.

The most extreme variety of so-called American Christian extremists would be the unfathomably bizarre nut-balls from the Westboro Baptist Church.  While I don’t think anyone takes Fred Phelps and his band of lunatics seriously, when prominent ministers publicly said that the earthquake in Haiti or 9/11 was God’s judgment, people were rightly outraged. Or in more recent news, there were the comments of Rep. Peter King about Muslims, which I think is what justifiably upset my friend.

But should we really fear a true Christian extremist? Well, no. I would argue that the people who take radical positions of hatred aren’t real Christians, no more than the so-called Christians who burned suspected witches at the stake or pillaged and raped during the Crusades.

Before you cry foul, this is not me falling into the “no true Scotsman” fallacy. (I love saying that in an outrageous, Groundskeeper Willie-like Scottish accent. Try it.)  Actually, the fallacy being committed is on the other side, and that is the fallacy of equivocation. It’s easy to fall into in this case, allow me to explain. There are “Christians” (scare quotes!) who are really nominal Christians – they might believe in God and say some of the right things, but often they don’t even believe the core tenants of the Christian faith. These are often people who equate being Christian with being American, or going through certain religious rituals when they were a child. Then there is the biblical definition of a Christian, given by Jesus himself. Jesus said –

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

A true follower of Jesus is a person who will be continually growing into a life of self-sacrificial love. Moreover, we see in the Bible that Jesus and Paul continually warned believers about false brethren; wolves in sheep’s clothing, people who claim the name of Christ and yet deny Him by their works.  We are told that “by their fruits ye shall know them” and that “he that hates his brother is a murderer, and no murderer has eternal life abiding in him”.  Now this isn’t to say that real Christians haven’t opened their mouth and said something regrettable, but a true Christian living in fellowship with their Master will be filled with regret when they act unkind and will try to make amends.

So what does a real ‘born again’ Christian extremist look like? Someone who took Christ’s teachings to the extreme – which according to the Bible centers in on preaching the gospel to all nations, self-denial and loving your neighbor – would produce someone like a Mother Theresa, William Booth, George Müller, or a William Wilberforce. In other words, they would be a selfless person with praiseworthy ethical standards. (Of course not every Christian is expected make philanthropy their vocation, but a Christian will try and be a person of genuine love no matter where they are.)

Often I hear people say they don’t want Christians legislating their morality. In this day in age, they seem to especially apply this to sexuality – abortion, pornography, homosexuality, etc. But this is question begging when you think about it; for it assumes that secularism is correct, and moreover that secularism is a morally neutral view. The American type of Secularism that’s popular now basically says that only what the hard sciences prove is true, and your personal beliefs should be kept out of the public square. This view makes everything but what is supposedly scientific relative.

But these two views, scientism – the belief that only the sciences give us truth; and moral relativism- that idea that that an individual’s beliefs are relative and there is no absolute moral truth – are horrid philosophies to build a society on. There are a number of reasons I say that, but for the sake of time I’ll give you two reasons why that is: They’re logically self-refuting, meaning they don’t pass their own test. The statement “no statements are true unless they can be proven scientifically”, is self-refuting insofar as it can’t be proven scientifically, and “everything is relative” becomes a relative statement; it might be true for you, but not for me. No one consistently lives this way.

So there really is no morally neutral legislated morality, for all legislation is a group of people “pushing off their morality” on you and I – from speed limits to where are tax dollars go.  People who you say that you shouldn’t push-off your views on others basically are saying they want you to adopt their view while hiding under a guise of false neutrality. Everyone on Capitol Hill is working to legislate their morality.

Furthermore, Christians are largely the ones who championed causes dealing with child labor, public schools, inequality, the civil rights movement, etc. Many of the positive reforms America has experience are a result of true radical Christians, people like Martin Luther King, who awakened the conscience of a nation of the self-evident truths that it founded itself upon – “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.

Today many Christians often apply these self-evident truths to a number of arenas – such as with the lives of the unborn. I’m not here to get into an abortion debate, but a Christian working to banning various abortion procedures is not wanting to legislate their morality anymore than the left-wing feminist who thinks that every woman has a right to electively have an abortion. They are both guided by certain philosophical reasons and should be allowed to debate their views in the public square. Neither should be dismissed out of hand because their views are allegedly “unscientific”, or are supposedly religious and should be held privately. Sadly, we can’t even begin to have any sort of reasonable discourse with this sort of thinking, yet all too often it’s the christian who is the one being charged with being narrow minded.

Anyway, that’s my all over the place rant. What I said doesn’t reflect the views of my friend to my knowledge, I honestly don’t know their views very fully, but I respect his point and can see where he’s coming from. Anyway, his comments triggered some thoughts and now they’re out there on the interwebs for all to see. The takeaway: Welcome extreme Christianity, but beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing.


7 thoughts on “Who’s Afraid of a Christian Extremist?

  1. Erik, this is a very thoughtful and well-written post. I enjoyed reading it.

    That being said, I must disagree with you on the legislating morality bit. The secular segment of American society views the imposition of Christian morality onto the people via legislation as an unwanted restriction of liberty. The best example of this is gay marriage. Most (though not all) who favor legislating their Christian beliefs believe that gay marriage should be banned. This puts a restriction on the freedom of homosexuals who wish to marry. Legislating so-called secular morality gives everyone the choice. Everyone is free to marry, whether gay or straight. When Christians are left to decide law regarding gay marriage, one group is excluded from the right which another group enjoys; one group is discriminated against. Legislating in a way that allows people to choose who they wish to marry without that sexual preference restriction IS morally neutral, discriminating against neither heterosexuals nor homosexuals.

    My point is that, while it’s true that no legislation is completely free from moral neutrality, it is possible for one stance to edge closer to neutrality than another.

    • Hey Josh,

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment, I appreciate you sharing your views. To say that SSM is a hot topic would be a gross understatement, and to be honest it’s not an issue in which I feel like I’ve heard a strong argument for either position. This, in all candidness, is because I haven’t taken the time yet to delve into the issue, even though I live in Iowa, where SSM is a obviously huge issue!

      Now I have to say that after re-reading the comment, I think you may fail to see my point. My point is that neutrality is really illusory and we’re all legislating our morality. I may be butchering your stance, so please feel free to correct me, but one might say that so-called secular neutrality is really the imposition on the person who wants to employ children, or thinks it’s right to pay women less than men to do the same job. After all, it’s their money, so why is the government get involved? They’d be wrong, but I don’t see how that differs from your argument; it just seems like you’re concluding from your premises.

      The person for and against SSM is taking a stance that it’s objectively right or wrong to deny homosexual couples the opportunity to marry. That’s not neutral. I don’t see how it’s morally neutral. Now I believe there is a realm of objective moral truths that I believe can only plausibly be founded in God, who is the author of logic. What I need to do is find the logical arguments for both sides and come to a conclusion. I do agree that the Christian can’t really use question-begging arguments like “the bible is against it, and that’s enough!” in a pluralistic society.

      Now I’m just sort of thinking out loud early in the morning on little sleep, so feel free to tell me I’m being an idiot. 🙂

      • Erik, it seems I did somewhat misunderstand your original point. Thank you for re-explaining it. I now fully see what you were getting at, and I do agree with you when you say “The person for and against SSM is taking a stance that it’s objectively right or wrong to deny homosexual couples the opportunity to marry. ” Believing that it is wrong to deny that choice to people is still a moral standpoint. However, I maintain that the choice which I implicitly advocated in my last post veers closer to neutrality than legislating based on religious beliefs, if only because it allows everyone to make choices in accordance with their beliefs, whether religious or secular. I believe that I’ve steered the train of thought off course, though. Thanks for taking the time to reply to my post.

  2. No problem Josh. I re-read my reply, hopefully I didn’t come across wrong. The SSM issue is a animal of it’s own kind, it’s an issue I don’t feel adequate to defend my position on yet. I’m hesitant to discuss it b/c it’s not popular among people my age, and like I said, I haven’t given it much thought.

    I guess the best reasoning I can come up with against SSM is revising the definition of marriage. Is marriage simply a social construction that we’ve come up with in our culture? I don’t think so.

    I think it has been described by them, not created. If marriage is defined by culture, then it is merely a construction that culture is free to change when it wishes. The definition may have been stable for ages, yet it is still a convention and therefore subject to our alteration. That seems to be the argument for SSM.

    But that seems like that’s getting things turned around – Marriage and family construct culture. Families are logically prior to society as the parts are prior to the whole.

    Societies are large groups of families. Since families are constituent of culture, culture itself cannot define family. They merely observe their parts, as it were, and acknowledge what they have discovered. Society then enacts laws not to create marriage and families according to arbitrary convention, but to protect that which already exists, being essential to the whole.

    But I don’t know how much purchase that argument would have. The bigot card frequently gets played if you say these sort of things. I do think both sides haven’t articulated their points well in the public debate I’ve seen, to my knowledge.

    • “Societies are large groups of families. Since families are constituent of culture, culture itself cannot define family. They merely observe their parts, as it were, and acknowledge what they have discovered. Society then enacts laws not to create marriage and families according to arbitrary convention, but to protect that which already exists, being essential to the whole.”

      But, see, that’s illogical. Society follows from familial bonds, sure, that’s a valid argument–though certainly not the only one–but there is NO logic whatsoever that supports the idea that marriage needs to be “protected”. SSM in no way deconstructs our society. The existence of close romantic and familial ties is definitely something worth protecting, but I can see no validity at all in the argument that marriage as defined as a man and a woman needs “protecting”. The only ways that holds water are A. in a religious, from-the-Bible argument and B. in a marriage-as-a-social-construct sense.

      • I could see how it could be detrimental because it blurs the lines of what marriage really is. At the risk of slippery slope-ishness…

        SSM would introduce a new, less justifiable distinction into the law. This new version would exclude pairs of people for their lack of a sexuality. For instance, roommates who share bills, or two sisters who take care of each other: Why shouldn’t their relationships be recognized by the government? The traditional conception of marriage holds that however valuable those relationships may be, the fact that they are not oriented toward procreation makes them non-marital. Can a new law justify discriminating against such couples because they don’t have sex?

        Again, I haven’t really thought about this topic that much. Just throwing that out there.

        Here’s an interesting take by philosopher Alexander Pruss. He doesn’t really make a conclusion on the issue, but I’d be interested to get your take on it.


  3. See, though, there is a difference between the societal justifications for calling something a marriage and the legal ones. The “traditional” definition of marriage may call for procreation, but does that mean that barren people shouldn’t be allowed to marry? Because if that’s your justification, then the next step after banning SSM is banning the barren or the impotent from marriage, and then the abstinent. And should there be a law requiring people to be married to have children? Because otherwise, that traditional definition of marriage is unnecessary.

    The fact is, marriage in pretty much any country brings with it a set of legal benefits denied the non-married, and a set of responsibilities. You say that if SSM is legalized, what’s to stop two roommates from marrying to share costs and such. I say, the legal commitments involved in marriage and the difficulty of negotiating divorce. Hell, I think there should be MORE responsibility inherent in marriage. And maybe, just so the traditionalists calm down, we can call the legal union something else. But there is no reason I can see why we should be giving legal benefits only to male-and-female couples. That seems discriminatory to me, and with the population the way it is, it’s not like we need to incentivise procreation.

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