Are you an extremist?

Man carrying political sign

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.

Religious practices

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?

Photo Credit: permanently scatterbrained via Compfight cc

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  1. If you don’t mind a non Christian view maybe some of the attitude of non religious people to religion is due to religions attempts to enshrine their own beliefs into the laws of the land, eg on euthanasia, contraception, abortion, homosexuality etc. Religious people can obviously obey these principles themselves, but resentment occurs when they are seen to be imposing these views on others.
    Resentment also occurs when churches, that control large amounts of money financially support political parties who support their views. Of course they have a right to do this under current legislation, but the concept of small groups whether they be businesses, developers or religions having a greater influence on legislation than the ordinary voter is irritating to the masses.
    So, if you want advice on how Christians can change their public image, my advice would be to withdraw from politics and express your views addressing their practical benefits to society rather than simply as religious dogma.

  2. Your view is welcome, and I think fair comment. The only place I disagree is I don’t think churches should withdraw from politics, but rather be more sensitive and careful about how they do it. I think churches and christians have as much right as anyone else to make their views heard, but there is a thin line between exercising democratic rights and minding other people’s business.

  3. I think the question is about lobby groups in general that try to influence a small group of politicians behind closed doors without any public transparency. Influencing a few balance of power people is easier than convincing the general public.
    Of course religions have a “right” to do this as much as anyone else, but the process as such is corrupt. The same principle is in effect with gay activists who would prefer to manipulate a few politicians over gay marriage than take their debate public ;ie to a plebiscite.
    Debates on anything affecting society should be open and public, not collusive, that’s my point.

  4. Yeah, again it is a fine line – what is the difference between someone exercising their democratic right to talk to a politician, and a lobby group exerting undue influence? Or the press exerting undue influence for that matter?
    It’s a difficult one. Your principle (all influence is open and public) is good, but I can’t see it actually working. I think churches and christians should try to be above reproach, so I agree with the direction your suggesting, but I think there are grey areas.

  5. The “grey area” you mentioned is the current funding system for political parties where organisations and wealthy individuals can contribute more and therefore have more influence. Churches (and developers and large businesses) are wealthy and therefore have a lot of influence, much more so than the average voter.
    Until this system is changed to public funding for political parties or donations by individuals only and capped to about $500 pa then the corrupt system will continue, and the public will remain resentful of behind the scenes deals even when organisations make genuine attempts to explain their views to the public.

  6. “Yeah, again it is a fine line – what is the difference between someone exercising their democratic right to talk to a politician, and a lobby group exerting undue influence? Or the press exerting undue influence for that matter?”
    Money basically, if the lobby group happens to be a donor to the party in government.
    The press can certainly exert undue influence, but that doesn’t excuse the act. You as a Christian would not want to be likened to the gutter press I hope. 🙂

  7. 1. I’m not sure how wealthy churches are (in terms of disposable wealth at least), but I agree that political funding needs to be cleaned up. Politicians spending their time and funding on developing and presenting policies rather than trying to smear their opponents and hold onto power might be a good start!
    2. I certainly don’t want christianity to behave like the Telegraph or like developer-donors, but christians don’t have the influence of the former or the cash of the latter.
    3. But I think there is still much grey area. Many of the things we’d like to do would be undemocratic, and the “cure” may be as bad as the disease.

  8. Could you expand a bit on your point 3 ?
    What things do you want to do would be undemocratic ?

  9. Hi,
    Nice survey and text =) But I think that we should keep in mind not only the Evangelical/Protestant Christians but also the Catholic. There are some influential Catholics in the USA who could be seen as “extremists”.
    For example, the Justice Antonin Scalia, who passed away recently and was highly esteemed among conservatives, was a Catholic.
    And how about Anthony Esolen, Sherif Girgis (one publicly known advocate for traditional marriage)? I am not criticizing the U.S Catholics, I like very much some of Esolen texts, for example, as some texts in First Things page (more Catholic leaned).
    I don’t know how it is there in Down Under, but here, Evangelical/Protestant are usually labeled as more “extremist” than Catholic by public opinion.
    But trying to answer the second question – I guess that holding and defending Christian values among non-Christians one of the toughest tasks one may have.
    Withdrawing from the public square completely won’t solve the problem, since soon or later, the issues will knock on your door.

  10. What’s the problem with The Telegraph? It’s my favourite British newspaper at the moment.

  11. “Could you expand a bit on your point 3 ?”
    Well, in a democracy, people can donate to political parties. If we want to stop some people donating but not others, we have to make rules to prevent what we want, or lists of unacceptable donors. Either way, we infringe on some peoples’ right to donate, and we’ll likely prevent someone we don’t want to prevent. So there are difficulties in implementing what you say, especially as we’d probably all disagree on the criteria, and we’d likely have people finding ways around our rules. So while I support the idea in some ways, I think we have to be very careful with it.

  12. Hi Jonathan, no I agree that withdrawing isn’t much of an option. I think some of the views on extremism are a bit extreme themselves, so I just think this is an issue to be aware of, and address as best we can.
    We were talking about the Sydney Daily Telegraph, which in my opinion is highly biased, untruthful and misleading, making it not much of a newspaper and more of a viewspaper.

  13. “Well, in a democracy, people can donate to political parties. If we want to stop some people donating but not others, we have to make rules to prevent what we want, or lists of unacceptable donors. Either way, we infringe on some peoples’ right to donate, and we’ll likely prevent someone we don’t want to prevent. So there are difficulties in implementing what you say, especially as we’d probably all disagree on the criteria, and we’d likely have people finding ways around our rules. So while I support the idea in some ways, I think we have to be very careful with it.”
    Yes people can donate to political parties, but politicians are public servants and we can’t donate to public servants (much as some of us may have benefited at one time !) without being charged with corruption. So a double standard exists which could be solved by public funding or limiting donations to individuals and put a cap on the maximum donatable amount.
    Which comes to the point of once having gained influence with politicians, what do you want to do with it ?
    Could you list some things that if you had the power you as a Christian would bring into law that isn’t there now, or remove or change things that already exist ?

  14. Hang on a bit! We started talking about lobbying, then using donations to influence decisions, now you’re asking what I would do if I had the power to bring in a law. Where did that come from?
    I think lobbying is legitimate and everyone has the right to do it. I don’t think donations should be used to influence – that’s bribery – but I have said I don’t think it is easy to stop that without making it harder for legit people to do legit things. And I certainly don’t think I have any “power”, nor if I had any would I use to it further my own agendas.
    So I wanted to start by clarifying all that.
    I understand your point about public funding for elections, and I think it is a good point, I just don’t think it is easy to implement. Donations don’t pay the salaries of public servants or politicians, they are used to fund advertising, and in a democratic capitalist system it is hard to see how that can reasonably be stopped.
    As for how I would want to influence politicians, I have written letters or emails and signed petitions on better treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, stronger action on climate change, other environmental issues, aboriginal issues, tax law, overseas aid, laws on revenge porn, maybe others I can’t remember now, so that gives you an idea of how I would like to influence politicians.
    What about you? Have you ever written to an MP or signed a petition?

  15. “Hang on a bit! We started talking about lobbying, then using donations to influence decisions, now you’re asking what I would do if I had the power to bring in a law. Where did that come from?”
    Well it follows logically from your argument that Christians have a right to influence politicians that you actually want to influence them in some way and I was interested in what issues you want to influence them on.
    Yes I’ve signed a few petitions, but I can’t remember actually what, although I do remember writing to politicians regarding the metadata legislation with I think is overkill and a threat to the privacy of us all.
    I think Getup has a few good campaigns going.
    My own political leanings are slightly to the Left so I agree with most of what Getup says but not all.
    I’m generally concerned about the corporatisation of public institutions like the ABC , Medicare, power and water utilities etc and the effects that this has on consumers, especially when politicians that make this happen turn up on the boards of companies that they helped to create. This is simply corruption.
    I certainly don’t have any problems about individuals like us participating in the political process, that’s what democracy is all about, but I disagree with organisational participation based on dogma (in the case of religion) or self interest in the case of business or developers. That’s where money starts talking and the wealthy have an advantage over the not so wealthy.
    “Donations don’t pay the salaries of public servants or politicians, they are used to fund advertising, and in a democratic capitalist system it is hard to see how that can reasonably be stopped.”
    Organisations could do the advertising themselves, which would be more transparent than political parties doing it. eg the Church (whatever that is) could take out ads opposing the gay marriage legislation stating that it is on behalf of the ACL or whatever rather than a political party.
    The mining industry did that during the mining tax debate and I have no problem with that, at least we knew who they were and where they were coming from, but they probably gave political donations as well which isn’t as obvious.
    The problem with organisational donations is that the lobbyist may endorse a political party for a very narrow set of reasons whereas the individual has to put up with a whole gamut of possibly negative results on themselves if that party gets into power.
    On another issue, did you watch Cardinal Pell at the Royal Commission ? What did you think of his performance ?

  16. I think there is a fair jump from trying to lobby politicians to “power to bring in a law”, but let’s leave that be. I still think in a democracy groups should have the right to talk to pollies just as individuals do, but I also agree that that right can be abused. In the end, bribery is a crime but influencing is not.
    I feel a little sorry for Pell. I don’t like him and I think he has been uncaring and probably unchristian. But I think he has been caught by changing times and he still doesn’t understand. Faith and religious commitment are not simple things, so I can’t really do any more than speculate, but it used to be (centuries ago) that entering the church was a career choice like joining the army or going into business. Such career churchman may not have the same personal faith and aspirations as, say, I do. I can’t help wondering if that is Pell – a career churchman who sought power for himself and the church more than he sought to follow Jesus and his teachings, and so behaved in ways we can all see were not ethically good. The ends justified the means. A terrible way to live a life. That is speculation, but may be right.
    I didn’t see any of his evidence, but I would guess he is still doing the same – protecting himself and the church even at the expense of truth and compassion. Like I said, I think he has missed the whole point of being a christian, and I feel sorry for him, though not as much as I feel sorry for the church’s victims.

  17. I agree with your summing up of Pell. “Career churchman” is a good description.
    I’m not sure if I feel all that sorry for him though. It seems some people just don’t appreciate the trust put in them as “Men of God” by their parishoners and the duty that they have towards them.
    Anyway I’m glad I’m not part of that denomination. I was brought up in the Methodist church and there was nothing of child abuse in that church that I heard of. It must be something to do with the fact that Catholic priests are not allowed to marry. It’s a bit confusing to me that one part of Christianity thinks that married (or female) priests are ‘un-holy’ whereas another part thinks that’s fine.
    What’s your view ?

  18. I can’t help feeling that there has to be something more than Catholic priests not being allowed to marry, though that must be part of the problem. But I think there must have been something about trust and power that had an effect as well. Why some churches had a problem and others didn’t may be based more on control and power I think.
    My view of this question is coloured by the fact that I don’t think we should have a special class of people called clergy, priests, or whatever – I think we should all just be christians and some of us are employed by the church and some are not.
    But I think there is a further problem with people making rules, whether based on the Bible or church tradition (which tends to control what the Bible says), whereas i think many matters are more fluid. Jesus said we could sum up the whole law with loving God and loving neighbour, and I think that allows quite a bit of situational flexibility. I don’t believe we can take that to an extreme, but I think it does mean we shouldn’t be making rules about celibate priests, female pastors, etc.

  19. That sounds very sensible to me from someone who is outside the church. It would also appeal to many parishioners I believe, but to the hierarchy I think it would be anathema.
    Maybe that is one reason that there are so many breakaway groups from the mainstream churches, trying to limit traditional authority and set up new power structures. In that way religion seems on a par with politics (sorry if the comparison offends), but I suppose these changes are just a symbol of evolution and we have to adapt to the times.

  20. The comparison doesn’t offend, it is quite reasonable. In my view, the best parts of “religion” are what comes from Jesus himself – love your enemies, care for the poor and disadvantaged, forgive, and humbly seek to know God – and the worst parts are those very human (and not very godly) politics and power issues that go with any organisation. It is significant to me that Jesus was almost totally tender hearted to the average person, but highly critical of the religious leaders of his time.

  21. If I can say a final thing about institutional involvement in politics ?
    It’s well known that in Australia churches traditionally support Conservative parties presumably because their views coincide on such things as homosexuality, contraception, abortion etc.
    I well remember Cardinal Pell’s support of John Howard, Howard’s disastrous appointment of Archbishop Hollingsworth as Governor General and the financial relationship between Howard and the Exclusive Bretheren, a Right Wing Christian group.
    However, in my estimation anyway, Conservative parties are more likely to cut social security for those in need, impose tax increases that hurt those on lower incomes more, treat refugees badly, damage the environment, ignore climate science, be more hawkish in foreign affairs including getting us into wars, and impose draconian legislation affecting our civil rights.
    So do Christians believe that these policies align with what their faith tells them ?
    Did the churches take a poll of their members before deciding who to support or did the hierarchy make the decision for their congregation ?
    A parallel for me is a company that I have shares in makes a donation to a party I don’t support. I don’t think it has any right to do that and I don’t think churches have the right to assume that their members agree with supporting any political party.
    So if a church circulates a petition to its members for presentation to Parliament about a particular issue, that’s fine because people have the choice to sign or not to sign, but blanket support for one side is undemocratic imo.
    Anyway, to come back to your discussion about extremism. I tend to go with the dictionary definition regarding illegal acts, so for example I wouldn’t consider a group peacefully protesting outside an abortion clinic to be extreme, but they obviously would be if they tried to burn the place down.

  22. I agree with a lot of what you say here. I have always thought that Jesus’ teachings and actions were closer to left than right in our politics, and have never been able to understand how so many christians are adamantly right wing. My guess is that whenever christianity becomes mainstream it becomes slack and selfish, and people’s choices favour the status quo. And so we can easily emphasise personal morality while turning a blind eye to injustice and inequality.

  23. I very much admire your independent approach to your faith and your questioning of institutional norms.
    People like yourself and Father Bob Maguire are what gives religion a good name.
    You represent the fundamentals of the Christian faith and as such you are worth a thousand pious Pells living lives of delusion.
    Keep up the good work.

  24. Well, I must say that is one of the nicest things anyone has ever said about me! Thanks you so much!
    Christianity, especially the Protestant version, recognises that as well as a corporate solidarity,we also have an individual responsibility to respond to God. All christians believe in the Holy Spirit, but most of us don’t take him very seriously as a responsible guide. I try, but don’t always succeed.
    Thanks again – you are welcome here anytime! 🙂

  25. Thought you might be interested in this article.
    Do you have an opinion on abolishing tax free status for churches ?
    I think that the bigger religions operate more as a business than a charity these days, although there is not a clear dividing line.
    I object in principle to taxpayers money assisting the spread of ideas to which I do not subscribe (Islam is a religion too, and so may other freaky beliefs be defined as religion even though they are businesses under the surface, Creflo Dollar as discussed elsewhere).

  26. I would agree more than disagree with that article.
    I don’t think religious institutions should get a free ride per se. I actually think it would help the church recover its true mission if it couldn’t support large church properties any longer.
    But there are some serious “buts”. Many other people get free rides of this nature – sports get funding, as do billionaire businesses, mining companies, the arts, etc. If a large heap of huge companies pay minimal tax, this is the place to start, not the churches. Remember, more people attend churches than play most sports, so if religion stops getting tax breaks, so should sport and the arts.
    But ideally, every tax concession and funding grant should be based on the public good. Where religious groups are doing good, they should get tax relief, just as other groups should. This wouldn’t be easy to assess, but could be done in a general way be setting out some simple criteria of how much the property and time of the organisation goes to public good.
    So I agree in principle, but that writer is hardly unbiassed!

  27. I agree with what you say, but my problem is with the definition of religion.
    “Precise definition of the concept of religion, or of what generally constitutes ‘a religion’, is difficult, if not impossible, because of the intangible and wide-ranging nature of the topic. Generally, a religion is regarded as a set of beliefs and practices, usually involving acknowledgment of a divine or higher being or power, by which people order the conduct of their lives both practically and in a moral sense. This method of defining religion in terms of a mixture of beliefs, practices, and a Supernatural Being giving form and meaning to existence was used by the High Court of Australia in 1983. The High Court held that “the beliefs, practices and observances of the Church of the New Faith (Scientology) were a religion in Victoria”. As part of the ruling, it was stated that: “
    If Scientologists run a bookshop promoting their works and make a profit from it I have misgivings about those profits being tax free considering the shady and cultish nature of their “Faith”. I could say the same about religions that promote, sponsor or excuse violence in their name as well.
    So , as you say there is a very grey area about what is “public good” and what is “private interest” in church operations. Maybe there should be more accountability in requiring religions to maintain audited accounts, I don’t think they are currently required to do this in Australia.

  28. I don’t have a problem with your definition, or your example. If the church of scientology, or any other church, has a bookshop, then it should be taxed in exactly the same way as any other bookshop. i.e. if it makes a profit, that should be taxed, if it is just onselling books from a regular bookshop, then the regular bookshop would be taxed, not the church.
    The difficulty I see is when a church does a lot of community work (e.g. food pantry for the poor, counselling, etc). Those parts of the church’s operation shouldn’t be taxed, but the rest should – as should other organisations that serve don’t serve the community. The principle is easy but working out the details is difficult. But churches and other organisations already do this with tax deductibility for donations, so it ought to be possible to get it close to right. If a church wants some of its land ownership to be rate free, or some of its earnings to be tax free, then it should seek that and be granted on its merits.

  29. The difficulty I see is when a church does a lot of community work (e.g. food pantry for the poor, counselling, etc). Those parts of the church’s operation shouldn’t be taxed, but the rest should
    Indeed so. This should be fairly easy though because the food pantry presumably would not charge for their food, so they would not show any income and therefore would not be subject to tax.
    If they received congregational donations on which they may pay tax to fund the food pantry they could therefore offset the donations against the cost of running the food pantry. Where they should pay tax is in payments remitted to “Head Office”, eg the Vatican, because that money could be deemed as income in excess of their charitable works.

  30. Yeah, I think we are pretty much agreed. The only difficulty is because it isn’t just income from the charity side, which I agree would be small. But a proportion of staff salaries, plus land rates, etc, might also be relevant to the charity, and they might reasonably be foregone by council or government.

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