Blurred Extremism

Photo: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

After seeing many social media posts over the last 10+ years from several people I regard as friends about extremism being linked to Christianity/Republican/Evangelicalism/far-right as well as Progressive-Liberal/ Democrat/Atheist/Agnostic/far-left (depending on which camp you identify with – if any), I am curious if it’s time to rethink some of the language we use around these terms.

I’ve been following some ex-evangelical and deconstruction movements, have had many conversations with Catholics, Jews, progressive liberals, atheists, scientists, therapists, agnostics, Buddhists, and Wiccans. In addition, I am very familiar with the independent fundamental teachings within evangelicalism as I was raised in it since I was literally in my mother’s womb.

My Bachelor’s degree is from a Christian liberal arts college in the South; my MBA is from an evangelical Christian university on the East Coast; and the Masters I’m currently working on (in Theology & Culture) is from an orthodox Christian seminary on the West Coast that is progressive and inclusive. The theologies, teaching styles, and student interactions at all three institutions are vastly different – yet Christ remains the central conversation at all three.

Some of you may be wondering “why” I even want to tackle this subject, and I ask myself that quite often, but with the current state of the world, the hate and venom that spews from the extremes on both sides, the Russian war in Ukraine, AND the fact that I am a Jesus follower (probably following closest to the Nicene Creed in terms of my doctrinal beliefs), I am finding it necessary to set the record straight that the terms “christian,” “evangelical,” “progressive,” “democrat,” “republican,” “the right,” “the left,” no longer mean what we think they mean (and/or what some people assume they mean). There are probably many more words that we could insert here that also have blurred definitions, but suffice it to say, today I want to focus mainly on the terms “right-wing extremists” and “left-wing extremists.”

I wanted to find some information that had high credibility behind it and came across an article from November 2018 that provided what I would consider to be a great overview of the rise of right-wing extremism in both America and Europe. The article was written by Seth Jones who is the senior vice president, Harold Brown Chair, director of the International Security Program, and director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). He leads a bipartisan team of over 50 resident staff and an extensive network of non-resident affiliates dedicated to providing independent strategic insights and policy solutions that shape national security. He also teaches at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and the Center for Homeland Defense and Security (CHDS) at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School.

Before Jones delves in, he prefaces his article with the language I feel is almost becoming necessary to use prior to posting anything regarding hot topics. I often feel like I need to say, “Hey y’all, I’m a Christian, but I promise I’m not a jerk, I’m not homophobic, I won’t judge and condemn you, I’m not a white nationalist, I don’t hate you or think I’m better than you and the list goes on.” Jones states:

To be clear,  the terms “right-wing extremists” and “left-wing extremists” do not correspond to political parties in the United States, such as Republicans or Democrats. Opinion polls in the United States show that most Republicans and Democrats loathe terrorism.

Instead, right-wing terrorism commonly refers to the use or threat of violence by sub-national or non-state entities whose goals may include racial, ethnic, or religious supremacy; opposition to government authority; and the end of practices like abortion.  As Bruce Hoffman writes, right-wing terrorists generally criticize the democratic state for “its liberal social welfare policies and tolerance of diverse opinion—alongside its permitting of dark-skinned immigrants in the national labor force and of Jews and other minorities in positions of power or influence.” Left-wing terrorism, on the other hand, refers to the use or threat of violence by sub-national or non-state entities that oppose capitalism, imperialism, and colonialism; focus on environmental or animal rights issues; espouse pro-communist or pro-socialist beliefs; or support a decentralized sociopolitical system like anarchism.

My dilemma with these terms is that people are linking terms together to reflect these ideologies. For example, someone may post that the “evangelicals are at it again – being racist, supporting Putin’s war, and delivering messages of hate and exclusion.” On the other hand, someone may post “typical Democrats – socialist baby-murderers.” And here’s the slippery, dangerous slope we encounter – we end up using these terms so that if someone identifies as a democrat, they end up getting stereotyped, assumptions are made, and there is no unifying language to bring them together because the barriers are already millennia-thick.

Consider the “christian” crusades (absolutely NOTHING Christian about them) which resulted in a senseless blood bath, and then we wonder why many people hate Christians. But when you have self-professed Christians condemning every person that is not in their camp, it’s no wonder. On the other hand, when someone identifies as a Christian and they may actually live out their faith according to how Jesus modeled it in the New Testament, another person may automatically assume they are a Republican and a white supremacist. This is why I think we need new language, terms, and definitions.

I grew up in an era where there were only two genders: male and female. These days, I’m not sure how many genders scientists have identified, but apparently, according to them, male and female aren’t expansive enough to fully define it. If we can expand our definitions of gender, I think we should be able to expand our definitions of what causes so much strife among the religious, political, and social camps.

While I won’t be tackling this anytime soon (I’m still eye-deep in my Master’s program until 2023), I do plan to tackle the christian/evangelical/deconstruction/ex-evangelical divide at some point. I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences on the matter.

When you hear these terms, what comes to mind?

Do you agree the terminology and definitions should change?

What do you think?