One reader (perhaps we can call him Mere O’s very own Professor Kingsfield?) of Friday’s post raised another possible mechanism that could be used by courts or legislatures to target conservative religious groups: the fear of “religious extremism.”
Jake —You said, “But such a move would probably be a bridge too far as that box includes a lot of organizations that even many progressives would be reluctant to see lose tax-exempt status. (It also would be relatively easy to spin such a strategy in the media as being anti-Islamic or anti-Semitic, which would create major problems for the supporters of such a move.) Thus there would need to be some kind of legal mechanism for removing tax-exempt status from religious organizations that discriminate against protected classes while preserving it for non-discriminatory organizations.”I wonder if you can do it, UK-style, under the banner of “counter-extremism.” Then, for the general public, it doesn’t have to become anti-Islamic or anti-Semitic, it becomes anti Islamist extremists, or anti Jewish extremism. Once the general public starts to see orthodox Christianity as “extreme” — dangerous with respect to “social cohesion” and “child safeguarding” (to use two popular British terms) — then I wonder if you couldn’t see more state-and-social-defense-
through-offense moves (i.e. remove tax status, greater scrutiny of what’s being taught to children in ‘non-school education’ settings, etc.)
The roadmap for how this would work is not hard to spot, as our reader alludes to in his email. One need only look across the Atlantic to the home of Mere Fidelity contributors Andrew Wilson and Alastair Roberts to see a similar project already under way. For some time now, the UK has been taking steps to target “religious extremism.” Unfortunately, the definitions of religious extremism are both relatively fluid and relatively expansive.
In Britain’s case, any kind of curriculum that is deemed insufficiently inclusive is likely to be branded “extreme.” Orthodox Jewish schools that teach only in Hebrew have been targeted, for example. So too have Christian schools that teach traditional Christian sex ethics. (Ostensibly Christian schools that are sufficiently inclusive in the eyes of the UK government have generally passed Ofsted’s examination without too much trouble.)
Britain has recently tried to push this sort of regulation of schools even more aggressively by proposing a plan to require Sunday Schools to register with the government and be subject to random examinations from Ofsted employees. That proposal was roundly criticized by conservatives, thankfully, and for now it appears to be on hold.
That being said, it is not hard to imagine a scenario where something similar could play out in the United States, though it will likely take a bit more time simply because millennials do not, at this point, have enough political power to make such legislation happen. However, the numbers we do have don’t look good.
According to Barna (and yes, yes, Barna, grain of salt, etc.), here’s a breakdown on the sorts of things that are now considered to be signs of religious extremism:
- Over 80% of US adults believe that refusing to serve someone because the customer’s lifestyle conflicts with their beliefs is extreme. (We’ll leave out, for the moment, the rather unhelpful way Barna phrased this question, although this is a good example of why Barna’s polling data is sometimes not the best.)
- 50-79% of US adults think that demonstrating outside an organization they consider to be immoral is extreme.
- The same number think that attempting to convert others to their faith, teaching children that same-sex acts are wrong, or believing that same-sex acts are wrong is extreme.
- 20-49% believe that speaking in tongues, quitting a good-paying job to pursue mission work in another country, wearing special clothes or head coverings for religious observance, adhering to special dietary restrictions or fasting, and waiting until marriage to have sex are signs of extremism.
Many of the things described above are fairly mainstream, normal behaviors in many Christian traditions, to say nothing of Judaism and Islam. If, and that’s a big if, admittedly, but if those definitions of extremism currently believed by American adults are allowed to be unchallenged and take root on a broader level, then it is not hard to imagine future legislative actions in America that mirror those in the UK.
One takeaway from this, then, is that we desperately need Christians who are known as Christians working in professions outside of the church or para-church setting. One of evangelicalism’s besetting sins, I think, has been a tendency to think that anyone who is really passionate about the Lord needs to be in full-time vocational ministry of some sort or doing foreign missions. We now may be reaping the consequences of that belief as, despite the fact that evangelicals make up 25% of the American population, mainstream evangelical beliefs are now thought to be hopelessly weird or even extreme. The problem in many cases, I imagine, is that smart, well-educated American adults may not know any evangelical believers or may not know that people they do know are evangelical.
I remember well a time in college when a friend of mine who worked for the university organized a student panel to discuss some proposed changes at the university. She recruited a bunch of students from RUF to be on the panel. At the event, several faculty members were blown away by the quality of the students my friend was able to find. Afterward, her boss asked her where she found them. When she told her that they were all in her campus ministry, her boss didn’t believe her. She didn’t think Christians could be that smart. From conversations with other friends in the academy, I know that sort of belief is not unusual amongst many in the university today. I suspect it is also true in many other spheres too.
So if you are a smart college kid who likes theology, likes talking to people about Jesus, and wants to do meaningful work in the kingdom, here’s one idea: Don’t go to seminary.
Get a job in marketing or retail or tech or healthcare or journalism (do those still exist?) and just be a normal Christian. Be a good lay parishioner in your church. Make a better wage than you probably would as a pastor or in para-church ministry, or at least make a wage that isn’t paid by the church or a para-church ministry, and then use that money to do good things. (Our churches may be in desperate financial straits in the near future.) Heck, do something radical.
Get married and have a bunch of kids. Do something to help the sorry state of education in our country—and help it not just for the Christian kids, but for the non-Christian kids as well. Let’s start Christian schools that are so good that we have non-Christians wanting to send their kids to learn with us.
This is what we need, probably more than we need anything else at this moment: We need normal Christian people living basically normal lives who are animated in such a way by the Gospel that it energizes and emboldens them to build institutions and support good works.
The day is coming soon when it will be very very easy for us to live in isolated Christian micro-cultures, not because we are choosing them for ourselves, but because the disdain mainstream America has for our beliefs makes such exile inevitable. But what if they couldn’t fully exile us because the work we’re doing in our local places is so high-quality, enjoyable, and fruitful that they can’t ignore us? That’s the way forward.*
* One footnote is probably in order: I can’t speak for Rod Dreher, but what I’m describing is not something that I see as being in any way at odds with the idea of the Benedict Option, even if I’m sounding at times much more like James Davison Hunter or Tim Keller than Rod Dreher or Wendell Berry. The way I understand it, the BenOp idea begins with creating small, local communities dedicated to a shared way of life whose goal is cultivating the Christian life in that place and forming people as disciples. But disciples do things; they don’t just stay in the Christian sub-culture, they move outward, as we were called to do by Christ in the Great Commission. And this is particularly true for heirs of the magisterial reformation who understand the relationship between church and commonwealth in a way far superior to that of Rome or the traditions that have spawned from or whose theology mirrors that of the radical reformation.
This, incidentally, is also why I’ve never bought the critique that the BenOp is all about cultural withdrawal. It’s not. It’s about looking at our church communities, dealing with the fact that evangelicals and Catholics alike are doing a very poor job of catechizing their young people, and figuring out what needs to be done to fix that and then doing it. It’s about doing a better job at training disciples, in other words. But once we have made some progress on that point, those disciples we create have to go somewhere and do something.