In April, Russia’s Supreme Court labeled Jehovah’s Witnesses an extremist religious group. “It effectively means that holding their beliefs and manifesting them is tantamount to a criminal act in Russia. They risk new levels of persecution by the Russian authorities,” said international legal counsel, Lorcan Price.
In America, most of us think of Jehovah’s Witnesses as that occasional Saturday nuisance. They interrupt our morning breakfast or afternoon chores to tell us their version of the Christian faith. They cheerfully drag their families along for quiet strolls through the neighborhoods, and pass out Watchtower Magazines for us to throw away later.
Annoying? Yes. Disruptive? Usually. But extremist? That depends.
Growing up in the Pentecostal faith, I was taught that Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and Catholics were not Christians. Anyone who converted to those, or other non-mainstream Christian sects, was deceived by the devil. Though we didn’t use the word “extremist” to define those religions, we certainly saw them as a threat to the true people of God who were susceptible to “false teachings.”
Religion, to paraphrase Merriam-Webster, is generally a belief in the supernatural with a commitment to keep up the attitudes and practices surrounding that belief. In other words, religion is more than just a belief it is an action. For some, that means attending church on Sundays. For others, it means killing people for believing the wrong things, or believing in the wrong way.
The BBC noted that Al Qaeda’s purpose is to avenge “wrongs committed by Christians against Muslims.” The organization wants to implement a “single Islamic political leadership,” and drive away non-Muslims from areas it deems belong to the nation of Islam.
ISIS, on the other hand, is a group of Scriptural fundamentalists who believe all other Muslims are apostates. William McCants, director of the Project on US Relations With the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution, says that ISIS wants “to restore the early Islamic empire called the caliphate and eventually take over the whole world.”
Most of us can agree that Al Qaeda and ISIS are extremist groups. After all, they plan and implement terrorist attacks. They kill people, sometimes brutally. But is violence the only indicator of religious extremism?
It could certainly be argued that when a religion becomes violent it becomes extremist. But even Christianity, in it’s many definitions, has a sordid history, which is seldom talked about and often dismissed. From the Spanish inquisition to the convert-or-die tactics used on Native American Indians, Christianity has been used to commit horrific acts of violence throughout the centuries. Judaism, from which Christianity arose, recorded shocking details in the Torah of the slaughter of entire populations, including women, children, and animals.
Any religion, which purports to, alone, have all truth, and to, alone, have a direct line of communication to God, has a propensity toward extremist ideology. As University of Notre Dame Professor, Gary Gutting, points out:
The potential for intolerance lies in the logic of religions like Christianity and Islam that say their teaching derive from a divine revelation. For them, the truth that God has revealed is the most important truth there is; therefore, denying or doubting this truth is extremely dangerous, both for nonbelievers, who lack this essential truth, and for believers, who may well be misled by the denials and doubts of nonbelievers.
Any religion that denies the value and humanity of others is an extremist religion. Whether those actions lead to direct harm, or simply reduce protections through legislation, extremist ideology seeks to create one class that is believed to be more valued than another.
The grandstanding that fundamentalist Christians have done since marriage equality passed in 2015 has created a growing, and disturbing trend toward extremist Christianity.
The Oath Keepers, a vigilante Christian group, vowed to protect Kentucky County Clerk, Kim Davis, when she refused issuing a marriage license to a gay couple. They stated the judge in Davis’ case “needs to be put on notice that his behavior is not going to be accepted and we’ll be there to stop it and intercede ourselves if we have to.” And then, in an ironic twist to the story, the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, of “God hates fags” fame, picketed Kim Davis because of her multiple divorces and remarriages.
Since then, dozens of “religious freedom” bills have been introduced across the country with the sole purpose of reducing or eliminating protections for the LGBT community in housing, employment, benefits, and even where they can go to the bathroom.
The problem, of course, is that “religious freedom” is based on nothing more than a belief. Governments who support “religious freedom” over the equal human rights and dignity of others condone, and even endorse discrimination. In any such environment religious extremism is the outcome, threatening the very existence of democracy.