Neither Moderate Nor Extreme
I grew up as a Conservative Evangelical/Christian Fundamentalist. I know from my heritage that Fundamentalists are good people, sincere, kind-hearted, and well-meaning. They don't think of themselves as extremists because they can always look to their right and see people more extreme than they. (And, of course, nearly everyone to their left seems extreme, too.) As a result, they see themselves as the moderate ones, and the rest of us are extremists (as, I think, nearly all of us do—most extremists are the last to know they're extremists). When people call them extremists, directly or by innuendo, they feel persecuted and insulted. They click into a victimization narrative which prompts them to become...let me say, instead of "even more extreme," "even less moderate."
I've been thinking a lot lately about what extremism is and about what makes a religious group become more extreme over time. There are many factors—some internal to the group, some having to do with the reactions of outsiders to the group. But one of the internal factors that can motivate a group towards extremism is a distaste for hypocrisy, lukewarmness, and nominalism.
When hypocrisy is understood as inconsistency or half-heartedness—stopping short of living out the full implications of one's beliefs—then those who are willing to be more consistent, to take their faith to its ultimate conclusions, gain more legitimacy. A recent article by a young woman who grew up in the Christian Patriarchy/Quiverfull movements makes exactly this point:
... evangelicals believe essentially the same things as the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, they just don't take it to the same extreme. Evangelicals believe that husbands are to be their wives' spiritual heads, but in practice their marriages are generally fairly egalitarian. Evangelicals believe that children are a blessing, but in moderation. Evangelicals believe that children should receive a godly education, but most of them send their children to public schools. Evangelicals believe that adult unmarried daughters should honor their parents and listen to their advice, but they don't expect them to always obey it. Evangelicals believe that men and women are different, and that children need their mothers at home, but most evangelical women work outside the home. Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull simply take these beliefs to their natural—and radical—conclusions.
Among groups vulnerable to extremism, words like hypocritical, lukewarm, nominal, and compromised become synonyms for those who do not push for a more thorough and far-reaching consistency, and in the end, the word moderate itself becomes associated with these damning epithets. What words represent an alternative to hypocritical, lukewarm, nominal, compromised, and moderate? Orthodox is a favorite, as are words like true, pure, committed, biblical, uncompromising, and radical.
Brian D. McLaren is an author, speaker, activist, and public theologian. A former college English teacher and pastor, he is an ecumenical global networker among innovative Christian leaders. Among McLaren's more prominent writings are A New Kind of Christian (2001), A Generous Orthodoxy (2006), Everything Must Change (2009), and A New Kind of Christianity (2010). His lastest book, Naked Spirituality, offers "simple, doable, and durable" practices to help people deepen their life with God.