Samuel Rodriguez, Extremism, and the Oak Initiative

Some critics of Rodriguez immediately questioned his motivations and focused on further steps that Rev. Rodriguez should take but that they doubted that he would. I took a different tack. I believed that motivations are not for us to judge, and that Rev. Rodriguez was making a step consistent with his long-stated values. I hoped that beyond his decision to resign from the Oak Initiative, Rev. Rodriguez would take further steps to distance himself and his ministry from the damaging taint of religious extremism. By Friday, Rev. Rodriguez had issued the truly significant statement quoted at the start of this article.

From this experience of reporting on religious extremism and advocating for its end, I see five lessons for the broader religious community:

Take media reports of religious extremism seriously. Far too often, particularly in the Catholic and evangelical circles in which I travel, leaders dismiss secular media reporting on conservative Christians as inherently suspect and riddled with distortion. Their reflexive response is to view it as "more of the same" paranoia and ignorance of religion. The Rodriguez story challenges that reflex and invites deeper self-analysis. Many reporters and researchers know movements and theologies far deeper than the average layperson, and are themselves disturbed by the ignorance of many national news media.

Rethink the "evangelical center." In the weeks leading up to this story, I was engaged in strenuous debates with evangelical leaders over the radicalization of evangelicalism. Time after time I was told that extremist ideology was, as one friend put it, "truly and enduringly marginal" within evangelicalism. Clearly that assumption is false. Rev. Rodriguez is anything but a marginal figure within mainstream evangelicalism. The NHCLC that Rodriguez heads is a sister organization to the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), and he continues to sit on the board of the NEA, Christianity Today, and Gordon Conwell Seminary. Even if one accepts, as I do, that Rodriguez was not fully aware of the Oak Initiative agenda, it speaks volumes to the radicalization of the evangelical movement that one of its bright young stars was until now featured prominently in the propaganda efforts of an organization riddled with conspiracy theories and distortions.

Give "truth in love" a chance. The fierce rhetoric of the culture wars has left many of us doubtful that persuasion is possible. We assume, often with past personal experience to justify it, that truth is not relevant to our opponents. But in this case, the truth won out. Whether out of embarrassment at "being caught" or (in my view) genuine remorse over what he learned, Rev. Rodriguez made a significant change as a result of truthful reporting communicated with respect for his intelligence and character. When we give a perceived opponent the chance to change, the worst that can happen is that the person remains stuck in his or her beliefs, but at least we will know that we have treated someone the way we would want to be treated. Sadly, reporters and researchers, especially those affiliated with groups with a clear stake in the culture wars, seem to have given up on the possibility that the truth they discover might actually lead to change. I was discouraged to see that some reporters have such a firm view about the groups they are covering that they have stopped dealing with the subjects as full-dimensional people capable of good as well as the evil they believe they have caught them committing.

Stop condescending to Pentecostals. As the global church becomes increasingly charismatic, those of us outside of that tradition are going to need to overcome stereotypes about Pentecostal thinking. I believe that one of the reasons Pentecostal extremism goes unchallenged in the broader Church is that non-Pentecostals assume that those extremes define Pentecostalism. There is a spoken and unspoken assumption that a group that engages in something as "odd" as speaking in tongues or prophetic utterances is anti-intellectual and immune from to persuasion that certain practices or beliefs are wrong. When I spoke with Rev. Rodriguez, I did so in the conviction that (until proven otherwise) he would share general Christian convictions about tolerance and justice, and that if he did not agree with my views then it was probably because of ideologies that have nothing to do with Pentecostalism. In saying this, I do not mean to deny or downplay disturbing tendencies in neo-Pentecostal groups like the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR), for instance. Rather I mean to encourage confrontation of those tendencies with hope for change. After all, some of the fiercest critics of NAR theology and practice are themselves Pentecostals. We do those critics no service by silencing our concerns under the false assumption that "it's a Pentecostal thing, I wouldn't understand."

9/13/2011 4:00:00 AM