Book Review - The Fundamentals of Extremism

Cultic Studies Review, 2, (2), 2003.

The Fundamentals of Extremism: The Christian Right in America.

New Boston MI: New Boston Books. 287 page paperback, $15.95.

Blaker, K. (Ed.) (2003). 

Frank MacHovec, Ph.D.

Center for the Study of Self

The author is “a syndicated writer and columnist, social advocate, and staunch supporter of the separation of church and state" (p. 286). She assures us in Chapter 1: “most fundamentalists and those with similar characteristics are good people, but we should have “greater awareness of how fundamentalist beliefs and practices harm its adherents, its detractors, and everyone in between” (p. 24). The book is written in a style more journalistic than scientific. References to chapter content are in an impressive 68 pages of end notes and a 12-page two-column index, 20% of the book. That would seem to justify the foreword’s claim of being “well documented.” However, many references are to newspaper and magazine articles, newsletters, online websites, and books by authors with similar views. This lessens the impact of the book, since religious fundamentalists also rely on selected references.

Three of the eight chapters (1, 4, and 5) are written by the author; the others are by different writers. Chapter 2 is by Edwin Frederick Kagin, an attorney and “son of a Presbyterian minister” and director of Camp Quest, “a residential summer camp for children of atheists and freethinkers.” Chapter 3 is by Bobbie Kirkhart, a retired teacher and “president of Atheist Alliance International.” Chapter 6 is by John M. Suarez, a psychiatrist and board member of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. Chapter 7 is by Herb Silverman, a math professor on the board of the American Humanist Association. Chapter 8 is by Edward M. Buckner, editor of The Secular Humanist. The writers’ affiliations presage what is to come.

Chapter 1 charges: “Christian fundamentalist schooling is known for indoctrinating children through recitation and memorization of the Bible and prayers, reinforced with hellfire and brimstone lectures” (p. 8). The Army of God's Bombing and shooting at abortion clinics show the “strong relationship between fundamentalism and violence” (p. 9). It is “imperative to our safety” to “recognize the threat” of Christian extremist factions on the increase in militias and training camps (p. 11). Though the Catholic League is “less violent in nature” than Christian Identity or the Army of God, it is “one of the main organizers and supporters behind the Christian right” (p. 13). Its effort to have the author fired for what it considered “patently reckless and arguable libelous accusations” and a cartoonist who alluded to priest pedophiles are offered as examples of “bully tactics” (pp. 14-16). An example of the Christian right's use of “misinformation and half-truths” to influence public opinion is the alleged over diagnosing and drug treatment of ADHD. Chapter 1 ends by warning us that “this invasion” seeks to “slowly infiltrate all arenas from public schools and local governments to Congress and even the presidency” (p. 24).

Chapter 2 describes “the gathering storm” of fundamentalist Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and Jews who are increasing worldwide and who “have probably been around as long as there have been religions.” In America the pendulum swung from right in Puritan theocracy to left in constitutionally protected religious freedom. It swings right when civil issues are seen as moral imperatives requiring political action. There are many varieties of Christian fundamentalists, but all are committed to absolute literal scriptural truth, which only they possess and which empowers them to evangelize. “Modernism” is the label for deviating from their version and interpretation of the Bible. They become part of problems they try to solve obsessively, incompletely, unlawfully or with “fixed certainty they are right about what God wants and God wants them to be in power” (p. 26). This has led to social isolation oblivious to those outside the exclusive group of the born again or saved, a simplistic worldview.

Chapter 3 cites the case of a supposedly religious father who beat his daughter, who later died of the injury. A study is reported that found religious affiliation “a better predictor of violent behavior toward children than age, gender, social class, or size of residence” (p. 49). Corporal punishment in schools is cited as legal in some states though proven ineffective. There are contradictions. Sex abuse is said to be more likely in patriarchal family structures, when sex is considered sinful but happens and is denied and kept secret. Most Catholics are not necessarily fundamentalists but their church is, “the authoritarian, closed, absolutist hierarchy that allowed and to a degree promoted the disgrace the church faces today” (p. 55). A study reported increased victimization by non-relatives as a family’s religious activity decreases, yet Koresh’s Branch Davidians is given as an example of molestation “perceived as a commandment from God” (p. 57). Religion in the schools is discussed from the old McGuffy’s Readers to private religious schools, Jewish after-school programs, and home schooling to offset Protestant influence or provide what is seen as better quality instruction. The realities of maintaining standards and the effect of social isolation are examined. The chapter ends defending freedom of religion but not as a “disguise” for physical, sexual, or intellectual abuse.

Chapter 4 describes fundamentalist male dominance, despite the emergence of female equality in government and the workplace. Adhering to literal Biblical translation justifies discrimination since both the Old and New Testaments place women in a subservient role. The Christian right goes further by attacking female equality and “glorifying submissiveness.” Pat Robertson is quoted calling feminism “a socialist, anti-family political movement encouraging women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians” (p. 82). If God is male, submitting to men becomes a sacred duty. Studies cited show women in subordinate marital roles have lower self-esteem and are subjected to more physical and mental abuse. Opposition to ERA and abortion rights is detailed. The chapter ends concluding “women raised in Christian fundamentalist homes suffer emotionally, sexually, and physically as adults" (p. 113)

Chapter 5 describes the effect of Christian fundamentalism on society. Belief about procreation “leads to poverty” by “untimely or unwanted pregnancies,” though other causes of poverty are acknowledged (p. 116). Many Crisis Pregnancy Clinics use “shock tactics” and false information “even when a single mother already has several children and no income” (p. 118). Though “vehemently denied” fundamentalism contributes to prejudice, discrimination, and hate crimes. There has been bigotry between Catholics and Protestants and Christians and Jews, Muslims, and atheists. Historically, slavery was “favored by conservative Christians” and “extreme Christian based sects” such as the Ku Klux Klan and Aryan Nation (p. 119). Bob Jones University is an example of the most segregated private religious schools. Judging homosexuality a sin justifies discrimination by sexual preference. Exhibitionism “appears to be related to fundamentalism” (p. 138) and 12 of 18 mass or serial killers had “very religious upbringing or belief in demons and devils” (p. 139). Moral and social development theories of Kohlberg, Durkheim, and Riesman are cited showing fundamentalists are stuck at an externalized law and order stage. Though “only a small fraction” become terrorists “the number holding such attitudes is undoubtedly significant” (p. 141). All these factors cause a “fundamentalist ripple” through society with “negative consequences” (p. 153).

Chapter 6 examines Christian fundamentalism in the context of the First Amendment. It alleges “most wars, conquests, and bloodsheds (sic) throughout history have featured a strong religious element” (p. 155). The First Amendment has kept us from “the bottomless pit of religious war.” A “key argument” of Christian fundamentalists is that a Christian nation has “lost touch with its Christian origins” (p. 159). This is a myth allowing religion “into all aspects of public and governmental endeavors.” The First Amendment ensures freedom of and also from religion, thus encompassing all citizens. Supreme Court decisions relating to it are explored, such as school busing, religious clubs or classes in public schools, school prayer, public funds for parochial teacher salaries, school vouchers, creationism as science “almost exclusively an American phenomenon” (p. 162), and the latest, the faith-based initiative (p. 162). Challenges to the First Amendment have “skyrocketed over the past decade” (p. 164). The strategy of the religious right is to “flaunt symbolic challenges” as a “distraction from substantive matters.” Both should be opposed “but the resources are not there” (p. 165).

Chapter 7 describes political tactics of the Christian right, mainly political activism such as endorsing conservative candidates, supporting restrictive legislation, media saturation and manipulation, and strategic alliances. “Politics is the art of negotiation and compromise while fundamentalism espouses an uncompromising and absolutist worldview” (p. 192). “They would like to replace our secular democracy with a fundamentalist theocracy” (p. 204). Dissenters are considered “not true Christians” or as attacking religion. The author’s gubernatorial candidacy confronting fundamentalist politics is detailed as a kind of case study. The “religious right is currently much better organized than the political left” (p. 206). It is a minority “though an energized and outspoken one” (p. 208), and the author recommends more cooperation in challenging extremist claims.

Chapter 8 repeats the warning: “fundamentalism presents real dangers to the lives and liberties of all Americans” (p. 209). Repeated also is the disclaimer that not all fundamentalists are dangerous but those who are behave more emotionally than rationally; they are unyielding, militaristic and militant absolutists, who demand strict obedience and unquestioning loyalty They are “willing to be violent in the course of doing ‘battle royal’” (p. 210). Islamic extremism is described as similar but not identical, despite “brusque dismissal by Christian fundamentalists” (p. 212). Similarities are their treatment of women, opposition to abortion and homosexuality, censorship, and intolerance of dissent. “Paranoid and extremist thoughts of vengeance are common among fundamentalists” (p.227). We should empathize with their “needs, fears, and anxieties” (p. 227). Secularists “looking beyond their own beliefs or lack of beliefs are the only hope for combating the perils of fundamentalism” (p. 211). “Secularism is quintessentially the American way” (p. 222). It accepts differences, cultural diversity, social complexity, alternative explanations, a scientific approach “where all religions and philosophies compete in the marketplace of ideas” (p. 240).

This book is an encyclopedic indictment of the extreme Christian right, but its content can be applied to any extremist belief system. It and the current world situation can help awaken us to the need to consider and better understand all sides of religious differences and see them in total and true perspective. The book is recommended for what it is: a well-articulated informative secular presentation in the debate between liberal and conservative views of religion and the danger in extremes.