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Apparently, one proven blessing of democracy (at least where religious freedom is practiced) is "low levels of religious extremism." It ranks up there with peace and prosperity.

This has been said in many ways since 9/11, and Thomas Farr, a former American diplomat, said so once again in a recent Washington Post "On Faith" column. He was trying to push the Obama administration to put more muscle into advocating religious liberty, but along the way he noted the symbiotic relationship between democracy and religious moderation. Farr said that numerous scholarly studies have shown that religious freedom makes it possible for democracy to "yield its benefits—including economic opportunity, security, low levels of religious extremism."

But democracy will only tolerate religious freedom as long as religious extremists are kept in check. This is one reason political leaders and policy wonks disparage religious extremism, and why they're anxious to unearth moderate Muslims and sensible Hindus and non-fundamentalist Christians. Such religionists make the wheels of society run smoothly, so that we can "yield the benefits" of our way of life: "security" and "economic opportunity." Let religious extremism get out of hand, and there goes the neighborhood.

It's not just Americans who think religious extremism a bad idea. A recent Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life study of Africa discovered, not surprisingly, that 

Many Africans are concerned about religious extremism, including within their own faith. Indeed, many Muslims say they are more concerned about Muslim extremism than about Christian extremism, and Christians in four countries say they are more concerned about Christian extremism than about Muslim extremism.

Or take the Russians—more particularly those scrappy fellows, the Russian Orthodox—who are wont to call a spade a spade. According to the Eurasia Review website, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, a senior Russian Orthodox Church spokesman, recently said Russia and European countries should adopt a law banning the expansion of religious extremism. He said it was a problem because it "results in deaths," and that countries should equate a ban on religious extremism with a ban on Nazism.

Chaplin is in charge of his church's relations with society. Needless to say, his church will not be offering the right hand of fellowship, let alone the Eucharist, to any extremist. He comes from long line of church spokesmen. One of his ancient predecessors, an archpriest in Israel, met one particularly unstable Extremist from Nazareth, and he had him killed forthwith.

Some people say that's really the only way to deal with religious extremists. "Once these religious nuts get in their heads that God spoke to them," they say, "there is nothing else to be done." I disagree, but you have to admit that extremists often bring such trouble upon themselves.

Take a recent example, this fellow Martin Luther King, Jr. He had this notion—he said it came from God—that the way blacks were being treated in America was "unrighteous." What a word. In the land of the free and home of the religious moderate, he should have known better than to introduce religious language in the public square.  But King had the temerity to call racism a "sin." On top of that, he boycotted and obstructed businesses, which was deadly for economic opportunity. And he organized really big marches, which only snarled traffic and threatened security. So, like the Extremist himself, he was dispatched soon enough.

In "SoulWork," Mark Galli brings news, Christian theology, and spiritual direction together to explore what it means to be formed spiritually in the image of Jesus Christ.
Mark Galli
Galli is editor of Christianity Today and author of God Wins, Chaos and Grace, A Great and Terrible Love, Jesus Mean and Wild, Francis of Assisi and His World, and other books.
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