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.

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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.

But we don't have to hunt down religious fanatics. If we leave well enough alone, they'll often be done in by their own extremism. Take Francis of Assisi. He went around telling rich people they were greedy, and powerful people they were prideful, and religious people they were hypocrites. All well and good—a little homiletical hyperbole now and then can stir the blood and make religion a little more interesting. But Francis took it to the next level: He lived what he preached—a life of poverty, simplicity, prayer, and devotion to Jesus. Well, between kissing lepers, and giving away the cloak off his back to shivering poor (even in the middle of winter), and eating a natural diet that would make Michael Pollan green with envy, he died. At age 42.

You may be confused by my calling people like King and Francis "extremists." You may not have thought of them that way, and for good reason. Societies dedicated to economic opportunity and security are masters at reshaping our memories. Through mass media and school textbooks, they sand the rough edges off of past extremists, so that after a while, they seem like people you could have a drink with. Francis and me downing a Miller, talking about global warming. Martin and me, discussing the complexities of racial reconciliation over ice tea. Guys like us, who understand the dangers of religious extremism.

Our society has successfully reformed these two, among many others, by discouraging us from reading what they actually said or did. All we usually get is romantic paraphrases, and commercial-length retellings or textbook summaries of what they did. These are perfect ways to suck the life out of extremists. It's a proven method.

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The Extremist from first-century Israel presents some problems, however. Millions of people read his words and vivid descriptions of his activities each and every week! So his sayings remain stuck in the mind.

Like: "I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law" (Matt. 10:34-35), which doesn't sound like something that would promote peace and security.

Or this: "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal" (Matt. 6:19-20), which stabs at the heart of economic opportunity.

Or this: "Love your neighbor as yourself," which guts the idea that society is about promoting our general happiness.

But you may have noticed that we're not much troubled by these and other sayings of the Extremist, and that's because of one timely and useful invention: historical criticism. We hear such sayings and habitually think, In the original historical context, this really meant … and then we find some historical context that takes the sting out of the saying. Sometimes, we're able to find a historical precedent that allows us to ignore the saying altogether!

Some have been scathingly critical of this practice. Take philosopher Søren Kierkegaard:

The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined.

But remember, Kierkegaard was a religious extremist, so he isn't to be trusted. He also saw the huge role historical criticism plays, but in his usual fanatical way, he spun it badly:

Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church's prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close.
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Kierkegaard didn't understand that in our historical context, a commitment to religious moderation is crucial. Creating scholarly disciplines and media methods that tame extremists, especially the Extremist, are extremely useful (excuse the pun!). If you want a society whose benefits are economic opportunity and security, you can't have religious extremists setting up shop on every corner.

Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today, and author of Jesus Mean and Wild: The Unexpected Love of an Untamable God (Baker).

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Previous SoulWork columns include:

The Whisper of Grace | The whirlwind of the self is not easily tamed, even by religion. (April 29, 2010)
The End of Christianity as We Know It | Now we can move on from merely giving people pleasant worship experiences. (April 15, 2010)
Asking the Right Question | Why neither worm theology nor worth theology will do. (April 1, 2010)

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
Mark Galli is former editor in chief of Christianity Today and author, most recently, of Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for Evangelicals.
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