This opinion piece is by Judd Birdsall, the managing director of the Cambridge Institute on Religion & International Studies and an editorial fellow with The Review of Faith & International Affairs.
On Friday we saw religious extremism for what it truly is — and is not. Despite dire warnings that “anti-gay extremists” would lash out in anger over the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage, conservative American religious groups responded with remarkable charity, humility and civility.
Meanwhile, on the very same day, extremists linked to the Islamic State killed more than 60 people and injured more than 200 others in attacks at a seaside resort in Tunisia and a Shiite mosque in Kuwait. And in southern France a man caused an explosion at an American-owned chemical plant after beheading his boss and leaving the head hanging on a fence. That’s religious extremism.
I highlight these actions not to make an argument about Christianity vs. Islam; the vast majority of Christians and Muslims abhor religiously inspired violence. Instead, this contrast brings the true nature of religious extremism into stark relief.
Labeling peaceful proponents of traditional marriage “religious extremists” is as misleading as it is mean-spirited.
Even so, the Human Rights Campaign and other leading gay rights advocates routinely smear their opponents as “extremists.”
For instance, Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State celebrated that “love and the Constitution triumphed over bigotry and religious extremism,” but warned that “aggressive Religious Right groups seek new ways to stop the spread of equality.”
To give Lynn and others the benefit of the doubt, they don’t seem to be equating marriage traditionalists with violent religious extremists. Or perhaps they really do believe opposition to gay marriage is a form of violence. Whatever the case, they surely understand the evocative power of “religious extremists” as a term of derision and exclusion — not unlike the epithets hurled at the LGBT community.
And just how did the leaders of American “religious extremism” respond to the Supreme Court ruling?
The National Association of Evangelicals urged “evangelicals to be gracious and compassionate to those who do not share their views on marriage and to also advocate for liberty for all who desire to live out their faith.”
Is this extreme?
Mark Galli, editor of Christianity Today, the premier magazine of American evangelicalism, offered this counsel: “The temptation is to go off and sulk in our holy corner. Or to dig in our heels and fight harder. Or to lash out in anger. Or to despair. We can do better.” Galli concluded: “We step into this uncharted future not with furrowed brow or nervous heart but with humility … and confidence.”
Is this an affront to equality?
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) stated, “While showing respect for those who think differently, the Church will continue to teach and promote marriage between a man and a woman as a central part of our doctrine and practice.”
Is this bigotry?
The president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, lamented the Supreme Court’s “tragic error” but called on Catholics to move forward with “love for all our neighbors, even those who hate us or would punish us for our faith and moral convictions.”
Is this aggression?
To be sure, some marginal right-wing groups did respond to the ruling with uncharitable, alarmist rhetoric. As a Christian, I understand their concerns, but I’m saddened by their vitriol, and I’m glad they are exceptions that prove the rule of respectful dissent.
As Jon Shields argued in his 2009 book, “The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right”: “the vast majority of Christian Right leaders have long labored to inculcate deliberative norms in their rank-and-file activists — especially the practice of civility and respect; the cultivation of real dialogue; the rejection of appeals to theology; and the practice of careful moral reasoning.”
In the mainstream conservative religious response to the gay marriage ruling, we once again saw the outworking of democratic virtue, not religious extremism.
Religious extremism is the stuff of bombings and beheadings. Americans are fortunate to live in a democratic system that helps channel the passions of faith toward peaceful engagement rather than violent confrontation.
Our system faces a new challenge now that same-sex marriage is the law of the land. How will America’s diverse religious and secular communities live together peacefully despite their deep differences on fundamental issues like gender, sexuality, and marriage?
Even as they express concern for the future of the United States, the nation’s so-called “extremists” have for the most part set an extremely good example of how to express profound disagreement with radical civility.
My hope is that the jubilant victors in the marriage debate will respond in kind. Here President Obama models a way forward. In his remarks on the Supreme Court ruling, he offered this reminder:
“I know that Americans of good will continue to hold a wide range of views on this issue. Opposition, in some cases, has been based on sincere and deeply held beliefs,” he said. “All of us who welcome today’s news should be mindful of that fact and recognize different viewpoints, revere our deep commitment to religious freedom.”