The Fundamentals of Extremism, edited by Kimberley Blaker

The Fundamentals of Extremism

I have mixed feelings about The Fundamentals of Extremism, as I do about the topic, which is the Christian Right in America.

This is very much an anti-Christian Fundamentalism book, warning about all the ways the Fundamentalists are anti-freedom, anti-democracy, anti-woman, etc., and all the things they are doing to gain even more power than they already have.

I’m basically on the same side of these issues as the writers (the book is a collection of articles, about half by Blaker, who also serves as the editor, and about half by others). I think Fundamentalist Christians are both factually wrong in a lot of what they claim, and on the whole very damaging socially and politically.

Yet at times I found this book too alarmist, too strident in tone. It’s the kind of thing I picture turning off any reader that is not already firmly on their side.

It’s not that I think the presentation should be toned down for pragmatic reasons, or that one should choose what to say based on what’s most persuasive rather than what’s true. Nor would I prefer a book like this be bland and neutral. (I’ve written often about how that is a misconception of objectivity that certainly is not obligatory.) But at times it feels like the writers are allowing themselves to exaggerate or mislead a bit in the service of a good cause.

But let’s look at some specifics.

The very first chapter opens with a James Dobson quote: “Those who control what young people are taught, and what they experience—what they see, hear, think, and believe—will determine the future course of the nation.”

This is presented as a terrible thing, as a moment when a Religious Right leader let slip their totalitarian agenda. Allegedly he’s here admitting his intention to raise an “army of puppets” to do the bidding of the Religious Right.

But is that quote really so bad, so revealing? When I read it, it didn’t strike me as somehow exposing just how nefarious these folks are. It struck me as a roughly true observation that almost anyone on any side could say.

Of course the experiences people have during their formative years are going to strongly influence what kind of people they grow up to be, which in turn will shape the society and world they live in. Isn’t that a pretty “Well, duh!” statement? Wouldn’t liberals and conservatives, religious believers and atheists, believers in rote learning and believers in critical thinking all agree with that?

Of course Dobson wants to live in a society where the experiences children have and are shaped by fit with his beliefs and values. Who doesn’t? That’s not what’s objectionable. What’s objectionable, I think, are his beliefs and values themselves.

But you have to include that context for his statement to be even the slightest bit alarming.

For another example, Blaker has a section where she sings the praises of Ritalin, insisting that the criticisms of it are dishonest and without merit, and that it is a wonder drug for the greatly underestimated scourge of attention deficit disorder (or ADHD or whatever they’re calling it these days).

I’m far from an expert on such matters, but I lean toward the anti-drug side myself. But her take on it is that it’s really the Christian Right that’s spread all the negative claims about Ritalin and similar drugs, not because they believe them—they can see as well as anyone that these are wonder drugs that are hugely beneficial—but because they want to trick people into not using these drugs.

Why? Because then millions of kids will suffer from severe behavioral problems and will do poorly in school and adversely affect the school environment for everyone else. This will not be nearly as much of a problem for religious or other private schools, because those schools can just kick problem students out. But it will be devastating to public schools, since they have to take everybody. Public schools will develop the reputation as nightmares, which will at the very least lead to widespread voucher programs where the government indirectly funds private (and most importantly, religious) schools, or better yet lead to the whole public school system being dismantled and education turned over fully to the private sector.

I don’t know. I’m not saying I know for a fact there’s zero truth to this, but it sounds way too conspiratorial to me. If conservative Christians tend to be against Ritalin, or to assess attention deficit disorder as less of a big deal than Blaker does, I doubt they’re just pretending to have those beliefs as part of some larger scheme to destroy public education. Probably at least the majority of them sincerely believe what they say.

What do they do with their own kids who would benefit from the “wonder drugs”? Do they refrain from giving them the drugs they know would help them? Do they sit back and let them be kicked out of a Christian school and placed in a hellacious public school, and still not give them the drugs? Are they OK with their kids being martyrs in the cause of maintaining the lies and destroying the public school system? Or are they given some sort of waiver by the leaders of the Religious Right and allowed to quietly medicate their kids?

Nor do I think that the many of us outside of the Religious Right who have concerns about society being too quick to put an illness label on behavior and medicate it have somehow been duped into having those doubts by nefarious Christians.

The whole idea just isn’t plausible to me, at least as any more than one (probably very small) factor in why Ritalin is not universally as favorably regarded as how Blaker regards it.

Another example is Blaker’s account of when she ran afoul of the Catholic League, which proceeded to put pressure on the publications that publish her articles. I agree that’s creepy, but I don’t think the problem lies with specifically the Catholic hierarchy or the Religious Right. The problem is that this is how lobbyists and pressure groups routinely operate. To try to silence people who disagree with them is par for the course for special interest groups. Very, very few such groups are interested in engaging in some sort of mutually respectful, civil, open dialogue with people of all points of view. If they have enough clout to shut their opponents up, they’ll shut their opponents up, whether we’re talking about Fundamentalists, feminists, or the meat lobby. Such groups exist to advocate for themselves and to win, not to play fair.

I don’t like it; I never have. I’m not an “end justifies the means” sort of person; I’m more of a goody goody about process and such. And certainly I’d be upset if the Catholic League tried to shut me up. But welcome to the real world.

The experiences she recounts seem like awfully small potatoes, compared to what happens if you go against, say, the oil companies or the Israel lobby. Not that that makes what the Catholic League does OK, but if I’m going to parcel out my outrage in proportion to a group’s malevolence and power, she hasn’t convinced me to expend more than a very small amount on the Catholic League.

But I want to step away from the criticism now. As I say, I’m mostly on the same side as the writers in this book, and I too see the Religious Right as an important and very negative influence on the world, and I don’t want to give the impression I disliked this book or its message.

There’s some disturbing information about the efforts of the Fundamentalists to dominate public schools, either to destroy them (not just through the Ritalin thing) or to reshape them as religious schools that teach the Bible as history and science.

Statistics are cited showing a correlation between Fundamentalist religious beliefs and abusive households, though I’m a little wary of that kind of thing, for multiple reasons.

One, it’s not hard to find studies finding correlations between religious belief/church attendance/Fundamentalist religious belief/whatever and good things, but such correlations don’t establish whether the actual religious doctrines are true or false, or for that matter whether they are beneficial or harmful on the whole rather than just in one or more specific ways.

Two, the stronger correlations—as noted in the book—are often with things that overlap with Fundamentalist religion, like a patriarchal family structure. Not that that somehow excuses Fundamentalism, but if the problem is patriarchy, then it’s best to point the finger there. That way you can let maverick Fundamentalists who reject the patriarchal family off the hook, while including non-Fundamentalists who follow a patriarchal lifestyle among the problematic ones at risk of practicing abuse within the family.

Certainly I agree with the book’s condemning religious fanatics for trying to control everyone’s—especially women’s—sexual and reproductive choices. Not, mind you, by requiring certain things of just their members, or by recommending those things for everyone, but by mandating those things through law for everyone.

Unfortunately these legitimately scary facts are accompanied by a few bad arguments (e.g., the usual malarkey about how it’s self-evidently contradictory or hypocritical to oppose abortion and favor the death penalty—one or both of those positions may well be wrong, but they certainly are not contradictory), and by the refusal to see any merit or sincerity in their opponents’ positions.

If you’re engaging in critical thinking, then you’re supposed to address the best case of your opponents. If instead you’re oversimplifying your opponents’ position, cherry picking their quotes to make them sound as bad as possible, or otherwise spinning things in order to win an argument and influence people to your side, that’s advocacy, not critical thinking.

(I know I said I was going to get away from criticizing this book, but I was struck by how frequently I winced reading a book by people I surely agree with at least 90% of the time on the substantive issues they’re discussing.)

There are interesting discussions of correlations between Fundamentalism and poverty, crime including serial killing, the militia movement and domestic terrorism, racism, and various other social evils. That the relationships are causal rather than just correlational are plausible based on the simplistic and authoritarian mindset of Fundamentalists, but my earlier caveats still apply.

Some of the really loony individuals and groups on the Christian Right are highlighted (though appropriately the authors always point out that these folks really are on the fringe and do not represent the views of every, or even most, conservative Christians), who openly espouse scrapping the Constitution and democracy entirely for a theocracy with stoning and all that fun Old Testament stuff.

One thing you can say in favor of the extremists is at least they recognize that the Constitution and the American system in general are incompatible with the Religious Right’s vision. This book has some good points about how ludicrous it is for many on the Religious Right to insist that this is a “Christian” nation and that their politics are consistent with those of the Founders, when in reality the Constitution those Founders came up with barely mentions God or religion, and when it does it’s in a negative way (e.g., forbidding establishing a state religion, forbidding religious tests for public offices).

Certainly The Fundamentals of Extremism is a worthwhile book overall, even if the enthusiasm with which I can recommend it is limited.

You know what this book reads like? I was going to say it had a dullness that reminded me of academic writing, but it’s not quite that. It’s not so much that it’s filled with incomprehensible jargon like how many professors write; it’s more how students write.

I don’t mean it’s sub-literate, which a great deal of student writing is. It’s more like the writing of graduate students or advanced undergraduates who don’t make really blatant spelling and grammatical errors and such, but who write in a wooden, humorless, personality-free style. It’s like what you might get from competent students whose assignment was to construct an argumentative essay advocating for one side of some controversial social issue.

When I say it’s not sub-literate, by the way, I don’t mean to deny that there are plenty of awkward sentences. As an example of one of the many such instances of peculiar if not erroneous wording, consider:

In discussing a segment of the population claiming to have the market on morality, it seems inevitable that the development of moral and social behavior come to be understood.

I think the first clause probably should be “In discussing a segment of the population claiming to have cornered the market on morality.” In the second clause, surely “inevitable” isn’t what’s meant. Probably that clause should be something like “it is relevant to address the development of moral and social behavior,” or “an understanding of the development of moral and social behavior would be helpful.” Or better yet just trash the whole convoluted sentence and start over.

Though the subject matter interests me, and though, again, I’m mostly on the same side of these issues as these folks, I frankly found The Fundamentals of Extremism a struggle to get through at times.

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