December 13, 2015

An Evangelical Christian Struggles With the Lunatic Fringe

National Baptist Evangelical Life and Soul Sav...
National Baptist Evangelical Life and Soul Saving Assembly of the U.S.A. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Christian blogger Roger E. Olson wrote a fascinating post: A Call for American Evangelical Leaders to Confront Evangelicalism's Lunatic Fringe. The title gives away the point of Mr. Olson's contribution. He notes how every movement that grows large enough inevitably seems to attract "a lunatic fringe." He describes the lunatics as seeking to attach themselves to the movement in order to "gain respectability and a 'voice' - to influence the movement and others through it." As I read these words, I cannot help being reminded of certain elements who have attached themselves to the secular and/or skeptic movements with similar goals.

Why should we care about the "lunatic fringe" of our group or movement? As Olson points out, "...critics of the movement accuse it of fostering lunatics and identify the latter with the center of the movement itself." So one reason we might care is that the fringe can make the rest of us look bad to those on the outside even if we all recognize that it is not fair to judge the entire group by their fringe. That seems like a valid point.

Some of you may object to portions of Olson's post, as he is clearly seeking to distance evangelical Christianity from its extremists. Admittedly, there are parts of his post where he comes dangerously close to suggesting that the extremists many of us have come to identify with evangelical Christianity in the U.S. are not real Christians. He even refers to them as "neo-fundamentalists" in an apparent effort to separate himself from them. Still, I think it is important to credit Olson for doing exactly what so many atheists continue to ask Christians to do: distance themselves from their own extremists.

Olson concludes his call to evangelical Christian leaders by offering four suggestions for what he would like to see them do:
First, evangelical “movers and shakers” need to publically (sic) distance themselves from them, even reject them as what Luther called “false brethren.” They are not “us.” They are hangers on of evangelicalism whose motives and goals are different from authentic evangelical Christianity. Second, if they belong to a denomination, their denominational leaders need to use whatever means are available to expel them. Third, when one of them holds an event (such as a recent one in the city where I was born in the Upper Midwest and where some of the first presidential caucuses will be held in the nominating process), evangelical pastors in that areas need to come together publicly to denounce their ideology. (I hesitate to call it a “theology” as it seems more driven by power motives than by true interest in God.) Fourth, evangelical Christian opinion-shapers need to use their platforms to proclaim to America and to the world that “they are not us.”
As unlikely as I think it is that many evangelical Christian leaders will implement these approaches, Olson is doing more than most by asking.

Are there any lessons for atheists, skeptics, and/or freethinkers here that we might be able to apply in dealing with our own lunatic fringe? Publicly distancing oneself from the lunatic fringe of one's group does not seem like a bad idea. Many of us have attempted to do so at times. I see nothing wrong with one of more of us clarifying that a particular person does not represent our views.

What I disagree with, at least when it comes to atheist, skeptics, freethinkers, and the like, is the notion of attempting to expel members of the fringe. Sure, there are cases when an organization or group might need to do this (e.g., I've encountered many atheists who wish the Center for Inquiry probably would have considered this with one of their former branch executive directors); however, I think we need to be careful outside of such contexts. And much of the time atheists, skeptics, and/or freethinkers are involved, there is no formal organization or group. Trying to expel someone from an informal group that really isn't a group at all (e.g., atheism itself) often looks like public shaming and attempts to silence someone, approaches which should be avoided.

So while Olson's suggestions may have some merit when it comes to how organizations and groups can handle their fringe members, I'm not sure about the more common scenario (at least for us) when no such organizations or groups are involved. Aside from expressing our differences of opinion with the fringe and making it clear that they do not represent our views, I'm not sure much of the rest of it applies.

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