August 2002 – From liberal politicians to radical homosexual activists to the liberal news media, conservatives are commonly painted as “extremists” in an attempt to discredit them in the ongoing battles of the culture war.
Liberals generally begin applying that brush as soon as someone fails their litmus test of viewpoints. For example, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the largest and most powerful pressure group in the homosexual community, often issues a shrill condemnation of conservatives who oppose any facet of the “gay” agenda.
Regarding the fierce state and local battles during the 2000 elections, HRC’s website said: “Religious political extremists are so intent on electing conservative candidates that they often forget the American values of equality, freedom and fairness. Thus, fair-minded candidates, who support equal rights for gays and lesbians, and the Human Rights Campaign, often face attacks from these extremists.”
HRC’s position is clear: “fair-minded candidates” support HRC’s views; “religious political extremists” do not. It’s that simple.
This broad-brush treatment covers a cultural fence containing many pickets. In an article about the U.S. Supreme Court, Newsweek ran a sidebar that characterized Justice Clarence Thomas as being at the high court’s “conservative extreme, consistently taking a page from the far right’s playbook on abortion, school prayer, gay rights and other issues.”
Words like “extremist,” and similar slanders like “far right,” “radical,” and “zealot,” make conservatives sound like dangerous threats to the very fabric of our free society. But just what is an “extremist,” and who really are the extremists in American culture?
Extremism by the numbers
At its most basic philosophical level, an “extremist” refers to someone whose views are on the outside or far reaches of social opinion – or, as Webster’s says, “situated at the farthest possible point from a center.”
In this context, of course, the center would be the mainstream of public opinion, or what most people believe. “Extreme” views are those which are held by the fewest number of people, or which are rarest due to their excessive nature – i.e., radical.
When liberals use the term “extremist,” then, they mean it as an insult – that is, if a person holds to a view that is “outside the mainstream,” they should immediately be characterized as odd and maybe even dangerous. This is slander at its most venomous, since it is used as a tool to isolate conservatives and de-legitimize their views.
This can be a dangerous game, for if it is liberal viewpoints which fall outside the mainstream, then the truth would be that liberals are the extremists and radicals.
In fact, a simple examination of polling data, collected by well-known public opinion researchers, shows that conservative views are actually held by a fairly sizable majority of the American people. On a host of bread-and-butter cultural issues, which have defined the increasingly polarized ideological landscape between liberal and conservative, the latter come out way ahead. When pollsters query Americans on abortion, prayer in schools, homosexual rights, gun control, the death penalty, etc., conservative ideals prevail.
Not a simple matter
If the truth be known, however, the opinions of the majority are rarely as clear-cut as either liberals or conservatives claim. In fact, the only clarity seems to be that the majority seem clearly ambivalent – an oxymoron, to be sure, but one which accurately reflects the mindset of America.
On abortion, for example, Americans are firmly on the side of pro-life sentiment – if by that one means wanting to at least limit abortion. According to a CNN/USA Today/ Gallup Poll this past February, a majority (54%) want abortion to be legal only sometimes. A minority exists on either side of that middle group: 26% want abortion to always remain legal, while 18% want abortion to always be illegal.
Parsing out the views of the majority often produces more conflicting opinions. A Fox News/Opinion Dynamics Poll found that only 41% considered themselves “pro-life,” while 47% called themselves “pro-choice.” On that basis, abortion supporters might be tempted to proclaim a cultural victory, since they have a plurality of Americans in agreement with them.
However, a Gallup Poll in June found that 53% of Americans believe abortion is “morally wrong,” with only 38% saying it is “morally acceptable,” a percentage that stood at 42% last year. This appears to indicate the lack of a definitive consensus on abortion in our culture, and should prevent either side on this issue from prematurely claiming victory.
But if there is no simple majority opinion on abortion – and neither is there one on gun control, “gay” rights, the death penalty, or virtually any other culture war battlefield – then why do liberals continually claim to be the captains of the mainstream and insist on relegating conservatives to the swamps of the philosophical fringe?
Simply put, liberals control the harbor. The institutions which arguably speak the loudest in our culture are the entertainment industry, the news media, the public schools, higher education and the federal government. It is fairly safe to contend that the liberal elite control the first four.
Truth at the fringes?
However, such a discussion of numbers may miss the point. Just because conservative beliefs are held by a majority does not make them right, and just because liberal views are held by a minority does not make those beliefs wrong.
In fact, our nation’s reliance on numbers to determine acceptability is quite ironic. For if ideas are automatically called extreme – and potentially dangerous – simply because they are held by fewer people, then what does that say of the ideas that have undergirded Western Civilization itself? In much of the world the ideas of freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press are beliefs which are outside the mainstream of political and cultural thought. And when one views all of history, these ideas are extreme – they are a mere blip on the screen of human philosophy.
So, it is simplistic to say that just because a belief is held by a minority – i.e., an “extreme” view – that it is to be forthwith rejected out of hand. Whites who supported the civil rights movement in the late 1950s and early ’60s were probably a minority among the entirety of the white population in America, yet who would now consider such views extremist?
Moreover, there may come a time in the near future when conservative ideals, rooted in the Judeo-Christian worldview, become rarer and gravitate to the fringes of American political, social and cultural thought. Will Christians be faithful to cling to their ideals even if the majority rejects them?
This is a question at the heart of the Christian faith. For Christianity is not about opinions or beliefs or majorities – it’s about God’s eternal truths. If the spirit of antichrist is able to successfully push those truths to the periphery, who will hold on?
After all, it’s not as if the majority has never been wrong – those who lived under the Terror of Robespierre; under slavery or, later, Jim Crow; in the middle of the nationalist Nazi fever in Germany; or in the depths of communism’s soul-crushing oppression, could certainly testify to that.
In fact, for Christians, the concept of being outside the mainstream should not be a strange idea at all. The Lord Jesus was Himself the victim of a poll, for after Pilate discovered the opinion of the mainstream, Christ was crucified instead of Barabbas.
Those who follow Christ must also be prepared to buck the current in that mainstream, for Jesus said “the way is broad that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter by it. For the gate is small, and the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it” (Matt. 7:13f.) The early church did just that in the fiery furnace of the Roman Empire, as Christians joyfully lived an alien lifestyle in the midst of a pagan culture. After all, only an “extremist” would refuse to offer a simple pinch of incense to Caesar and declare him “Lord.”
In this respect, what most people believe is not relevant to the Christian, but rather what God says in His Holy Word. And in that case, for those who live in the kingdom of God, it is not dangerous to be among the extremists. It may, in fact, be the safest place of all.