Are Roman Catholics, evangelical Christians and “ultra-Orthodox” Jews religious extremists comparable to the Ku Klux Klan and Al Qaeda? Yes, according to a PowerPoint slide that was apparently used by the U.S. Army Reserve in a training program. The briefing materials, which seem to have been discarded a year ago, have prompted complaints by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese for the Military Services and the conservative Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty.
The slide show is, at best, sloppy and simplistic. Under the headline “RELIGIOUS EXTREMISM” is a list of groups including “evangelical Christianity,” “Catholicism,” the KKK, Hamas, Al Qaeda, the Jewish Defense League, “ultra-Orthodox (Israel, Judaism)” and the Nation of Islam. Related training materials said that extremism was present in every religion due to “some followers that believe that their beliefs, customs and traditions are the only ‘right way’ and that all others are practicing their faith the ‘wrong way,’ seeing and believing that their faith/religion superior to all others.” This is a description of any faith that believes it is in possession of a superior revelation. By this standard, only Unitarians aren’t “extremists.”
One boneheaded PowerPoint presentation does not a conspiracy make, but that won’t prevent religious groups from citing it is proof that the military is biased against Catholics, evangelicals and religion in general.
Something similar happened in 2009 with the release of a Department of Homeland Security report on right-wing extremism. The report was savaged by conservatives for suggesting that “right-wing extremists” included not only violent hate groups but also “those that are mainly antigovernment, rejecting federal authority in favor of state or local authority, or rejecting government authority entirely.” The report said the term also could be applied to “groups and individuals that are dedicated to a single issue, such as opposition to abortion or immigration.”
The author of the report later concded that the definituion of “right wing” was imprecise, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was forced to issue a clarification saying: “We are on the lookout for criminal and terrorist activity but we do not -- nor will we ever -- monitor ideology or political beliefs.”
Is there a pervasive bias in the government against political and religious conservatives? I don’t think so. Are there individuals who engage in sloppy and simplistic thinking about “extremism” and give short shrift to 1st Amendment concerns? Evidently.
But precisely because even isolated lapses feed paranoid narratives on the right, civilian and military officials need to keep an eye peeled for statements -- and visual aids -- that confuse conservatism (or religious belief) with extremism.