6th place: Grad student essay contest — Benjamin Schreiner 

Benjamin Schreiner

FFRF awarded Benjamin $1,000.

By Benjamin Schreiner 

Religious extremism in the United States has always existed on the fringes of the church and larger population. Today, that extreme fringe has now successfully breached, in varied capacity, the mainstream within many Christian churches in the United States. This fringe brings with it not the morally righteous content typically preached, but rather hate, twisted biblical interpretations and conspiracies. What’s more, religious extremism has not just bled into the Christian mainstream, but also up through the political spectrum in the United States. 

Today, there are two primary threats associated with religious extremism in the United States. 

1) Many Christian constituents are being exposed to extremist ideology on an increasingly regular basis, therefore making extreme ideology “less extreme” in the eyes of Christians. 

2) Some Christian politicians within the U.S. government have begun to tolerate or agree with extremist ideology. Additionally, other politicians within the U.S. government understand that they need Christian voters to win elections and exploit or encourage extremist ideology to appeal to voters. 

Examples that show the connection between these threats are not hard to find. One must only look back to Jan. 6, 2021, to understand how these elements pose an active threat to the United States of America. On that day, thousands of people arrived in Washington, D.C., to protest the 2020 election results and, at the request of President Trump, to “stop the steal.” Around the National Mall, there was an abundance of Christian symbols, prayer groups and vendors. The presence of religion was not just a coincidence, and evidence shows that many of those who faced charges for their involvement in the insurrection referenced religious motivation as to why they decided to break into the Capitol building. 

One such person is Matthew Black, who on Jan. 8, 2021, posted a video on YouTube describing his experience inside the Capitol. Referencing an affidavit in support of a criminal complaint and arrest warrant, Black stated: “I wanted to get inside the building to plead the blood of Jesus over it. That was my goal.” Additionally, he said, “I just felt like the spirit of God wanted me to go into the Senate room, you know?” Statements like Black’s are not uncommon, as they are found in dozens of comments from those who talked about their motivations to act on Jan. 6, 2021.

When analyzing the events of that day and the religious context involved, comments such as Black’s only lead researchers to unravel how extremism has affected the larger Christian community and political sphere. 

In the same month as the insurrection, Lifeway Research, which assists Christian ministries by conducting custom research projects, found that 49 percent of Protestant pastors frequently hear members of their congregation repeating conspiracy theories they have heard. When the mass circulation of conspiracies, such as the lie that the 2020 election was stolen, are put into the echo chamber of a church congregation and then emboldened by elected politicians, events such as the Jan. 6 insurrection become possible. Additionally, within otherwise peaceful congregations, events like the insurrection are seen as a necessary undertaking at worst, or understandable at best, by many members of the Christian community. 

Secularism is necessary in the United States to preserve the foundation of American principles. The effects of religion on policy, be it abortion or immigration, are apparent. Unfortunately, often the results of politicians preaching what should be done because the bible says so are violent interactions of those who believe they must act. Some people are becoming encouraged to share and act upon their nationalist, racist and anti-immigration beliefs. With increased radicalization among Christians, more people will be willing to act upon what they believe to be true, predominantly when those beliefs originate from two highly influential sources: God and country. The leaders of this country need to be the example of peaceful debate and reason. When religion becomes involved in government, it offers people reasons to become extreme. They believe their country and their souls are at stake, and when that is the case, the extreme then becomes mainstream. 

Benjamin, 26, is a student veteran attending American University in Washington, D.C. Benjamin served for six years in the U.S. Navy and plans to pursue a career working within the U.S. government.