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Words do Matter - Accuracy in Describing Religious Groups in the United States

There are times I get amused. Sometimes I find myself irritated. Neither is necessarily exclusive. I am referring to when folks use or more accurately misuse words and descriptors when referring to religious groups, especially those they don’t like or with whom they have significant differences. In most such online “discussions,” the words refer primarily to less-than-complimentary characterizations of the varities of Christianity, Judaism, or Islam.

Those who vigorously oppose stereotyping, careless grouping, and caricaturing people by race, ethnicity, or gender may be oblivious to how they do the same to the religious, especially those of a different or fervent faith. The terms used: fundamentalist, conservative, religious-right, evangelical, radical, extremist, terrorist, and on and on are used without regard to their actual definitions, historical, and theological contexts and meanings, or they are just plain offensive. I am always surprised how those who argue that one should not do or say anything offensive about certain groups or individuals completely lose that resolve when stereotyping the religious. They may defend their words by declaring that religious belief is a choice, not an innate or learned characteristic. I am not so sure about that. Perhaps we will debate that another day.

Let me see if I can bring some organization and clarity to grouping Christianity. We could also do the same concerning any other faith group: Islam, Judaism, Baha’i, Shinto, or any indigenous belief system. We will do that in future blogs. They are simply out of the context and space limitations of this blog. Everything I am saying about Christianity could be said about any of them as well. The same also could be said about the non-religious.

A 2016 Pew Research website informs us that 71% of Americans self-identify as Christians. The census bureau tells us there are around 319,000,000 folks in the US. That means approximately 226,490,000 of our fellow citizens identify as Christians. In recent years, US Christians have often been grouped into three broad, historical, yet permeable categories: Fundamentalists, Evangelicals, and Mainline. There is no specific category for “radicals” or “extremists.” We will discuss them in a few paragraphs.

Using Pew data melded with my experience, I have created the following data points:

Mainline Christians: Represent 39% of Christians. They may be defined as those belonging to old, well-established denominations focusing on social justice and the historical/social implications of faith. While certainly not necessarily binary in nature, they may focus less on individual salvation and the authority of scriptures. It is possible to think of members as often being “born into” these denominations. Infant baptism may therefore be normative. Some adherents may identify with the group from childhood and family affiliations. Others have deep convictions and are active in their faith. Mainline Christians represent an influential Christian group.

Evangelical Christians: Represent 37% of Christians and may be defined as those who emphasize personal salvation, proselytizing, and who are often active in non-denominational settings or in para-church ministries. This group became identified and differentiated in the 1940s and is a reaction to both Mainline and Fundamentalist Christians. They may be willing to cooperate with those they disagree with theologically when the “cause” is correct. This group is a powerful and growing Christian group that is not always monolithic in its interpretations of specific doctrines. It is therefore less creedal while maintaining a high regard for the study of Biblical interpretation.

Fundamentalist Christians: Represent 23% of Christians and are most accurately defined as Christians who hold to five “fundamental” beliefs within Christian theology. Fundamentalists were first identified in the early 20th century as opposing the theological and social changes within Mainline Christian groups. The five “fundamental” beliefs (from which this group gets its name) include:

1. A view that Scripture is inspired by and literally the infallible words of God and should therefore be interpreted in a very literal manner wherever possible. Certainly, no one believes Christ was a literal door (John 10:9), vine (John 15:5), or that our heart has a door (Rev. 3:20). Therefore, to establish their meaning, everyone interprets Scriptural passages to one degree or another (the study of hermeneutics).

2. A belief in the literal death and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. He died and was raised from the dead with a physical and spiritual body.

3. The atonement of Christ through His shed blood and death on the cross as satisfaction for human sin. The atonement is sufficient to enable redemption and to allow humans to have a personal relationship with God.

4. The virgin birth of Christ.

5. The historicity and veracity of the miracles of Scripture.

They hardly deserve the term “extreme” for holding these beliefs unless the one calling them that believes these beliefs in and of themselves to be extreme. Fundamentalists may be hesitant to join in with the other two groups, regardless of the cause. To one degree or another, Evangelicals most likely believe in the same five fundamentals but do not make those beliefs their specific identity. Perhaps it is not unfair to characterize American Fundamentalists as self-identifying with what they are “against” as often as what they are “for.” Both they and Mainline Christians tend toward exclusivity, although for different reasons. Fundamentalists are a powerful, shrinking, and vocal Christian group.

Other Christians: Represent less than two percent of US Christianity.

It is essential to recognize that there are representatives of all three major groups within most Christian denominations and sub-groups. Formal Christian groups (Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians, for example) have Mainline, Evangelical, and Fundamentalist branches and believers within their ranks. That is why it is not particularly helpful to try to understand American Christianity by strict denominational affiliation. There is a wide diversity of Christian groupings within denominations. It is a relatively complex and complicated discussion.

Are there Extremists in Christian America? The most straightforward and concise answer is “yes.” They exist, just as they do in the non-Christian religions and indeed in the non-religious population. I have a friend who has over 200 John Deere toy tractors. That seems extreme to me. Of course, suppose I went with him to the annual meeting of the JDTCA, the John Deere Tractor Collectors of America. In that case, his passion may pale compared to others, or his collection may seem normative for tractor enthusiasts. It must be said that the very concept or definition of Extremism is determined by the eye, experience, and identity of the one doing the labelling. It seems that folks of all perspectives are likely to have 20-20 vision in identifying as Extremists those who disagree with them. While there may be Extremists in all three major groupings of American Christianity, I believe they compose a tiny percentage, not statistically significant. Why do some become extreme?

Dr. Jack David Eller indicates that religion comprises four elements: identities, institutions, interests, and ideologies. I believe that Extremist Christianity blossoms in a religious atmosphere that has few or no institutions. Religious institutions such as denominations, hierarchies, colleges, universities, seminaries, publishing houses, relief agencies, mission societies, etc., provide checks and balances, structure, and restraining forces (rules, guidelines, and expectations) to their membership. All three major branches of American Christianity (Mainline, Evangelical, and Fundamentalist) have these institutions at work.

Extremist Christianity has few if any institutions. Most of them are local groupings, at best loosely affiliated with those of like persuasion. They may even be groups as localized as large extended families. An example is the well-known Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, KS. It belongs to no formal Baptist group or denomination and is composed primarily of one large extended family. The well-known Branch Davidian group of Waco, Texas, began as an offshoot of Seventh Day Adventist teachings that separated from that denomination. It went its own way in isolation, its leaders jockeying for power, leading to the tragic circumstances of the 1993 siege and the death of both members and federal agents.

There can be no doubt that there are small groups here and there of Extremist Christians in America. There is equally no doubt that the “E” word is used in the “extreme” when it comes to careless and thoughtless discussion of Christians and Christianity.

In a March 10, 2016 article entitled “Are Conservative Christians ‘Religious Extremists?’” in the online version of The Atlantic, Jonathan Merritt states:

In an age of religious terrorism, “extremist” is too damaging a word to be tossed around with such little discretion. When society slaps the E-word on something, it marks it for marginalization. And if the data is right, tens of millions of religious Americans may be at risk of being ostracized, sidelined, or banished from social acceptability because of their beliefs. These are the very communities best positioned to attack genuine religious Extremism. But labeling them ‘extremist’ simply encourages alienation and radicalization.

One of the great ironies of the age in which we live is how those who most champion tolerance and diversity are often in such great need of those virtues themselves. Society calls “extremist” those believers they consider to be rigid, narrow-minded, and unaccepting of others, especially those with divergent beliefs.

Carelessly painting such wide swaths of individuals with caustic descriptors is its own form of intolerance. It is refusing to accept those who are perceived to be less accepting. It’s coercing someone to convert to your way of thinking to keep them from converting others to their own. It’s marginalizing one group to keep them from marginalizing some other group. It contributes to the very problem it claims to be trying to solve. Normalizing, generalizing, and especially dehumanizing those who are not us, are often overlooked tools of bigotry and bias.

I offer these words for each of us. Let us put aside our own forms of intolerance where ever they show themselves. Let us remove our own masks and lenses that keep us from seeing the implications of our own generalizations and stereotyping. We know it is not unusual that those who become genuinely extreme are those marginalized by others. Words do matter.


Jack David Eller. Cruel Creeds, Virtuous Violence (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2010), p.10.

Jonathan Merritt. “Are Conservative Christians ‘Religious Extremists?’” The Atlantic (March 10, 2016). (Accessed 10/30/2016).

Pew Research Center. “Religious Landscape Study.” 2016. (Accessed 10/30/2016)

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