When Faith Turns Violent

By Robert J. VandenBerg

Disclaimer: These opinion pieces represent the authors’ personal views, and do not necessarily reflect the official policies or positions of Norwich University or PAWC.

Image for the article When Faith Turns Violent

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was a 16-year-old fascinated by history and social science, and the events of that day impacted me so deeply that I went on to become a sociologist specializing in the study of terrorism. 

Specifically, I want to understand how the stories people tell themselves about their lives condition their attitudes toward political violence. But once you start using social science to understand your enemy, the insights gained have a way of reflecting back on your own community as well. In my case, that means having to grapple with the potential for extremism in my own faith tradition. And much like we need help from Muslims of goodwill to counter the threat from Islamic extremism, I believe that safeguarding our democracy against the threat from the Christian far-right requires the involvement of evangelical moderates.

There is a common misperception that for someone to engage in terrorism, they have to be mentally deranged, but research suggests that radicalization actually arises from some fairly common social processes. You can’t make sense of Al Qaeda without accounting for Osama bin Laden’s belief in a worldwide Islamic community oppressed by a coalition of unbelievers led by the United States. A social psychologist might say that being a very particular kind of Muslim was his most salient social identity, and that he constructed his sense of himself and his group in opposition to the U.S. To some extent, you could see jihadism as a reaction to American support for Israel and other policies in the Middle East, but the longer I’ve researched violent extremism, the more convinced I’ve become that it also needs to be understood as an outgrowth of the human drive to find meaning in existence. Much like any other moral community, terrorist organizations can offer their members a sense of belonging and a clear sense of who is to blame for their problems. At root, these are very human concerns, the magnitude of Al Qaeda’s murderous evil notwithstanding.

At the time of 9/11, my life was deeply rooted in the Religious Right, with weekdays spent attending a small Christian school and Sundays at church. In ways that are often hard for outsiders to grasp, growing up in a conservative religious community can be profoundly comforting, because it provides a blanket of community and moral certainty to shield you from the chaos of the wider world. Planted firmly in my tribe, I rarely had to wonder what was right or who my people were. At the same time, this kind of intense belonging could have a dark side. For example, on the evening of September 12th, I heard from the pulpit that God had permitted the attacks because of America’s tolerance for homosexuality and other liberal transgressions. This tendency to scapegoat progressives and LGBT people was common (though not universal) among conservative Christians at the time, so in later years I was struck to learn about gay heroes of 9/11 such as Father Mychal Judge, the FDNY chaplain who gave his life while praying over rescue workers at the World Trade Center, and Mark Bingham, who fought back against the hijackers on United 93. Ironically, before any preachers had time to blame gay people, these men had already given their last full measure of devotion to protect America. With hindsight, I suspect that pointing the finger at gays was a way to reinforce group solidarity while providing an explanation for the seemingly inexplicable.

As it turned out, blaming Americans – even gay Americans – didn’t sit well with the spirit of patriotism that followed 9/11, so among conservative evangelicals, the conversation quickly shifted to emphasize confrontation with Islam. I recall excitement in Baptist circles at the prospect of invading Iraq, and it seemed like a disproportionate number of the sermons I heard during 2002 were about how God had raised up President Bush to lead us to war in the heart of the Muslim-majority world. Later, once evidence began to emerge that Iraq had in fact not possessed the stores of WMD that formed the core justification of our invasion, it dawned on me that people I went to church with could not acknowledge that fact, lest it invalidate what was effectively an article of faith. Even as the human cost of the invasion mounted, talk of Iraq faded from churches. The pro-invasion sermons had served their purpose of energizing the faithful, and I don’t think it occurred to anyone that a sober assessment of U.S. foreign policy might be necessary to safeguard people on the receiving end of American might.

In highlighting ways in which Muslim fundamentalists in the Middle East and Christian fundamentalists in the U.S. responded to similar social-psychological processes, I need to be careful not to draw a simplistic moral equivalence; not all religious traditionalists make a bid for political domination of their societies, and of the ones that do, not all advocate violence. Furthermore, although recent examples of Christian terrorism do exist, it currently claims fewer lives than the global jihadist movement. For a long time, I simply could not imagine that my own faith might give rise to large-scale religious violence. However, that conviction collapsed after January 6, 2021, when it became clear that devout Christians were strongly represented among the mob that assaulted policestormed the U.S. Capitol, and called for the murder of public officials. Tragically, January 6th was an attack drenched in religious rhetoric and symbolism – something I, like many other Christians, have had to wrestle with.

Perhaps no one better represents the convergence between conservative Christianity and right-wing extremism than the popular evangelical writer Eric Metaxas. In the lead-up to January 6th, Metaxas was notable for his violent rhetoricsaying at one point “We need to fight to the death, to the last drop of blood, because it’s worth it.” Over two and a half years later, Focus on the Family continues to promote his work, and he remains in demand as a speaker at churches and Christian colleges. What makes this tolerant attitude toward incitement all the more remarkable is that other writers have been ostracized from evangelical circles for such non-violent heterodoxies as endorsing same-sex marriage. This paradox makes sense if you recognize that evangelical culture is oriented toward maintaining a clear ingroup-outgroup boundary, and espousing right-wing radicalism poses less of a threat to group cohesion than appearing to compromise with liberalism. Furthermore, it would be a mistake to view Metaxas as a complete outlier. Some of the nation’s most prominent evangelical leaders have actually accused progressives of partnering with Islamists to destroy America and speculated that the election of a Democratic president might “bring an end to civilization as we have known it.” In this context, Metaxas’ extremism actually draws on a wider rhetoric of catastrophe that is separated from the derangement of QAnon only by a matter of degrees.

Much like success against Islamic extremism depends the ability of non-jihadist Muslims to contend for their faith against ISIS, the containment of Christian extremism cannot happen without help from fair-minded conservative Christians. Fortunately, there are hopeful signs in the willingness of evangelical voices like David FrenchRussell Moore, and Christianity Today magazine to speak against the culture of paranoia that fosters radicalization. America needs more of this, and even reactionaries like Rod Dreher do democracy a service when they call out the danger from violence on the extreme right. However, the issue remains very much in contention, and pastors often speak of a preference among their parishioners for radicalism, even when Christian orthodoxy would favor moderation.

Although I have moved away from the fundamentalism of my youth (typical Sundays now find me at Episcopal worship), I still remember the people I prayed with in Baptist church sanctuaries in the days and weeks after 9/11, and I still see goodness there. Something often overlooked by progressives and non-religious people in debates about Christian conservatism is that evangelicalism, at its best, can be beautifulgenerous, and deeply committed to human dignity. In the face of a persistent threat from the far right, America’s conservative Christians now have a choice to make about what kind of community they will be going forward. As an American and a counterextremism researcher, I hope – and as a Christian, I have faith – that in the end, decency and solidarity rooted in the biblical values of the imago Dei and the common good will prevail over the siege mentality that seeks meaning in the search for enemies.


About the Author

Robert J. VandenBerg is a sociologist and criminologist specializing in the study of political violence and a senior fellow at the John and Mary Frances Patton Peace and War Center. A veteran of the United States Air Force, Dr. VandenBerg previously served on the faculty at Norwich University, where he oversaw that creation of the academic program in Intelligence and Crime Analysis. The opinions expressed in this essay are the author’s own and do not represent the official position of the United States Government, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Air Force.

Sponsored by the John and Mary Frances Patton Peace & War Center of Norwich University, VPW features subject matter experts and students who present their opinions and arguments on critical issues related to peace and war in the international community. We hope that a chorus of small voices in this forum will help illuminate a world filled with a variety of complex challenges.