A few days ago, the president of Cathedral Bible College in Marion, SC was arrested for allegedly forcing international students to work long hours for low pay by threatening their immigration status. Although there are still few details, various news outlets have reported that federal agents have probable cause to charge Reginald Wayne Miller with forced labor, a felony that can carry up to a twenty-year prison sentence per charge.
It’s a serious charge, of course, and it serves as a good reminder that we still live in a world where practices of severe exploitation are not unknown. But when religious believers are seemingly involved, our individual and collective disgust often intensifies—if anyone should know better and do otherwise, they should. Rightly or wrongly, and whether we count ourselves among them or not, we tend to hold the faithful to a “higher” standard, and this goes double for the leaders. That’s because such standards are supposedly essential to belief itself, and thus part and parcel of what it means to be religious. Think, for example—and it’s an example that’s particularly relevant in the case of Miller—of Jesus’ distillation of the law into the command to love God and neighbor, which Jesus takes as essential for “eternal life.”
Since the actions of religious believers are, we assume, intimately bound up with their beliefs, when the former do not align with the latter, we often hear a charge of hypocrisy, a charge that in addition is usually meant to call into question the sincerity of the beliefs in question. To label Miller a hypocrite, in this instance, simultaneously points to the apparent disconnect between his actions and “normal” Christian teachings (forced labor is the opposite of love of neighbor) and his seeming lack of concern for this disconnect. Hence the students’ claims against Miller that, at least for them, the school functioned as little more than a front for forced on- and off-campus labor.
The charge of hypocrisy can, however, be convenient for the religious community itself, in that it enables those believers to disavow and dismiss the actions of an errant individual or group. Although seldom stated in these terms we often find the religious equivalent of the no true Scotsman fallacy: since no true Christian would force others into labor, Miller must, if the charge is true, not really be a Christian. Or, to use another example, the Westboro Baptist Church must not really be Christians because true Christians would never protest at funerals.
It’s an effective strategy, insofar as it appears to protect the integrity of mainstream religious belief against what appear as more extreme elements. Indeed, sometimes it’s appropriate and necessary to do so. But it can also be lazy and disingenuous, to the extent that it functions as a defense mechanism that fails to acknowledge the complicity of mainstream beliefs in their extreme counterparts.
A belief or action is “extreme” not because of its putative disconnection from the mainstream; rather, it is “extreme” because of the way it pushes or takes the logic of a “mainstream” belief. The difference between the two, then, is one of degree, not kind, which also means that what we label as “extreme” finds its origin to an extent in the “mainstream.”
Masters and servants
Displayed prominently on Cathedral Bible College’s homepage is a brief statement of its mission, which contains a reference to II Timothy 2:21: “Cathedral Bible College is the college where you not only learn in the classroom, but experience what you are learning through the various programs of student ministry. The key to our producing servants ‘meet for the Masters [sic] use’ is the training that comes from the teaching.”
Of course this passage doesn’t explicitly provide some sort of justification for Miller’s action, but the language of “servant” and “Master” does, perhaps, function as part of a social-linguistic horizon that, when pushed, makes the notion of forced labor legitimate to those doing the forcing. Most Christians today (though not necessarily in the past) would likely denounce that logic as abhorrent, as an illegitimate extension of the language involved—and rightly so. But the problem lies in the language itself—servant, master, lord, and so on—and the types of relationships that that language implies and reinforces, rather than its extension. That is, the continued use of such language and what it implies in mainstream, relatively benign contexts unwittingly enables its use in more problematic—and, in the case of Miller, dehumanizing—contexts.
Or take the case of the late Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church. One would be hard-pressed to find many Christians lending support to the group’s rhetoric and activities. But, I would suggest, this has more to do with the tactics it deploys rather than the basic substance of its rhetoric and actions, specifically as they relate to homosexuality. Although most will be quick to denounce Westboro Baptist Church’s vehement anti-gay tactics and rhetoric, it remains the case that a significant number of Americans unproblematically consider homosexuality to be a sin. The Westboro Baptist Church’s position remains, in this sense, a more extreme extension of this core belief—but an extension of it nonetheless.
So, although abhorrent, the actions of Westboro Baptist Church are not surprising from a religious perspective. Neither are the alleged actions of the president of Cathedral Bible College. If we can get past the knee-jerk reactions, we may often find that such actions are more “mainstream” than we first thought.
In saying this, however, we must also be careful to avoid another potential trap, the one that takes the relationship between the mainstream and its extreme extensions in terms of necessity. This is the problem, for instance, with many right-wing attacks on Islam. In suggesting that extreme elements (i.e. terrorism) are but a manifestation of “true” Islamic belief, such attacks may at first glance appear to adopt the position that I’ve been arguing for. The problem, however, is that such extremism is painted as inevitable, as a forgone conclusion, which is then used to paint Islam as a whole as extreme.
Moreover, rather than adopting the position that I’ve been arguing for, I would suggest that, ironically, it adopts the position I’ve been arguing against—though in an inverse and malign fashion. That is, in equating the core of Islamic belief with terrorism, such attacks isolate a “true” Islam over against any hypocritical deviations, although here the position of the deviant is reversed: a “good”, “peaceful” Muslim must not really be a Muslim, since all Muslims are terrorists. The ethical and political problems with such a position should be obvious.
So, in saying that we must seek to understand the relationship between what I’ve referred to as mainstream elements and extreme elements, I’m not suggesting that the latter necessarily flows out of the former; nor am I suggesting the construction of an ideological tool that can be used against religious believers. I am suggesting, rather, that part of understanding religion involves understanding the different forms that it takes, which means paying attention to the way that “extreme” elements are often related to the seemingly more benign, “mainstream” elements, without dismissing the former as necessarily outside the purview of “true” religion.