Were the Terror Attacks in Paris motivated by radical Islam?

January 15, 2015

In an interview published on January 13 by the Weekly Standard, White House press secretary Josh Earnest explained why the Obama Administration is intentionally distancing itself from French Prime Minister Manuel Valls’ statement that France is “at war against terrorism and radical Islam.” While willing to call the attackers “terrorists,” Mr. Earnest went into great detail about why the Administration is choosing to avoid the “radical Islam” label.

I understand the basic impulse behind this decision. The idea is not to legitimize the acts of violent extremists by referencing their religious beliefs or using the word “war,” two statements that seem to implicitly adopt the jihadist worldview of a grand struggle between true Islam and the rest of the world. Further, avoiding association of the Islamic religion with the word “radical” or “terrorist” helps to limit any overinclusive implication that all Muslims are terrorists. These are fair points, and there is much to agree with in them; however, the logic that Mr. Earnest uses to support this rhetorical decision is deeply problematic.

Careful Definition

Mr. Earnest goes to great length to avoid associating the attackers with the religious character of the beliefs that motivated their actions, saying “e have not chosen to use that label (“radical Islam”) because it doesn’t seem to accurately describe what had happened.”

Instead, he characterizes the terrorists’ actions as follows: “These terrorists are individuals who would like to cloak themselves in the veil of a particular religion.” Mr. Earnest elaborates by saying the terrorists, “… tried to invoke their own distorted deviant view of Islam to try to justify . And I think that is completely illegitimate. And what we should do is we should call it what it is. And it’s an act of terror, and it’s one that we roundly condemn.”

It seems then that while the terrorists tried to invoke even their distorted view of Islam, the Administration’s approach is to deny the legitimacy of this invocation, “…based on the fact that the religious leaders of that religion have roundly condemned their actions, those religious leaders have indicated that their actions are entirely inconsistent with Islam.”

Problematic Logic

Coming as an official position of the President of the United States of America, I find the logic of this argument worrying for two principle reasons: First, it adopts a view of the scope of religious action that a religion might inspire, and second, it argues that any action that falls outside of this scope is therefore not motivated by religion but by something else, presumably in this case the violent impulses of the individuals involved.

The wording is important here. Rather than assert the fact that many Muslim leaders find the terrorist’s actions to be inconsistent with Islam, the Administration is taking a positive stance as to what falls within the scope of the orthodoxy (orthopraxy if we’re being picky) of the religion. In doing so, the Obama Administration is necessarily being choosy about who counts as a “religious leader,” since there are quite a few imams within the Salafi movement of Islam who would hesitate to call these actions “entirely inconsistent with Islam.”

The problem with the Administration taking any sort of stance on what counts as within the scope of a religion becomes more apparent with the next step of the logic of Mr. Earnest’s statement. By saying the terrorists “would like to” or “try to” invoke religion to justify their actions, Mr. Earnest implies that they can’t do this. In other words, because these individual’s actions are inconsistent with Islam, they cannot fairly claim to have been motivated by it.

Troubling Implications

The worrying aspect of the Administration’s whole line of thinking is that it represents the government making positive assertions about the subjective motivations and objective character of a person’s actions. In the United States, we generally respect people’s right to believe whatever they want. The law does regulate and even punish people for the actions they take based on their beliefs, but, particularly with regulation, actions motivated by certain beliefs are more protected than others. This is especially true when it comes to religion, the free exercise of which is guaranteed by the Constitution.

The problem then is that by defining what is or is not motivated by religious belief, the Administration is seemingly claiming to be able to define the boundaries of what falls into that more protected class of religiously-motivated action. I won’t play the fear-monger here, but the reasons for why this is troublesome may be apparent. If a disfavored group’s actions or profession is motivated by a minority religious belief, then suppressing that group is much easier if the government can simply strip their religious character away.

Ultimately, there is no need to adopt this troublesome logic. Had these acts occurred on U.S. soil, the persons responsible could have been punished regardless of their religious motivations. There’s no doubt that such actions reflect badly on those who claim the same religious affiliation, and there’s no doubt that this guilt by association is generally unfair or inaccurate, but the government does not need to weigh in on the rhetorical fight to clear a religion’s reputation.

There is no doubt that the terrorists’ actions in Paris were reprehensible, and there are good reasons not to use language that could build up a “Muslim = terrorist” association. However, it seems to me to be both factually inaccurate and intellectually dangerous to deny the religious character of their motivations. Religious belief is a fundamental motivator of human action, and we should not deny its importance, even if that makes it more difficult to wrestle with its implications.

About the Author
  • Donald Roth serves as Associate Professor of Criminal Justice, Co-Director of the Kuyper Honors Program, and Director of the Master of Public Administration Program at Dordt University.

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  1. While it may be wrong for the Obama Administration not to affiliate the terrorist attacks with Radical Islam, I would have to say that I see a reason in not doing so, even if that reason is different from the reason of the Obama Administration. The attacks were not motivated by a fundamentalist Islamic view of superiority. The Slovenian Philosopher Slavoj Zizek makes a good point when he says, ” the passionate intensity of the terrorists bears witness to a lack of true conviction. How fragile the belief of a Muslim must be if he feels threatened by a stupid caricature in a weekly satirical newspaper? The fundamentalist Islamic terror is not grounded in the terrorists’ conviction of their superiority and in their desire to safeguard their cultural-religious identity from the onslaught of global consumerist civilization. The problem with fundamentalists is not that we consider them inferior to us, but, rather, that they themselves secretly consider themselves inferior. This is why our condescending politically correct assurances that we feel no superiority towards them only makes them more furious and feeds their resentment.” To label the attack as a product of radical Islam would, I believe, give the attention to real radical Islamic terrorists who want attention. This attention feeds into the their own perception that what they are doing is the command of Allah. It may be factually inaccurate to refuse to relate the terrorist acts to radical Islam, but is it possible that the element of radical Islam was simply a facade? If we can see the mental instability of those who get upset at a caricature in a satirical newspaper, wouldn’t we be better off labeling it as such?

    1. Thanks for the comment, Mason. As I mention in the piece, I can understand numerous reasons to avoid using the “radical Islam” label. The proffered argument by the White House that this would involve buying into the terrorists’ worldview or walking too close to inciting bigotry against peaceful Muslims are both adequate to me.

      I can understand the psychological analysis that calls this an inferiority complex, but I disagree with that analysis as soon as it disregards a fully-orbed respect for sincere religious belief. What Charlie Hebdo regularly published was, by most Muslim definitions, blasphemous and offensive. This doesn’t countenance the violent response, but I think it’s unfair an inaccurate to say that the impulse that drove the attack was rooted in mental instability rather than sincere religious zeal.

      For me, when I see a mocking caricature of Christ, I find it deeply offensive and yes, it does anger me. I can’t imagine a scenario today where I would attack or kill someone for that blasphemous depiction, but I think it would be unfair to characterize someone who did do so as doing it solely for reasons of mental instability, claiming religion only as a charade.

      Mental instability and violent impulse clearly played a significant role in the attacks. I don’t deny that at all, but I just don’t see scrubbing religion out of the motivation factors as either helpful or wise.

  2. I wonder if we would be as quick to criticize this type of care with language if these were Christians acting in violent ways? (There are quite a lot of very violent and/or offensive people acting under the name of Christianity, and while I may find it interesting to consider how their twisted version of this faith may play a part in their actions, I would be distressed to have my faith associated freely with their behaviors every time they were mentioned in the news. I think we would want to talk about their faith as a cult or at least as distinct from mainstream Christianity. I expect most Muslims feel the same way (especially when these types of associations can lead to direct persecution and even danger to their lives – sometimes from the afore-mentioned violent “Christians”). These distinctions are especially important for those in a majority position to consider, as we simply don’t know what it means to constantly be grouped with those we happen to resemble and how these assumptions and prejudices can affect every detail of someone’s life.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Laura.

      I don’t criticize the decision about the language used here. I can understand the negative implications of using the “radical Islam” label and why the White House would choose not to do so.

      The reputational damage done by association with these sorts of things is immense, even when most people are aware that this group represents a fringe group. Yasir Qadhi, a professor of Islamic studies and prominent Muslim was quoted in a Huffington Post article on the 7th of January saying, “The damage these people do to the image of the prophet is much more than cartoonists do to our prophet.” We can imagine a similar thing when Christians are grouped in with the hate-filled actions of the Westboro Baptist Church or the cringe-inducing statements of Health and Wealth ministers.

      Among believers, we can account for some of these groups by assuring ourselves that these radical groups are actually beyond the pale of orthodoxy such that we don’t truly share a faith with them. It appears many Muslims have responded to the terrorist acts in the same way. However, this does not automatically repair the PR problem for much of the secular world, which isn’t interested in explanations of why it’s inaccurate to, for instance, label Mormons as Christians.

      The world at large doesn’t truly understand religious belief, and it’s often ignorant of how deep faith can run, and the remedy to this seems to be education of the willing and learning to accept and fruitfully respond to the willfully ignorant.

      What I am criticizing in this piece is the logic that is being used and the fact that it completely discards religion as a motivating factor for these men’s actions. I think we, like any religious (or indeed any) community, have to openly wrestle with the best way to respond as a Christian community to those who darken the name of Christ. For the reasons outlined in my piece I don’t think we should choose to accomplish that rhetorically by dismissing or underestimating the (false) faith of others.

      1. A statement from the White House is not a Supreme Court opinion, so I wouldn’t worry too much about parsing its logic for dangerous precedents. That said, I don’t think you have represented Earnest’s reasoning accurately. Religion was not “discarded” as the motivating factor in these killings — not in the sense that it was discounted, ignored or not noticed. No one can fail to see that the killers were religious zealots, and I think most people — religious believers included — do see violent zealots as criminally insane people. The religious beliefs and motives of the criminally insane are actually irreligious and therefore illegitimate and irrelevant. We should therefore focus on the crime and disorder they cause, as well as the disorder they represent and suffer from — i.e. the sickness of the radical fundamentalist mind. That seems to be the point the White House was driving at, and I can find no fault with it. What would you prefer them to think and say? Would you have the government affect a position of “religious neutrality” and refuse to put “religious homicide” explicitly beyond the pale of a legitimate free exercise of religion? Why would we ever wish to reserve a place for killing by religious minorities as an authentic religious act?

        A second point: when you say “The world at large doesn’t truly understand religious belief” the facts are strongly against you. The vast majority of the world’s human population is religious. Of those who aren’t religious, most were raised in a religious family and/or culture, so they can hardly be considered ignorant of religion. They may be critical of religion, and they may see it differently than you do, but their position is one of substantial familiarity and direct experience with religion. Whatever their faults may be, the modern, western, secular or a-religious minority is seldom “ignorant of how deep faith can run” — in fact this has become a great fear and obsession for them. They are at least as concerned about you as you are about them. One thing both sides might agree on is that any religious or other ideological zeal condoning murder is irreligious, insane, and illegal.

        1. Thanks for your comment, Anthony.
          It’s not unfair to parse the logic of a carefully crafted public policy statement. It’s clear from the way that Mr. Earnest was approaching the question that his reasoning was carefully considered. If you feel that I am selectively misquoting him or something of that nature, I invite you to demonstrate that. Mr. Earnest is very careful to state that these men have no legitimate claim to appeal to Islam as a motivation for their actions.

          While you’re criticizing me for not representing Earnest’s reasoning accurately, you then go on to say that “the religious beliefs and motives of the criminally insane are actually irreligious and therefore illegitimate and irrelevant.” That is something very close to the logic that I am criticizing here. The step you take, and one that makes me more okay with your argument, is that you actually offer an alternative motivation (Earnest offers none) that has some potential for workable protection from becoming overbroad.

          If we’re saying it’s just the religion of the criminally insane that doesn’t count, then there might be some safeguard that permits us to discard religion only when someone acts in a violently criminal fashion, but we have a better protection in America that says even your religiously motivated action can be suppressed or punished when it crosses certain lines, so long as those lines are not drawn for the purpose of suppressing religion and are narrowly tailored to advance a compelling governmental interest. That is, our current system doesn’t disregard the religious component of actions such as these, but it says that they go beyond what is acceptable in a modern civil society and will therefore be punished regardless of their motivation.

          My concern here is that this line of reasoning (since Earnest does not go into greater detail) may amount instead to the calculus that says “Religions are not about hate. Therefore, if someone hates, that hatred is not motivated by their religious belief.” I think there are many people in America, religious or not, who would agree with this general statement (I don’t), but if we run with this logic, we end up imposing a specific orthodox vision of religion which eviscerates the protections of the First Amendment.

          I hesitate to use this example for fear it may derail discussion here, but I have already seen this logic used in discussions with some LGBT activists over same sex marriage. I was explicitly told that my religious belief that homosexual acts are sinful was rooted in bigotry and not religion. I was invited to display my “twisted, distorted logic” to explain to this person how the Bible could possibly consider the love between two people to be sinful. It was the first time I saw personally how dangerous the logic that “hate ≠ religion” could be, taken to its extremes, and it was definitely a motivating factor in my concern here.

          As to your second paragraph: I will admit that my wording could have been more carefully chosen. I meant more the majority within the academy and public discourse, particularly in the West, although I don’t think that secularism, or at least mere civil religion, is so uncommon as you suggest. I would argue that not just the vast majority, but all of the world’s population is religious, but many people are ignorant of the idols or ideologies that drive their lives. We often identify religion as something you do or a set of beliefs you agree with, but we don’t always recognize it as a deep root cause of much of our thought and action. In America, we have an entire public education system built on the mistaken idea that it’s possible to leave someone’s religion at home in the closet when teaching students without virtually abandoning the ethical component of education. Yes, I do still think that it’s impossible to understand the true character and depth of religious belief unless you have it (or, to be more consistent, discover your own).

          As to your last point, I personally would not agree that a religious or ideological zeal condoning murder is irreligious or insane, although I do agree that murder is (and should be) illegal. Blasphemy was a capital crime in Old Testament Israel, and the Bible contains numerous examples of people taking violent action out of religious zeal and being commended for it. I don’t want to pull any of that out of context or assert that many of those actions would be permissible today, but they are far from irreligious or insane. Christ Himself cleansed the Temple at one point by driving out the money changers with a whip; although that’s obviously not an act of terrorism, isn’t it likely that that would have been characterized as the illegal (disturbing the peace; assault) actions of a deranged zealot today?

          1. It seemed you were criticizing Earnest for not being as blunt as I was, but he was still clear enough for us both to understand him as saying, in effect what I said: “the religious beliefs and motives of the criminally insane are actually irreligious and therefore illegitimate and irrelevant.” For reasons you acknowledged, it was not (and may never be) an appropriate context for the White House to say something like this. Was it really a “public policy statement?” I doubt any subsequent administration will feel beholden to it, but it is not a bad policy, by my lights, if one is needed.

            When a religiously motivated act is homicide or violent assault, religion should be no protection — we agree on that — but I really do not have a problem with governments suppressing “free speech” or “religion” too, if it is done to advance a compelling public interest. This is widely practiced around the world in nations that are neither totalitarian nor anti-religious. Do you think Canada and Germany have done wrong or suffered by prosecuting violent neo-nazi type hate groups or by banning quasi-religious cults (like Scientology) that the US tolerates, for example?

            I understand your fear, but we’ve introduced the idea of “hate,” not Mr. Earnest, and I would not pitchfork it in with criminal wrongdoing. The idea of a “hate crime” as a crime where the wrongdoing and penalty is “enhanced” by a motive of “hate” makes sense, but the hate by itself is not a crime in the US even when expressed publicly in ways that other nations curtail and will not protect as free speech or free exercise of religion.

            There is just a big distinction between hate that is expressed through criminal violence and hate that isn’t. Nobody reasonably argues the former is not “hate,” but there can be a lot of interpretive diversity over what constitutes hate that is not expressed through criminal acts. Are you really worried that your view of gay sex as sinful will soon put you in the same boat (in the eyes of the law) as Klansmen and Islamist militants who shoot people at Jewish community centers and newspaper offices? It seems very extreme to start worrying about protecting the religious liberty of crazed killers like these out of fear that your own views, regarded by others as bigotry, might make you look like a potential perpetrator of “religious violence” to our civil authorities. Haven’t we clearly gone off the rails at this point, if a quest for legal protection for our refusal to accept gay marriage puts us in a kind of legal symbiosis or solidarity with religious terrorists, perpetrators of “honor killings,” etc.? That seems like a sign we’ve gone wrong.

            Jesus may have committed some kind of crimes in his day, but it was never murder, and his most extreme actions were intended to bring himself into conflict with the authorities. He expected to be condemned and punished. He did not try to reserve special legal protections for himself.

            I don’t see a need to regard religious violence today (or at any time) as moral or in any way acceptable just because the Bible (or any religious text) contains passages where there seems to be a divine sanction for murder and other abhorrent things. To me the most violent and repressive laws and practices of ancient Israel are clearly irreligious, immoral, and insane — and this is precisely what was being revealed to people from them until now in the Bible and in history. God telling Abraham to sacrifice his son is the greatest and most famous example — will you do this insane and evil thing, because I tell you to? Jewish interpretations of this story over the millenia are fascinating. Some say Abraham misunderstood, or was supposed to resist. A reading I like says God’s intention was to break Abraham from his belief that he owned his children, as opposed to God owning them and putting them beyond reach of any human power or would-be owner of men. Humanity has had to go through this learning process, which is toward liberation through mercy and love — seeing God in the other person, no matter how alien they seem. The Bible has never provided a set of static, unchanging rules for any people who have lived by it; it shows within itself the wrestling of “the people of the book” with things like slavery and social inclusion for women and minorities whose exclusion or status as property was never comfortably, unilaterally accepted. The “contradiction” between, say, Leviticus and Hosea on sexuality, marriage, sin and judgment is profound revelation, and it is visible right away in Genesis too.

            Christ did not say “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you resist deracination of your Jewish national identity and take up arms against our oppressors, while fighting to preserve our traditional patriarchal values: women, homosexuals, Gentiles, Samaritans, lepers are by no means equal!” Jesus was not a secularist, but he was an emancipator. What you regard as secular and liberal error other Christians can see as liberating and Christlike in our so-called secular and liberal state. Earlier I was not trying to suggest that western secularism is not prevalent but that it is not devoid of religious truth; its emancipatory ethos is unintelligible without Christianity even if Christian institutional reactions have often turned against it.

            I am sorry you have such a negative view of our public institutions and the people who serve in them. I get the impression you feel you know who is truly religious and who isn’t, what is a true religion and what isn’t, and the President (notwithstanding his own self-representation) probably doesn’t meet your standard. That is a shame, as is your dismissal of public schools.

            Of the many religious public school teachers I have known, I have never known them to try to “leave their faith at home” or believe it is possible. Even if it were liable to be accepted, I doubt they would ever evangelize in the classroom or attempt to insert dogmatic statements into their lessons. Even the best private school teachers I’ve known were not identity politics Christians who saw themselves as combatants in a culture war where everything depends on making gang signs and crediting Jesus with due honor in science and civics. Nor would they ever claim that without explicit confessional content ethics are absent. Our understanding of ethics, as you must know, comes first from the pagan Greeks who became the source for the seven “classical” virtues embraced in Christian tradition. If ethics have been run out of the schools I think it is largely for the same reasons foreign languages, art, music, etc. have been so diminished too. It is not a secularist conspiracy; if anything it is the result of people of privilege — religious conservatives among them — evacuating integrated schools and rapidly de-industrialized communities since the late 1960s and then hammering away at the resulting problems in very unproductive ways.

            If you believe the Christian faith is truly universal and God is our “all in all,” He is going to be in everything, perhaps especially in small, quiet ways we have to quiet down and listen for. We can’t do that if we are busy declaring whole classes of people and civil institutions as spiritual deserts and alienating ourselves from them on the presumption that they are our enemies and of course God’s too.

            1. Thank you for your reply, Anthony.

              If it was not clear from my post, my primary criticism of the Administration’s argument is that it makes assertions about the veracity of other’s religious beliefs. It argues that we can disregard the entire religious character of someone’s motivations or beliefs if their actions fail to conform to our definition of the religion they claim. I recognize that not even the Obama Administration is tied to continue to uphold this reasoning, although that has no impact on whether this is a policy statement or not, and my entire point is that this reasoning should be abandoned.

              I’m a bit confused by your second paragraph, but perhaps it responds to a lack of clarity in my own argument. The current system in the U.S. does actively suppress what could be considered the exercise of religion, despite its religious character, in these carefully delineated circumstances where the regulation survives what is known as “strict scrutiny.” I think that’s an adequate approach, and it reflects a general philosophy that the government may regulate behavior, but that it should not seek to regulate thought, particularly religious belief.

              So, insofar as Canada and Germany are actively working to suppress certain belief systems, I believe that those systems are flawed. If toleration of radical views is the price of liberty, I think it’s worth paying rather than permitting the government to get into the business of telling its citizens what they may think or believe.

              I don’t want to get lost in discussing hate crime legislation, but you are mentioning exactly why I’m concerned here. As you say “hate by itself is not a crime in the US even when expressed publicly in ways that other nations curtail.” I think that’s a good thing, but it has never been a terribly popular thing, and I don’t really want to set hate aside as a disfavored category of speech that we can eventually tuck ideas that we don’t like into, stripping them of any other protection.

              I also agree that there is a big difference between words and action, but if we’re talking about the beliefs that spur both, I see no reason to draw a qualitative difference between the beliefs that spur the two. You wonder if I’ve gone off the rails by wanting to protect the beliefs of those who commit heinous crimes. I would counter that we absolutely should protect or at least acknowledge their beliefs. We don’t have to individually agree with them or agree that they fairly represent their claimed religion, and the government is free, as mentioned above, to respond appropriately to those heinous acts that are committed.

              However, it doesn’t seem to me that the government, in particular, should be claiming that those acts are motivated by something other than what they appear to be. The Quran is similar to the Bible in that it does not take blasphemy lightly, and it’s a capital crime in both books. This doesn’t mean that everyone who professes belief in those books is a murderous psychopath, but it seems very odd to me to argue that someone who, out of a twisted zeal, strikes out against a blasphemer, did so without real regard for religious belief.

              I don’t really know how to respond to the bulk of the remainder of your reply. But here is my best attempt:

              As to religious violence: There are many examples of my point, but if you consider the example of Phineas in Numbers 25 to be a man acting irreligiously, immorally, and insanely, I don’t know how you can possibly square that with what the Lord says immediately thereafter: “Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, has turned my anger away from the Israelites. Since he was as zealous for my honor among them as I am, I did not put an end to them in my zeal. 12 Therefore tell him I am making my covenant of peace with him. 13 He and his descendants will have a covenant of a lasting priesthood, because he was zealous for the honor of his God and made atonement for the Israelites.”

              As to theology: It seems clear that you and I have significantly divergent beliefs on many aspects of Christian theology; however, I do not hold to many of the theological views you seek to foist upon me here, and I do take exception your presumptuousness in doing so. It is not my job to judge who possesses true faith and who does not. I have assurance of my faith alone, as I can know no other person’s heart but my own. While I may have personal views about the correctness of other’s theological views, and I may question the veracity of certain people’s claimed faith based on their actions, it’s not my place to judge whether or not those people have any religious conviction or not, and I am particularly convinced that this is not the government’s place either.

              As to public education: My words were overly broad. I do not mean to imply in any way that there are not faithful Christians working in public education. My comment is directly primarily at the separation of church and state jurisprudence that is currently accepted dogma from the Supreme Court. Although it has a few permutations depending on how judges aligned in a specific case, it rests upon the idea that certain things are neutral with regard to religion, and, out of concern for potential coercion, it is zealous for keeping most expression of religion out of schools in the belief that this does not foster certain assumptions about the character of religion itself. While this was not a founding philosophy of public education, it has unfortunately become a foundational framework of how it is currently administered, and yes, while there is some ethical instruction available out there, it is too often, in my experience, foundationally incoherent, encouraging students to be good without anything beyond a subjective standard for what “good” is or how we determine it. This last paragraph is a bit of a tangent, but I felt it worth saying, lest my previous comment be misconstrued.

              1. Thanks for the continued discussion. I’ll try to wind this down to my last questions and comments.

                I understand why you feel the executive branch and government in general should not make assertions about the truth of religious beliefs, but I don’t understand why you think governments and executives can and should be neutral toward religion out of concern for potential coercion when you reject the same application in public schools. If you think a teacher should be able to express their religious beliefs — which is impossible to do without at least an implicit assertion of their truth — why can’t a president do the same? Neither one is regulating thought or belief; it would take some law or decision from the legislative or judicial branches to do that, but if that is what you are afraid might happen, then why not argue consistently for religious neutrality across the board? That would likely gain the most agreement and buy-in from a lot of different people, but I think you’d still have to show what good groups and ideas are preserved in their liberty by not using some definition of violent crime or even hate to suppress militants and radicals.

                You didn’t answer what harm has been done in Canada, Germany, or other countries that suppress certain belief systems. What specific liberty have they lost? Don’t we in fact suppress some belief systems too? Would we be better off with “more liberty” if we went back to a situation where private non-profit schools could ban “interracial relationships” and practice other forms or racial discrimination? People have long argued using religion and the Bible to say this is not hate and should be accepted. Do we suffer as a nation because this “liberty” is suppressed?

                I think most religious leaders and traditions would say exactly what you think is illogical: someone who “out of a twisted zeal, strikes out against a blasphemer, did so without real regard for religious belief.” Their religious beliefs are twisted and therefore invalid, irreligious, or even anti-religious. I think this is precisely how the mass majority of Jews and Christians would respond today if one of them decided to follow the example of Phinehas and kill an inter-racial couple for adultery. If this was done out of the idea that God approves and will immediately “heal the land” when certain sinners are immolated in an act of “sacred violence,” this is insanity and not good religion. There is no value is saying idea that God has at times been depicted as endorsing murder, vigilanteism, etc. The question immediately follows whether this was every truly licit or might still be today. If your answer is “yes,” then I’m sorry, most religious believers will conclude you are mentally imbalanced and/or motivated by an irrational hatred, which puts you outside the boundaries of legitimate religion as judged by the religious establishments themselves.

                I feel the theoretical distinction between questioning “the veracity of certain people’s claimed faith based on their actions” and not judging “whether or not those people have any religious conviction” is one that disappears in practice, especially if you believe “it’s impossible to understand the true character and depth of religious belief unless you have it” and “many people are ignorant of the idols or ideologies that drive their lives.” What about the idols and ideologies on our own lives? How can you ever value “religious neutrality” or a “principled pluralism” if you think it is possible to attain (or that you have attained) the one true, idol-free belief system of true character and depth?

                1. I’m happy to have some back and forth over my ideas. Thanks for continuing to push things.

                  As a point of clarification: There’s a subtle but significant difference between the type of government behavior I’m expecting from the president and the approach I criticize in the handling of schools. The general uniting logic of my perspective is that the government should, to the greatest degree practically possible, protect and avoid meddling in the free marketplace of religious ideas.

                  It’s impossible to be truly neutral when it comes to religion, because religion, rightly understood, brooks no neutral ground. Generally, then, the government’s goal should be to make fair space for things to play out and to avoid picking sides where possible. The error I see in schools is that that courts are so concerned for any sort of coercion, even peer pressure, particularly as to those who claim religion and those who claim to be nonreligious, that the court ends up de facto siding with the practical position preferred by the “nonreligious.” I happen to believe that the court strikes its balance improperly and that while it’s good to protect children from proselytization, shielding them from even voluntary religious expression or failing to teach them practically to respect or even approve of such expression by others essentially results in taking sides. The logical consistency then is that I see the government claiming not to pick sides by remaining silent (neutral) with schools practically results in picking sides, whereas this case doesn’t even involve remaining silent but actively and positively asserting things about acceptable content of the belief of a specific religion.

                  My apologies for any lack of clarity with regard to Canada/Germany. I don’t claim to be an expert on those systems, so I limit this response to the scope of what you assert here, that is “suppress[ing] certain belief systems.” In that case, the harm, I think, is that these countries fail to truly have liberty of religious belief. If someone is suppressed because of what they think, or their actions are regulated specifically to suppress the thought that motivated them, then true liberty does not exist. Instead, these citizens enjoy the right to believe anything within a government-approved range of orthodoxy.

                  In the United States, the government is permitted to weigh in to the marketplace of ideas in some areas in order to advocate, within fairly strict limits, for its beliefs on some things, but the Constitution limits this ability to a near-total degree when it comes to religious belief. My concern is that we don’t let the government define what falls in or outside of religious belief, since the rules that it plays by in those cases are different.

                  We’ve both brought up issues of discrimination here, so I’ll address your question about “more liberty” directly: we are in a situation where non-profit schools can ban interracial relationships and practice other forms of racial discrimination. They have not (at least in one case) been able to do so and remain tax exempt, but they remain non-profit, and the organizations are not forbidden by law for having these policies. Bob Jones University (who I presume you’re referring to) maintained its racially-discriminatory policies, at least on the books, up into the 2000s. That case also was, and remains, extremely controversial because it clearly involved religious beliefs. That case has not be extended to threaten the exempt status of other institutions (such as churches), and even many other branches of Bob Jones’ own system (such as the medical school) have been able to obtain/maintain their tax exemption. If we wade too far into the waters of using the sword of government to regulate and sway what people are permitted to think, I think we do suffer as a nation.

                  As to the question of whether I think religiously-motivated killing has ever been truly licit, I stand by the example of Phinehas, as well as others in Scripture, to say that it has been, whether that makes me mentally imbalanced or not. It clearly is not permissible today, as God made clear through Christ and Paul that personal vengeance no longer plays a role in the economy of the New Covenant. Today we are to “turn the other cheek” and “pray for those who persecute [us].” Further, the right to personal vengeance has been claimed by the Lord (“vengeance is mine, says the Lord”) and the obligation to just application and vindication of the oppressed entrusted to the governments of the world while the Lord stores up His wrath at the mocking of His name until the Day of Judgment. I don’t see any reason why such a belief would put me outside the bounds of legitimate religion, and any assertion that this is the case is precisely why I spoke out in critique in this article.

                  My response to the questions posed in your last paragraph is fairly simple: humility. My faith, by the necessity of being faith, contains a great deal of personal certainty, but out of that certainty, as well as the humble recognition that I am fallible and certainly capable of being wrong, I am more than happy to hold up my beliefs to questions, probing, and criticism by others, and I want to make sure that others have that same opportunity.