Donald Trump is very clear on the subject: If President Obama doesn't use the words "radical Islamic terrorism" to discuss the brutal killings in Orlando, "he should immediately resign in disgrace!"
Most Republicans seem to agree that it's essential to link Islam to the tactics and goals of extremists and terrorists. Senator Ben Sasse (no fan of Trump's) to Obama: "You're wrong. Telling the truth about violent Islam is a prerequisite to a strategy." Lindsay Graham says Obama "shows a total disconnect from the problems we face in confronting/defeating radical Islam." Strategist Ed Rogers writes that the president's refusal to refer to "radical Islam" was "a remarkable display of arrogance and tone-deaf rhetoric."
Hillary Clinton has decided to do an end-run around the issue. "Radical jihadist, radical Islamism, I think they mean the same thing. I'm happy to say either, but that's not the point." For her, the challenge is to go after the perpetrators of hateful crimes without tarring an entire religion -- or being distracted by a rhetorical sideshow.
Let's say that Donald Trump and his allies are right: that it's important to label the religious underpinnings of those who seek to kill innocents in Paris or San Bernardino or Orlando. That where a killer calls on religion to justify his actions, let's identify that religion for all to see.
But can we really stop with Islam?
Take Robert Dear, the deranged man who last November took a semiautomatic rifle into a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs. He killed three and wounded nine. His motivation? To be "a warrior for the babies."
Dear is not just an extremist -- he is a "Christian extremist." He called his anti-abortion activism "God's work." He dreamed that "[w]hen he died and went to heaven, he would be met by all the aborted fetuses at the gates of heaven and they would thank him . . ." He sprinkled his confession to the police with Bible phrases.
To understand Robert Dear, don't we have to understand the Christian teachings this "Christian extremist" believed he was upholding?
Or take Ammon Bundy, the leader of the armed anti-government militants who earlier this year occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. Bundy, a Mormon adherent, said he was acting on instructions from God: "The Lord was not pleased with what was happening to the Hammonds," a father-son team whose convictions Bundy was trying to avenge. One of Bundy's fellow Mormon militants took the name "Captain Moroni" -- a celebrated figure from the Book of Mormon who fought for the liberty of his people against a corrupt king. "And it came to pass that Moroni was angry with the government, because of their indifference concerning the freedom of their country." (Book of Mormon, Alma 59:13).
Leaders of the Church of Latter-day Saints felt obliged to issue a statement distancing themselves from the actions of Bundy and his fellow militants, saying they were "deeply troubled by the reports that those who have seized the facility suggest they are doing so based on scriptural principles." Of course, this did nothing to deter Bundy and fellow militants.
So to understand Bundy we should of course identify him as a "Mormon extremist" or a "Mormon terrorist," take your pick. The same for his father, Cliven Bundy, well-known for his own highly-publicized standoff in Nevada over federal grazing fees. The father also relied on the Lord: "If the standoff with the Bundys was wrong, would the Lord have been with us?" He said, "The Lord told me . . . if (the local sheriff doesn't) take away these arms from federal agents, we the people will have to face these arms in a civil war." His Lord directed his conduct. So, Cliven Bundy: another "Mormon extremist."
Going back in time: David Koresh, the messianic preacher of the Branch Davidians whose anti-government standoff in 1993 led to the death of 84 people? Another "Christian extremist" (or perhaps more precisely, if you think it helpful, "Seventh-day Adventist extremist"). And in 1992, Randy Weaver and his family held off federal officials at Ruby Ridge, Idaho in another celebrated act of "Christian extremism," leading to more deaths.
Nor are Christians (and Muslims) the only ones who take to violence to carry out what they believe are religious dictates. Meir Kahane, the New York rabbi who helped spur an ultra-nationalist Jewish militant movement and was convicted of conspiracy to manufacture explosives? He was certainly a "a Jewish extremist." In 1990 he was assassinated in a New York hotel by an Arab gunman who, naturally, we should call an "Islamic terrorist." More recently, what about the Israeli settlers who kidnapped an innocent 16-year-old Muslim boy, beat him with a crowbar and burnt his body to avenge earlier killings? Also "Jewish terrorists," clearly.
Religion and religious feelings are among the strongest motivators in human experience. They have motivated martyrs, revolutions, crusades and, yes, terrorists across many centuries and millennia. But for most of us, the line between legitimate faith and the deranged behavior of the disturbed is clear. So -- are the 6 million Mormons in the United States responsible for the Bundys? Are the Jews of America and Israel responsible for Kahane or the reprehensible actions of the settlers? Who should be made to feel responsible for the events at Waco and Ruby Ridge? Church-going Christians who would not recognize the version of Christianity claimed by these deranged extremists?
If you think it's helpful to call killers motivated by perverted definitions of Islam "Islamic terrorists" -- then let's be consistent and call out the Jews, the Christians, the Mormons whose faiths have also been twisted by a few.
Anything less would be an exercise in political correctness -- wouldn't it?
Nelson W. Cunningham worked in the Clinton White House, and previously for Joseph Biden and John Kerry. He is an international consultant in Washington, DC and, if you must know, a Christian.