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Christian author, warning of domestic terrorism, speaks directly to her community

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Elizabeth Neumann served as assistant secretary of Homeland Security for counterterrorism and threat prevention in the Trump administration. She quit that post in 2020, but not before she warned about the increasing threats of domestic terrorism from far-right extremists. When she left, she said Trump was fueling the fire of that threat. On January 6, 2021, she watched the attack on the U.S. Capitol in horror, both as a security professional and a Christian.

ELIZABETH NEUMANN: The people that were committing these horrific acts were praying. They were carrying pictures of Jesus. They were carrying signs that had Bible verses on it.

FADEL: Since then, Neumann has continued to warn about the rising threat of domestic extremism. And in her new book, "Kingdom of Rage: The Rise Of Christian Extremism And The Path Back to Peace," she gets personal as a Christian, speaking directly to her own community.

NEUMANN: I think for many Christians, we just assume that those people that were there on January 6 or those people that we might hear about from time to time, they're not representative of us. They're the fringe. And that can be true, but it also is true that we're not doing a better job within the Christian community in denouncing that and making it clear to the community that that is not the way of Jesus.

FADEL: You know, I'm Muslim, and there's violence that is used in the name of Islam that is co-opted by very dangerous and awful groups, and then Muslims all get thrown in a bucket with those groups. So I recognize your struggle as a Christian trying to diagnose a problem that you see within your community, but that is not your community.

NEUMANN: And quite frankly, the experience of the Muslim community after 9/11 is part of the conviction I had to write this book. We asked a lot of the Muslim community after 9/11. We said, please push back against this extremist interpretation of your faith, and many people did. If we asked that of the Muslim faith, shouldn't we be asking that of the Christian faith?

FADEL: You write that this book is a, quote, "urgent alarm" directly to other Christians. What alarm are you sounding?

NEUMANN: We have data that's showing us that a sizable portion of the population in the United States, depending on the survey, between 30 and 40% of adults believe that there are times when violence is justified to achieve your political aim. And that definition and that question that gets asked comes awfully close to the definition of terrorism. So we have 30- to 40% of adults in this country that at least cognitively are open to this idea that sometimes terrorism's OK.

The good news is that that is more of a cognitive embrace. That's not actually the numbers that would go on to carry out an act of violence. But it doesn't take that many people to lead to violence and to lead to destruction in our communities. And we still have a number of people in our country. We have churches, conservative influencers who are actively saying in this election season that they should be prepared for violence. And when we have our politicians churning that kind of rhetoric out, it does create a very dangerous scenario.

FADEL: For a regular person who thinks, oh, my gosh, my cousin or this person who goes to my church or my dad, I think they might be getting radicalized, how do they recognize that?

NEUMANN: So radicalization is not a linear process. You could have an individual that meets the definition at some point and then jumps back to an earlier stage in the process, and trying to figure out where somebody is in that process actually can become kind of important because if they are just recently exposed to an idea, they're testing it out, they're not sure if they agree with it yet. If somebody is in that stage, you actually can insert doubt and that might help them reject the ideology that they're toying with.

The way to insert doubt, though, is to ask questions, to be curious. And actually, what you're really trying to understand is, what's the unmet need here? What's actually going on in somebody's life that QAnon is now appealing to them or that the "great replacement theory" is appealing to them? What you don't want to do is try to attack the ideology because that often has a backlash effect. Where you start to get more concerned is when people start withdrawing, when people start perhaps mentioning things that imply that they think violence is justified. Those indicators are really important that you contact law enforcement. That's kind of the last stage when somebody has not only ideated an attack, but they're planning for it.

I will say one of the concerns that we have in this community is that it's very common for loved ones to observe behavior that's concerning but then just chalk it up to nothing, dismiss it and push it aside. What we're asking, what I'm suggesting is don't do that. That doesn't mean that your loved one is at risk of violence, but you should investigate. One of the core things for people that disengage from radicalization or extremism is that usually there's somebody in their life that continued to show them love or somebody unexpected that showed them empathy. Empathy and love is a core part of why people finally walk away from extremism.

FADEL: In your dedication, you write the book is dedicated to the exhausted, tribeless, remnant of exiles. You are not alone. Take heart. He has overcome the world. Can you tell me who you're talking to there?

NEUMANN: Yeah. I had my own experience of - when I spoke out in 2020 - of being rejected by many in my community, people who I had been in fellowship with at church. People - family members felt personally offended by my political take in 2020 and deeply wounded some people, and of course, their rejection of me deeply wounded me, right? It was kind of a very painful process.

FADEL: Yeah.

NEUMANN: And for many of us that feel like we're trying to navigate a commitment to what the Bible teaches, it kind of feels sometimes like we're alone, and there aren't that many of us. And I've just met so many amazing people who have also walked through this difficult season. And I took great courage from meeting them in knowing that we're not alone.

FADEL: Elizabeth Neumann is the author of a new book out this week, "Kingdom Of Rage: The Rise Of Christian Extremism And The Path Back to Peace." Thank you so much for joining us.

NEUMANN: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF RRAREBEAR'S SONG "MOON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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