Good Religion, Bad Religion

There’s a yiddish word that describes today’s post: chutzpah. 

Chutzpah is gall of the “how dare she” variety. It’s sometimes illustrated by an anecdote about a person who kills his mother and father and then throws himself on the mercy of the court because he’s an orphan.

Today’s post is about Christianity, and the reason I acknowledge my own chutzpah is because I am neither a Christian nor a believer. I come from a tradition that emphasizes behavior over belief–works over piety–and has co-existed pretty comfortably with science and secularism. (Minorities tend to flourish in more open, secular societies.)

What prompted this post was an article I came across in–of all places–Marketwatch, asking  why approximately half of Catholics and a majority of Evangelicals continue to support Donald Trump. The basic answer to that question, according to the article, is continued resentment of the First Amendment’s separation of Church and State.

To this day, there are many people who would like to put religion back into the center of public and political life. This is presumably what U.S. Attorney General William Barr, a deeply conservative Catholic, meant when he denounced “secularists” for launching an “assault on religion and traditional values.”

Of course, a preference for putting “religion” back in the public sphere raises a question that becomes more and more relevant as the country diversifies: whose religion? 

The article also referenced the relationship between a certain kind of Christianity and racism. It noted that Protestants had been supportive of Separation of Church and State so long as they remained culturally and racially dominant.

This changed after the Civil Rights movements in the 1960s, which alarmed many white Christians, especially in the southern states. Today, evangelicals, like Catholic conservatives, are among President Donald Trump’s most ardent supporters. They, too, believe that family and faith are under siege from liberals and secularists…

The attempt by contemporary Catholic conservatives and Protestant evangelicals to infuse politics with their religious beliefs obviously runs counter to the ideas of the French Revolution, which sought to uphold freedom from religion, but also of the American Revolution, which instituted freedom of religion. Both groups are targeting the carefully erected barriers between church and state.

This is dangerous, not only because it fosters intolerance, but also because it challenges, in the spirit of de Maistre, the idea that political argument should be based on human reason.

Once political conflicts become clashes of faith, compromise becomes impossible. A believer cannot bargain over a sacred principle.

You can’t argue with God. (Or your version of God.)

The article reminded me of Robert Jones book The End of White Christian America, which probed the anxieties–and rage– of white Christian men, as the racial, religious, and cultural landscape continues to change in ways that erode their previously privileged position.

When I was researching my 2007 book God and Country, I came across the very useful categorization of the nation’s founders into “Planting Fathers” and “Founding Fathers.” The Puritans were Planters. They came to the New World for “religious liberty,” which they defined as freedom to worship the right God in the right church and establish a government that would require their neighbors to do likewise. One hundred and fifty years later, the Founders who drafted the Constitution and Bill of Rights defined liberty very differently–as the right to follow one’s own beliefs, free of government interference.

What had intervened was the Enlightenment.

Our legal framework may be based on Enlightenment understandings of liberty and the role of government,  but America is still home to lots of Puritans who reject that understanding– along with the Enlightenment’s emphasis on science, evidence and empiricism.

The continuing culture war between our contemporary Puritans, secularists, and adherents of  non-fundamentalist religions raises some important–and too often neglected–questions: what good is religion? do modern societies still need it? what separates “good” religions from harmful ones? what’s the difference between a religion and a cult?

My youngest son has suggested a useful distinction between good and bad theologies: If a religion makes you struggle with the hard questions–what does it mean to be honorable, to act humanely, to treat others as we would want to be treated, etc.–it’s probably good.

If, instead of helping you confront the questions, it provides you with the answers, it’s bad.

To which I will add: if your religion leads you to support a leader whose behavior is contrary to everything you profess to believe because he promises to erase the line between Church and State and restore White Christian male privilege, you are a flawed person embracing a deeply flawed theology.


  1. You have raised a fine son.

    “My youngest son has suggested a useful distinction between good and bad theologies: If a religion makes you struggle with the hard questions–what does it mean to be honorable, to act humanely, to treat others as we would want to be treated, etc.–it’s probably good.

    If, instead of helping you confront the questions, it provides you with the answers, it’s bad.”

  2. What astounds me is the ongoing efforts by Evangelicals and Catholics to undermined the very principle of our Constitution, the separation of Church and State, that allows them to practice their religion in the first place. Their institutions pay no taxes, yet they take tax money to run those institutions (vouchers) and then use their beliefs to discriminate against some of those tax payers (gays, lesbians, transgender folk).
    Understanding this kind of hypocrisy and selfishness is itself a spiritual journey.

  3. A few random thoughts. Many of the “religious” who support the dumpster fire do so because of abortion. They oppose it and are more than happy to demand the procedure be made illegal, forgetting that doesn’t mean the procedure will magically stop, and they also do not want to spend tax dollars to provide the alternatives that make abortion the least desirable choice, ensuring that abortion will always be in demand. They are more than happy to demand others live as they believe they should, no pre-martial sex, sex only for procreation etc.

    You can be a real Christian, or support trump. The two are polar opposites and mutually exclusive. I get told when I say that I am judging and I shouldn’t judge. I reply I am making an observation and thn ask for trump policies based on the Christs teachings, like the Sermon on the Mount or Good Samaritian. Since there aren’t any policies based on the Christs teaching they usually stutter and deflect.

    There are around 5000 religions and sects on earth, is the one YOU belong to really the only one that is “right”.

    Great read as always. Thank you

  4. The number of white Christians worshipping confederate statues has surprised me. Saying they are irate over “loss of our history whether bad or good.” Yet, Germany’s history is well known without Nazi statues. The statues say nothing other than about the people who wanted them erected, in our case, from late 19th c & early 20th c & the artist’s view. There appears much confusion over”southern heritage” muddling over into christianity. I think the reality is racism.

  5. Theresa Bowers…AMEN!

    Evangelicals and Catholics undermine every principle of Jesus Christ whose words they claim to follow. There is a reason they are not allowed to read the Bible and I don’t believe it is because they couldn’t understand it. My granddaughter converted to the Catholic religion last year after months of attending weekly classes with textbooks and tests…then waited to know if SHE was acceptable and allowed into their inner circle of servitude as a woman. She had surrendered to her Catholic Republican husband 2 or 3 years after surrendering to his Republican “religion” and had voted for Trump.

    The staunch Republican Catholic family across the street from me removed their “Trump” yard sign; there must be a story there But we have never talked politics and I have always had Democratic yard signs during elections, we spoke on a friendly level till 2016. Removal of that sign doesn’t guarantee they will not vote Republican in November but maybe they won’t vote for Trump. Will their decision be made during Mass and rely on what their Priest determines is the “Christian” choice?

  6. James Madison pointed out that those Christians who wanted the wall of separation demolished, did so, assuming that their denomination would be the dominant one. But he reminded them that a government that can favor one denomination today, can favor a different one tomorrow.

    And none of these “alt-Christians” would be comfortable if theirs’ was not the favored one.

  7. A minor quibble on your description of my formula for “good” vs. “bad” religions: “Good” religions help you wrestle with life’s hard questions –what is our role in this world, what does it mean to be honorable, to act humanely, to treat others as we would want to be treated, etc.

    “Bad” religions, by contrast, DICTATE the answers to life’s great questions, and say only their answers are right. (My quibble is that you said bad religions “provide” the answers, which is too neutral and sounds helpful).

    Of course, I agree with the entire post!

  8. First of all, “God” is a creation of man’s vivid imagination and the eternal struggle of trying to know the unknowable and fathom the unknown. Einstein, I think with tongue firmly in cheek once summed up his work by saying, “I want to know God’s thoughts. Everything else is details.”

    As a scientist, Einstein knew that there was no test to validate God’s existence. There is not a single shred of evidence that this or that god exists in any form other than the fantasies and fever dreams of non-scientists who want to explain something – like death – but can’t make a test. So, they make up the “tests” too, and call it religion.

    In my experience as an educator and student of the human (and other animals) condition, it seems that those who embrace religion based on a collection of unproved and un-tested beliefs remain in the intellectual caves of our ancient past. Republicans and evangelicals who place religion in front of governance reflect that lack of intellectual vigor to see the truth for what it is.

    Moreover, it is beyond arrogance to assume there is life after death. Again, no testing, no data whatsoever. Our founders who built the wall between church and state did so because they saw what true believers and fellow travelers did to the human condition by having religious dogma – again, invented from whole cloth by turbid minds – direct governance. It didn’t work back then, and our founders, while being ever so egalitarian, knew that injecting religion into governance and policy-making was a formula for disaster.

    And here we are. Trump, of course, is too stupid to believe in anything but himself so he panders to the religious dolts who support him. Barr, is just pure evil wrapped in his own prejudice and bigotry. Guys like these always deny science, facts and truths that put their “philosophy” back in the closet. After all, it’s easier to “believe” than it is to think.

  9. A couple of years ago, I saw this bumper sticker:

    Trust those who seek the truth.
    Doubt those who have found it.

    (or words to that effect)

  10. I am Christian and a believer, and youR blog today is right on the mark. I agree with you completely. A vote for 45 is neither Christian nor Biblical. I agree with your son…” If a religion makes you struggle with the hard questions–what does it mean to be honorable, to act humanely, to treat others as we would want to be treated, etc.–it’s probably good.”

  11. This is making the rounds on Facebook as well as being reported locally.

    Here is the copy of the weekly message (6/28/2020) from Father Ted Rothrock of St Elizabeth Seton in Carmel:

    Today in Saint Elizabeth Ann SetonThirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time28 June 2020
    This dialogue from Hamlet is taken from Act 3, scene 2 and is a response to Hamlet’s query: “how like you this play?” The line suggests a hidden agenda that is revealed in the objections, where the accuser is actually the perpetrator.

    History is replete with examples of misdirection. In 2001 the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas of Bamyan, the 6th century monumental statues of Gautama Buddha in central Afghanistan, claiming them to be pagan idols. The world was horrified, but did nothing about it.

    Despots and tyrants have always employed accusation and distortion to achieve all manner of mischief in an effort to shape and mold public opinion. Anyone currently doing business with Amazon could not help but notice the prominent banner headline from the internet giant touting their proud support for “Black Lives Matter.” But do those black lives really matter to the community organizers promoting their agenda? Is “Antifa” concerned with the defeat of fascist right-wing nationalism or more interested in the establishment of left-wing global socialism?

    The brutal murder of a black man in police custody has sparked a landslide of reaction to the alleged systemic racism in America. We are being told that the scars of race relations in this country are really unhealed wounds that continue to fester and putrefy; amputation is required! Reforms must be sweeping and immediate to crush the rising wave of racism that pervades the nation and perverts the body politic.

    On the heels of the Covid sequestration, the bottled-up tension of an isolated population has exploded into riots and demonstrations that we have not seen the like in fifty years. What would the great visionary leaders of the past be contributing to the discussion at this point in time? Would men like Fredrick Douglas and the Reverend King, both men of deep faith, be throwing bombs or even marching in the streets?

    Would they be pleased with the murder rates in our cities or the destruction of our families by the welfare system? Would they see a value in the obliteration of our history to re-write a future without the experience and struggles of the past?

    Would we tear down their monuments? Who are the real racists and the purveyors of hate? You shall know them by their works. The only lives that matter are their own and the only power they seek is their own. They are wolves in wolves clothing, masked thieves and bandits, seeking only to devour the life of the poor and profit from the fear of others. They are maggots and parasites at best, feeding off the isolation of addiction and broken families, and offering to replace any current frustration and anxiety with more misery and greater resentment.

    The message of peace that comes to us in Christ is the gospel we carry in common with the Orthodox Churches and other Christians. We must stand in solidarity with our brethren across the world to oppose this malevolent force. Black Lives Matter, Antifa, and the other nefarious acolytes of their persuasion are not the friends or allies we have been led to believe. They are serpents in the garden, seeking only to uproot and replant a new species of human made in the likeness of men and not in the image of God.

    Their poison is more toxic than any pandemic we have endured. The father of lies has not just been seen in our streets, we have invited him into our home. Now he is prowling like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, strong in your faith.

    St Elizabeth Seton HAS TAKEN THIS DOWN from their website.

    Side Bar: >>> Father Ted has managed to hit most if not all of the Rightwing Reactionary talking points. Father Ted said what he thought. He must have thought also that his “message” was acceptable to his flock.

  12. Your son is a wonder. He absolutely hit the nail on the head (even more so in his correction in the comments.)

  13. The human world is changing because it has to. The environment changed, conditions changed and we either adapt or go extinct. (to be accurate we aren’t in a biologically natural selection era but a cultural natural selection era. We get to try new cultures to find the one that works best.)

    As nobody knows for sure I choose to believe (my religion?) that we passed a while ago the limits of a sustainable population and lifestyle coupled with an absolute explosion in technology driven by computer networks.

    Just as the Great Enlightenment emerged when conditions were right for it 250 years ago (life for those born lowly became tragic while those highly born peaked in their entitlement) it seems maybe that what will emerge from the chaos all around us is a rebirth of those ideals and for the same reasons as before. We get another shot at what works for everyone rather than what works for the privileged as it seems that they overserved themselves once they got the power to (absolute power corrupts absolutely).

    In my opinion our ability to pull off another enlightenment win is simple: education that is continuous, lifelong, democratic, and profound. Experts teaching and students integrating all of the specialties.

    We have lost much ground in the last four years as the cultures facing extinction fought back but I think that we can win this war with a little bit of help from nature in the form of an unassuming virus. It was perfectly predictable that nature would step in when required to organize the chaos that we demonstrated in our attempts to move forward.

  14. My parents belonged to an unconventional Christian religion, and we kids were persecuted for our beliefs in school. This leads me to believe that many Christians want religion in school, as long as it is their religion. What about allowing Wiccan prayers, etc.? School is not the appropriate place for any kind of religious practice.

  15. While I don’t normally look for profundity on T-shirts, my wife wears one which, in the pithiest possible terms, says all that needs saying on this topic: My Religion is Kindness.

  16. I certainly don’t agree with the views expressed about vouchers, i.e. that vouchers are about giving GOVERNMENT money to religious institutions. It is about giving parents, especially those who do not have much money, a choice on where to send their child, which includes not only religious schools, but private institutions. Why should those poorer parents be given only one choice for their child’s education due to their limited finances, i.e. sending their child to the local public school which may be very much under-performing? Choices in education are a very good thing. That’s why charter schools, which are non-traditional PUBLIC schools, are a positive development. Same too with vouchers.

    I’m sure some one will say if we just spend more money on K-12 public education, it would be better. The fact though is we pour a ton of money into K-12 education and that amount over the decades has increased well above the inflation rate. K-12 education has only gotten worse. It is wrong to force parents to send their kids to under-performing schools because they do not have money to send their children to a religious or private school.

    Opposition to vouchers and charter schools is a losing political issue for Democrats/liberals. If you don’t think so, got tell some of the many parents who are currently using these options to educate their children that you are going to take away that option and send them back to their local public school. They will be very unhappy.

  17. It is interesting that the defense of the voucher system that pours millions of tax dollars into private and parochial schools at the expense of public schools comes down to some idea that parents must have a choice. They have always had a choice. Many parents over the years made sacrifices to send their children to religious schools, not because the public school was under-performing, but because they wanted their children indoctrinated in their religion. Why should the public pay for that?
    If in fact your local public school is under-performing, why don’t you step up and help improve it? No, the solution to some is simply to abandon the public school system and take its resources and transfer them through the parents to private/religious schools.
    And while on the subject of under-performing, let me point out that per recent reports the tract record for many charter schools and parochial schools is less than stellar.
    No, the argument that vouchers are there to simply help the poor is just false. Look at who now is eligible for those vouchers. The impoverished poor of the state are not the beneficiaries; it’s the middle class whites of parishes that are losing members and have managed to lobby the State legislature into bailing them out. The entire scheme is outrageous and IMO unconstitutional.

  18. I don’t teach my children religion.
    I teach them to ask questions about “normal” things.
    Religion is normal. Skeptics as for evidence.
    Believers just deflect, so I teach about deflection.

    Private schools are racist, We all know the “quality” scam.

    It’s why we don’t run mass transit to suburbs:
    It allows “them” to “invade” our neighborhoods.

    So tired of superior people.

  19. I think a lot of Catholics vote Republican on a single issue, abortion. The concept of life is held sacred as is the beginning of life at conception. So “once political conflicts become clashes of faith compromise becomes impossible. A believer cannot bargain over a sacred principle” It’s egregious that that issue is used by politicians to manipulate their votes, especially when those politicians don’t have similar values. I think the study of religion scientifically (comparative religions) origins of religion i.e. Joseph Campbell, would help understanding of religion’s role. Even if we’re not believers, others are, and knowing helps understanding. I’m glad US has Constitution & Bill of Rights, and in theory anyway, protects the minority from the majority. I’m glad we have choice in search for truth,and what we believe. I become suspicious of any “authority” that can’t struggle to answer questions honestly. IMO there’s too much of that in Religion & Government.

  20. As one who invested most of my life as a professional leader in a mainline Christian denomination (Lutheran, ELCA), this article is spot on (imho).

    From Wikipedia, our “liberal” go-to site for some info (sarcasm):

    “The Treaty of Tripoli (Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary) was signed in 1796. It was the first treaty between the United States of America and Tripoli (now Libya) to secure commercial shipping rights and protect American ships in the Mediterranean Sea from local Barbary pirates. In Article 11 of the English language American version which states that “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”

    I know many of you already know this piece of history, but I still marvel how this treaty between the rather newly minted secular U.S.A. and a Muslim country is, still, so pertinent and vital 224 years later! But, I digress.

    Simply (if there is such a thing on this subject), I just want to make a very personal declaration. I grew up in the turbulent 60’s seeking some answer, ANY answer, to the craziness of Mutual Assured [Nuclear] Destruction (M.A.D.) and trained to crawl under a school desk to “survive,” Vietnam and the draft, police dogs attacking black children, college students shot by our military on campuses, men of peace shot down in cold blood and Barry Goldwater running for President on a “policy” of nuking China and any other enemy of “freedom.”

    With those mental and emotional formations upon my growing psyche, it seemed rational (at the time) to seek an “escape hatch” out of this craziness the world was injecting into me. Religion was one choice. The choice in Bible Belt USA is pretty limited. After trying and giving up on a Hindu mail in yoga practice for 2 years, I finally tried a protestant church knowing NOTHING about church, Jesus, his God or ANYTHING about Christianity except what I saw on the rabbit ears of the local TV station (i.e. scary and red faced Evangelist).

    I desired a God who could “save me” or protect me on what I thought at the time was a pretty sure bet that this world would not make it to the next year much less the next century. What that saving and protection would mean or look like I had NO CLUE.

    Years a later came a liberal graduate education in a liberal arm of Protestantism. Thank God! (pun intended)

    To the point: This learned and practiced ability to use critical cognitive approaches to reality as it is, not what I wish or feel it to be (sorry Mr. Reinhold Niebuhr), is what has “saved” me.

    The ability to question, without fear. The ability to dive deep into my own biases (learned from family of origin and culture). The ability to act upon natural curiosity. These abilities and the experience to live through them is my salvation. Period.

    Is there a God? I don’t know. I lean toward the evidence of saying “no.” However, if God does exist beyond my own limited reasoning, (as others have stated), WHICH God is the “true” or “orthodox” God? Per Pascal, place your bets please!!!

    After a lifetime of studying The Bible (and to a lesser extent, The Koran, Pillars of Buddhism, Hinduism, etc), I have come to the conclusion that if God does exists, I hope to (fill in the blank ________.) that it is NOT like the God’s we have available in so-called “sacred script because, quite frankly and honestly, THOSE GODS ARE BAT SHIT CRAZY AND FILLED WITH JUDGMENT AND A NEED TO ETERNALLY PUNISH IN CRUEL AND OBSCENE WAYS!!!!

    Wow. That feels kinda cathartic….again! 🙂

    Today, I don’t “believe” in anything. I think (through observation and experience) that kindness, love, care, compassion (feeling an other’s pain), empathy, justice, equality, fairness, lifting up, helping, etc, are good compasses to live by. And, just because most major religions have this “golden rule” within them (indeed, I think the historical Jesus of Nazareth lived in this spirit) does NOT make them, in whole “TRUTH,” much less good books! The fact is, what Jesus taught and preached (think parables) are most of the time ABSENT from Christian practices and beliefs. Can’t make that up!!!

    Well, as any preacher, I lied about the “simply” part of my post. Anyways, very good article. Thanks again Sheila!

  21. Paul K. Ogden; voucher money taken from public education tax budgets do NOT go to parents. I don’t believe for one second that you believe it does; it is a Republican cover up of misappropriation of tax dollars. It not only goes directly to the religious school but, if the student leaves that school for any reason; moving, parental decision, expulsion or death, the money stays in that school for the entire year. It is not replaced in the public education tax budget even though the student is no longer attending. The minimum parental income has risen to above middle-income levels and their children no longer need to have not been properly educated in public schools to qualify for voucher assistance.

    The voucher students, no matter their religion or their choice, are REQUIRED to attend and participate in all religious classes with the students of that school’s religion. They do not have to participate in prayers but forced religious classes is brainwashing…something the Catholic religion is adept at.

    Your own second paragraph states that a “ton of money goes into K-12 education” but leaves out the fact that much of that money is then removed in the form of vouchers and put into tax free religious schools in the form of vouchers; thus causing the decline of quality public education and also causing the need to increase our K-12 tax budget. It is a Republican tax dollar/education merry-go-round. We are already providing free public safety in all forms as well as infrastructure and maintenance of same while neighborhoods surrounding many of the religious schools continues to decline due to poverty level of residents who no longer receive outreach services by the churches and schools their rising taxes maintain. What more will you want; tithing of residents in surrounding areas? We are all aware of the millions and millions spent to cover up or pay off victims of sexual molestation by priests in these schools and churches.

    The religious schools and the churches need to be knocked off of the public tit and our tax dollars put to use where it is needed most and used for the original – and legal – intent which is public education.

    Or remove all churches and religious schools from tax exempt status and pay taxes which would give them the full right to expect financial assistance in their schools.

  22. If most of our public officials were Muslim and made great public displays of their worship and prayers to Allah, I’m guessing evangelical and other conservative Christians would be the very first to seek a high wall between church and state.

  23. Paul K Ogden and JoAnn Green:

    Paul, I come from a family of educators and have taught a little myself. The original idea for Charter schools was reasonable: investigate alternative forms of education as an effort to improve methods of education delivery. However, the practice has been anything but this.

    The primary points of charter schools now involve making money and/or indoctrinating students with religion. The schools can pick or reject any child for any reason, so your claim that they give parents more choice is not correct. If you are a poor minority parent, for example, your choices will be extremely limited. In any case, the schools largely no longer pick the children; instead, they evaluate and choose parents, those that fit their mold, have money, and show interest/involvement — in other words, those who will be good for delivering more money to the school — are selected.

    Charter schools also have much less oversight than public schools. Some are well run, and deliver education at least, but others are almost complete shams.

    The charter school system needs a complete reformation. Until then, there is little good I can say about them. Many are terrible. They often hurt society and the children that attend them.

  24. John H; Paul Ogden and I were talking about voucher students in private, predominantly religious schools, NOT Charter schools which is a different subject with different problems.

  25. It seems the religious zealots just want to be in charge of everybody and are pissed because they are losing “control.” They donʻt want to be a mere group among many groups, they want to maintain their status at the top of the heap. One of my favorite bumper stickers says, “Jesus, save us from your followers!”

    @Terry Munson – “My religion is kindness” is a quote by the Dalai Lama. Wish everyone would practice kindness.

  26. Back in my youth (68 now) I thought we Catholics were the good guys. Everyone was estactic when JFK got elected, especially the nuns. In 8th grade we held a mock election, Sister Mary Something could hardly find anybody to take the Republican side. As I was unwillingly baptized and have yet to be excommunicated I suppose I’m technically still Roman but I’m going to stop rooting for ND

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