Category Archives: Religious Liberty

The March of Those Christian “Soldiers”

Marching backwards…

Last Tuesday, the Indianapolis Star reported on the explosion of anti-Semitic incidents on IU’s Bloomington campus. National headlines trumpet passage of anti-LGBTQ legislation (“Don’t say gay!”) and mean-spirited attacks on transgender youth. The Ted Cruz’s of the GOP and the Tucker Carlsons of rightwing media warn against the “feminization” of American men and the “dire threat” posed by (nonwhite) immigrants.

The fears and hatreds that feed these behaviors are exploited by the Christian Nationalists who have come to exercise disproportionate influence in American life by turning  a political ideology into a version of Christianity, and insisting that only adherents of that version are authentically American.

In a recent column, Jennifer Rubin considered that influence–and confluence. In a column about the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson, she wrote:

.Democracy functions only with restraint, good-faith application of procedural rules and devotion to the principle that the other side gets to govern when it wins. That concept is now an anathema to the GOP. As Thomas Zimmer has written for the Guardian, “Many Republicans agree that the Democratic Party is a fundamentally illegitimate political faction — and that any election outcome that would lead to Democratic governance must be rejected as illegitimate as well.”

That view of illegitimacy often stems from Christian nationalism. As Robert P. Jones, chief executive of the Public Religion Research Institute, explains, “A worldview that claims God as a political partisan and dehumanizes one’s political opponents as evil is fundamentally antidemocratic.” He tells me, “A mind-set that believes that our nation was divinely ordained to be a promised land for Christians of European descent is incompatible with the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of religion and equality of all.”

The New Republic–among others–has also looked at what it called “The Shock Troops” of Christian Nationalism, and the wealthy theocrats funding them. 

The article focused on a little-known foundation, the James and Joan Lindsey Family Foundation, and what it characterized as “a vast and steady flow of contributions” to  organizations in that Christian nationalist movement: the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, WallBuilders, a media company called Mastermedia International, and the Council for National Policy, a networking group for movement leadership.

“We are a Christian country. And the Founders were—definitely—and our founding documents were written under prayer each day of the writing,” Joan Lindsey has said. On the eve of the 2020 election, she announced that “this election will either preserve faith’s sacred place in our country or destroy it.”

The most recent effort backed by the Lindseys is something called “The Church Finds Its Voice,” a new entrant in what the article identifies as “a long-standing pattern in the Christian nationalist movement of backing projects to turn America’s network of tens of thousands of conservative churches into a powerful partisan political machine.”

The article is lengthy, and includes multiple other examples of Christian Nationalist activism.  It’s chilling; one leader of the movement is quoted as saying that “every election is a contest against absolute evil, and the consequences of failure are almost too dire to imagine.” To suggest that these activists are motivated is to understate the situation. Rightwing media has convinced them that Trump was anointed by God to protect Christians from those who would not only dislodge them from their privileged position but would also strip them of their rights and liberties.

Numerous accounts of the January 6th insurrection have focused on the ubiquity of Christian Nationalist symbols, and expressions of belief that God was on their side. As the deeply religious Michael Gerson has observed, transforming opponents into infidels provides an opening for racism and anti-Semitism.

The anti-Semitism being displayed at Indiana University is just one aspect of the Christian Nationalist worldview, but it is a fairly major element of it. An analysis by the Washington Post found that Christian Nationalism, support for QAnon, and anti-Semitism to be tightly linked.

Since Christian nationalism is a worldview holding that the United States was created by and for Christians, it may not be surprising that they dislike non-Christians. On average, the most ardent Christian nationalists subscribed to four of the eight anti-Semitic tropes presented; those most opposed to Christian nationalism subscribed to an average of one. Christian nationalists were more likely to believe each individual trope but showed the strongest support for the mistaken ideas that “Jews are more loyal to Israel than to this country” and “Jews killed Jesus.”

Christian Nationalists who had bought into nutty QAnon conspiracy theories were even more anti-Semitic. QAnon reinforces a number of anti-Semitic tropes: that Jews control the banks, the media and the government, and that Jews are the ones behind the Deep State.

The problem is, those “Christian soldiers” own today’s GOP.

 

 

Who Are We #2

Us versus Them. It’s tribal, a way of approaching life that has–unfortunately– persisted through centuries. For most of those centuries, the major divisions have taken the form of national boundaries, although religion and skin color have been close behind.

In our increasingly globalized world, however, perceptions of who “we” are–and perceptions of the threats posed by “them”– are changing. The identity of the “tribe” to which one belongs is no longer totally dependent upon nationality or even skin color, although religious beliefs remain a potent part of what we might call the New World Disorder.

I was struck by some statistics in a recent New York Times column.The author was considering the genesis and character of pro-Putin/pro-autocrat sentiment on the Right.

It may feel shocking, but it shouldn’t be surprising that many Republican leaders and conservative elites think the American president is a more dangerous enemy than the Russian autocrat. There is an influential tradition on the right of idolizing Putin as a defender of white Christian values against the onslaught of secular, “leftist” liberalism. In 2013, for instance, Pat Buchanan, a leading voice on the “paleoconservative” traditionalist right, described Putin as “one of us,” an ally in what he saw as the defining struggle of our era, “with conservatives and traditionalists in every country arrayed against the militant secularism of a multicultural and transnational elite”. Similarly, in 2014, famous evangelist Franklin Graham lauded Putin for having “taken a stand to protect his nation’s children from the damaging effects of any gay and lesbian agenda” – an agenda Barack Obama was supposedly pursuing in the US.

After the 2016 election, the simmering admiration for Putin morphed into GOP orthodoxy, with Donald Trump himself leading the Republican party’s pro-Russia turn. This rapprochement shaped the right well beyond conservative elites. Among voters in general, support for Donald Trump correlates strongly with a favorable opinion of Putin, and Americans who define the US as a “Christian nation” have a much more favorable view of Putin’s Russia. As recently as January 2022, Putin had a significantly higher approval rating among Republicans than Joe Biden.

The author followed those two paragraphs with a litany of far Right statements confirming that worldview: Steve Bannon declaring his support for Putin because “Putin ain’t woke, he is anti-woke;”  Christian nationalist Republican Lauren Witzke (a Delaware Republican candidate for Senate in 2020)  asserting that she supports Putin because he protects “our Christian values. I identify more with Russian, with Putin’s Christian values than I do with Joe Biden.”  Arizona state senator Wendy Rogers is quoted as saying “I stand with Christians worldwide and not the global bankers who are shoving godlessness and degeneracy in our face”; in case you (inexplicably) missed the anti-Semitic tropes in that statement, she then described Ukrainian president Zelenskiy, who is Jewish, as “a globalist puppet for Soros and the Clintons.”

There were several others–and of course we all know what Tucker Carlson has had to say.

This critique has basically become dogma on the right: a radically “un-American” woke Left is out to destroy the country – and has already succeeded in undermining the nation considerably, especially its “woke, emasculated military,” as Texas senator Ted Cruz put it; a weak west foolishly “focused on expanding its national debt and exploding the gender binary”, according to rightwing activist Ben Shapiro.

For these culture warriors, the message is clear: the democracies of the West had it coming; they’ve been weakened by liberal decadence and “woke culture.”

Those fighting the so-called “woke” culture celebrated Trump’s election as a success in that culture war–as proof that the forces of reaction would ultimately prevail.

Rightwingers everywhere understand the transnational dimension as well as the world-historic significance of the current fight over democracy more clearly than many people on the left: is it possible to establish a stable multiracial, pluralistic democracy? Such a political, social and cultural order has indeed never existed. There have been several stable, fairly liberal democracies – but either they have been culturally and ethnically homogeneous to begin with; or there has always been a pretty clearly defined ruling group: a white man’s democracy, a racial caste democracy, a “herrenvolk” democracy. A truly multiracial, pluralistic democracy in which an individual’s status was not determined to a significant degree by race, gender, or religion? I don’t think that’s ever been achieved anywhere. It’s a vision that reactionaries abhor – to them, it would be the end of “western civilization”. And they are determined to fight back by whatever means necessary.

We are about to see what happens when “we”–the despised, “woke” humans who want to live in that “stable multiracial, pluralistic democracy”–are targeted and opposed by “them,” the neighbors and fellow-citizens) who view that desire with fear and contempt.

I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore….

Jesus And John Wayne

I just finished reading Jesus and John Wayneby Kristen Kobus Du Mez. It was a revelation.

Du Mez clearly knows of what she writes. She’s a professor of history at Calvin University and the author of A New Gospel for Women. She has written for publications ranging from the secular Washington Post to religiously-focused outlets including  Christianity Today, Christian Century, and Religion & Politics, among other publications.

Before reading Jesus and John Wayne, I was well aware that, in America, Evangelical Christianity had “evolved” into Christian Nationalism. (You would have to be willfully blind and deaf to miss the racial and anti-Semitic bigotry that animates its adherents). What I had missed–what I had utterly failed to recognize– was the degree to which misogyny and male dominance have become central to whatever it is that the Evangelical belief system has become.

Du Mez has marshaled reams of evidence, tracing how the Jesus of Evangelical imagination has morphed from the “wimpy, feminine” prophet my  Christian friends and family members continue to worship into a “manly, dominant” John-Wayne-like warrior.

Du Mez shares data showing that today’s White Evangelical Protestants support behaviors previously considered un-Christian, like preemptive war. Today’s Evangelicals condone the use of torture, and favor the death penalty–and they do so in percentages far exceeding those of other religious communities.

The core reality documented in this very readable, very worrisome book, is summed up by the following observation:

For conservative white evangelicals, the “good news” of the Christian gospel has become inextricably linked to a staunch commitment to patriarchal authority, gender difference, and Christian nationalism, and all of these are intertwined with white racial identity.

The book explains that what has been seen as a conundrum–the overwhelming support of supposedly “family values” Christians for a man who had been married three times, had cheated on his wife with a porn star, whose language was crude and belligerent, and whose biblical knowledge was non-existent. (According to polling,  81% of Evangelicals voted for Trump in 2020.)  As Du Mez reports,

Evangelical support for Trump was no aberration, nor was it merely a pragmatic choice. It was, rather, the culmination of evangelicals’ embrace of militant masculinity, an ideology that enshrines patriarchal authority and condones the callous display of power, at home and abroad.

One of the virtues of Du Mez’ book is her explanation of the significant role played by centralized “Christian” (Evangelical) publishing and media in the  formation  of a patriarchal culture.

An article about the book in The Washington Post pointed to another of its strengths: its “deep dive” into the hucksters and con men (and women) who latched onto the movement and encouraged its embrace of “warrior” Jesus.

The book also described a pattern of abuse and its coverup by several mainstream evangelical leaders, many of whom are still in leadership. Du Mez contended that evangelical leaders’ emphasis on militant masculinity created a culture where abuse was able to flourish and often kept secret, an argument that has both caught fire and created controversy.

Du Mez, who teaches at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Mich., wrote that mainstream evangelical leaders such as John Piper, James Dobson and John Eldredge, preached a “mutually reinforcing vision of Christian masculinity — of patriarchy and submission, sex and power.”

“The militant Christian masculinity they practiced and preached did indelibly shape both family and nation,” Du Mez wrote. Russell Moore, now a public theologian for Christianity Today magazine, said that many evangelicals are trying to understand recent developments like Trump’s rise and revelations of sexual abuse in evangelical spaces.

Moore, a theologian, ethicist, and preacher whose refusal to endorse the embrace of Trump led to his ouster as president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission  (the public-policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention), was one of the few major figures to emerge from the book with his integrity intact. He is quoted as saying that Du Mez has shown that “much of what has passed for evangelicalism over the past decades was more John Wayne than Jesus” and that some of the characters in her book who were once thought of as “fringe” turned out not to be fringe at all.

Jesus and John Wayne joins The End of White Christian America by Robert P. Jones as essential to understanding the transformation of Evangelical Christianity and recognizing why its control of the GOP is so dangerous. Both books–together with a veritable mountain of social science research–document the transformation of a significant number of White Christian Americans into a cult, with members who are hysterically resisting cultural and demographic change– especially the looming loss of White Male Christian privilege and dominance.

I’d previously understood the “White” part; this book explained the “Male” part.

 

Religion And Vaccination

Can you stand one more diatribe about vaccination refuseniks?

I receive the Sightings newsletter from the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. (I couldn’t find a URL). A recent essay–authored by Laurie Zoloth, a scholar of religion and bioethics–addressed the (mis)use of religion by those wishing to evade vaccination.

She dubbed it “The Great Defiance.”

Zoloth served on a panel that had been convened to review and evaluate exemption requests. After reviewing dozens of such requests, she noted “patterns emerging which revealed much about the way these Americans thought about themselves and their faith.”

Zoloth began with a history of religious and legal authorities’ approaches to vaccination.

 In 1905, in Jacobson v. Massachusetts, the US Supreme Court upheld a Cambridge City Council law mandating vaccination for citizens. 1922, it upheld a similar law for childhood vaccination. Cases about religious refusals for vaccines followed the same logic. The U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals’ 2017 decision in Fallon v. Mercy Catholic Medical Center which addresses a religious objection to a flu vaccine for a healthcare worker, rejected the claim that any subjective opinion was protected. As scholar David DeCosse notes, the court ruled against Fallon, establishing three criteria for religious objections. To be “religious” the claims had to address “fundamental and ultimate” questions, consist of a comprehensive belief-system and “not an isolated teaching,” and have “formal and external signs” like clergy, services, or rituals.

Zoloth then ticked off the positions of major American religious traditions, and found that– across the board–they were firmly committed to vaccination.

In Judaism, she found unprecedented agreement. Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and Reconstructionist rabbis; Chassidic, Haredi, and Modern Orthodox from both the Ashkenazi and Sephardic tradition, agree that “the Torah obligation to preserve our lives and the lives of others requires us to vaccinate for COVID-19 as soon as a vaccine becomes available.”

Pope Francis was equally unequivocal: “Vaccination is a simple but profound way of promoting the common good and caring for each other, especially the most vulnerable.”

Leaders of the Protestant denominations, the Mormons, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and finally, Christian Scientists, either pulled away from previous hesitancy or actively supported vaccination for their congregants. Both Sunni and Shi‘a imams, Buddhist monks and Hindu leadership wrote in support of vaccination. Only one prominent religion—the Nation of Islam—opposed vaccination.

Why, then, are people characterizing their refusal to be vaccinated  “religious”?

Zoloth writes that “claim after claim” was taken verbatim from the internet, warning of the spiritual danger of vaccines, and displaying “a serious misunderstanding of basic biology.”

A frequent “religious” objection was that COVID vaccines were tested in cultures made from cell lines that included fetal tissue gathered years previously– evidently oblivious to the fact that common drugs like Tylenol, Pepto-Bismol, Tums, Motrin, Benadryl, Sudafed, Preparation H, Claritin, and Prilosec, were similarly tested.

Zoloth concluded with three very potent observations.

First, we live in a society where intuition and feelings have replaced reason as the justification for moral action, where earnestness and sincerity are the stand-in for authenticity, and authenticity has replaced what we mean by “true.” ….When one turns away from central texts, leadership, or traditions to make individual claims about religion—then faith, turned inward, becomes nothing more than a personal preference.

The second problem is that religions, like states and markets, have a polity, and all polities have authority. What is striking about religious refusals of vaccination is how so many reject religious authority as well. When the Pope or the local minister told their followers to get vaccinated, many were prepared to turn to the internet to find an online cleric who would testify to their position. It was often the only testimony they would accept, for religion in this case, like the pandemic itself, had devolved into a set of completely individual, self-involved activities.

The final problem also emerges from within religions themselves: that stubborn insistence in so many faiths on loving the neighbor. Religion is profoundly other-regarding, and the outworking of this principle came to have a precisely defined place in the public square, and it was to live as though your neighbor’s life was as holy as your own. In concrete terms, it meant at least getting vaccinated if you were to live in the world we shared, and certainly, if you were to provide healthcare in a morally responsible way. Yet in example after example, in the America in which we have come to live, this obligation to the other was not mentioned in the letters we scholars were asked to read. At the center of the argument was the self…religious conscience had become entirely privatized, an opinion about what made them unhappy, as if the enormity of their responsibility to the whole of the social world simply did not matter.

We’ve really lost our way.

 

About Those “Sincerely Held” Religious Beliefs…

Well, the insanity is spreading. Examples are coming hot and heavy…

The GOP has declared a riot that killed nine people and did millions in property damage “Legitimate political discourse.” (As a cousin of mine quipped, “And Pearl Harbor was an over-exuberant fireworks display…”)

An Oklahoma bill proposes to fine teachers $10k for teaching anything “that contradicts religion.”( It doesn’t specify which religion…)The proposed act, named the “Students’ Religious Belief Protection Act” would allow parents to demand the removal of any book with “anti-religious content.” The immediate targets would be any discussion of LGBTQ issues, and study of–or presumably reference to– evolution or the big bang theory. (The bill  was introduced by the same wack-a-doodle who introduced a bill to remove books with references to identity, sex and gender from public school libraries.)

Teachers could be sued a minimum of $10,000 “per incident, per individual” and the fines would be paid “from personal resources” not from school funds or from individuals or groups. If the teacher is unable to pay, they will be fired, under the legislation.

I would be shocked if this lunatic proposal became law, even in Oklahoma–but it does give rise to a question that has recently become salient in the context of vaccine denial: what is religion?

After all, if we are going to protect something, we probably should be able to define it.

I regularly receive a newsletter produced by the Divinity School at the University of Chicago, and a recent issue considered that question in the context of “religious exemptions” from vaccine mandates. Are religious exemptions actually “religious,” or are people simply using the First Amendment as a pretext to get out of vaccine requirements?

Large-scale vaccine skepticism is a new phenomenon, but is it a religious phenomenon? As The New York Times’s Ruth Graham reports, evidence suggests “most objections described as religious to vaccines are really a matter of personal — and secular — beliefs.” In an article titled “Religious Opposition to Vaccines Is Rooted in Politics, Not Tradition,” UVA’s Evan Sandsmark argues that vaccine refusal among Christian conservatives has more to do with their politics than their religious convictions. “If they look to the moral reasoning and sources of authority within their traditions,” Sandsmark writes, “they will hear a message on vaccines that differs considerably from those on offer by many Republican leaders.”

Sandsmark is not alone in pointing out that Christianity is not an anti-vax religion. Numerous Christian leaders, including Pope Francis, have made public statements in favor of vaccination, and many scholars have debunked and dismissed the claims of those who say their Christian faith precludes them from getting vaccinated. As Curtis Chang writes, “Within both Catholicism and all the major Protestant denominations, no creed or Scripture in any way prohibits Christians from getting the vaccine.” Berry College’s David Barr puts the point sharply, “When Christians claim a religious exemption to this vaccine mandate because they don’t want to take it, the biblical term for what they’re doing is ‘taking the Lord’s name in vain.’”

As with so many other issues in contemporary society, the devil is in the definition. The newsletter cited a recent PRRI poll in which 52% of people refusing vaccination insisted that getting vaccinated would violate their personal religious beliefs; however, only 33% asserted that getting vaccinated would violate their religion’s teachings.

So–if the religion one purportedly follows does not prohibit vaccination, must we accept the insistence that these “sincerely-held personal beliefs” are religious?

Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, a scholar of both religion and constitutional law, has long argued for the impossibility of religious freedom as most people envision it, pointing out that laws mandating acceptance of religious exemptions require judges to become arbiters of orthodoxy—  determining which beliefs and practices are authentically part of a religious tradition and thus deserving of the exemption. They must determine whether there is doctrinal support from within the individual’s claimed religious tradition for whatever “sincere religious belief” s/he is claiming. If not–if we must accept as “religious” whatever commitments and beliefs a given individual claims are religious– then we are allowing people to decide for themselves which laws they want to obey and which laws they don’t.

So here we are. 

We have thousands of American Christians seeking religious exemptions from a public health measure that will save thousands of lives. Some significant number of those people are

disingenuously using their faith as a pretense for vaccine refusal, others are expressing their tenuous interpretations of the teachings of Christian faith, and others are invoking their own personal religious commitments while acknowledging that these commitments are not shared or supported by their religious authorities. 

The idiot who authored those bills in Oklahoma probably thinks the courts will define “religion” as whatever he personally believes….