I routinely hear from people who are pissed off by the essays I post here, but–hey!–I’m retired, so I don’t have an employer’s reaction to worry about, and my long-suffering family members tend to agree with me. So let me set off the critics with today’s politically-incorrect post.
I think a lot of the problems we face (“we” being humans, not just Americans) are rooted in bad religion.
Religion developed as a method of dealing with two very human needs: first, as a way to understand the world we live in–why did stuff happen?– and later as a way of wrestling with the nature of morality. Science has undermined that first purpose (it seems disease is caused by germs, not God’s disapproval…) The clergy I respect are focused on helping people grapple with moral responsibility –they aren’t the multiple pious scolds issuing prescriptive fatwas.
America’s nasty politics is largely driven by the reaction of White Evangelicals (the fatwa issuers) to social and demographic change.
They are throwing a tantrum.
Robert P. Jones recently shared five charts that explained White Evangelicals’ embrace of MAGA politics. Jones is the head of the Public Religion Research Institute, and the author of The End of White Christian America.
He reports that White Christian Americans are facing a steep demographic decline.
As recently as 2008, when our first Black president was elected, the U.S. was a majority (54%) white Christian country. As I documented in “The End of White Christian America,” by 2014, that proportion had dropped to 47%. Today, the 2022 Census of American Religion shows that figure has dropped further to 42%.
All Christian denominations have experienced decline, but it has been especially pronounced among White Evangelical Protestants, who now comprise only 13.6% of Americans. The decline is likely to continue; 18% of seniors, compared with only 9% of young adults, identify as White Evangelical Protestant.
Hence the tantrum–what Jones calls “a desperate corrective for their waning cultural influence.”
While I held out some possibility in “The End of White Christian America” that white evangelicals and other conservative white Christians might accept their new place alongside others in an increasingly pluralistic America, their steadfast allegiance to Trump’s MAGA vision — actually increasing their support for him between 2016 and 2020 — and their unwillingness to denounce either Trump’s Big Lie that the election was stolen or the violence on Jan. 6 have dashed those thin hopes.
The question isn’t whether these folks will ultimately prevail. They won’t. They can and do cause unnecessary social upheaval, but their zealotry is already beginning to sideline them.
Americans–and all humans–are far better served by religions that focus on how we should behave, on how we should treat the other people with whom we share the planet.
I’ve previously quoted Phil Gulley, a Quaker pastor who writes columns for Indianapolis Monthly and for his local small town newspaper. In a recent column, Gully writes that he had
decided long ago that my commitment to the way of Jesus was not predicated upon miracle, myth, or superstition. His teachings are so demonstrably true, I have no need to resort to religious parlor tricks to defend them. In history, virgin births and bodily resurrections served only one purpose—to persuade pre-scientific people of someone’s unique importance, in this case, Jesus. But if tomorrow the bones of Jesus were found in Palestine, the value of his principles would not be diminished. I would still believe in justice, in compassion, in sticking up for the underdog….
He went on to note that, in many congregations,
One can dot every theological i and cross every orthodox t, but scorn the poor, deny others their rights, lend their support to tyranny, and still be thought a “good” Christian, when all they have done is believe a certain thing, however farfetched. Beliefs have supplanted the weightier matters of justice, mercy, and faithfulness….
To accept the myths of religion as literal, historical fact is to insist our minds remain in their infant state, untouched by wisdom and insight. Religionists fear enlightenment and education, knowing the threat they pose to dictates and doctrines. They would rather keep us ignorant and compliant than intelligent and bold, which is always a threat to their power, since the uninformed and dim are not only easier to lead but also mislead. Thus did Voltaire rightly warn us that anyone who can make us believe absurdities can make us commit atrocities. So I will forego the absurdities and embrace truth, which truly does set us free.
As I told him, these are sentiments with which this very Jewish atheist agrees.
At the end of the day, theological belief (faith) without more is irrelevant–it is behaviors (works) that matter.