Tag Archives: religion

We Need Genuine Christians

Wednesday’s post went into some detail about the competing American cultures identified by David Brooks. Brooks concluded (among other things) that an “autonomy culture” has prevailed over the traditional belief in obedience to an established external authority (aka God). He did acknowledge several of the negative aspects of the latter culture, but the more I’ve thought about his critique, the more I recognized the significant problems he failed to identify.

One obvious problem is that honest religious adherents cannot claim to know with confidence what their particular deity requires. (There’s a popular Facebook meme saying something along the lines of: isn’t it interesting that your God hates the same people you do?)

How many wars have been fought by men trying to prove that their God is bigger and better and more correct than someone else’s?

The bigger problem with Brooks’ description of what is really a culture of subservience is, ironically, theological. My clergy friends– who all exhibit what I consider appropriate moral humility– point out that authentic religious belief requires the freedom to choose.

Forced piety/obedience is inauthentic by definition.

What got me thinking about all this was a recent column by Jennifer Rubin in the Washington Post. Rubin was pointing to Americans’ disinclination to “tell it like it really is.”

It’s not the plague of “polarization” or “distrust,” some sort of floating miasma, that has darkened our society. Bluntly put, we are in deep trouble because a major party rationalizes both intense selfishness — the refusal to undertake even minor inconveniences such as mask-wearing or gun background checks for others’ protection — and deprivation of others’ rights (to vote, to make intimate decisions about reproduction, to be treated with respect.)

What Rubin dubs the “White-grievance industry,” composed of right-wing media, politicians, pundits and think tanks, is enraged over the loss of a society where “far fewer women competed with men in the workplace, White power was largely unchallenged, and diversity was less pronounced.”

Encouraging that rage has required the (mis)use of religion.

Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, wrote recently in Time about the MAGA formula, ascendant after the United States’ election of its first Black president: “the stoking of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and anti-Black sentiment while making nativist appeals to the Christian right.

”The nostalgic appeal of ‘again,’” Jones observes, “harkens back to a 1950s America, when white Christian churches were full and white Christians comprised a supermajority of the U.S. population; a period when we added ‘under God’ to the pledge of allegiance and ‘In God We Trust’ to our currency.”

Our future as a tolerant, decent society ultimately may depend on White Christian communities’ recovering their moral equilibrium and support for American democracy, and rejecting the movement to turn churches into platforms for QAnon and white nationalism. But we cannot wait for an evangelical reformation.

Rubin and Jones are hardly the first to point out that people purporting to be “bible believing Christians” have perverted the previously understood teachings of that religion to serve political ends. But in the following paragraph, she contrasts that faux Christianity with the behaviors of people who take philosophical and religious teachings and the “norms of civilized societies” seriously:

MAGA voters think everyone else is the problem. As perpetual victims, they feel entitled to ignore the demands of civilized society — e.g., self-restraint, care for actually vulnerable people, pluralism, acceptance of political defeat. Their irritation with mask-wearing gets elevated over the lives of those most susceptible to a deadly pandemic. Their demands to display an armory of weapons mean schoolchildren become targets for acts of mass gun violence. Their religious zealotry, fed by the myth that Christianity is under attack, means poor women cannot have access to safe, legal abortions.

My friends and family members follow a wide variety of religious traditions and none. Virtually all of them– devout and nonbeliever alike–have come to their beliefs via the exercise of personal autonomy–choice. They have examined the teachings of their their own and other religions, adopted those they’ve found persuasive and rejected others.

Several are people I regard as real Christians. They follow a very different Jesus than the John Wayne clone manufactured by political Evangelicals. (For one thing, their Jesus isn’t an ahistorical White guy with blue eyes.) They attend–and in a couple of cases, lead–churches that avoid the moral absolutism buttressed by cherry-picking  bibles that have been translated from their original languages over the years. They respect people who are racially and religiously different, and they understand why authentic religious belief requires separation of Church from State.

They’re the ones I consider “kosher”  Christians, and the ones I know are really, really tired of the White Supremicists who have appropriated –and continue to disgrace–the name.

 

Sin And Crime

Several years ago, I had a conversation with the Rabbi of the synagogue I had attended growing up. She had asked why I no longer belonged. When I responded that I didn’t believe in God, she retorted “Sheila, no one believes in the God you don’t believe in!”

What she meant, of course, was that I was rejecting a certain image of deity–the guy with a long white beard up in the sky who earns the gratitude of football players who win their games. (I always wonder whether they think their God hates the other team…) I have several friends who are Christian clergy who share the Rabbi’s more sophisticated concept of Godliness, and I have even thought that I could count myself a believer if we defined “God” as, say, the existence of humans’ ethical impulse.

What triggered these recollections and musings was a reminder of a class I taught for a couple of semesters “back in the day,” titled “Sin and Crime.” It was what we called a “Topics” class, a one-credit, two week offering, and it was intended to probe the consequences–and legitimacy–of basing criminal laws on religious conceptions of sin.

Given the renewed efforts of the biblical literalists who control today’s GOP, those consequences–and their illegitimacy–are worth revisiting.

The class began with a consideration of the difference between sin and crime. Sin, the students clearly understood, was violation of a religious precept, a behavior thought to be against the teaching of a particular faith tradition. An action that displeased one’s concept of God.

Crime, on the other hand, was rooted in government’s obligation to maintain order and protect the weak from the strong. Unlike theocracies, America’s particular approach to government is contractual: We the People give government a monopoly on the use of coercive force, and in return, government undertakes to keep some  people from harming others.

That practical, contractual approach was always inconsistent with plenty of laws that characterized an earlier America–blue laws that “kept the (Christian) sabbath holy” and Prohibition are a couple that come to mind. It is also inconsistent with laws against “consensual” behaviors, often called “victimless crimes.”  The Bill of Rights privileges personal autonomy, or self-government. A cherished (if often ignored) American principle is the right of individuals to form and hold their own moral, religious and political beliefs.

That focus on individual liberty and especially liberty of conscience is arguably incompatible with laws regulating prostitution, gambling, drug use, pornography, and  private, consensual sexual relations. (I still remember one of my students, a 40-something Black woman who often referenced her church, indignantly asking why she couldn’t sell her own body if for some reason she decided to do so…)

Obviously, some of these behaviors might lead to harm: the person who becomes dependent upon drugs might commit robberies to support his habit, the person consuming pornography might prey on children. But these consequences are rare and mostly conjectural, and just as we no longer  penalize drinking–we penalize drunk driving–lawmakers can make the necessary distinctions.

Turning what some religions categorize as sin into crimes creates all sorts of problems. Most consensual crimes cannot be fairly enforced (the local constable can’t invade bedrooms to ensure that no one is engaging in sodomy, for example), so these laws are usually justified as “setting a social standard.” In the real world, as many of my gay friends can attest, they are far more likely to end up encouraging selective enforcement. Research confirms that Whites use illicit drugs as much or more than Blacks, but enforcement occurs disproportionately in Black communities.

The  GOP’s single-minded focus on culture war–and especially, it’s persistent effort to deny civil equality to LGBTQ folks–is a result of the party’s takeover by Christian Nationalists. In a theocracy–the form of government they clearly favor–those in power can and do impose their religious beliefs on everyone else.

We’ve always had these Puritans, but they haven’t previously controlled one of the country’s two major parties.

Current estimates place these Evangelical Christians at 14% of the population, a percentage that shouldn’t be as worrisome as it is. But religious zealots are motivated and noisy –and they will vote, because they have remade the GOP into a religion, and by voting, they are venerating the guy with the white beard who lives in the sky, watches everything they do, and wants them to vanquish their enemies. (That would be the rest of us.)

They definitely believe in the God I don’t believe in…

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….

 

Religion As Politics

I still remember those college dorm arguments about religion and politics–the debates over where to draw the line between purportedly religious beliefs, on the one hand, and devotion to political ideology, on the other. Back in those days, the focus was usually on Soviet Communism–was it a political identity? Or was commie “true belief” actually akin to religious devotion?

That debate has morphed over the years, especially for the growing number of Americans who tend to be skeptical of organized religion. If we didn’t have so many other, more pressing issues to argue about, I suspect that a recent report from Pew would trigger a new and acrimonious round.

Pew was investigating whether there had been an exodus from far-right Evangelical Protestant churches due to the support for Trump displayed by those denominations. They found no exodus–instead, the research uncovered  “solid evidence” that White American “Trumpers” who weren’t Evangelical before 2016  “were much more likely than White Trump skeptics to begin identifying as born-again or evangelical Protestants by 2020.”

The data also shows that Trump’s electoral performance among White evangelicals was even stronger in 2020 than in 2016, partially due to increased support among White voters who described themselves as evangelicals throughout this period.

The study confirms what many of us have suspected: Americans are sorting ourselves into  tribes, and one such tribe is composed of the “Christian” White Supremicists who identify with Trumpian Republicanism. These are the people who tell pollsters that only (White) Christians can be considered “real Americans.”

According to Christianity Today, they are increasingly likely to call themselves “political Evangelicals.”

The Survey Center on American Life  –a project of the conservative American Enterprise Institute-reports that White Evangelical Republicans are far more inclined to believe in claims about the Deep State, to believe in QAnon, and to believe that antifa was responsible for the January 6th violence at the US Capitol. They also are more likely than other Republicans to accept Trump’s Big Lie:

Given how widely accepted the belief in voter fraud is among white evangelical Republicans, it is not surprising that they express far greater skepticism about the fairness of the 2020 election than their co-partisans. Only 27 percent of white evangelical Republicans say that Joe Biden’s election win was legitimate, compared to more than half (56 percent) of nonevangelical Republicans. Three-quarters (75 percent) of white evangelical Christian Republicans say Biden was not legitimately elected.

As an essay from the New York Times just after the 2020 election put it, White Evangelicals have now

blended so seamlessly into the broader Republican base that adherents and observers say that the label has become more a political than religious one. Electing Republicans has become, for many evangelicals, an end in itself.

Those of us on the outside of this Evangelical/GOP cult have marveled at the contortions required for “family values Christians”–a movement based on Christian principles and presumably devoted to  concerns about character– to support someone like Donald Trump. The Times essay quoted a Pew researcher who cited data showing that” White Evangelical Protestants are not only Republican; they have been and continue to grow more Republican over time.”  In 2018 and 2019, 78 percent of White Evangelical Protestants identified with the Republican Party; in 2000, that number was 56 percent.

Michele Margolis is a political scientist who studies how political affiliation influences religious beliefs and practices, “a cause-and-effect that reverses traditional assumptions.” People may like to believe their faith informs their vote, but her research shows it is often the other way around.

Charles Blow recently quoted another academic, Anthea Butler, for the observation that evangelicals may wrap themselves in religious rhetoric, but that what the movement has really been since the 1970s is “a political arm of the Republican Party.” Evangelicals now “use moral issues as a wedge to get political power.”

Butler concluded, “We need to quit coddling evangelicals and allowing them to use these moral issues to hide behind, because it’s very clear that that’s not what the issue is. The issue is that they believe in anti-vaxxing, they believe in racism, they believe in anti-immigration, they believe that only Republicans should run the country and they believe in white supremacy.”

Whether we consider these Evangelical denominations genuinely “religious” or see them as pseudo-religious political cults frantic to protect America’s longstanding White Christian dominance depends upon just how capacious our understanding of “politics” is, and how we define the difference between religious and  secular commitments.

We might also think about the difference a label makes when these folks go to court to protect what they insist is their “religious liberty.”

God And Country, Redux

In 2007, I wrote a book titled God and Country: America in Red and Blue. It explored a question that had preoccupied me for years: how do religiously inculcated world-views affect our political behaviors? I was–and remain–convinced that a number of ostensibly secular policy positions are (consciously or unconsciously) rooted in religious ways of seeing the world.

In order to examine the religious roots of America’s cultural and policy divisions, I needed to do a lot of research. I was–and am– far from well-versed about my own tradition, which is Judaism, and I knew little or nothing of the 2000-plus Christian denominations in the U.S., or how religious beliefs affect socialization. Writing the book required a “deep dive,” and I remain very grateful to Christian friends–including a couple of clergy members (you guys know who you are!)– who patiently read drafts and checked my conclusions.

Those conclusions are detailed in the book (which is still available) and it is not my intent to recite them here. I share the fact of that rather extensive research because it is the background with which I approached a recent column by John Pavlovitz and a New York Times guest essay about America’s rapidly growing secularism.

Pavlovitz is a writer, pastor, and activist from North Carolina, and a favorite among my Facebook friends, who share his posts rather frequently. He’s what I consider a “real” Christian (granted, deciding who is “real” is pretty arrogant coming from a non-Christian…). This column was titled “How You Know if You Have the Wrong Religion,” and what struck me was that his message–with which I entirely agreed– addressed the longstanding divide between faith and works. (Traditional Christian denominations are typically concerned with belief; Judaism prioritizes works.)

Growing up and later ministering in the Church, the elemental heart of spiritual community was the stated or implicit sense that we alone had cracked the God code; that we’d figured out what every other faith tradition (and many communities within our tradition) had not. Evangelism was less about sharing God’s love with the world around us but about getting the world to be as enlightened as we were by completely agreeing with us.

Believing the right thing was everything. The world was sharply divided between the saved and the damned and the greatest imaginable sin was to reject that idea. And it wasn’t enough to believe in God, you had to believe in the correct God, adopt the correct doctrine, and pray the correct prayers—or else your sincerity or judgment (not to mention, your eternal destination) were questioned.

Pavlovitz isn’t the only critic of those ostentatiously pious believers whose faith never quite translates into good works or even loving-kindness. There’s significant research suggesting that the growing exodus from churches and organized religion is a reaction to precisely that form of religiosity.

And that brings me to a New York Times guest essay by a Baptist pastor who is also a college professor. After charting the steady decline in American religiosity since 1988, he reports

Today, scholars are finding that by almost any metric they use to measure religiosity, younger generations are much more secular than their parents or grandparents. In responses to survey questions, over 40 percent of the youngest Americans claim no religious affiliation, and just a quarter say they attend religious services weekly or more.

The partisan implication of that statistic, which he duly notes, is a reduction of support for the Republican Party, which is heavily dependent upon religiously observant Christians, including but not limited to Evangelicals. As he also points out,  however, Democrats will have to balance policy priorities “between the concerns of the politically liberal Nones and the more traditional social positions espoused by groups like Black and mainline Protestants.” 

Whatever the partisan consequences, Christians like Pavlovitz are offering a way forward that would significantly reduce  today’s religious tribalism–and ultimately, redefine what counts as genuinely religious.

If you claim to be a “God and Country “Bible-believing Evangelical,” great. But if you have contempt for immigrants or bristle at white privilege or oppose safeguards in a pandemic, your Christianity is ineffectual at best and at worst, it’s toxic. You might want to rethink something.

If you believe because you prayed a magic prayer to accept Jesus at summer camp when you were 13,  that you can inflict any kind of adult damage to the people and the world around you and you’ll still be golden, while gentle, loving, benevolent atheists and Muslims go to hell—you’re doing religion wrong.

So many of America’s problems stem from “doing religion wrong”…