Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
Today I just want to share a few subversive thoughts on American Christianity and established religion. I am not talking about organized religion, because we Americans have little in the way of organization to our religion except when it comes to wanting to be in charge of the country, as many on the Christian Right advocate today.
Mark Twain wrote in his classic novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court:
“Concentration of power in a political machine is bad; and an Established Church is only a political machine; it was invented for that; it is nursed, cradled, preserved for that; it is an enemy to human liberty, and does no good which it could not better do in a split-up and scattered condition.”
On a more individual level, Atticus Finch, the hero of the book and film To Kill a Mockingbird said, “Sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whisky bottle in the hand of (another)… There are just some kind of men who – who’re so busy worrying about the next world they’ve never learned to live in this one, and you can look down the street and see the results.” In fact I’ll bet most of us know someone just like Atticus described; I know that I do, plenty of them.
I, and probably you, like to believe that religion is a benign or positive influence in the world. As much as I want to believe the positive aspects I have to admit based on the historical and sociological evidence that this is not so, especially during unsettled times of great change. We live in such an era and when it comes to identity, God is the ultimate trump card.
It seems to me that most fanatical individuals and groups on earth, of course not all are tied to religions, whether it is the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, Hezbollah, Orthodox Jews, radical Hindus and Buddhists, as well as militant Christians. Who can forget that the Holocaust, the African Slave Trade, and even the Rwandan Genocide were predominantly the work of Christians, but I digress… Of course all of these groups have different goals, but their thought and philosophy are quite similar.
Robert Heinlein wrote: “Almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so.” Heinlein, author of the classic Starship Troopers was absolutely correct. Just look at any place in any time where any religion, sect or cult has gained control of a government. They are not loving, they are not forgiving and they use the police power of the state to persecute any individual or group that is judged to be in error, or even worse has the gall to question their authority.
Since the Christian groups tend to thrive in the West, they only speak in terms of violence, most, with the exception of Russian Orthodox Christians, do not have a government to translate those words into action, which it does against Evangelical Protestants, Roman Catholics, Moslems, Jews, and every religious group’s favorite enemies, Gays and women.
Many American Christians, especially conservative Catholics and some Evangelical and Charismatic Protestants seem for a long for the day when they can assume control of a theocratic government, and a day where they can sit at the side of the rich and oppress the poor, the alien and the outcast. The amount of public support given to Vlad Putin by conservative Christian leaders in this country is amazing, and some publically state that they would want someone like Vlad the topless male magazine model for a leader.
But this is nothing new. Many American Christians have practiced that type of Christianity for close to two hundred years. In fact American Christianity is little changed since the day Frederick Douglass wrote, “The Christianity of America is a Christianity, of whose votaries it may be as truly said, as it was of the ancient scribes and Pharisees, ‘They bind heavy burdens, and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers… “The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus. The man who robs me of my earnings at the end of each week meets me as a class- leader on Sunday morning, to show me the way of life, and the path of salvation. He who sells my sister, for purposes of prostitution, stands forth as the pious advocate of purity. He who proclaims it a religious duty to read the Bible denies me the right of learning to read the name of the God who made me. He who is the religious advocate of marriage robs whole millions of its sacred influence, and leaves them to the ravages of wholesale pollution. The warm defender of the sacredness of the family relation is the same that scatters whole families,— sundering husbands and wives, parents and children, sisters and brothers,—leaving the hut vacant, and the hearth desolate. We see the thief preaching against theft, and the adulterer against adultery. We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support the gospel, and babes sold to purchase Bibles for the poor heathen! all for the glory of God and the good of souls! … The dealer gives his blood-stained gold to support the pulpit, and the pulpit, in return, covers his infernal business with the garb of Christianity. Here we have religion and robbery the allies of each other—devils dressed in angels’ robes, and hell presenting the semblance of paradise.””
The remarks of Douglass are as pertinent today as he first penned them in relationship to American white acceptance and support of slavery, and while much of his writing was directed against slaveholders and others who profited off of that system, he directed much of his writing against Northern Christians who offered support to that system.
Many American Christians are no different than other religious people, Christian, Moslem, Jewish, Hindu, and in some cases Buddhists as well as countless other religions history. Religions which have more often sworn alliance to governments, rulers, military and economic power to increase their power than to embody the essence of their founders’ teachings. Most of the time this is due to the need of people for an identity that is bigger and more powerful than what they believe they are on their own and sadly this often results in a sometimes unconscious but more often very conscious belief that they are part of an elect that in this life and the next should rule over unbelievers and others.
This is very important to understand, and Samuel Huntington wrote about it in his book The Clash of Civilizations:
“People do not live by reason alone. They cannot calculate and act rationally in pursuit of their self-interest until they define their self. Interest politics presupposes identity. In times of rapid social change established identities dissolve, the self must be redefined, and new identities created. For people facing the need to determine Who am I? Where do I belong? Religion provides compelling answers….In this process people rediscover or create new historical identities. Whatever universalist goals they may have, religions give people identity by positing a basic distinction between believers and non-believers, between a superior in-group and a different and inferior out-group.”
Huntington was right, you see the true believers, those who follow their religion without question and believe that it is superior to all others also believe that their religion entitles them to be atop the food chain, others who don’t believe like them be damned, if not in this life, the next. That is the certitude of the true believer, especially the religious one. Secular or atheistic fanatics could care less about the next life, for this life is all that they have. But the religious “true believers” are not only interested in destroying someone in this life, but ensuring that in the next that they suffer for eternity, unless they believe in the annihilation of the soul after death, which really spoils the whole Dante’s Inferno perspective of the damned in the afterlife.
The great American philosopher Eric Hoffer wrote:
“The impression somehow prevails that the true believer, particularly the religious individual, is a humble person. The truth is the surrendering and humbling of the self bred pride and arrogance. The true believer is apt to see himself as one of the chosen, the salt of the earth, the light of the world, a prince disguised in meekness, who is destined to inherit the earth and the kingdom of heaven too. He who is not of his faith is evil; he who will not listen will perish.”
That is why they, the religious true believers of any faith are capable of such great evil, and why such people can murder innocents in the most brutal manner simply because they do not believe correctly.
Please do not get me wrong. I am a Christian, a priest, a historian and a theologian, but I also know just how insidious those who hold their religion over those of others can be. While I hold faith dear, I know that it can be abused for the claim of some to have God as their final authority is a sort of trump card with which they are able to justify the most obscene and evil acts against others.
One of my heroes of religious liberty is John Leland, a Baptist whose passionate defense of religious freedom prevented Virginia from re-establishing a state church after the American Revolution and whose influence was key in the decision of Madison and Jefferson to amend the Constitution with the Bill of Rights, particularly the First Amendment. In fact, late in life, well after his success in working with Madison and Jefferson Leland wrote:
“The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence; whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks [Muslims], Pagans and Christians. Test oaths and established creeds should be avoided as the worst of evils.”
Like Leland, I contend for more than tolerance and I contend for acceptance. But that acceptance ends when any person or group is willing to use their religion to enslave, murder, or otherwise dominate other people in the name of their God, not just in this life, but in the next. This is especially true of those who use the police power of the state to enforce their beliefs and hatred on others. I will do whatever I can to expose them for what they are, regardless of the “faith” they supposedly represent.
I guess that is why I am even more frightened of religious true believers than non-religious true believers. While the non-religious true believer may sacrifice everything for the sake of power and control in this life, and may in fact commit the most heinous crimes against humanity, their hatred is bounded in space and time to this earth. The religious true believer is not content with that; his enemies must be damned and punished not only in this life, but for eternity, without hope of salvation.
That is why I believe that such people are so dangerous; for their hatred is unbounded by time, or space, it lasts for eternity; which I think is a very, very, long time.
With that I wish you a good day.