Brett Kavanaugh is officially on the Supreme Court, and the unholy matrimony of conservative politics and American Christianity has achieved its magnum opus: ownership of a court that appears destined to overturn Roe v. Wade, strip LGBT rights, and annihilate certain civil liberties under the guise of religious freedom.
To most American evangelicals, that all sounds fantastic. Abortion, to them, is an evil assault on the good and just creation of God, and LGBT folks are an abomination before the Lord. Without question, they’ll say, the syncretic oath entered into with a political ideology has resulted in the intended dividend, and it will reshape the country for generations to come.
But in the case of American Christianity, the means have only led to its predictable end.
Among the requisites of an authentic Christian faith, regardless of denominational flavor, is to witness to those of a secular ilk. Welcoming brothers and sisters into the faith is a kind of a big deal. If you’ve ever accepted a friend’s invitation to attend church, you know what I mean. Potential converts are provided the red carpet treatment, with Stepford smiles and prayer circles that are, for the most part, genuine. If not slightly unsettling.
But those days are now over.
After all, it’s difficult to be an arbiter on behalf of Jesus if you’re among the nearly 50 percent of white American evangelicals who said even had accusations of sexual assault against Brett Kavanaugh been true, you’d support him anyway.
Dwell on that for a moment: if Kavanaugh’s alleged assault, which included drunkenly laughing as he attempted to rip the clothes off his 15 year old victim, and covering her mouth to blunt screams for help, had been true, half of Christ’s followers would still not waiver in their support.
Much of this isn’t news to non-Christians, of course. The negative correlation between evangelicals who enthusiastically support Trump through his own sexual assault allegations, blatant racism and adultery, and the marked decline of Christianity in America, is a thick, dark line. As a Daily Beast article put it in June, “Religion disguised as partisan politics may energize evangelical voters, but with respect to faith it has backfired.”
It’s worth mentioning that many Christians, even some perusing this piece, will rightfully claim that any political position they harbor isn’t nearly as dreadful as what occurs within the halls of an abortion clinic. Certainly abortion is awful. Yet the data demonstrates abortion rates fall more sharply under Democratic leadership, and countries that make abortion safe and legal report fewer abortions.
But this has never really been about abortion. That’s merely a card the Christian right plays to defend their indefensible positions. The truth, rather, is that many Christians in America lost the plot long ago. The conservative political ideology embraced by many has instead become their identity; their religious affiliation a mere relic from a distant past.
Truly, if they ever encountered Jesus, they’d only wonder how he entered the country legally.
It’s fitting that American Christianity has sealed its fate by embracing a political stance, assuming it to preserve their faith. It was that same political calculation made by the Pharisees that led to the death of Jesus, unwittingly sinking a false system they had intended to rescue.
Indeed, American Christianity is dead. Its death was self-inflicted.
Let’s pray for a resurrection.
Dear conservative Christian,
You’ve been tricked. Hoodwinked. Bamboozled.
Sold a bag of goods by snake oil salesmen in sheep’s clothing.
I’m sorry you have to find out this way. In a blog post. By a writer you’ve never heard of.
If it’s any consolation, I was once in the same position; conflating my Christianity with my capitalism. Perceiving the big bad government as intrusive to the pursuit of my God-ordained liberty. Assuming that individual merit in both life and the heavenly pursuit were two sides of the same coin.
And I recall the ever-calcifying echo chamber of my conservatism. My fundamentalist thoughts and meanderings, sometimes voiced by others, bouncing around unimpeded until affirmation was achieved.
Thank you, Sean Hannity, for bravely hanging up on those who dared challenge your point! Thank you, Rush Limbaugh, for diligently shouting over opposing views! Thank you, Matt Walsh, for your condescending snark and enduring refusal to acknowledge both sides! Thank you, Fox News, for always playing to your audience! Thank you, thank you, thank you! You collectively relieved me of the need to think for myself. Whew!
As you can imagine, my exodus from conservatism and as a staunch Republican has been a quite sobering journey, though I suppose stranger things have happened when one follows Jesus instead of Donald Trump. When actually studying the Bible instead of Breitbart. Or reading the commands of Jesus instead of those issued by Steve Bannon.
The individual reasons you cannot be a Christian and a Republican are various and exhaustive. They wouldn’t all fit onto a blog post, though the premise is quite simple: conservative ideology, as personified by Republicans, is an individualistic pursuit. Christian theology, as personified by Jesus, is precisely the opposite.
Take a minute, and read that again. It has pretty severe and far-reaching implications. Feel free to grab your Bible to follow along.
At this point, you’re either infuriated or concerned. Maybe a little of both. How dare I question your patriotic allegiance to God and Country, amirite? But I hope there’s some daylight, because if you keep reading, perhaps the smallest part of you will become the thorn that provokes some deeper thought.
All it takes is a mustard seed, or so I’ve heard.
Most of your life, you’ve casually referred to yourself as a Christian. You identify as “Pro Life,” and you’re a proud Republican. But those are little more than labels; a collection of words and symbols that you’ve heard repeated from likeminded people in your circles, family and friends, etc., and naturally, applied to yourself.
Because you’ve repeated them over and over again, they’ve stuck.
Let’s address “Pro Life,” since when I ask the hard questions, it’s what most conservative Christians point to. Hell, it’s what I used to point to. But did you know that Roe v. Wade, the (pretty damn recent) 1973 Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion, was supported by Republican appointees? Or that the only Democrat appointee voted against it?
Republicans are responsible for legalized abortion. There’s no way around it.
Not-So-Fun Fact: Even before the legalization of abortion, many thousands of women received “back alley” abortions. Even if we made it illegal, abortions would likely still occur, with deadly consequences. Plenty of data has suggested that access to contraceptives and education actually lower the abortion rate.
At some point, I realized I’d rather pay more in taxes that support education proven to lower abortion, than lower taxes that leads to more abortion.
All things being equal, “Pro Life” is also a pretty crappy misnomer. Fetuses and life are hardly mutually exclusive. In the aftermath of the war in Iraq, which like you, I supported, tens of thousands of innocent children have died. The media and military casually refer to these dead children as “collateral damage.”
But are they not “life?”
And if you’re “Pro” Life, shouldn’t that extend to them?
We don’t need to look a world away, either. I don’t see many “Pro Life” signs being waved near the Flint, Michigan water treatment plant. And the anti-refugee stance held by so many Republican Christians is literally anti-Jesus (Jesus was a refugee. No, seriously. That’s sort of central to the nativity story).
It’s a fair question ask how we’ve arrived at this point in American Christianity. And, certainly, there’s answers to that question that I really, really recommend reading (hint: it’s not because Jesus was a Republican). But for me, it’s more important to look forward, and reshape what it means to be a Christian in America.
What is “Christlike”? Is it to defend someone accused of being a pedophile despite insurmountable evidence, simply because they identify as a Republican?
What does it mean to be your Brother’s Keeper? Is it to accrue as much income as possible while others go hungry or cannot afford their medical bills?
What does it mean to love your neighbor and enemy? Is it to stereotype Muslims, blacks, and glorify the military?
Was Jesus actually serious about his commands about wealth and possessions? Or would he heartily endorse of the accumulation of stuff – the nice car, the walk-in closet, the gold-trimmed everything?
When people are suffering in this country and abroad, do we cast judgment and bombs, or love and inclusion?
And when we’re ultimately confronted with the Creator, will we point to an American flag and our success in life, or to those on the margins that we helped to lift?
“Look, all I’m saying is that if someone wants to do harm to my church family, I’ll have the opportunity to defend myself,” stammered my brother-in-law, Jaren. He aggressively chalked his pool stick, turning attention to a menacing 8-ball with a wide-eyed, ‘and-I-really-don’t-care-what-your-thoughts-are-on-the-matter’ look.
My wife’s father nodded agreeably.
Jaren recently acquired his concealed weapons permit, and was aghast at the suggestion he forego carrying – you know, a machine designed to murder other humans – into the house of the Lord.
“Eh, I disagree,” responded another brother-in-law, who is also deeply conservative. “Something about carrying a gun into church just seems … I don’t know, um, wrong.”
I observed from a distance. They knew my position. I could have rattled off the scripture necessary, but it would have mattered little. In fact, it’d of merely fortified their stance. After all, given my liberal delusion, if I’m against something, they must be for it. And vice-versa. My education in religious studies notwithstanding.
To them, carrying a weapon into church is as American as
apple pie Jesus. The second amendment is somehow God-ordained; an inspired text that, though they’d vociferously deny it, enjoys all the prestige in their daily lives as the Bible. Probably more.
“There’s nothing incompatible between guns and church!”
That was six months ago.
That was before the events in Sutherland Springs.
Though we haven’t had a pool table dialogue redux, I can confidently predict the one brother-in-law is as convinced as ever. Sadly, I can’t apply the same confidence to the other. And therein lies the rub of evangelicals in a gun-obsessed country. We’re drawn to instruments and symbols that represent power – a military-industrial complex, a flag, an anthem, a gun.
With precisely zero interest in the way of the Lamb.
And that is what makes my following prediction so painful, so tragic: In the wake of Sutherland, American evangelicals will assume their only recourse is … more guns.
Guns in the pews.
Guns during prayer.
Guns during infant baptism.
Guns just steps away from communion.
Guns because man’s cycle of violence isn’t only facilitated by his nationalism, it’s celebrated! Guns because this cancer has metastasized into religion, where evangelicals have successfully distorted the faith to fit the narrative.
Guns. Jesus. Violence. God. Eye-for-an-eye.
Even, if necessary, before the Holy of Holies.
It isn’t without a sense of irony that evangelicals, as opposed to their brothers and sisters in Christ who don’t identify with the term, are generally Pro Donald Trump, Pro Gun, and obsess with love of country. After all, the term evangelical has its roots in euangelion, which was to exalt the Roman emperor as ruler of the empire.
For the Jesus-following Christian, it’s a reminder that there is but one Kingdom.
“Stand for the Flag. Kneel Before the Cross.”
So commands the most recent sign in front of my local, friendly neighborhood reformed church.
How devastating for Christians.
Let’s clear something up immediately: technically speaking, it’s an act of idolatry for any Christian to pledge their allegiance to any kingdom other than the Kingdom of God. The Christian eucharist (or communion, or the Lord’s Supper) is an oath – any other oath would, by definition, place you in open rebellion against God.
And that’s a place you really don’t want to be.
That isn’t some twisted liberal theology, by the way. It’s common sense.
Birthed by the early Christians, the sacrament of the eucharist was a reimagined Roman soldier’s oath (“sacramentum”) to Caesar. As Roman soldiers understood themselves as a new creation under Caesar – crushing all those that would defy his lordship, the early Christians subverted that rite of oppression with an inclusive (yet still legally binding) invitation to join an exclusive relationship as a new creation under the true lord, Jesus Christ.
Under this covenantal oath, the Christian belongs solely to Jesus Christ. As theologian Kerry Dearborn writes, ” … all other loyalties and identities are placed at Jesus’ feet.”
Consequently, they were persecuted for this disloyalty to Rome.
So what does that means for an evangelical in today’s America?
Do you renounce the flag?
Condemn the military?
Stop watching House of Cards?
Of course not. What it means is that you are continually on the side of the oppressed, not the empire. If you belong to the community of Christ, it’s incumbent upon you to both serve those on the margins of society, and then invite them along for the ride.
Need an example? Let’s finish where we began: kneeling for the anthem.
If you haven’t taken the two and a half minutes required to study why NFL players are kneeling, here’s a quick primer: racial injustice in America is real. Spurred by the anonymity of social media and a President who refuses to condemn it, white supremacy is becoming en vogue. Just ask the city of Charlottesville. Or any person of color you might know. The players are leveraging their enormous platform to bring attention to these societal ills, which have been proven to be legitimate over and over and over again.
You can’t turn on the television without watching a black man murdered in cold blood by the police, and worse, a judicial system that seems intent on turning a blind eye toward their actions – but has no qualms with imprisoning men of color at an alarming rate.
It’s fairly easy to suggest how the early Christians would have reacted to the crises we face today: with love and invitation, and certainly not with devout patriotism and judgement.
The gospels were written by those under boot heel of the Roman regime, and told the story of a nonviolent, itinerant rabbi who was eventually killed for political insurrection. His name was Jesus. He stood with those who faced gross inequalities, and promised that at some point, they’d be first. His followers were instructed to help carry out this promise.
But instead of acknowledging the obvious, the response from evangelical leaders to the angst in American society hasn’t just been underwhelming – it’s been reprehensible.
In fact, it’s been heretical.
And even worse, it’s actually served to undermine the gospel.
Rather than remembering their oath before God, those like Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell Jr., Pat Robertson, and perhaps even community churches like the one in your neighborhood, have instead committed a most egregious sin: they’ve nationalized Christianity, aligning with Caesar, and scoffing indignantly at the way of Jesus.
They’ve spit the body and blood from their mouths, and unapologetically worship at a star spangled cross.
The great challenge for American Christians, then, is this: it isn’t a matter of whether you stand. It’s a matter of where.
A Response to Natasha Crain’s uncompromisingly silly article on Progressive Christianity
In our front yard, we have your typical Michigan maple tree. Over the past few years, we’ve noticed an occasional evening of strong winds will leave branches littered across the lawn. I didn’t dwell much on the lost limbs at first, chalking it up to the inclement weather and maybe a natural purge that more seasoned homeowners were likely familiar with.
After all, if something’s been around for hundreds (or thousands) of years, why would the problems suddenly begin now?
Then, as the seasons wore on, the tree began to appear deeply weathered. Larger branches fell. Leaves absconded of their seasonal duties. The once rich brown hue of the formidable bark gave way to a musty, foul colored shell that could be peeled away to reveal deeper issues — decay was beginning to set in.
Also, it was really gross.
Especially when I caught the dog eating the fallen, rotting pieces.
If I were a bible literalist, I’d have sworn Christ was directing the tree’s demise from afar. Except it didn’t have figs. That, and that fig tree was a metaphor.
The problem, we learned, was a fungus lurking in the soil. A natural compliment to the tree, and supposed source of its structure, strength and outward growth, the earth itself had been slowly poisoning our friendly neighborhood maple at the root, destroying its potential for good instead of the life-giving nutrients and sustenance it was ordered to provide.
In this metaphor, fundamentalist Christianity is the fungus. It’s permeating the soil that’s supposed to nourish and spread Christianity, but instead, accomplishing the inverse. While distracted by its concerns with external threats such as atheism, public education and CNN, it has become its own worst nightmare.
If I had the time, I would write more often about the hostile threat fundamentalism poses to Christianity, children and the world at large, but I feel that Donald Trump is doing a fine enough job on his own.
What is Fundamentalist Christianity?
It’s fairly simple to define fundamentalist Christianity because it’s an umbrella term for “hate” that wraps itself in the Gospel, or the American flag depending on the holiday (or election season). The problem is that it doesn’t actually understand the stories told within the gospel accounts. Here’s the origin: Fundamentalism was born from a collection of essays in the early 20th century by Protestant writers who were pushing back against the historical-critical, or scientific view of the bible, which they (mis)understood as a threat.
Like most things humans do (and Americans in particular), there was an overreaction, and somehow any honest, academic assessment of biblical text was labeled as heresy.
In the subsequent years, Christianity hit a reset button, and fundamentalists decided ancient texts written thousands of years ago had, indeed, fallen from the sky, and should be read as such, and could and should be weaponized whenever suitable. They would use it to prevent women and blacks from voting, deny civil rights, support Just Cause wars, exile family members for divorce and/or remarriage* (does not apply to government officials), to ultimately OK’ing the destruction of the planet* (Genesis need not apply).
And sometimes, they even use it to chastise other Christians.
Now for a bullet list of fundamentalist Christianity so you can properly judge something you don’t yet understand:
- Proof texting bible verses out of context can be used to defend virtually anything developed in conservative tradition (even though verses themselves didn’t exist until the 12th century)
- “Facts” aren’t based on inquiry, but rather, are determined by pastor/trusted conservative radio host/blogger
- Historic biblical terms are not allowed to evolve past the medieval centuries, despite scientific and historical evidence that inform change in every other walk of life (like, say, modern dentistry techniques)
- The heart of the gospel is to remind people of how terrible they are, especially the poor, and to be thankful for the home in the new subdivision #SoBlessed
- Jesus is a gun-toting member of the NRA who once road a velociraptor into battle
The danger is that to the untrained ear, fundamentalist Christianity can seem compelling. After all, it will generally serve to reinforce whatever conservative traditions you’ve been raised within and never, ever force you to learn, grow and change. Nothing’s better than blind affirmation, am I right? Especially when God himself shares your hatred of things you don’t understand!
Why Fundamentalist Christians Don’t Like Progressives
Let’s stop with the labels for a minute, shall we?
Crain’s entire premise seems pretty divisive (which appears to contradict Paul’s concept of the Body of Christ, but there I go reading my bible literally … ). If you label something, you can demystify and control it. It’s sort of how fundamentalists roll.
(Note: I’m aware of the hypocrisy in that last sentence. The difference is, I’m right).
She leverages her demonization of one alleged group of Christians to promote apologetics (another), but naturally, only the apologetics that she happens to agree with. You see, like the 40,000-plus Christian denominations, apologetics is a giant tent under which there are many defenses of orthodox Christianity, including, of course, those that are more progressive.
Oh, and many contradict one another.
Progressive Christianity is Just One More Reason Your Kids and the Church at Large Don’t Need Apologetics
Crain is a walking, talking confirmation bias. It’s almost impressive.
She refers to the “objective, unchanging” truth of God, as though there is a singular, authoritative interpretation of the biblical text, which coincidentally aligns with her belief system.
She then lampoons experiences as immaterial to the Christian faith, even though it was Jesus that bathed the feet of the disciples, and Saul who was blinded on the road to Damascus. Hell, Martin Luther had his conversion only after a life-altering experience, and subsequently fathered Crain’s protestant faith!
But the aim to generate legalistic Stepford Christians is rife with fatally flawed tactics of fundamentalism. By making silly, misguided and inaccurate pronouncements, like “objective truth,” articles like this only cater to a nodding audience that merely calcifies an adherence to their cultural norm. It’s the inner voice that repeats, “Don’t change. Change is scary. I’ve always had this Christianity thing figured out.”
Crain’s problem is two-fold: first, her audience will double down on their efforts, buy whatever book she is peddling, and supply misleading education around Christianity that is always at odds with reality. Some might fall in line, but ultimately, it is bound to boomerang and cause even more departures from the faith.
Second, and here’s the twist: there is no such thing as progressive Christianity.
It doesn’t exist.
There’s Christianity, and that takes different shapes, but in reality articles like hers only affirm or create more divisions within a faith that is supposed to be united.
Crain whitewashes “social justice” issues as progressive replacements to sin and redemption, when the reality is that sin and redemption are social justice issues.
And that is an objective fact.
Jesus didn’t spend his time drafting religious doctrines to which we should adhere, but instead, lived out his precepts and demanded we do the same. When religious leaders tossed the law in his face, he responded with practical, lived experiences of all involved, revealing the broken system of oppression.
Jesus didn’t come to launch a religion that would require some absurd notion of apologetics 2,000 years later, but rather, he came to subvert systems of oppression — including those that were religious — to free us.
And the kicker is that we’re not to be mindless witnesses.
We don’t acknowledge Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection with pastel bunnies, we do so by becoming actual disciples, which is the laborious work of moving all of God’s creation forward. This can look like providing clean water to a village on the other side of the world, to defending a gay couple who bear the same divine image imbued upon all men and women.
What Crain and those like her cannot understand is that this unfolding narrative — from the Exodus, to the Reformation, to the ending of slavery, to women’s suffrage, to civil rights, to the inclusion of the LGBT community — is an arc in which they can freely participate, but are helpless to prevent.
Finally, either Crain knows her history extremely well, or is entirely ignorant.
The same era that gave rise to the Fundamentals was the Protestant-led Social Gospel movement. Or as Crain would call it: Progressive Christianity. Usurped by World War I and neo-orthodoxy, it was key behind the women’s suffrage movement and racial equality, among many other social justice initiatives that helped to lift the powerless.
It isn’t without a sense of sad, twisted irony that Crain is attacking the same stream of Christianity that advocated for women like her to have a voice in the public sphere in the first place.
What Syria, Ancient Rome, and Explosive Diarrhea Can Teach Us About the Kingdom of Heaven
I wrote a post last week about hell, and while identifying theoretical acts that might qualify as “hell on earth,” I blatantly left out the atrocities in Syria.
Which is, quite literally, hell on earth.
Or maybe worse. After all, we can safely classify chemical-attacks-on-children as something far more sinister than anything the Hands of an Angry God could ever conjure.
The images shared on social media and CNN are tragedy defined. Like the bodies of drowned refugee toddlers washed ashore, or Omran sitting dust-covered in the back of an ambulance, we have reminders that something in this world is very broken.
We see it.
We can feel it.
We’re inherently aware of it.
All of which brings us to the first Christians, intestinal explosions, prefab homes and your cable-internet package. And third century Rome.
It was about that time when a smallpox (or measles, no one is quite sure) epidemic wiped out sizable portions of third-century Rome, and ultimately played a role in its fall. The “plague of Cyprian” was so fierce, so brutal, so unforgiving, it killed around 5,000 people a day and left many others deaf and blind.
Some writings from the day described bowels dissipating “in a flow,” or intestines shaking “with continuous vomiting” that would set the eyes “on fire” with blood.
Or, in a word, hell.
It was so hellish, in fact, that some scholars believe medieval and even some modern depictions of the Christian “hell” originated from the many accounts of the horror, such as the burning of corpses.
But it was in that misery, in that place of hopeless despair, in hell, that a small start-up, a spiritual Jewish off-shoot, took root. These were your Christian ancestors.
In the face of certain, agonizing death, these Christians, followers of “The Way,” walked among the suffering,
caring for them,
providing proper burial.
Even if it meant their own death.
As the pagan cowered in fear, confident the wrathful, angry gods were making known their displeasure, the Christian walked through the literal valley of the shadow of death — suffering as Christ en route to martyrdom.
Because their God doesn’t cause the suffering. Their God enters into it.
They entered hell — and brought the Kingdom of Heaven with them.
(Side note: Many scholars believe the acts of these Christians was a major spark behind the movement. Basically, you’re a Christian because of their sacrifice!)
Fast forward to today, and hell is still very real. Syria being the most visible example. This time it’s a different type of enemy — a human-invented atrocity we call “war.”
Sometimes, it’s easy to feel helpless.
Like when you’re sitting several thousand miles away in a recliner, watching the horrors unfold on cable news, while the slow, steady hum of forced air reminds you, ‘You’re OK. You live in a pretty decent subdivision. Thank God you aren’t there. What’s on Netflix this month? #SoBlessed.’
And none of the above is necessarily a bad thing.
Unless, of course, you’re a Christian.
Because you can’t have it both ways.
In the United States, we’ve recently had an opportunity to open our doors to Syrian refugees. Yet the majority of American Christians were among those who battened down the hatches, voting in Donald Trump and his vehement anti-refugee stance, and voting down any attempt to love our neighbor.
Well, we have really important lives.
And we have really important stuff.
And we don’t want to jeopardize our stuff!
And the majority of American Christians were among those who supported Trump’s missile attack on a Syrian airbase, aggravating an already dire situation, and continuing the cycle of violence Jesus sought to end at the cross.
Now, no one is compelling you to go to Syria. In fact, don’t.
It’s the 21st century, and we have education and we have resources and we have medicine and we have modern communication and we have nonprofit groups and we have democracy.
In fact, we have many more tools at our disposal than our Christian forefathers — we’re just doing a lousy job at using them. We’re distracted. And we’re selfish. And maybe most importantly, we’ve lost The Way.
Thankfully, we have a blueprint to remind us.
Photo: A Syrian refugee mother living in Amman, Jordan, shows the wounds on the face of her young daughter after she was hit by a neighbour. /UNHCR/O.Laban-Mattei/June 2013