The Gospel of Division

“Like most pastors who lead thriving evangelical megachurches, the Rev. Gregory A. Boyd was asked frequently to give his blessing — and the church’s — to conservative political candidates and causes…

After refusing each time, Mr. Boyd finally became fed up, he said. Before the last presidential election, he preached six sermons called ‘The Cross and the Sword’ in which he said the church should steer clear of politics, give up moralizing on sexual issues, stop claiming the United States as a ‘Christian nation’ and stop glorifying American military campaigns.

…By the time the dust had settled, Woodland Hills, which Mr. Boyd founded in 1992, had lost about 1,000 of its 5,000 members.”

—Laurie Goodstein, “Disowning Conservative Politics, Evangelical Pastor Rattles Flock“, The New York Times, 30 July 2006

“What we want, if men become Christians at all, is to keep them in the state of mind I call ‘Christianity And’. You know — Christianity and the Crisis, Christianity and the New Psychology, Christianity and the New Order, Christianity and Faith Healing, Christianity and Psychical Research, Christianity and Vegetarianism, Christianity and Spelling Reform. If they must be Christians let them at least be Christians with a difference. Substitute for the faith itself some Fashion with a Christian colouring.”

—C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

One of the primary reasons why I created Daylight Atheism was the steadily increasing influence, and increasing aggressiveness, of right-wing Christians in the United States of America over the last couple of years. Echoing the theocracies of ancient history, the modern religious right is more obnoxious than ever in their desire to rule the world and forcibly conform all people to their will, and more unapologetic than ever about the use of their religion as a means to that end. One need not look far to find examples of prominent Christian conservatives claiming that their hate-filled and ignorant desires are endorsed by God, and that this gives them the right to force others to obey them. And thanks largely to a moribund political opposition and a thoroughly cowed and complacent media, they have made an alarming amount of progress toward this goal.

However, the latest evolution of the religious right’s beliefs is one I did not expect. Normally, fundamentalist religious groups view themselves as separate from the world, part of a chosen group set aside and sanctified by God and therefore owing nothing to human institutions. But that is not how events are unfolding in our era. On the contrary, in order to justify their militant intrusion in the political arena, today’s religious right has concocted a bizarre hyper-patriotism that entails believing in the United States as the messianic savior-nation of the world – the second coming of Jesus, with constitutional amendments. The emblems of this bizarre belief are pervasive in their churches, a twisted fusion of Christian iconography and American patriotic symbolism that distorts both almost beyond recognition. From the Times article:

[Boyd] said he first became alarmed while visiting another megachurch’s worship service on a Fourth of July years ago. The service finished with the chorus singing “God Bless America” and a video of fighter jets flying over a hill silhouetted with crosses.

(A recent post on Daylight Atheism, “Liberty Defiled“, bears further witness to these sorts of shenanigans occurring on a grand scale. Incidentally, some readers may recognize the name of Gregory Boyd – he was one of the theologians interviewed by Lee Strobel in his apologetic work The Case for Christ.)

Furthermore, the religious right has come to associate patriotism not just with America but with conservative political beliefs generally and the Republican Party specifically, both of which have become inseparable from aggressive evangelical Christianity. Some principled religious people have noticed this trend and grown fed up with it; but as the backlash endured by Boyd shows, the damage has already been done. In the United States today, for millions of people, religious belief is no longer a source of morality or spiritual guidance; it is not driven by concern for others; it is, to them, a cudgel with which to beat others who do not share their will, and that is all.

The mass exodus from Boyd’s church in response to his slightly less conservative views is a revealing commentary on the nature of Christianity in another way. Despite claims about the “revolutionary” nature of Jesus’ message, it is clear that the pulpit has never been a place where people go to have their beliefs challenged; they go there to hear things they already agree with and to have their prejudices reinforced.

The inevitable result of this dogmatic spirit is also another of the negative aspects of religion, possibly the most common one: its tendency to divide people from each other. Religion encourages people to view themselves as insiders, as God’s favorites possessing unalterable truth; but the flip side of this is that when they encounter other people with differing beliefs, the inevitable suspicion and resentment that results can easily kindle into open hatred, prejudice, arrogance, and a xenophobia-rooted desire to force the rest of the world to conform. Granted, religion is hardly the only reason people war on each other; but in a world as beset with strife as this one, do we really need one more reason?

As it happens, another Times story illustrates this divisive spirit all too well:

Mrs. Dobrich, who is Orthodox, said that when she was a girl, Christians here had treated her faith with respectful interest. Now, she said, her son was ridiculed in school for wearing his yarmulke. She described a classmate of his drawing a picture of a pathway to heaven for everyone except “Alex the Jew.”

…A homemaker active in her children’s schools, Mrs. Dobrich said she had asked the board to develop policies that would leave no one feeling excluded because of faith. People booed and rattled signs that read “Jesus Saves,” she recalled. Her son had written a short statement, but he felt so intimidated that his sister read it for him. In his statement, Alex, who was 11 then, said: “I feel bad when kids in my class call me ‘Jew boy.’ I do not want to move away from the house I have lived in forever.”

Later, another speaker turned to Mrs. Dobrich and said, according to several witnesses, “If you want people to stop calling him ‘Jew boy,’ you tell him to give his heart to Jesus.”

The war of intimidation waged by the Christian majority of Georgetown, Delaware against the Dobriches and other religious minorities is outrageous, no different in kind from the racist hatred and terror experienced by blacks – again, largely due to white Protestant churches – during the struggles of the civil rights era. The Dobriches’ inevitable court victory, I fear, will do little to undo the harm they have suffered, but we can at least hope that their story serves as an education to others who must learn to respect the First Amendment, and an encouragement to other victims of religious prejudice to stand up for their rights.

And that is the crux of the matter: almost by definition, very few people ever get to see the harms of theocracy from the other side. The religious majority does not have to bear the brunt of the exclusion and persecution they heap upon dissenters, and so it is difficult for many people to understand why church/state separation is so vital (which, incidentally, goes to show the wisdom of America’s founding fathers in not leaving it and other basic rights up to majority rule). Therefore, when the threat of theocracy is less imminent or less obvious, it is all too easy for good people to persuade themselves that action is not necessary. But stories such as these suggest that more people are waking up to the dangers of theocracy, not just atheists but theists as well. This is a positive sign. Though fundamentalist religion will probably continue to sow division among humankind as long as it exists, we may yet have reason to hope that the greater majority of reasonable people will find the courage to stand up to the excesses of fanatics everywhere.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Alex Weaver

    This is something I’ve been trying to address, when I [feel like] I have time. I specifically brought up the Chuck Smallowski case on a gaming-related board I frequent (in the “Recreation Room” forum, the “Let’s Hear it for Christian Love” thread; I’m Azkyroth…and for some stupid reason the direct link to the threat doesn’t want to work). The general response was rather sharply divided between appropriate (if lethargic) outrage and what looks for all the world like affected defensive incredulity (basically, one step above “Scoffing”). I’ve been meaning to respond to the implications by some of the other board members that this sort of thing is exaggerated or rare in the U.S., but I don’t have nearly enough examples for my liking. If anyone has any articles that illustrate this trend especially well I’d very much appreciate links (particularly to that poll showing that Americans were vastly less likely to vote for an atheist than any other minority demographic). I’ll be using the ones Adam mentioned here…

  • Alex Weaver

    I’ll try another post to see if the direct link will work, even though it doesn’t in the preview. here.

  • Philip Thomas

    the pulpit has never been a place where people go to have their beliefs challenged

    (Italics mine). I think that sometimes people listen to sermons to have their beliefs challenged. Indeed a standard sermon form is to lambast the worldliness and hypocrisy of the congregation, sometimes with distasteful messages about hell thrown in.

    On the wider point, I think you should rejoice at this: when religion gets into politics the long-term result is almost always harmful to that religion…

  • andrea

    This “Christianity” is nothing more than fascism (this is why I still think Hitler was a Christian, if a particularly twisted one). The actions of the supposed “Christians” in the story about Alex is pathetic. What’s even more pathetic is that so very few Christians speak up against this sort of thing. I know there are good Christians but there is this “circle the wagons” mentality that if they criticize one another that invalidates the whole religion.

  • The Gay Species

    Fantastic post. Even though I am not a Christian, I have had enormous respect for the Jewish revolutionary named Jesus. One must admire his Nietzschean spirit to change the world by non-traditional means. Who else could invert an entire inheritance with a new ethic that inverted traditional ethics? In spite of, and because of, his revolutionary approach, the West was changed, and not necessarily for the better (a point Nietzsche himself harps on).

    The oddest of oddities is how “orthodox” Christianity, as it developed over the centuries, could be turned on its head at the Reformation, and how the Reformation itself could be turned on its head by evangelical Christianity. It is not surprising how different “orthodox” Christianity is from evangelical Christianity. In many salient ways, the heresy of heresy is itself anti-Christian. What is marketed as “evangelical Christianity” bears little resemblance to historical Christianity, and in many ways is diametrically opposite.

    It’s bad enough that “orthodox” or historical Christianity was (and still is) pernicious, but this “new” species of religion that uses some of the original language and tools bears no resemblance to the original. In many senses, it is too Jewish to be Christian. The dominance of special dispensation, divine election, God’s chosen, using Jewish tribal laws (which for Jews was meant only for other Jews, not to be imposed outside the tribe), has morphed into a zealotry to restore the pre-Messianic state to prepare for the Second-coming of the Messiah. Nevermind its utter incoherence, it does what you describe: It empowers the powerless to rule.

    Initially, I assumed it was a great marketing effort to make money (which it is), and what better way to do that than to insist it comes from God. Okay, that purchases consumers, but why have the consumers become militant ideologues as soldiers in a culture war to subvert the ordinary, common-sense view of the world. Why are they so bent on upending the liberal tradition on which this country was founded, then make the preposterous claim that it was founded on Christian principles (it was not), and that it must be a Christian nation in order for salvation and Armaggedom to occur? Why the overt hostility to benign science?

    The similarities to Marxism cannot be discounted. The ideology becomes so paramount, so self-reinforcing, so uniting, that the “struggle” is itself the raison d’etre, the ideology the tool. Good must conquer evil, not a bad idea actually, except that evangelical Christianity’s idea of “good” and “evil” is itself evil, and the way to achieve its evil is more evil. That it has taken place in America of all places, which just ended a Cold War to avoid totalitarianism, only to be followed by a new authortarian scheme, where the homosexual has replaced the communist, where biblical morals (not even Jesus’s morals) are the cause celebre is utterly fascinating as it is scary. Returning to Marx for entirely speculative purposes, is there something about Modernity that has caused this abberrant phenomenon to occur? Is it akin to capitalism giving rise to the proletariat? The weak triumphing over their lords? Is the anxiety over modernity too intolerable to face without imposing this “template” over it to give it some sense? I really have no clue.

    Whatever gave rise to this phenomenon, it remains pernicious and freightening. And worse, it continues to grow, increasing its threat to the modern liberal state and the entire Englightenment. Maybe Rollo May’s diagnosis of social anxiety is the root, but the cancer itself is obvious to all but the infected.

  • Philip Thomas

    Any generalised explanation, whether along Marxist lines or not, needs to take into account that this phenomenon is almost non-existent in Europe.