Tainted Icons

More than most other belief systems, organized religion emphasizes tradition and continuity with the past. The historical figures who founded today’s prominent churches are considered larger-than-life and thought of as possessing uncommon character and virtue. This is probably because religion is widely equated with morality; given this mistaken assumption, it follows that very religious people must also be very moral.

But in fact, the opposite is true. Just as with the character of Jesus, many of the founders of today’s sects lived in more primitive times, and wholeheartedly believed many of the moral errors and prejudices of those times. This post will detail a few of the more prominent examples, many of which are still idolized by modern believers unaware of their founders’ failings, in order to correct these mistaken perceptions.

Martin Luther: The famous dissenter who set the Protestant Reformation in motion. Founder of the Lutheran denomination, which is named after him, but arguably all Protestant denominations owe their existence to his work. He was also a vicious, raving anti-Semitic hatemonger who wrote tracts with titles like On the Jews and Their Lies, in which he argued that all synagogues should be burned down, that all Jewish holy texts should be destroyed, that rabbis should be forbidden to teach, and that Jews should either be put to forced labor or killed. Luther’s writings were explicitly cited by the Nazis to justify their campaign of genocide.

John Knox: Sixteenth-century Scottish clergyman; a major figure in the Protestant Reformation. Is considered the founder of the Presbyterian Church, which still names churches in his honor. A loathsome misogynist who argued at length that women were unfit for leadership and should never be permitted to hold any position of authority over a man, and that “if any presume to defend that impiety, [we] ought not to fear, first to pronounce, and then after to execute against them the sentence of death.”

John Calvin: Another key figure in the Protestant Reformation, founder of the Calvinist denominations that still exist today. When given the chance, he gained control of the city of Geneva and turned it into a brutal theocracy with himself as dictator, where torture was used to extract confessions and “blasphemous” speech was punishable by death. Dozens of people were burned at the stake for heresy, including the Spanish physician Michael Servetus, whose arrest and subsequent execution Calvin personally instigated when Servetus came to Geneva. (Confessional biographies of Calvin like this one tactfully gloss over these incidents.)

The Southern Baptist Convention: The largest Protestant denomination in the United States and the largest single Baptist association in the world, boasting over 16 million members. Well-known for its official stance against female pastors and in favor of wives being expected to obey their husbands. However, the SBC has a more unsavory secret: it was originally formed specifically to support the institution of slavery (see also). The SBC arose in the 1840s from a disagreement between northern and southern Baptists over whether it was permissible for missionaries to own slaves. Those who defended the practice withdrew from national Baptist organizations, forming the SBC in Augusta, Georgia in May 1845. The SBC did not officially apologize for its role in supporting racism and slavery until 1995.

Billy Graham: A beloved American evangelist whose counsel was sought by multiple U.S. presidents and whose ministry is said to have reached millions of people throughout his lifetime. He also appears to have been a secret anti-Semite, as revealed by recently released tapes of Graham’s conversations with President Nixon:

“A lot of Jews are great friends of mine. They swarm around me and are friendly to me, because they know that I am friendly to Israel and so forth, but they don’t know how I really feel about what they’re doing to this country…”

As Graham went on to say, the Jews had a “stranglehold” on America, which “has got to be broken or this country’s going down the drain”, and he expressed his hope that Nixon (who said he agreed with those remarks) “might be able to do something” about that situation.

Francis Schaeffer: One of the founders of the modern religious right; credited by modern right-wing leaders such as Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and James Dobson with inspiring them to political activism on issues such as gay rights and abortion. According to his son Frank, Schaeffer was also violent and physically abusive toward his wife; when they got in fights, he would throw things at her as well as engage in other, unspecified but even worse acts of violence. His son also says he often contemplated suicide.

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