While government officials have always distorted truth, the Trump Administration is the first to openly normalize the use of “alternative facts.” And it’s not because our post-truth president read too much postmodern philosophy. He doesn’t read books. He just thinks that his authority entitles him to proclaim a “truth” that has no correspondence to empirical reality. Trump could not have risen to power without the support of a massive Christian subculture that has been indoctrinated to understand truth as authoritative proclamation rather than empirical reality. People who are accustomed to accepting a priori maxims from their religious authority figures that deliberately pit themselves against the general consensus of science and civil society have already normalized alternative facts. Here are five particularly toxic alternative facts that are ubiquitous in popular American Christianity today.
1. That human nature is thoroughly wicked and utterly untrustworthy
The foundation for a culture of alternative facts is to presume the abject corruption of every possible source of information including your own intuitions and observations, except for the designated authority figure whether it’s your megachurch preacher, the Bible, or Donald Trump. No Christian doctrine has been more distorted and abused than the doctrine of original sin. Certainly, we are born into a social order that has been ruined and corrupted by sin, a corruption that none of us can avoid. But toxic Christianity takes it further. We are not just sinners. We are completely incapable of discerning truth or observing reality accurately on our own because “the heart is deceitful and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9). We can only trust authority figures ordained by God (or the Republican Party) to interpret God’s truth for us. The Bible is officially the ultimate authority, but only according to the correct interpretation filtered through the preacher or trained small group leader who decides when and how Jesus’ commands are applicable.
Ironically, people who are trained not to trust their hearts’ intuitions do horrible things because they think they’re being obedient to their God-ordained authorities. They beat their toddlers with PVC pipes because Michael and Debi Pearl told them they needed to break their child’s will. They throw their gay teenagers out into the street because James Dobson told them their love needed to be tough. The nihilistic anthropology of “total depravity” becomes the basis for gas-lighting, manipulation, and abuse by authority figures whose doctrine of sin is the justification of their power.
2. That God is in meticulous control of every aspect of the universe
America is now on a frenzied course to destroy our planet because greedy, profit-maximizing corporate executives have found a convenient partner in the masses who believe that God couldn’t possibly allow climate change to happen. It is an article of faith that ocean levels cannot rise due to human causes, because God is the one who says to the waves, “Thus far you shall come and no further” (Job 38:11). The paradox of our doctrine of God’s sovereignty is that our own sovereignty is actually what’s in question. Those who need a God whose relation to creation can be explained and categorized exhaustively have a God who submits to the sovereignty of their theology. The truly sovereign God is the one whose involvement in our world remains a mystery to us. Whatever we might argue about God’s providence and sovereignty, if we destroy the atmosphere with our pollution, we should not expect God to bail us out.
If it isn’t nihilistic enough to believe that your observations and intuitions can’t be trusted and that you cannot possibly damage creation because God’s in control, then you can add to that the belief that our entire world is a mostly irrelevant passageway to the afterlife that really matters. Not to mention the fact that God wants to torture the vast majority of the people on this planet in hell forever. That leaves very little incentive to do anything to improve the world. As the great evangelist Dwight Moody said, “I look upon this world as a wrecked vessel. God has given me a lifeboat and said, ‘Moody, save all you can.'” Hence, you end up with a nihilistic politics which has zero interest in the common good.
4. That justice is strictly punitive
I’ll never forget a conversation I had with a Southern Baptist pastor at my grandpa’s church. I told him that my faith was the basis of my pursuit of justice. He said, “If God gave us the justice we deserve, then all of us would be in hell.” Indeed, our criminal justice system, which has been heavily shaped by toxic Christian moralism, has nothing to do with making things right for the victims of crime; it’s strictly about punishing criminals. When we approach the Bible presuming to find justice as punishment, we distort Jesus’ cross to mean that retributive justice is the God-ordained order of the universe. The irony is that if Jesus’ cross does in fact provide penal substitution as a dimension of its atonement, that means the cross exhausts and therefore abolishes retributive justice forever. Otherwise, Jesus didn’t really pay it all. So those who define justice as punishment reveal that they haven’t yet accepted Jesus’ payment for the world’s sins. True biblical justice means the restoration of shalom, the peace where everyone belongs and contributes. A restorative account of justice recognizes Jesus’ cross and resurrection to provide both vindication for victims and redemption for their oppressors.
5. That God’s highest priority is enforcing gender norms
Has there ever been a greater stumbling block for Christian evangelism than the obsession with making sure that people who are born with penises wear blue their whole lives and only marry people who are born with vaginas and wear pink their whole lives? How many millions of young adults have been entirely lost to the concept of sexual holiness because Christians made it all about the gays? The obsession with gender norms is the greatest disaster of contemporary Christianity and it completely contradicts the underlying concerns of both Jesus and Paul with the spiritual fruit of holiness. What we do with our bodies matters not because of a decreed gender conformity but because we are temples where God’s beauty can be glorified. It’s hard not to conclude that the gays are being scapegoated by toxic Christianity as a tactic to avoid submitting to Jesus’ discipleship in all the other aspects of life that most Christians gloss over.
If you want to detoxify your Christianity this Lent or know a group at your church who would like to do so, please check out my book How Jesus Saves the World From Us: 12 Antidotes To Toxic Christianity.
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