At its best, faith is the overflow of gratitude, the attempt to live as if we are loved, the fragile hope for something better on the other side of pain and death. And this feather of grace weighs more in the balance than any political gain. Michael Gerson
One of the great liberating moments of my life was when I was given the opportunity as an undergraduate at a secular liberal arts college to read, analyze, critique, and appreciate the Bible as literature. I had spent the first eighteen years of my life with this book looming over me, forced to read it in its entirety every year and to memorize significant portions of it, not as perhaps the most influential book every compiled, but rather as the inspired and literal Word of God. Studying it as literature in college turned what had been a lifelong burden into a voyage of discovery.
I was reminded of this the other day when reading “Slander,” the final essay in Marilynne Robinson’s fine new collection of essays, What Are We Doing Here? She writes that when many years ago she applied for a faculty position at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she is now professor emeritus, part of the job description was that the successful candidate would be able to teach the Bible as literature. Noting that “people always seemed surprised to hear this,” she goes on to describe why she is surprised that people are surprised, since “the Bible is so important to our literature that young writers are usually interested in it, if only because it helps them to understand earlier writers they admire.”
In short order, though, she reveals one of the primary reasons why people might be surprised at a professor teaching the Bible at a secular, public university.
Many of [my students] were uncomfortable at being seen carrying a Bible on campus because the groups who have been so successful at claiming Christianity as their own exclusive province have also been successful in associating it with intolerance, guns, and hostility to science, among other things.
Robinson’s essay is the clearest and most provocative essay I have yet read about how “Christianity” has, in the imaginations of many in our country, come to mean something that is both slanderous and scandalous. In the latest edition of The Atlantic Monthly, Michael Gerson—the former main speech writer for George H. W. Bush and an evangelical Christian—describes this twisted version of Christianity, an unholy marriage of faith and politics, this way:
For a package of political benefits, these evangelical leaders have associated the Christian faith with racism and nativism. They have associated the Christian faith with misogyny and the mocking of the disabled. They have associated the Christian faith with lawlessness, corruption, and routine deception. They have associated the Christian faith with moral confusion about the surpassing evils of white supremacy and neo-Nazism.
No wonder Marilynne Robinson’s students are uncomfortable carrying Bibles around campus. Making it personal, no wonder I am far more inclined to call myself a “person of faith” than a “Christian.”
It is well-known by now that eighty percent of white voters identifying as evangelical Christians in this country voted for Donald Trump in November of 2016; a significant majority of these voters still support him. Robinson’s and Gerson’s stories of how this happened are somewhat different, but share one fundamental observation: a primary motivator for the world view of many American Christians is fear. Gerson writes that these Christians have turned to Donald Trump for protection as a playground weakling might use his lunch money to pay for protection from the schoolyard bully. Protect my interests at all costs. Gerson writes:
The primary evangelical political narrative is adversarial, an angry tale about the aggression of evangelicalism’s cultural rivals. In a remarkably free country, many evangelicals view their rights as fragile, their institutions as threatened, and their dignity as assailed. The single largest religious demographic in the United States—representing about half the republican political coalition—sees itself as a besieged and disrespected minority.
Robinson agrees, noting that
They imagine they are coerced by other people when they are in fact trapped in their own fears, and they resent those imaginary others for posing this dreadful threat. They imagine the outside world as being attended with every undesirable trait they associate with secularism, having invented most of them or learned them from the like-minded . . . The great surrender of meaningful freedom, the great cession of freedom, is the habit of fear. It seems to be assumed that any cultural or intellectual jostling that results from a diverse population together in one place must be hostile and threatening. Lord have mercy. We are normalizing cowardice.
Today is Palm Sunday, the gateway into Holy Week. There is plenty of fear to be found in the narratives of the coming week: The Jewish and Roman authorities clearly find something to fear about Jesus, the disciples are perpetually afraid, and Jesus himself in the Garden of Gethsemane and hanging on the cross experienced human fear fully. Keeping in mind the apostle John’s directive that “perfect love casts out fear,” those of us who claim to be followers of Jesus would do well to remember this week just what a faith rooted in love rather than fear looks like. Marilynne Robinson writes that
Christianity is not scorned or rejected because it is the Gospel of faith, hope, and love but because this Christianity of theirs, on whatever pretext, is determined to bring bad news to the poor and the stranger, and is even self-righteous about this . . . Always, but certainly in situations when great things are at stake, it behooves Christians to think and act like Christians. This would mean practicing self-restraint, curbing our speech, remembering that our adversaries are owed the respect due to the divine image . . . In the great majority of cases, a sin is injury done to another person, other people, who, we must assume, God loves at least as much as he loves us. The loving-kindness Jesus models for us is very largely a matter of feeding and healing those in need of such care.
People who claim to care for the future of Christianity should listen to their critics rather than falling back on resentment and indulging the notion that they are embattled and abused by rampant secularism . . . If slander is a factor in all this, the first object of slander, the one traduced, is Jesus of Nazareth. And this is not the work of the atheists.
One way to ensure that one’s faith is not co-opted by fear is to remember that, as the events we celebrate during this coming week show, love often looks like failure—the sort of failure that we naturally seek to protect ourselves against using any means necessary. But often that protection turns what we claim to value most highly into a mockery of itself. At the heart of faith is something fragile, holy, pure, and impossible to destroy—something that thrives not when protected but when openly exposed and released. As Michael Gerson beautifully describes at the end of his article,,
At its best, faith is the overflow of gratitude, the attempt to live as if we are loved, the fragile hope for something better on the other side of pain and death. And this feather of grace weighs more in the balance than any political gain.