Emergent Christianity: That Huge Threat to Republican Jesus

Emergent Christianity: That Huge Threat to Republican Jesus August 31, 2013

Have you seen this in the news lately? A bunch of conservative Christians have decided that the three biggest threats to America are these: Communism, Islam, and emergent Christianity.

If you just went “wait, what?” then you’re not toxic enough.

Yep. Right-wingers had a big meeting called the “Values Voter Summit” in Washington, D.C. lately. This is a big summit, incidentally; all sorts of teabaggers and Republican Presidential hopefuls attend it to drum up support for themselves. They run this thing once a year in the fall and all the big names and serious-business fundies attend; this year, some of the confirmed speakers will be Michele Bachmann, Steve King, Tony Perkins, Mike Huckabee, Jim DeMint, and a whole bunch of big names in government, the military, and right-wing groups. (Obviously even more of these big names have been invited, like Glenn Beck and Kirk Cameron, but no confirmations yet, though it’s worth noting that Glenn Beck’s photo appears on the page about speakers.) They talk about stuff like “America’s Opportunity for All” and have worship services (because “all” apparently means “all Christians”). And of course they have exhibitions by groups like “Right-Wing Jewelry” and the forced-birther Susan B. Anthony List (which, unsurprisingly, both feature “news” clips from Fox on their websites). It’s like DragonCon except for fundagelical control freaks.

And what’s got them so upset?

First, well, communism, obviously. Except most of them have no real idea what communism is and get all confused and think that socialism is communism, that America is communist or heading that way, that Obama is a communist, and that communism is atheistic. None of these things are true (the last is a trend, but certainly not a requirement). Even if one assumes they really mean socialism, it’s hard to imagine why they’d be upset about it given that the Bible talks about how early Christians shared their money and food with each other all the time and that those who withheld their share were struck dead by their loving, merciful god. The newest trend in toxic Christianity is a downright idolatrous attitude toward capitalism, leading to a weird and very disturbing zealotry about doctrines like selfishness, small government, privatization, and competition–things which Bible!Jesus might not ever have endorsed or condoned,  but which Republican!Jesus definitely digs.

I think the main reason they’re against communism is that most of their leaders are old enough to remember the Red Scare and are still secretly convinced that the Russians or Chinese are a huge danger to us. I’d take these wild-eyed conspiracy theories of the so-called “Values Voters” more seriously if a lot of their proposed speakers weren’t representatives of a government that literally owes 8 cents of every dollar of its debt to the very Communist country of China. They’re willing to gripe about Communism, but they’ll still let China own more of our debt than American citizens themselves own ($1.2 trillion versus citizens’ $959 billion). If they really had so much of a problem with it, maybe they should be turning up their noses at letting China lend us money and getting in bed with other godless countries like Japan ($912 billion).

Second, Islam’s the next demon they battle. I think most of the world is alarmed by the extremist elements of Islam, but Christian-heavy states are so alarmed by it that a bunch of them have tried to write anti-Muslim prejudice into law. The latest of these, Oklahoma, has passed one so obviously prejudiced that the ACLU has gotten involved in fighting it. Considering how few Muslims there are who actually live in the states that bleat the loudest about Sharia law, it’s even more confusing to me why they’re so worried about it, but again, their leaders have gotten themselves whipped into a frenzy over it, and that’s what gets communicated to the flocks.

It’s hard not to notice a strong element of racism and xenophobia in these ravings. Like white supremacists, anti-Muslim people seem to be more against Middle Easterners than against Islam itself, and like Americans in the past getting panicky about successive waves of non-Protestant, non-white newcomers–sparking the Yellow Peril, anti-Irish sentiment, and of course racism against African-Americans and Hispanics, these church leaders are noticing that a lot of immigrants are neither white nor part of the Republican Jesus Fan Club. Many of them are old enough to remember segregation, and many pine openly for a return to “good old days” that, to most of us who aren’t in the Kool Kids’ Klub, look shockingly like a nostalgia for the days of overt sexism and racism. (Enjoy the irony of that link being of an African-American church leader pining for a past that never really existed. Thankfully, not all pastors seem to go that direction.)

Despite how few mosques, schools, and organizations Christian-heavy states have compared to less Christian-heavy states, Sharia law is a huge boogeyman to toxic Christians. It’s hard for an outsider like me to see what the problem is. Both Christian and Islamic extremists demand power over governments and hold themselves above the law. Both hold themselves as the best arbiters of how people should live, threaten violence to those who disagree, viciously and even violently curtail women’s rights, threaten the safety and lives of gay people, and want a theocracy ruling everybody. The only difference between them is in the placement of a moon-and-star symbol instead of a cross on the new flag. I literally see no difference whatsoever between Sharia law and Christian dominionism. As the joke goes, Christians might not like the religion behind Sharia law, but dang, they have to admit that those Muslims sure do manage to keep their women in line.

But the third force they’re upset about is the one that gets me the most baffled: they’re upset about emergent Christianity.

For those who don’t keep up with the trends, emergent Christianity is a fairly new style of Christianity that started some time ago but which recently has been coming into its own. It’s hard to define or generalize about emergent churches, but they tend to be fairly liberal, woman-affirming, gay-friendly, and less controlling of their adherents. Its main proponent, Brian McLaren, stands firmly against most of the things that Republican!Jesus likes like prosperity gospel, the whole fixation on the end of the world that many Christians are positive is coming during their lifetime, and of course Biblical literalism and inerrancy. I’ve talked before about “toxicity” in Christianity and these emergents aren’t bad eggs at all. I find them as a group to be generally friendly, respectful, and loving, though their entire approach generally boils down to “because I like things better this way” rather than any overwhelming evidence that it’s better than other approaches. All things considered, though, isn’t that what every person who’s chosen a religion does? Yeah, they’re okay.

You can probably see why right-wing Christians aren’t thrilled with them in the least. While researching this entry, I discovered all kinds of derogatory language heaped upon emergent Christians–from scare quotes around the word “Christian” in their descriptions of them to really loud accusations of “returning to darkness,” declarations that they are destroying Christianity, and discussion of why they are “dangerous.” I’ve known about emergents for a while, but I really had no idea that conservatives hated them so much or were so frightened of them.

But apparently emergents are such an incredible powerhouse of evil that they ended up being part of the Trifecta of Danger for Values Voters Summit organizers. In the RNS writeup I linked to first, they say that emergents are “weakening further our church community.” I’m not sure how. Emergent Christians are, by and large, barely even a blip on the radar of Christianity. There just aren’t a lot of them. The books they write and the blogs they keep may stir up a few folks, but in terms of power, they have next to none–no voter blocs to be wooed, no vast hordes of deep-pocketed believers, no sweeping influence, nothing. I wouldn’t mind if they had more of all of these, but the simple truth is that if this is the force that conservative Christians are so terrified of, I really can’t imagine what they’d do about a real threat.

You remember after the last election when the White Jesus Republican Party was trying so hard to figure out why they lost the election so dramatically when they’d been so positive it was in their pocket (despite all rational predictions)? It was shocking to me to see how out of touch they were in assigning blame. Mitt Romney immediately and famously fell in the crossfire by insisting that he’d lost because poor people like getting free stuff, but the variety of excuses ranged from the insulting to the purely delusional. I know I’m not the only person who wanted to scream “NO! You lost because the majority of American people rejected your selfish, victim-blaming, racist, sexist, xenophobic, Christianist, bigoted message!” But like with Christianity itself, if the Republicans lost, then either the message was the problem or the people were the problem. Obviously the message is perfect, so the problem is obviously the people for not understanding it well enough. So obviously the solution is to drill down on the message and keep trying to find new ways to phrase it until the dumb idiots in the electorate finally understand it. That we already understand it perfectly well does not appear to have gotten through to anybody in the GOP yet.

That same denial of reality is what I’m seeing in Christianity. Their message is perfect, they think, so if we reject their message about Christianity, then clearly we are the problem. And they view dissent and differing opinions as an attack upon them and their message. They want unity, but only the kind of unity that puts them in the dominant role. Speaking of Sharia law, huh? It looks very dishonest to me that they want a strengthened church community but only on their own terms.

It’s really too bad they can’t just declare a schism and brand emergents as heretics like in the good old days. Then they could stop movements like this from trying to decouple their religion from its modern reputation of cruelty and hate.

The problem is that emergent philosophy is very friendly to people. It’s generally loving, affirming, and kind. It seems to embody what the Bible actually tells Christians to act like. It talks about loving people, not judging them, not trying to control them, not trying to abuse them in the name of a sick form of “love” that only Christians and spouse-beaters seem to understand. And its ideas are starting to spread. In a development I’m not that surprised to see but which has sent shockwaves out through the evangelical world, evangelicals are finally starting to kind of come around to the idea of gay rights. Women’s rights may not be long behind them. And let’s not forget that despite how fervently (and illegally) evangelical leaders supported the Republicans last year, Romney actually got shockingly few votes from evangelicals as a group. The problem isn’t that church leaders aren’t communicating what they want; the problem is that their flocks aren’t obeying.

And maybe that’s the big problem to these folks.

Toxic Christian leaders can talk all they want, but they can’t physically force their flocks to listen. And the harder they grab for control, the more their targets will resist. It just isn’t like it used to be, when a pastor could say absolutely anything, no matter how abusive or untrue (the link is criticizing this practice, btw), and nobody’d say boo about it. I really think based on what I’m seeing and experiencing that people expect more out of their religious leaders now. And I don’t think their leaders have caught on yet that they’re going to have to do more than just demonize those who disagree with them. Oh, a few people will respond to demonization and dehumanization of dissenters. They always do. But most people are repelled by such antics. Where before churchgoers might have hand-waved away such abuse and lies, now they are being given permission by society to call attention to these examples and denounce them. Indeed, the targeted man in that first link about abuse, from what I saw on his FB page, decided not to return to that church after that incident, and the person writing the second post realized just how damaging to his religion’s credibility it is when a church leader gets caught in a blatant lie, even a well-meaning one. Worse yet, thanks to the proliferation of cell phones, almost every congregant now has at his or her fingertips a device that can instantly assess a preacher’s claims for veracity–and a device that can capture and record sermons that are abusive. It’s just not the same as it was when I was a fundamentalist.

For every Christian thumping his or her desk and hollering about how Christianity is going lukewarm (that’s a Christianese term that means a Christian who doesn’t seem as hardcore, zealous, or fervent as the accuser thinks of him/herself as being) and how emergent Christians are no longer interested in the Bible, there are a dozen more realizing that how they’ve been doing things is not only not advancing their cause but actively damaging it with the exact people they’re trying to help, and maybe realizing that there is not a single modern school of Christianity that is not wholly dependent upon a culturally-contextual interpretation of the Bible–even the so-called fundamentalist interpretations are just that: interpretations, extrapolations, and a host of cafeteria-style cherry-picked verses that support an increasingly abusive and delusional worldview at the expense of Christianity’s actual core message of love and charity.

It’s a pity that a message of love and charity just doesn’t sell as well as hate, control, superiority complexes, and exclusion do.

Remember what I was saying a few days ago about how it seemed to me that what these conservative Christians are actually trying to do is not influence the non-believers, because I’m pretty sure their leaders are aware that that ship has sailed, but to get the believers back into lockstep? That’s what it looks like to me.

A long time ago I realized that apologetics books, videos, and seminars don’t actually exist to evangelize. There really just aren’t many people in the world who haven’t heard about Christianity, and none of this stuff is actually very persuasive to anybody with even a modicum of critical thinking skills. I mean that very literally: there is not a single apologetics argument on the market today or ever has been in the past that sounds convincing to someone who understands science and basic debate concepts like logical fallacies. And yet apologetics books and evangelism “tools” proliferate in the Christian publishing and media world. Christians snap this stuff up and dutifully–even gleefully–trot out these debunked and irrational lines and setups on their non-believing acquaintances and friends, but more importantly, they purchase this stuff and feel more confident in their own faith because of it, which gets them into churches and giving money and voting the “right” way (which is, of course, the Right way). It’s a business model that works–if you consider “works” to mean “makes a huge profit.” If you consider it to mean “converts people to the religion,” well, no, but if the writers and creators of these things cared about that, they wouldn’t be going at it the way they are.

In the same exact way, I see these rabid, wild-eyed denunciations of emergent Christianity and start suspecting that maybe the problem is that emergent Christianity is the crest of a wave that conservatives fear and despise. Emergents represent change. They represent a new way of doing things. Just by existing they offer a criticism of the dominant voices of the religion.

And so they must be silenced.

Their stance must be declared demonic. Their influence must be considered evil. Their goals must be stated to be antithetical to the religion. Anything new or different must be painted as suspicious (because Christianity–especially fundamentalism–has never changed through history). People who dare to question conservative “values” like exclusion, bigotry, sexism, racism, and xenophobia must be made out to be the enemy. There can only be one Christianity, and it must be the Christianity of its aging, bigoted, white, racist, sexist, xenophobic, exclusionary leaders.

If that’s the unified face of Christianity they want presented to the world, then I can definitely get behind its fading influence. Thankfully, that face is fading from view one funeral and one scandal at a time. As one after another of conservative Christianity’s leaders falls from grace or dies, new leaders come to take their place–and all bets are off about just where those leaders will take the religion. I can see that idea terrifying current conservatives, who all sound so frightened of the future and so insecure about their fading dominance in the public sphere. I can understand why; the idea of an unchanging, ultra-stable, always-there, utterly rigid black/white yes/no always/never kind of worldview can be very comforting. It was to me, way back when, and I can see very clearly that it is still comforting today among conservatives.

But change is part of life. If we’re not growing, learning, and changing, we’re stagnating. Christianity’s changed dramatically since it was first conceived by a bunch of largely-anonymous men. And I say that’s a good thing, considering it included rules about how to properly treat slaves and masters, how to subjugate women, and how to properly dehumanize ex-Christians and threaten outsiders. It changed because society changed. Well, society’s still changing. Just like most people wouldn’t be able to live their lives by the rules of those awful Gor SF/fantasy novels but some people totally love it, most of us will–and did–have trouble living our lives by the rules and ideas of folks from a totally alien culture from thousands of years ago. And that’s okay. Some people love that stuff. Others will be repelled. And as society evolves, the people who would be totally fine with living that way will diminish further. Either the religion will shift along with society’s new ideas about morality and goodness, or else it will fade just like Mithraism did 1600 years ago.

What’s funny though is that instead of concentrating on the vast numbers of people who are just leaving their religion, toxic Christians are focusing on chastising other Christians. Out of all the ways they could address the exodus of onetime members, they’re totally ignoring all of their abusive practices and yelling at Christians who just aren’t hardcore enough. Obviously if they can just get those “lukewarm” Christians back into line, everything will be fine and then they can go hammer on gays and women’s rights and win this time. And ironically, it’s their infighting that just makes the rest of us realize that none of them actually really has any solid backing on how to interpret Christianity. If emergent Christians aren’t doing it right, then certainly conservative Christians aren’t either, because they’re all using the Bible and “context” (that get-out-of-uncomfortable-truths-free card) to declare their approach to be the best one. Listening to right-wing Christians squabbling over which way is better is like listening to a pair of children arguing over which Batman movie is better. It makes the fictional nature of the Bible look even more fictional.

I’ve got to say, out of every threat to their religion Christians could possibly have devised, I’d be hard-pressed to pick three less threatening or relevant forces. I don’t seriously think anybody sane thinks America is heading toward communism. Immigration is a thing, and conservatives will just have to get used to a more diverse country, which includes brown people from the Middle East. And if emergents are in the top three threats to their movement, then either they are blind or their movement can’t be that strong to begin with.

What I can say for sure is that these toxic Christians are denouncing three things they don’t actually seem to understand in the first place. But they never let total ignorance of a topic stop them from denouncing it before now–why change the strategy? But you can’t fix a problem till you can identify it, which means the Values Voters certainly won’t be fixing any problems anytime soon.

We’re going to talk about one of the newer and wackier rationalizations and deflections in the news lately next time. It’s hilarious. I’m not even going to hint this time. It’s that awesome. I’m not kidding. I invite you to join me on the next roller-coaster ride.

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