I’ve been reading Chris Hedges’s excellent book American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War On America. Hedges emphasizes the authoritarian nature of the Christian Right. For example:

The hypermasculinity of radical Christian conservatism, which crushes the independence and self-expression of women, is a way for men in the movement to compensate for the curtailing of their own independence, their object obedience to church authorities and the calls for sexual restraint. It is also a way to cope with fear. Those who lead these churches fear, perhaps most deeply, their own internal contradictions. They make war on the internal contradictions of others. Those who are not subdued, who do not bow before the church authorities, are seen as contaminants. Believers are driven into a primitive state, a prenatal existence, a return to the womb and a life of submission. [Chris Hedges, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War On America (Free Press, 2006), pp. 78-79]

What’s messed up about this beside the obvious is that these people call themselves evangelicals. And evangelicalism started out as a non-authoritarian religious movement. Believe it or not, the original evangelicalism that formed in the 18th century emphasized freedom of conscience and individual conviction over church authority, and most early evanglicals fiercely supported separation of church and state.

The latter was true because evangelicals often were victims of church-state oppression. Bill Moyers said,

On another trip to New England I drove through Lynn, Massachusetts. There, in 1751, Obadiah Holmes was given thirty stripes with a three-corded whip after he violated the colonial law against taking communion with another Baptist. Baptists were only a “pitiful negligible minority” in Massachusetts but they were denounced as “the incendiaries of the Commonwealth and the infectors of persons in matter of religion.” For refusing to pay tribute to the official state religion they were fined, flogged, and exiled. Holmes refused the offer of friends to pay his fine so that he could be released. He refused the strong drink they said would anesthetize the pain. Sober, he endured the ordeal; sober still, he would one day write: “It is the love of liberty that must free the soul.”

But we have come full circle, and now much of American evangelicalism has been taken over by authoritarians who want to fine, flog, and exile everyone who disagrees with them. Indeed, the word evangelical has come to mean “intolerant and authoritarian right-wing religious whackjob” to many people.

Hedges is a Christian himself, which informs his observances. He writes (pp. 80-81),

The petrified, binary world of fixed, immutable roles is a world where people, many of them damaged by bouts with failure, despair and their own ambiguities, can bury their chaotic and fragmented personalities and live with the illusion that they are now strong, whole and protected. … By submitting to the Christian leader, and to a powerful male God who will destroy those who misbehave, followers avoid dealing with life. The movement seeks, above all, to banish mystery, the very essence of faith. Not only is the binary world knowable and predictable, but finally God is knowable and predictable.

Many people look at religious whackjobs and conclude that religion has made them fearful and corrupted their ability to think rationally. I think it’s close to the truth to say that whackjobs create God in their own image — Whackjob God.

Slate has been running a conversation between evangelical David Kuo and Hanna Rosin, author of God’s Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission To Save America. The book focuses on students of Patrick Henry College, who are mostly home-schooled Christians. Rosin wrote,

Who really is an evangelical, and is it fair to have a tiny—and some would say fringe—school stand in for an entire movement? Well, you and I both know that evangelical is a fairly meaningless term these days. Catholics use it. Democrats use it. In social science statistics on divorce, teenage sexuality, even abortion, people who call themselves “evangelical” look just like the rest of America.

When I say “evangelical,” I am thinking of that elite subgroup that goes to church at least once a week.

To which Kuo replied,

Virtually all surveys show that 30 percent to 40 percent of Americans go to church once a week. There are a lot of evangelicals out there even if, as you point out, they lead lives that are virtually indistinguishable from other Americans when it comes to divorce, abortion, and the like. I’ve argued that part of the reason for that is the political obsession of many evangelical leaders, which has in turn seduced so many evangelicals. It is that obsession and seduction that is so beautifully and horribly laid out in God’s Harvard. As you recounted over and over, there was no differentiation between Jesus and politics. There was the absolute understanding that to serve Jesus meant to grasp power and manipulate the political system for God’s gain. Sadly, this isn’t anything new. It is precisely the sort of thing that Jesus came to defeat.

About halfway through the book, something struck me. Not a single student quoted Jesus’ sayings to you in justifying their politics. Their justification came from Old Testament admonitions about power. They didn’t quote Jesus—at least as related in the book.

Why? It is because it would be impossible to quote Jesus urging young Christian men and women to tackle the political battlefield as if going unto war. It is because Jesus’ commands have everything to do with sacrificially loving others and nothing to do with influencing the makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court.

I am not saying that Christians shouldn’t have a political voice. They should. But they should do it as citizens with opinions in public policy and not as “Christians” presuming they have Jesus’ answer to problems—because on virtually every position, they do not. It is perfectly possible to be a Bible-believing, Jesus-loving, born-again Christian and have different perspectives on everything from abortion to Iraq. And that perspective is what is missing from Patrick Henry.

My understanding is that the word evangelical comes from the same root Greek word as gospel, which loosely translates as “good news.” An evangelicalism that de-emphasizes the Gospels has been pulled pretty far from its roots.

25 thoughts on “Un-atoned

  1. Indeed!
    I’ll link to McDeek in the A.M., this weekend’s comment dovetails
    well with your post. G’night Maha………..

  2. Maha, you notice a common phenomenon in human affairs; the reversal of labels. Note the conservatives who do not conserve, the liberals who do not liberate, the progressives who make no progress, and the capitalists who cannot manage capital. I’m not sure why these reversals happen, but I can’t help noticing that they do.

    In this case we see the spectacle of Christian evangelicals who do not quote the man they call Christ, nor do they bear good news.

    Maybe the Greens have the right idea. They don’t name their movement after an abstract concept; that’s a bogus promise, bound to be broken; instead they call themselves a color.

  3. But we have come full circle, and now much of American evangelicalism has been taken over by authoritarians who want to fine, flog, and exile everyone who disagrees with them.

    You forgot to mention boring holes in peoples tongues for denying the Trinity.. 🙂

  4. Sam Harris at Idea City ’05 blames religious moderates for propping up the taboo against openly criticizing religion in our public discourse. This 23 minute ramble is well worth the time, but I recommend letting the whole thing download and starting at 13:00.

    Oh yeah Carlin too: Who’s the all time Champion in the false promises and exaggerated claims?

  5. These evangelicals( alot of folks who go regularly are not evangelical ) are in love with the dominionist idea that they have to create Jseus’s kingdom here on earth. they conveniently forget that Jesus said, ‘ my kingdom is not of this world’. Mohammad Atta forgot that too. Zealots want to purify the earth, they do not realize that this is earth not heaven nor is it meant to be.We are not here to recreate heaven. We are here for other purposes. they base their beliefs on the assumption that this reality can be turned into heaven- that is their fallacy. In trying to play god they slip into the authoritarian mindset.

  6. Kuo is missing or evading an important point. Namely that the Old Testament and the New Testament are inseparable. You can’t just embrace Jesus without acknowledgment of his authority which is derived from the OT. Jesus says'” search the scriptures for they bear witness of me”, thereby securing the connection from the new to the old, and the Old Testament is replete with promises of a Saviour, and references to the Christ(Genesis,Psalms, Isaiah) which unmistakably point to Jesus according to the narrative.

    Because Jesus fulfills the law, much of Old Testament becomes irrelevant to modern Christians in regard to the requirements of the law, but the morality established by the law cannot be dismissed by Jesus..For instance.. In the Old Testament Jehovah( Jesus) proclaims that homosexuality is an abomination unto him, so does Jesus suddenly find homosexuality acceptable? No, he finds it forgivable but the act or the nature of homosexuality is still an abomination.
    What happens is that morals are dictated and established in law according to scripture(God) and then the law is repealed and the morality remains as a residual.

    I guess my point is….when it comes to separating the OT from the NT..don’t even try to go there. They’re symbiotic books and Kuo should understand that clearly.

  7. OT?

    What testament?
    Whose testament?

    The only testament that I’m reading is John Dean’s.
    I don’t have his latest book, but I just finished “Conservartives Without Concsience.” A must read!

    As for religion, I fear the faithful. Of any religion. They believe they speak for GOD. Whoever She, He, or It, is. And to speak for God, is something no person should do. If there is one, we know nothing about “GOD.” Any words associated with “GOD,” were written by human’s. PERIOD!

    Knowledge/Reason and faith are as seperate as oil and water.
    The problem lies in authoratarian figures who try to mix the two.

    OK, I’ll get killed for saying this: But faith is blind.
    Faith to Yahweh/Moses.
    Faith to Jesus,
    Faith to Allah.

    This “faith” is no different than the “faith” in Hilter and Stalin.

    Faith is faith.
    Faith is the willingness to suspend disbelief. Faith doesn’t need reason to follow. Reason is not a element of faith. You cannot use the word “reason” when talking about “faith.” They are as seperate as oil and water.
    Faith, not only seek’s to follow, it want’s to follow. It DESIRES to follow…

    When you reason, you just can’t follow.. Ergo, fallow is my faith…

  8. The Fundies quote the OT instead of the NT because the OT generally supports the unification of Church and State.

    That and the fact that the concept of God evolved over time (see Karen Armstrong’s A History of God) and the OT God is a more primitive guy who could be a vengeful motherbleeper. Jesus went around telling people to love their enemies, and what’s the fun in that?

  9. Sam Harris at Idea City ‘05 blames religious moderates for propping up the taboo against openly criticizing religion in our public discourse.

    I regret I don’t have time to listen to it this morning, because I need to leave pretty soon for “church,” which in my case is a Zen center. But most of the time when the crusading atheists complain about the “moderates” what they’re really complaining about is that the “moderates” are pissed off at the atheists for misrepresenting religion.

    I’m fine with people criticizing religion when it’s doing something screwy (see post above), but when people go around saying that all religion is superstitious crap, them’s fightin’ words.

  10. This “faith” is no different than the “faith” in Hilter and Stalin.

    Faith is faith.
    Faith is the willingness to suspend disbelief. Faith doesn’t need reason to follow. Reason is not a element of faith. You cannot use the word “reason” when talking about “faith.” They are as seperate as oil and water.

    This is a misunderstanding of “faith” as the word has been used in religion. I touched on this in the Wisdom of Doubt series.

    Certainly many religious people, particularly fundamentalists, understand “faith” the same way you do. But that’s precisely why fundamentalism is messed up.

    I recently got a copy of Paul Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith. Tillich was a major 20th century theologian widely admired by progressive/liberal Christians. I’ve only read a little bit of it, but in this book Tillich pointedly says that religious “faith” has nothing whatsoever to do with believing “facts” without evidence, or with understanding the material world at all.

    Fundies (and crusading atheists) confuse faith with knowledge, but they are very different. Neither is faith incompatible with logic or reason. I’m sorry that I don’t have time to go into a more detailed explanation this morning (gotta get to the Zendo on time), but once I get through the Tillich book I plan to do some posts about it.

  11. You forgot to mention boring holes in peoples tongues for denying the Trinity.

    I’m not sure many of the fundies know what the Doctrine of Trinity is. They seem to have dropped all the Council of Nicaea stuff that was mainstream for all those centuries. .

  12. Inside the (Southern) Baptist Church they are typically called fundamentalists, at least by those who disagree with them, which are most of the Baptists I know. (Most of these people chose internal exile, a term more Americans should become familiar with. I chose external exile.)

    The fundamentalists have totally wrecked the governance and the theology of the Southern Baptist Convention, perverted the theology and ruined a lot of lives, all in pursuit of their own power.

    What they did to the SBC in the 1970’s and 80’s is what they (and it is many of the same people) are now trying to do to the USA, and I have to say that the corporate press covered the first takeover about as abysmally bad as the second.

  13. Maha,
    What I said was too simplistic. I read your series and should have understood this.
    Mea Culpa…

  14. Indeed, one of the first teachings in favor of the separation of church and state is: “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God, that which is God’s.” (The remainder of this chapter of St. Matthew states: “When they heard this they were amazed, and leaving [Jesus] they went away.” Apparently no one wants to hear such an, um, inconvenient truth.)

  15. the Father showed me, many many years ago now, that “religion” and relationship are two different things. Religion is man attempting to get to God. Relationship is God attempting to get to man. He wants relationship, not religion. In fact the more I see the more I believe that religion is something from the dark side, from satan if you will, and not anything to do with the Father. Relationship happens in the heart and requires no other person to interpret or decipher Fathers directions.
    It is my believe that these modern “christians” are from the ugly side, a product of satan.

  16. Regarding paradoctor’s remarks, I don’t believe that liberals are about liberating people. My idea of being a liberal is live and let live. People who want to be religious in whatever manner they wish, may do so–just don’t try to shove your religion down my throat. I have no desire to liberate people from their religion. I will help people who need help; but, I will not go around and tell people they should be like.

  17. Kuo seems like a reasonable and intelligent sort of guy to me, even though I don’t believe much in evangelism.

  18. #14: Considering that the Southern Baptist Convention was formed in order to perpetuate slavery, it’s a bit disingenuous to claim it was perverted by fundamentalists in the 70’s and 80’s.

  19. Considering that the Southern Baptist Convention was formed in order to perpetuate slavery, it’s a bit disingenuous to claim it was perverted by fundamentalists in the 70’s and 80’s.

    In the 1950s and 1960s it was more open-minded on many issues than it is now, however. Think Bill Moyers and Jimmy Carter.

  20. Coming from a Christian stand point, the grasp for power that has occurred over the past thirty years has dranatically weakened the true power of the church. The Great Awakenings didn’t happen because protestants had gained access and control over the political process. Dobson actually had a pretty good ministry, I know a lot of non-christian family therapist (wife is therapist) who would recommend some of Dobson’s books to families who were dealing with different issues. There is no chance they would ever do that now. Dobson has traded his influence and help in a needed area for temporary political influence. I even heard Chuck Colson on his show in the early eighties and Dobson was kind of fanning Colson’s ego by praising him for all of the great family legislation that the Nixon administration had gotten passed ( I know, I was shocked as well). Colson stopped him and said that compared to the kind of advice and help Dobson was giving to families was much more important than any pieces of legislation that was passed. Thats been the real loss of the Religious Rights grab for power.

  21. Good column. I read Hedges’ book when it came out in January of this year. I thought it good, but scary. Hedges’ father is a retired Presbyterian minister and Hedges’ upbringing has strongly influenced his writing and thinking on this issue.

    You are right about evangelicalism originating as a non-authoritarian movement. I am a Catholic, and I am well aware (as many are not) that one of the objections that the English had with Catholicism after the Reformation, and particularly in the 17th and 18th centuries, was the association of the institutional Catholic church with an authoritarian monarchy. This was one of the elements of the English Civil War in the 17th century, and it was one of the many reasons that James II wound up deposed and living in exile in France. It’s rather ironic that a religious movement that originated as a non-authoritarian movement has now adopted the authoritarianism its founders objected to.

  22. One interesting bit is in the most recent entry (9/20) of the Slate dialog, where Rosin opens up the discussion to a Patrick Henry grad, who writes:

    As long as your faith is an ambiguous thing that’s determined by your culture and personality and the parts of the Bible that you like best—that’s fine with most liberals. But the moment your faith becomes grounded in a God that has revealed his opinions and principles in a document (the Bible) that people rally around, study, learn, and believe despite their personalities and personal convictions (which is the sort of “elite” evangelicals you hung around with at PHC)—you’re dealing with a united force with a relatively united voice. So if you believe that being open-minded, curious, and tolerant (which is obviously how David Kuo defines love) are the highest virtues—then that other crowd is pretty scary

    And the first thing I thought of was, in fact, maha’s ‘Wisdom of Doubt’ series.

    Have to make dinner, so I’ll leave out the ‘but don’t forget (as the Dawkins, etc. folks have pointed out), the kind of sophisticated understanding of faith and religion represented by Tillich is a teeny-tiny minority/ but the understanding of faith and religion (all sorts) represented by the Dawkins, etc. folks is so stunningly tone-deaf and socially/sociologically naive . . .’ back and forth ’til later.. Just let me toss out two books I’m reading: Armstrong’s The Great Transformation, and Barbara King’s Evolving God, both of which are fascinating – King’s book is one of the recent crop looking at religion in the light of our evolutionary history, but as she’s an anthropologist, she actually has a sense of human nature and human life: as one of the amazon reviewers say:”The front cover of Barbara King’s “Evolving God” proclaims that this is a “provocative view on the origins of religion.” Perhaps, but this is not a deliberately provocative book. “Evolving God” is a gentle, respectful, and above all thoughtful book that searches for the origins of the religious impulse. King finds this in what she calls belongingness, “mattering to someone who matters to you,” a trait found in contemporary humans but also in our human and non-human primate ancestors . . .

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