The Problem With “Christianity”

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[9/4/10: I can’t comment whether Hemant Mehta agrees with what I wrote here, but I certainly agree with what he wrote here. He and I are very much on the same page about the burden of responsibility for those who claim to be allies but not act to support their positions. Even if you just think people like me are spouting nonsense because we have an internet connection, I hope you’ll read his post.]

Who are Christians?

This drives me crazy, because it makes it hard to blog about Christians. It’s a word that means so many different things to so many people, and for some people, it’s the only word that describes them. In reality, there is nothing I can say to generalize Christians as a group except that they believe Jesus Christ is their savior, and in some cases, even that might not be true.

This makes it very hard to write about Christianity. There are a lot of Christians who say a lot on behalf of Christianity (or some vague sense of Judeo-Christianity), such as Tony Perkins, Bryan Fischer, Rick Warren, Rush Limbaugh, and Pat Robertson. Glenn Beck certainly made it quite clear that his 8/28 rally was all about God (and I doubt he meant Allah). I take responsibility from time to time to call these people out (I quickly realized it was foolish to try to cover them all), and then I have to say, “This is what Christian leaders are saying.” There are surely many Christians who do not agree, but these individuals and their groups still unabashedly claim to speak on behalf of (all) Christians.

Catholicism doesn’t have this problem. It’s a specifically defined institution with a very clear hierarchy. And whether all followers buy into it or not, the Catholic Church has very clear specifications for who IS a Catholic and who ISN’T. And given that the Catholic Church is pretty regularly deciding what’s best for other people in a very public and powerful way (or demonizing gays as the scapegoat for all their internal problems), it’s not surprising I end up writing more about them. It becomes all too easy to point at Catholics and say, “Look at what your Church is doing. You realize you’re still supporting that?”

The Mormon Church is similar, but doesn’t face the same challenges. When you’re no longer a Mormon, the good folks at LDS make it quite clear. They’ve been surprisingly quiet since the Prop 8 mess, so there hasn’t been as much to say about them lately. Even when they are in the news, there’s little finger-pointing to be done. Mormons who go against their Church are excommunicated pretty expressly; they very much take accountability for their institution’s actions in ways many Catholics blithely avoid.

But then there are those Christians. There are Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Baptists, Pentecostals, Fundamentalists, and Evangelicals, Quakers, and Mennonites, to name a few. I’m usually not too interested in what each of those groups do internally, because I see no point in trying to change the nature of individual religions. My goal is just to diminish the obscene privileges they have in society. Given that atheism defines the purview of this blog, I don’t think my time would be well spent arguing whether there is one better way to worship God or another. As a recent example: I feel bad that Rev. Dr. Jane Spahr was rebuked by the Presbyterian Church for presiding over same-sex marriages, but I’m not going to write about it extensively here. While I do care about the visibility of pro-gay messages as an LGBT activist, I’m more concerned here on the blog with the volume of religious voices, regardless of their content. I want to dismantle religious privilege and disempower faith. To chime in regarding an internal religious debate would suggest I think one religious explanation has more intellectual merit than another, when my actual point of view is that they all are equally lacking.

And so I’m left to write about Christians who are trying to control or manipulate the lives of people beyond their Church walls. So often, there is no other moniker to describe who these people are. They are Christians. This summer alone, I’ve written about local Christian organizations trying to evangelize through church camp and VBS (here and here), I wrote about the Christian Legal Society at Hastings School of Law (here), I’ve responded to WorldNetDaily’s Christian evangelism to its followers (here and here), I’ve responded to groups who privilege Christian beliefs about LGBT people over the science like AFTAH (here) and NARTH (here), I’ve responded to Christian counselors who think they know best (here, here, and by the way, the second girl also lost), and I also responded to a Christian evangelist who commented on the blog (here). I could have probably written even more, but Prop 8 and Netroots Nation swayed a lot of my focus toward LGBT activism. Still, I think I called out a lot of “Christians.”

If you, my reader, are a Christian, what should be your take-away? Many might say, “Well, I’m not that kind of Christian.” Great! I’m sure there are a ton of live-and-let-live Christians out there and even some who are very passionate allies of social justice. Unfortunately, there is a divide between the proactive and the reactive. In the United States, those who are proactive have a much louder megaphone, and arguably the most followers. These are the Christians who think it’s their mission to spread their faith and dictate that others abide by it. These are the individuals who claim that we are a “Christian Nation.” We’re talking about the AFA, FRC, WND, NOM, the Tea Party, and frankly the whole “religious right.” They define Christianity in this nation. They harness the privilege that religion has in our nation in ways no group ever has.

If you’re not that kind of Christian, I’m glad. But if you call yourself a Christian or you defend Christianity, know that those groups claim you and speak on your behalf. If you’re not happy with how they’ve defined what it means for you to be a Christian, you have a responsibility to stand up and correct them. As someone speaking out on the harm religion does to society, I cannot make exception for “all those other Christians” who don’t stand up for themselves when they are not pleased with what is said about Christianity. I’m not a Christian. It is that group of “Christians” who have to make an example of themselves.

This is one of many burdens Christians carry. Yes, you have an obligation to speak up for yourself and to repudiate and disavow those who try to define not just your faith but your place in society. I don’t care if you live in Washington, DC, or Coudersport, PA (I’m in probably a very small minority of Pennsylvanians who even know where Coudersport is); when people use your faith to foment their hate or discrimination, it is your responsibility to correct them, not mine. My job is simply to let you know that you’re still way behind.

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There are 6 Comments to "The Problem With “Christianity”"

  • Buffy says:

    This sort of thing always leads to claims of “That person isn’t a True Christian. No True Christian would say/do blah blah blah”. This, of course, is an attempt to disconnect the bad words/actions from Christianity, and pretend Christianity is the good, wholesome, moral institution everyone wants to pretend it is. Of course I’m sure you’ve heard of the No True Scotsman fallacy, though. If they claim to be a Christian, they are one. They may be a very bad example of Christianity, but they’re still a Christian.

    If individual Christians don’t like what others are doing in the name of their religion it’s up to them to speak out. They need to stop pretending it’s not their place to do so, when they have no compunction about speaking out otherwise. If they remain silent they have no right to play the victim when others call them on it.

  • Jane says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more – either Zack or Buffy. Yes, those of us who practice an inclusive form of Christianity are way behind. No argument. The others who use their Christianity to try and justify their hatred are an embarrassment, but as every family has the crazy relative, I must acknowledge that they are a part of my religion. I don’t have to like, nor do I, their behavior. I spend my time speaking out against it. I do what is in my power and ability to do. I cannot change the world, but I can make part of it better.

    On the other hand I am a citizen of the United States. I believe that we are free to express our beliefs without fear of retribution or harm. To accomplish this, we need to understand where we are privileged and begin to work toward a world of equity. I have engaged with atheists on several occasions and find that when I do not fit the cookie cutter image that is held I am dismissed. Earlier this summer I posted on an atheist blog that was looking for “believers” to respond to a series titled “God’s Top 100 Killings.” I spoke of my belief, and current academic endeavors, that look at the scriptures as written by humans for a socio-political purpose. This did not match with the idea of all Christians believing in the inerrancy of scripture. From my perspective, when I did not admit that I was ignorant to continue worshiping God, I was summarily dismissed. My viewpoint differed, but I was open to discourse. That is what I don’t understand.

    Is there a way for me to befriend and engage with Atheists? I admit my privilege afforded by being a member of a large religion. I also know that being a queer woman takes most of that away. I want to understand. I want to share perspectives. How can this occur? It seems to me both sides could be kinder and more willing to understand. I am seeking dialogue about this.

  • ZackFord says:

    Jane, let me first say that I hope my outspoken atheism doesn’t diminish my ability to befriend or engage! 😀

    For me, the big question is: Do you expect your beliefs to be intellectually respected?

    If your answer is yes, you won’t get that from me. I find faith to be self-fulfilling without a leg of its own to stand on (that is its definition). I have yet to hear anyone offer an explanation for why I should respect faith other than “it’s personal.” That’s not good enough for me, because you’re essentially offering me nothing in return. An answer of yes means that you are concerned about maintaining religious privilege, and it tells me that you are going to take offense if your beliefs are in any way challenged. This will be a huge obstacle in having conversations, because it reflects, in my opinion, narrow thinking, stubbornness, and also perhaps selfishness and insecurity.

    If you answer no, I think we’re good to go, whether you continue to hold beliefs or not. As long as you recognize that your beliefs are your own (i.e. apply to no one else) and that they don’t actually have standing in reality, they will not faze me. A no tells me that you are flexible in your thinking, that you’re open to learning new things, and perhaps that you even recognize that a lot of hurt can take place when people cling to their beliefs.

    I think, in general, a person who wants to understand where an atheist is coming from has to be open to their own beliefs being challenged. You can’t even begin to understand atheism if you are totally uncompromising about what you believe, and for so many, that is the case, regardless of facts, evidence, or logic. If you’re open to new ideas and are willing to think critically about what you already believe, the discourse can be incredibly productive and rewarding.

  • Jane says:

    Zack,
    My answer is no. I have come from the fundie side of Christianity, and the only way I got out was that I remained open to having my beliefs challenged. As far as believing things that have no leg to stand on – I’m a trekkie, I’ve believed in those things for a long time and take no offense, but rather embrace my dorkiness.

    As for evangelism, my skin crawls at the thought. It is not up to me to tell anyone how or why they should belief. I am willing to answer when asked about my own, but even then I’m never sure what to say.

    I do read your blog and respond when so moved. I hope to further and deepen discussion.

  • Zack, it may be more realistic and effective for people to stand up to their denominations and individual churches rather than individual “Christians” speaking to the mutitude of groups and indviduals speaking Jesus’ name. For instance, if the Southern Baptist Church says something loopy or offensive or violent about lesbians or single moms or trans folks, than it makes sense that a Southern Baptist stands up and says, “Not in my name.”

    Glen Beck, Rush Limbaugh, etc do not speak for their denominations. They are media spokespeople and political operatives. They co-opt religious language and use religion as a veneer for their messages. Anyone can challenge that and many do quite effectively. You yourself challenge their oppressive assertions and faulty logic. It does not take a Christian to do it.

    Perhaps you do not hear the voices of the progressive, affirming people of faith who are out there but they are speaking loudly and regularly. Perhaps it is not loud enough for your liking. It is not from lack of speaking out. The United Church of Christ, Luterans Concerned, More Light Presbyterians, Religious Society of Friends, etc all make themselves heard at their annual conventions, through ad compaigns and much more.

    Finally, we have plenty of ways to distinguish various types of Christians. Even in our recent podcasts we spoke of Christian Fundamentalists. Anyone can call someone out who claims to speak as a Christian. “No sir, you speak as a Conservative anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-immigrant Christian. You do not speak for all Christians.” It doesn’t take a Christian to hold public spokespeople accountable for their words. We all have that responsibility and opportunity.

    Love, Peterson Your Christian* friend– Progressive Liberal Christ-Centered Quaker with a heavy dose of Liberation Theology and a love for Jesus of the Bible.

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