There is a phenomenon occurring with disturbing regularity in the comment sections of lefty blogs: religious intolerance.
It seems some commenters are finding it difficult to maintain their open-mindedness in light of the current administration’s exploitation of certain weird Christian sects emanating from the American Southeast and the Colorado Springs area. But it’s important to keep in mind that, just as a succession of Soviet dictators exploited socialism in order to satisfy their own hunger for power, the current administration is exploiting Christianity (and, for that matter, Judaism & Islam) for the very same purpose.
Nothing even remotely like socialism occurred in the Soviet Union. It was a dictatorship in which a tiny minority had money and power while the vast majority languished in intellectual, emotional and economic poverty. Similarly, Bush’s shameless manipulation of religion bears no resemblance whatsoever to the Sermon on the Mount or any other genuine religious text. As a result, there is nothing even remotely like Christianity occurring in the White House.
But to use Bush or Jimmy Swaggart or Jim & Tammy Fay or the ghetto storefront charlatan as an excuse for religious bigotry is inexcusable. We don’t dismiss all of capitalism because of the “clapper” or the Popeil Pocket Fisherman, so we shouldn’t dismiss all of religion because Pat Robertson claims he can leg-press a ton. As Blue Gal demonstrates in this post, most Christians — indeed, most religious people — are honest, productive citizens who are embarrassed by these childish extremists.
It is not difficult to see why this is happening. If you’ve ever had a roommate or significant other with a slightly annoying habit — leaving dirty socks around the apartment, say — then you’ve encountered this problem before, albeit in a microcosmic way. The problem seems minor, and it is. Someone else believes something that you don’t. It could be that they don’t think dirty socks are any big deal; or it could be that they think a virgin gave birth to the messiah. It’s neither here nor there as far as you’re concerned, and yet it’s annoying. But it shouldn’t be. So rather than express your annoyance early on, you clam up and let it build and build until something awkward happens. Your co-workers come over for drinks one evening, and — YIKES — there are filthy socks everywhere.
Well, the incident didn’t really deserve that, now did it? But, you see, by not having the slightly uncomfortable discussion when the difficulty first presented itself, you insured the occurrence of a huge fucking blowout later on.
But there is another dynamic involved. For decades, the devout in America have enjoyed the luxury of publicly pronouncing their faith, and even attempting to convert others to their faith, without any significant challenge from non-believers. Many of these efforts even take place on Public Property, which, some argue, is a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Sometimes, as with Luis Palau, they even employ deception as a means for luring the innocent into their clutches. Palau festivals, such as CityFest in Houston, feature pop stars, skateboarders and, often, a video message from President Bush himself, to attract folks who would probably stay away if they knew in advance that it was a Christian event. Notice how it’s called CityFest and not ChristianFest or EvangalismFest? CityFest makes it sound like Taste of Chicago or Summerfest in Milwaukee, not a Christian revival. Of course, for me to point that out means to many that I am practicing religious intolerance, and since I know that will be the response, usually I don’t say anything. So, as with the dirty sock thing, my annoyance grows into frustration, which grows into anger, which grows into…
There are frequent attempts by Christians to advance the myth that America was founded as a Christian nation, and that assertion is often used in defense of things like Houston’s CityFest. But nothing can be further from the truth. By the time of the Declaration of Independence, the so-called Founding Fathers had developed a pronounced animosity towards religion in general and Christianity in particular. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to a friend, “In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.” Ben Franklin, Tom Paine, the Adams bros., among others, had suffered at the hands of Puritans and Calvinists in their younger years; and in adulthood, the King’s inherent divinity made honest intellectual debate impossible when it came to public policy. That is why the very first amendment to the Constitution protects both the freedom to worship as we choose and the freedom to talk about it. Jefferson had perhaps the most crystalline understanding of our Constitution. He should — he wrote it. Here is what he said about the First Amendment: “All men shall be free to profess AND BY ARGUMENT to maintain their opinions in matters of religion.” (Emphasis mine) The argument is never held, though, because polite society views religious debate as religious intolerance, and as a result, people who should know better get to repeat and repeat and repeat the nonsense that America was founded as a Christian nation. One result of this is that non-believers throw the gloves off when at last there appears a forum in which they can reveal their true feelings about religion. Then, of course, the good Christians — by which I mean most Christians — feel rejected from the larger struggle for justice. Justice, after all, was what Jesus was all about, even if Jesus exists only on the pages of some book. By dividing ourselves into believers and non-believers, those of us who long for justice ensure that what we will receive instead is ‘just us.’
So instead of dividing ourselves into believers and non-believers in God, we should be dividing ourselves into believers and non-believers in justice. As Ben Franklin, perhaps our founders’ most rigid non-believer, put it, “Morality or Virtue is the end, Faith is only a means to obtain that end; and if the end be obtained, it is no matter by what means.”