Why Are So Many Christians So Un-Christian?

By Amanda Marcotte, AlterNet, September 26, 2013  

In an age where your average Republican politician is thumping the Bible with one hand and trying to strip food from the mouths of the poor with the other, it’s become a sad cliché to point out how little the most outspoken Christians have in common with their charity-preaching, forgiveness-loving messiah. It’s only gotten worse in recent years, with the followers of the man who cured lepers threatening to shut down the government if Obama insists on giving more people access to healthcare.

But while a nudge and a laugh at the silly Christian hypocrites is a good time, it’s worth looking deeper at what’s really going on with the parsimonious haters of the poor who claim to speak for Jesus. The fact of the matter is that right-wing Christians refuse to see their differences with Jesus as hypocrisy. To really understand how religion works in the world of politics, it helps to understand that it’s usually more about  rationalizing what you already want to believe than it is about actually studying your religious texts and drawing intelligent conclusions from it.

So what’s going on when Ken Blackwell [3], the former Ohio Secretary of State and current conservative activist says things like there is “nothing more Christian” than cutting needy people off food stamps? It may seem like the rational thing for Blackwell to have done was simply admit that there’s nothing in the Bible that even comes close to suggesting that it’s good for people to be forced into starvation simply because they had the misfortune of living in a time of high unemployment. After all, Jesus just simply gave people the loaves and the fishes. He didn’t withhold the food, and like Blackwell did, say that being able to eat food would “breed dependency” and that starving the poor was a good way of “empowering others and creating self-sufficiency.”

Blackwell is stretching; it’s obvious he’s stretching. So why go there at all? Well, as stupid as he sounds, it’s the rational choice. Being considered a Christian means you get a lot of unearned esteem from the public, and you’re given a lot more benefit of the doubt than if you claimed to be, say, an atheist. Indeed, for many audiences, it’s better to sound like an idiot while claiming to be Christian than to sound intelligent without mentioning religion at all. It makes sense that a politician or activist would want to be perceived as a Christian even if they have to bend themselves into pretzels to explain away the obnoxious clash between what they believe and what even the most strained but intellectually honest interpretation of their Bible would have you believe.

But it’s more than that. There’s no reason to think Blackwell believes himself to be lying when it comes to his religious beliefs. As much as liberals would often wish it otherwise—and no matter how much conservative Christians may claim their beliefs all come from the Bible—the truth of the matter is there’s no real relationship between what a person believes and what their religion ostensibly teaches them to believe. In practical terms, the word “Christian” is an empty term that can basically mean whatever the believer wants it to mean. Christians decide what they want to believe first and then, after they’ve chosen their beliefs, search for any excuse, no matter how thin, to claim that their belief is consistent with their chosen religion.

It’s a process called rationalization or motivated reasoning, and to be perfectly fair, it’s how most people think about most things most of the time: They choose what to believe and then look for reasons to explain why they believe it. Huge reams of psychological research show this is just how the human brain works. Almost never do we look over a bunch of arguments and choose what to believe based on reasoning our position out. As Chris Mooney at Mother Jones explains [4], “We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close.” Our faculties are usually put to the task of trying to defend what we already believe, not towards developing a better understanding of the world.

While most people engage in motivated reasoning most of the time, injecting religion into a situation only makes this process worse. That’s because, unlike most other belief systems, religion is impervious to empiricism. Most claims people make are subject to real-world tests. Are you in denial that your spouse is cheating on you? If you’re given photographic evidence that it’s true, that’s probably enough to shake you from your convictions. Want to believe the Earth is flat and not round? Shoot you into space and see how long that belief lasts. Sure, there are always fools who won’t believe the evidence, no matter how overwhelming, but for most of us, most of the time, we have a limit.

With religion, however, there’s no limits about what you can claim to believe. Jesus is a mythological character: he believes whatever the person speaking for him says he believes. For one person, Jesus believes we should feed the hungry and clothe the naked. For another, Jesus didn’t really mean it when he said that stuff; he was just handing out goodies in order to recruit new believers [5]. We weren’t there (and it probably didn’t even happen), so the sky’s the limit when making up reasons why what you believe counts as “Christian.” If you want to believe Jesus was actually a space alien brought here by Martians to teach us how to fly, you have as much right as anyone else to believe what you want. It all has equal amounts of evidence to back it up.

That’s one reason politicians love to talk about religion, because they don’t have to prove anything. But that’s the major reason religion really has no place in politics. It’s hard enough for voters and policy makers to hash through the real-world claims that fly around in politics. Trying to figure out what some silent, mythical god wants us to do is a fool’s errand. That god is always and forever going to want what the person speaking for him wants him to want, and nothing else. If Ken Blackwell was only allowed to speak for Ken Blackwell and not claim authority from on high, the true cruelty of his words would be all the easier to see.

Source URL: http://www.alternet.org/belief/why-are-so-many-christians-so-un-christian

[1] http://alternet.org
[2] http://www.alternet.org/authors/amanda-marcotte
[3] http://www.rightwingwatch.org/content/frc-nothing-more-christian-massive-food-stamp-cut
[4] http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2011/03/denial-science-chris-mooney
[5] http://mediamatters.org/blog/2013/09/11/foxs-starnes-fearmongers-about-christian-groups/195830
[6] http://www.alternet.org/tags/christian-0
[7] http://www.alternet.org/tags/food-stamps
[8] http://www.alternet.org/tags/poverty-0
[9] http://www.alternet.org/%2Bnew_src%2B

A Vote for Historic Christianity at Election Time

by Dr. David P. Gushee, Professor of Christian Ethics, Huffington Post, 1/02/2012

It was perhaps inevitable that as the final weekend of the election campaign loomed, appeals on the basis of religion would intensify. On the very day I write this article I can report receiving an open appeal to join a Christian leaders’ letter endorsing Barack Obama for re-election. Meanwhile, I have received or learned of numerous appeals to endorse Mitt Romney openly, or to support “candidates” who share “Christian values” on the three most important issues in the election, which happen to be abortion, gay marriage and a particular understanding of religious liberty.

I am a Christian ethicist. My work takes me into the public square on a regular basis. I have edited three books on faith and American politics, most recently “A New Evangelical Manifesto” (Chalice, 2012). One would think I would join the parade toward either Democrat-Christianity or Republican-Christianity and just be done with it. It would be so much simpler. All I would need to do would be to go ahead and join seemingly everyone else in collapsing the distinction between the Christian faith and its moral values, on the one hand, and the agenda of one of the major American political parties, on the other.

In my 2008 book, “The Future of Faith in American Politics” (Baylor Univ. Press), I dealt with this issue mainly by saying that no single political party holds a monopoly on Christian values. Positioning myself as an independent-minded centrist, I argued that the best Christian approach to American politics is something like a both/and evangelical centrism that takes the best concerns of the right and puts them together with the best concerns of the left insofar as both reflect biblical principles. Thus Christians should care about both abortion and the environment, both marriage and poverty, both euthanasia and war, and so on. This is an old, familiar trope in center-left Christian public engagement. I Iearned it at least 25 years ago.

It is not bad, as far as it goes. One could do worse for a values agenda in American politics. But it does not do anything to address what I am beginning to think of as the most important issue, from a Christian perspective. That issue is the erosion of historically recognizable Christian identity in American religious life, and a concomitant erosion of the distinctive mission of the church and the particular role of the Christian minister.

Sidney Mead said long ago thatAmericawas a nation with the soul of a church. It has also been true that the American Christian Church is a church with the soul of a nation. Perhaps because of the long informal establishment of (Protestant) Christianity asAmerica’s culture-religion, long ago theAmericanChurchbecame confused about what exactly it means to be the Church. We don’t know what the Church is, or what it is to do, or what its ministers do that might be different from what other people do.

I have made a turn in recent years toward a deeper immersion in historic Christianity. For a new Christian prayer book edited with my wife — “Yours is the Day, Lord, Yours is the Night” (Thomas Nelson) — we collected more than 700 great morning and evening prayers from every era and nearly every communion in the great international Christian family. So the Te Deum mingles with John Wesley and the Orthodox liturgy with the prayers of Augustine. Immersing in 20 centuries and seven continents of Christian prayer has retrained my ear for what it means to be Christian, what the historic Church has yearned for, prayed about and sought to achieve. It has also shown me how Christian leaders of old addressed God, their congregants and the world.

Thinking and praying with the ecumenical, global Church in this way makes it seem unthinkably vulgar for men and women of the cloth to use their sacred offices to endorse or quasi-endorse candidates for public office in our particular nation. Such endorsements stand at odds with the historic Gospel ministry of the Christian Church, with the care of souls in a politically divided nation, and with the recognition in Christian tradition that no earthly political party or agenda can represent the agenda of God for a redeemed world.

I will vote, certainly. I have my own opinions as to which of the available candidates might do a better job in addressing severe governance challenges in our nation for the next stage of its history. But I do not confuse the significance of my vote, or the outcome of the election, with the mission of Christ’s Church in the world. And I hope to devote the rest of my career to helping the Christian Church recover its identity by connecting with its historic traditions and convictions, and by taking a much more measured approach to political engagement. I vote for historic Christianity at election time this year.

David P. Gushee is distinguished university professor of Christian ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University.


The Bible is a Good Book, But God Didn’t Write It – Bishop John Shelby Spong

The Bible is a Good Book, But God Didn’t Write It – Bishop John Shelby Spong interviewed By Candace Chellew-Hodge, Religion Dispatches, January 8, 2012

Reclaiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World by John Shelby Spong, HarperOne , 2011 


Retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong…has been taking religious literalists to task for over 40 years…Spong’s new book Reclaiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World

“I do not think for one moment that Bible is any literal sense the ‘Word of God.’

…the Bible [is] more than a manual for morality, but a living document….We’ve encouraged people to think about the Bible as this kind of book, a source of authority, the final word, not to be debated….

I think the Bible is a great book and I think if we can get people to look at it properly and not use it as a weapon to enforce their prejudices we’d be making a major step forward.

In this strange political climate we’re in, the Bible seems to be getting tossed around an awful lot… I think it’s sick….

Christianity is not about saving people from their sins. It’s about expanding the sense of what it means to be human…What Christianity does is lift us beyond the survival mentality into a kind of humanity that can give itself away in love. That’s what the Jesus story is all about. 

Full text

Retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong is used to being a lightning rod for religious debate. Known affectionately as “Jack” to his friends, Spong has been taking religious literalists to task for over 40 years. 

The bishop made a big splash a couple of years ago when he issued a “Manifesto” in which he declared: “I will no longer debate the issue of homosexuality in the church with anyone.” Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Albert Mohler responded that this was fine with him as “Bishop Spong rejects any claim that the Bible is the Word of God.” 

Mohler will find verification of his view in Spong’s new book Reclaiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World. Right there, on page 15, Spong writes: “I do not think for one moment that Bible is any literal sense the ‘Word of God.’” This book is Spong’s way of putting the Bible back in its right perspective—as a collection of “tribal” stories that sprang from “the experience of human beings seeking to make sense out of the life they are living and the things they are experiencing.” 

Spong invites readers to consider the Bible more deeply. His approach opens up the Bible in a new way and invites us all to engage the texts, argue with them, and use it make new meaning for our own experiences and lives. This, Spong argues, makes the Bible more than a manual for morality, but a living document. 

Religion Dispatches had the chance to talk with Bishop Spong about his new book, as well as his take on how religion has been shaping—and misshaping—the political landscape.


RD: One of the things you are fighting against in this book is a literal reading of the Bible. Why do you believe people insist on reading the bible literally and not daring to ask, or even trying to form, the questions?


JS: We put an aura around the Bible that makes it very difficult to look at it any other way than as some mystical book that dropped from the sky. In some church processions, they walk in and somebody is holding the book on high as if it’s to be worshipped. We read from it and say “This is the word of the Lord” no matter what the lesson said. You do that often enough and people don’t think that’s a book to be read. It’s an untouchable.


Also, we publish the Bible in columns. No other book is published that way except encyclopedias, dictionaries, and telephone books. You don’t want to read those books, you go to them for authoritative answers and you don’t argue with the dictionary. If you’re playing Scrabble you go to the dictionary to settle the argument. We’ve encouraged people to think about the Bible as this kind of book, a source of authority, the final word, not to be debated. I think that helps people to think that it’s inappropriate to ask questions.


As a kid, our family Bible was on the coffee table in the living room. We never read it. We’d open it to put in somebody’s baptism or death. It was a family record book. I remember one day I put a Coca-Cola bottle down on top of it and I thought that the Lord would strike me dead.


I think the Bible is a great book and I think if we can get people to look at it properly and not use it as a weapon to enforce their prejudices we’d be making a major step forward.


In this strange political climate we’re in, the Bible seems to be getting tossed around an awful lot. Erstwhile candidate Michele Bachmann was even asked in one debate whether she believed the Bible required her to be “submissive” to her husband. Politicians are trying to enforce that aura around the Bible and competing to be seen as taking it the most literally. What do you make of that?


I think it’s sick, though I think there is less of it now than during the Bush years—we’re making progress, as strange as it sounds. The only one really talking this way now is Rick Perry. He keeps coming out against gays and in favor of being a Christian as if those are two things that go together.


I think it’s a reality show. I think it’s the strangest group of candidates I’ve ever watched run for office and I would be embarrassed at almost any one of them being the president of the United States. If the Democrats had any sense they’d run against the Ebeneezer Scrooge Republican Party because they keep running around saying, “Bah, humbug,” and anybody that’s poor ought to stay poor because they probably deserve to be poor and we’ll tax them a little more to be sure they remain poor. I don’t know why they think that’s a winning ticket.


The economy is so bad that I think Obama had a really slim chance to be elected, but I think the opposition has given him a good chance of being elected because it is so bizarre. Rick Perry who can’t remember anything, or Herman Cain—he was a comedy. Newt Gingrich? I’m too old, I remember too much about Newt Gingrich. Romney’s got the ability and I don’t think he’s an evil person but he’s been on every side of every issue so I’m not sure who the real Romney is. I don’t see a strong candidate in that crowd. Michele Bachman was comic relief!


I don’t want the Republican Party not to offer a strong alternative because democracy depends on both parties having competent people—one conservative, one liberal—and letting the people choose which direction it wants to take for the next four years. Anytime you play to the narrow, angry base of your party to get the nomination you jeopardize your chances of winning—and you should. This country is basically a center-right to center-left country and if we could rotate a competent center-right with a competent-center left person then I think we’d have a healthy country.


I think your book could help people make a critical assessment of how religion is being used in politics because if they understood the Bible then they would recognize when it’s being misused and abused.


 It seems to me that what the Christian faith says is that every life is holy, every life is loved, and every life is called and empowered to be all that it can be. That’s not what you hear. Christianity has been a religion of victimization if you look at its history. We victimized Jews during the Crusades. We victimized Muslims in the 14th century. We victimized heretics. We victimized people of color. We victimized women. We victimized homosexuals. We victimized the environment. We’re currently victimizing immigrants. It’s all the same mentality.


What is it about Christianity that makes us constantly be a victimizer? I think it’s because we’ve adopted victimizing theology. We spend all our time in church talking about how sinful and evil human beings are. The only way you can tolerate listening to that is to pass it on. We have to pass on this hostility that we have. The idea that God killed Jesus because you were a sinner is a really strange idea. It makes God an ogre. It makes Jesus a sadomasochistic victim and it makes you and me guilt-laden.


Guilt never produces life. If guilt is your message, the best you can produce is a hidden righteousness. You repress your negative feelings in public and you pass this guilt on because it’s intolerable. I think what we’ve turned Christianity into is a sick religion and it comes out politically.


What do you think about the Occupy movement?


Finally, this negativity has been pushed to the extreme by the Tea Party that it fired up the other side. I think the majority is going to be on the Occupy side. That’s my hope. What they are doing is raising consciousness. I also think it’s dangerous.


America reminds me of France before the revolution in the 18th century. What you get is polarized politics with an increasingly right-wing mentality and then you get a left-wing reaction, the center disappears and that’s what leads to civil wars. We’re in a down economy, there’s a lot of anger. It was a depression that brought Adolph Hitler into power—and he had a victim he could denigrate. He united all the Germans against the Jews. It’s cheap politics, but we still have people who know how to do that. It doesn’t lead to anything but destruction.


How can reeducating ourselves about the Bible—and educating the non-religious about the Bible—help us regain the center?


One of my hopes for this book is that it will provide a textbook to talk about the Bible in a new way. A local pastor doesn’t have to actually say what I say in the book, but if he presents the book then he’s not alone.


I had a friend in Wyoming who used my book for a Lenten study and said he would preach against it and lambast it every Sunday. I asked him why he would do that and he said, “That’s the only way I can get them to read it.” I thought that was very clever. That opens the doors and I’m encouraged by that.


In your book you argue that there are universalist themes in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. How do you square that with the Christian exceptionalism we see today?


Exceptionalism is in every religious system. Religion is a human social invention to keep insecurity in check because being human is a very insecure thing to be. We’re self-conscious. We know we’re going to die and we have to relate to that. Animals don’t have to relate to that, they just live until they die. Human beings are the only animal that commits suicide or uses drugs. Religion is part of our defense system against the radical insecurity of life.


In order for religion to make you secure you have to make excessive claims. You have to say that, “We are the chosen people,” or “The Pope is infallible,” or “Our way is the only way,” or “the Bible is inerrant.” You have to make a claim that locks security up tightly. It doesn’t work, but it’s popular. There will always be fundamentalist churches. They will always promise things they can’t deliver and people will leave when a tragedy comes. Fundamentalist churches don’t tend to last past the charismatic pastor that got them started.


Christianity is not supposed to make you secure. Christianity is supposed to give you the courage to walk into an insecure world knowing that you’re not alone and to embrace the radical insecurity. If you’ve got to spend your time proving that you’re better than someone else—males are better than females, whites are better than blacks, heterosexuals are better than homosexuals—you’re always building yourself up by pushing somebody else down. But, you shouldn’t need to build yourself up unless you’re radically insecure. Religion feeds into that radical insecurity with triumphalism—ours is the only religious route you can take to get to God. That’s a really strange idea.


Religion is not about truth, it’s about security. The sort of thing I’m presenting is never going to be the majority view but it’s going to be the minority point of view for those who are bold enough to look at life as it really is and not to need a narcotic to get through it but as something that gives them the strength to embrace the radical insecurity of life, and I think that’s worth doing.


Christianity is not about saving people from their sins. It’s about expanding the sense of what it means to be human. That’s a very big difference. I’m tired of being saved from my sins. People say, “You don’t believe in sin.” But, that’s not true. I believe that human beings are incredibly capable of doing evil. We do that because we’re survival-oriented creatures. That means we can’t help but be self-centered—and that’s what the church called “original sin.” Christianity doesn’t rescue us from that aspect of our humanity. What Christianity does is lift us beyond the survival mentality into a kind of humanity that can give itself away in love. That’s what the Jesus story is all about. 

What do you see as the future of Christianity? 

I’m encouraged that the Bible says to me over and over again that the Christian movement is always going to be a minority movement. It’s not ever going to be a majority movement. We’re going to be the little bit of salt that gives flavor to the soup, the leaven that causes the bread to rise, or the tiny candle that shines in the midst of incredible darkness. When we get back to understanding our role is to leaven the lump then I think we’ll be effective.


Right now we believe we should be the majority. I don’t think that’s ever been the biblical image. The saving remnant was the powerful idea in the Hebrew Scriptures and I think that continues in the Christian tradition. But, we’ve gotten triumphal. We turned Christianity into Christendom and we rule the world. We’ve seated kings and unseated kings. We got drunk with that kind of power and we forgot how to be a Christian. I hope we can recover that and I hope my book will help people see that—because I think the message of the Bible is a pretty powerful one.

Candace Chellew-Hodge is the founder/editor of Whosoever: An Online Magazine for GLBT Christians and currently serves as the pastor of Jubilee! Circle United Church of Christ in Columbia, S.C. She is also the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008).