America just can’t figure out what to do with evangelical Christians who run for office. One could effectively argue that operationally at least, both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were evangelical Christians. But so was Jimmy Carter in many ways an evangelical Christian. So what do we make of the effect of conservative Christian beliefs on the American politic? That is a good question. And the answer may surprise you.
Evangelicalism itself represents a broad spectrum of belief. Even within specific segments of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, for example, there are hard right conservatives and quite liberal lefties. But the ELCA officially professes to support civil rights for gays and even gay marriage. It also has women pastors, supports belief in the theory of evolution and openly promotes environmental stewardship as signs of Christian faith.
At the other end of the spectrum there are evangelicals who contend the Bible clearly condemns homosexuality, insists that women are only suited to submissive or background roles in the church and that creationism presents a more accurate view of the world than secular science.
How did the Christian church come to be so polarized?
The answer lies in how one reads the Bible, and analyzing the foundations of conservative evangelicalism will give us clear and simple answers why people on the far right of Christianity believe what they do. But the question is, are they right about what the Bible says on these topics and more?
Many evangelicals will tell you they believe in the infallible and inerrant word of the Bible. This means that they take every word of the Old and New Testaments pretty much literally, except for obvious examples in the parables of Christ, which were stories told as metaphor to help people better understand the meaning of God. But we will get to the true significance of parables later, after we examine what it means to believe in the literal word of God as told through the Bible.
The hard truth is this: all Christianity embraces some portions of the Bible while necessarily ignoring others. The simple truth is that modern society has determined that significant aspects of the Bible can no longer be applied to secular society. Most of these determinations apply to sections of scripture that have been proven morally and scientifically wrong, with entire sections of Old Testament law (e.g. the laws in Leviticus) necessarily circumscribed to avoid confusion between traditions governing ancient civilizations and information we’ve gained through modern medicine, culture and social progress.
But on the most demonstrative level, unless evangelical Christians want to bring back slavery and start stoning people in the streets without a trial, they will forever be forced to leave those examples of behavior behind or be branded sociopaths for choosing to participate in human bondage and imposing martial law.
Be they liberal or conservative, that is the hard line all Christians face. The Bible is clearly not infallible or inerrant because it openly tolerates (even supports, in some cases) both slavery and martial law. Yet society no longer tolerates these practices in a more just and civilized world. So what are true Christians to do? The clear answer is a rational reconciliation, which means accepting that portions of the Bible are indeed anachronistic. That does not dictate they are without meaning. Just not literal meaning. So Christians must either come to grips with the need for rational reconciliation or wind up embracing a faith that amounts to self-deception. And that unfortunately amounts to a brand of faith whose foundation is based on pretending that the Bible does not say what it really says while striving to make the case that you possess the authority to determine what you want it to say.
It is a shocking truth to consider that conservative evangelicals, who have long blamed liberal Christians for being selective about what they choose to believe in the bible, are the true relativists in this case. But suddenly, when one realizes how blatantly fundamental Christians choose to ignore significant passages of the bible while claiming the entire text to be literally true, we see that it is fundamental Christians who are the most selective in their beliefs.
To make matters worse, this selectivity necessarily takes on the form of a rigid doctrine because it is a proverbial house of cards. The deep, dark secret of self-deception inherent in evangelical fundamentalism must necessarily be denied and protected in order to prevent the need (or temptation) among believers to actually think about what they believe. As a result, most brands of evangelicalism have necessarily evolved sophisticated and radically aggressive systems of self-defence that include claiming absolute authority for the word of God. Some evangelicals use promises of personal wealth and well-being that distract from the flawed theology and self-deception dwelling at the core of fundamental belief.
All these methods of fundamental deception and message control have precedents clearly documented in the Bible. The Bible repeatedly shows Jesus Christ verbally attacking the Pharisees and Sadducees for constructing a faith tradition centered around legalistic interpretations of scripture that by no coincidence deliver power and authority to religious leaders while requiring literalistic self-deception among lay-believers.This pattern has been precisely replicated in evangelical circles today. The messaging may be delivered by smooth-voiced televangelists and radio talk show hosts and preached from the pulpits of populist churches across America, but the flaws are the strategy is the same in every situation: Control the message or you lose believers.
This is not only an insult to the intellect of rational Christians everywhere, it is certainly not in keeping with the message of Christ when we consider the frustration Jesus expressed with conservative evangelicals of his day. Matthew 23:13: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of God in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.”
That pretty much describes the practices of modern evangelical conservatives.
It is clear however that Jesus Christ was a person who believed in the practical, rational evolution of faith. Yet he represented so radical an evolution that the notion of a Messiah in the form of a humble man was an idea few could conceive. Pretty much everyone was expecting a kick-ass king of some sort, to be honest. Someone to deliver them from the Romans and other enemies. But Jesus only offered to deliver people from sin. It took a while for the idea to sink in.
Now conservative evangelicals want to tell us the Bible cannot be reconciled to science. And that God is not capable of creation through evolution. And that embracing in the basic tenets of science disqualify believers from the Body of Christ. This is all because conservative evangelicals want to pretend they know better than everyday Christians what Jesus wants us to think about and do. In many ways conservative evangelicals are just as rigid in their doctrine as the Catholic church so many abandoned because it had so many false requirements for faith.
The way Christ taught was radical and rational. He used parables, rife with metaphor and symbolism to communicate the meaning and message of God. And yet conservative evangelicals insist that the Bible, and especially the creation story, be taken literally and absent of metaphorical significance. Would Jesus have admired such rigid control of God’s word? Did Jesus appreciate how teachers like the Pharisees leveraged scripture for their own benefit? He did not. He called them hypocrites and a brood of vipers. The same holds true for conservative evangelicals today.
The really troubling aspect of this worldview is that it is now being vigorously promoted through political channels––positioned for imposition––upon millions of people because a somewhat rabid majority of believers have been deceived into thinking it is an accurate and Christ-like approach to interpretation of scripture. But really what it amounts to is mob rule and perversion of the apolitical message of Christianity. Recall the masses gathered before Pilate, calling for the death of a man the profligate priests were trying to present as a threat to Roman rule. It had less to do with the priest being Jews (and resultant anti-Semitism) than it had to do with an attempt to protect the conservative power base. They lied and deceived the people to accomplish their goals. That is the point.
Modern day Christians can take comfort in the fact that they do not need to live such lies or hypocrisy. Taking the example of Christ to heart, we can draw the most significant truths from the bible through use of metaphor and understand that the inclusion of slavery in scripture can now function as a symbol of slavery to sin. It should not be taken literally and we do not need pretend that it should. Jesus himself backs us up on that.
So where do we go from here? Now that we recognize the ugly truth of self-deception behind conservative evangelicalism, how do we move beyond that brand of pretend Christianity, and what can it mean for our future?
We should resist wholeheartedly those who make literal claims on biblical, scriptural truth. For starters, we should speak out strongly against pretending that creationism is either scripturally or scientifically sound. And the same goes for the thinly disguised first cousin of creationism, intelligent design. Just like pretend Christianity, creationism and intelligent design are pretend science, with fatal flaws at their heart. They cannot be used for any real scientific purpose, because there are no scientific methods associated with a belief system that says there are no material foundations for the existence of life. There is not one iota of practical, functional science that can be traced back to creationism or intelligent design. Not one. All other claims of verity dissolve before this fact. Creationism in all its forms is a farce, not worthy of Sunday School, much less public school.
Again we can turn to Jesus Christ for absolution on this issue. The natural and organic metaphors used in his parables were part of the organic science in his teaching. The use of commonly known facts about mustard seeds, yeast and plants were specifically designed to draw parallels between what people materially understood about the world and what Jesus wanted them to know about spiritual concepts. To deny this fact is to deny the brilliance of Christ as a teacher.
To embrace science and ignore tolerance of slavery in the Bible is not to advocate relativism with regard to scripture. In fact it is the self-same evangelicals who want us to pretend that slavery never appears in the Bible. They are the true relativists. Why does any Christian need to tolerate such self-deception?
In truth we are encouraged to use scripture to correct our brothers and sisters who err in their beliefs, especially those caught in self-deception. As 1 Timothy says; “All scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking and training in righteousness.”
But let us be clear. God-breathed does not by any stretch mean literal. In fact we find many biblical references to God taking many forms, including the wind. Yet God is not literally the wind. Or a burning bush. Or thunder. Those are instruments used by God to communicate a message.
So we can with confidence point out the self-deception of pretend Christians who want to ignore the reality of seemingly contradictory examples of human sin such as slavery and martial law in scripture, yet selectively point their fingers using scripture to condemn homosexuals based on similarly anachronistic and often anecdotal passages. Can we not see the hypocrisy in these practices?
The Bible has over time been used for many evil purposes. But the most common abuse has been use of the Bible as a tool for discrimination. Ironically the bible contains far more passages opposing discrimination in its many forms than it does against homosexuality. Yet homosexuality is a favorite target for persecution by evangelical conservatives who seek to deny the innate humanity of homosexuals and worse, play condescending word games with phrases such as “hate the sin but love the sinner” that are nothing more than than rationalizations for continued intolerance. It is time for earnest, God-loving Christians to put a stop to this deceptive abuse of faith.
Liberal Christians who have moved beyond the self-deception of pretend Christianity no longer view the literal indictment of homosexuality in the bible with any verity. Instead they are able to frame it in the context of a social order that poorly understood many aspects of human nature. These include the rights of equality for women and for people of varied races. All these at one point in time have felt the vicious fervor of literalistic discrimination.
Now is the time to change. We do not need to be pretend Christians anymore. We do not need to pretend the world is flat, or that the sun revolves around the earth. We do not need to pretend the world was created in 7 literal days, or that life was created instantaneously. We do not need to pretend any of these things at all because Jesus did not pretend that he existed on this earth, for he embraced this world in his teaching and had great compassion for all people. Except those who manipulated scripture for their own benefit.
So we need to be like Jesus and resist people who pretend to represent the true message of God while promoting a worldview that is scripturally flawed. For all their supposed seriousness, modern evangelicals embrace an immature approach to the ascertaining true meaning of scripture.
Projected onto modern society, this immature worldview means certain trouble for any progressive society. Conservative evangelicals have consistently (and persistently) pursued political advantage as a means to impose their ideology on American culture. And what we face by electing such evangelicals to public office is a reframing of the Constitution around anachronisms that most of the world has long since outgrown. Their worldview is religiously intolerant of science, social progress and equal rights. That is hardly what the Founding Fathers conceived when they authored a Constitution guaranteeing American citizens freedom from religion as well as freedom of religion.
We must therefore protect against election any politicians who see their immature brand of faith as the necessary foundation to law in America. Our Constitution clearly was written to provide equality of law to all citizens and also to prevent the imposition of any faith tradition on the American people.