Friday, November 13, 2020

Are Christians the Problem?

I have been doing some reading on the decline of democracy and the rise of populism in the world. My reading began with Pulitzer Prize winning historian Anne Applebaum’s new book Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism. To be quite honest, the book scares the hell out of me.

It shows how democracy is under siege in Europe, Britain and America from nationalism and autocracy. She shows how authoritarian political movements use the news media, social media, conspiracy theories, political polarization, and an appeal to an idealized past, to undermine individual freedoms. It is all done in the in the name of patriotism, God and morality.

An article in the most recent issue of Time magazine shows how this has played out in Hungary under the rule of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who took office in 2010. The article says, “In the decade since, Hungarians have seen judges and bureaucrats appointed for their political fealty, the media transformed into pro-government propaganda and civil-society groups starved of resources.” The Washington-based human rights group Freedom House says that Hungary no longer qualifies as a full democracy.

During the pandemic in Hungary, “COVID-19 data was to be strictly controlled, with doctors telling inquiring politicians and journalists that they were forbidden to talk publicly about the crisis. Those who criticized the government online faced arrest.”  “Orban has brazenly flouted Europe’s rules ensuring press freedom and an independent judiciary.”

If that sounds like 2020 in America, it is no accident. These are the same forces at work in our country. Americans could lose our freedoms if the right wing in our country gets its way.  If this happens, much of the fault will rest on the shoulders of white evangelical Christianity. It is no accident that they are cheering President Trump while he undermines confidence in the integrity of our election.

For the last four years I have been scratching my head trying to understand why Christians would support Donald Trump. Why would they believe conspiracy theories? Why would they accept the demonization of Democrats, the election process and the press? Then it dawned on me. They see these people and institutions as the enemies of God and Christian values, in much the same way that radical Muslims sees them as enemies of Allah and Islam.

For Christians, God is King. Anyone who opposes Godly values is the enemy. They believe that God has the absolute right to enforce his will on human society. Even though Jesus insisted that his kingdom was not of this world, for 2000 years Christians have been praying: “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth and it is in heaven.” And gosh darn it, as the people of God, Christians have the obligation to advance God’s will on earth in these United States!

That is why evangelicals can unabashedly advocate outlawing abortion in the United States, even if it means stacking the Supreme Court and legislating from the bench. They see it as a moral crusade. It does not matter that the majority of Americans believe this moral choice should be left to individuals and not given over to the state. Individual rights and freedoms are expendable when God’s law is concerned. For them it is proper to use the power of the state to force people to adhere to their understanding of divine moral law.

It is not that we Christians should compromise our moral principles. I also am pro-life. But I do not have the right to impose my morality on people who do not share my religious values. We give that up to live in a democracy. That is what it means to be an American. Let each person decide according to their own conscience and faith. That is what individual freedom, religious liberty and human rights are about.

But the Religious Right does not share my commitment to those democratic values. That is why they love strongmen like Donald Trump. He will do the job that career politicians trained in the values of western democracy will not. He has no qualms about trampling on his enemies rights. Trump is willing to force his will on the country, regardless of whether it violates the rights of people who disagree with him. They see Trump as an instrument of Almighty God, who has the power and the divine right to impose moral and religious values on society. Democracy is useful if it advances God’s Kingdom. If democracy gets in the way of God’s will, democracy be damned.

This theocratic worldview is the problem. Politicized Christianity is the problem. A weaponized gospel that hates enemies, rather than loving them, is the problem. Such a Christianity has no room for democracy. It believes the fictional narrative that the United States is a Christian nation founded on Christian values, and that these values must be maintained at all costs - even if they go against the will of the people. People are sinners, after all ... miserable depraved sinners. They need to be reined in. If elections oppose the will of God, then election results are wrong.  As the song says, “Our God Reigns.”

If people’s rights get in the way of the exercise of Godly values, then rights are expendable. God’s will be done. In this worldview, Christians have the right to discriminate against anyone who disobeys God’s will – whether that be gays wanting to get a marriage license or buy a wedding cake, or Muslims wanting to wear a head scarf or build a mosque in our neighborhood. This is a “Christian nation” after all. Christian America first – under a Christian God!

This theocratic understanding of American history and identity is one of the greatest threats to our country today. It is far more dangerous than Central American immigrants or Islamic extremists, because right-wing Christians have influence that those groups do not have.  I never thought I would see the day when fellow Christians would be a threat to the nation I love. But that day has come.

So are Christians the problem? We don’t have to be. We can be the solution! We can champion our Christian values within the broader framework of democratic values upon which our nation is built. We can be unapologetically Christian, but let others live according to their own faith and values. We can choose to bring in the Kingdom through moral persuasion, not government coercion. People from all religious and political perspectives can live together in freedom and peace, if we respect each other’s rights. As history teaches us, that is better for both the church and the state. 


Unknown said...

Absolutely love this! So very true and yes I do believe we can be the solution. Many Christians today do not follow the teachings of Jesus and they are more inclined to give more authority to Paul's teachings than his. I am so disheartened by what I am seeing in the people close to me during this administration.

Jonathan said...

Thanks for the article, and I agree that Christian support of Trump (or politics in general) is often misguided and short-sighted. However, I think it may be unhelpful to only have a single category of "Christian" for the current American landscape. For example, many self-identified Christians are in reality "cultural Christians," meaning they enjoy the moral authority of being associated with God while having no deep understanding or adherence to basic orthodox beliefs established by the New Testament. The only "Christians" I know who are fully enthusiastic for Trump would fall in the category, at least from what I can tell. More orthodox Christians are clearly holding their nose and voting one way or the other, for a variety of very complex reasons. Unfortunately, from what I can tell, cultural Christians now outnumber orthodox ones by a very wide margin in America.

Also, if you don't mind, some food for thought regarding the politics of abortion. I do not think that it is inherently Theocratic to want to legally oppose abortion. From a purely scientific standpoint, it is inarguable that the fetus is a living human that is genetically distinct from the mother. Therefore, it is logical to state that killing a fetus is tantamount to murder, as it is ending the life of a living and unique human being. For those who see the unborn as humans, surely it is reasonable to expect the legal opposition to the killing of millions of innocent human beings? For example, it seems disingenuous to say that "I personally oppose murdering a one-year old, but to legally impose that on other people is tantamount to wanting a Theocracy." I don't think anybody actually thinks that way regarding the legality of killing a one-year old, so why not extend this protection to babies that are simply a little earlier in their stage of development?

Marshall Davis said...

Thank you, Jonathan, for taking the time to read my article carefully and form a well-thought out and reasoned response. I used to hold exactly the same position that you articulate. I used to be part of pro-life protests and preach pro-life sermons arguing for the outlawing of abortion. My view changed for two reasons.

First, I found out what the Supreme Court ruling of Roe v. Wade was based on the reality that there is no consensus about when human life begins. For that reason the court could not outlaw abortion as murder. That is still the case. If everyone agreed that the science proves that life begins at conception, then a fertilized egg has all the rights of a child. Abortion would be universally seen as murder. Even though a zygote is genetically human and genetically distinct from the mother, there is no scientific or religious consensus that this makes it a full human being with all the rights of a one-year old child. It is exactly this lack of scientific and social consensus, which makes this issue ambiguous. Because of that ambiguity, the Court decided to leave the decision in the hands of the woman rather than hand it over to the state. If in the future there is a scientific and medical consensus, then I am sure the court will revisit the case.

The other factor that changed my position was the Bible. The Scriptures are a Christian’s authoritative guide when it comes to moral decisions. Abortion is never mentioned in the Bible. That fact in itself ought to give Christians pause not to be too dogmatic in any ethical conclusion on the matter. When it comes to when human life begins, the Bible is unclear. It seems to say it is when one draws one’s first breath. In the Creation story, Adam became a “living soul” only when the breath of life was breathed into him. Although there are passage like Psalm 139 about being knit in our mother’s womb, that really does not address the issue of when life begins. Everyone knows a child is formed in the mother’s womb. The only time that the death of an unborn fetus is addressed is Exodus 21:22-23, where a penalty is assessed for causing a woman to miscarry. The penalty here is not the same as for murder, indicating that the fetus was not considered the same as one who is born. If Scripture is the Christian’s guide for ethics, we cannot say with assurance that it teaches that abortion is murder.
For both of these reasons. Christians need to be less dogmatic and more humble when it comes to the question of the morality of abortion. Once again, because of the ambiguity, it is best to allow the individual to decide based on their own religious and ethical beliefs.
Thanks for the dialogue!

MNT said...

Here is the problem with that view as I see it. Our Constitution gives rights to "persons". That pre-supposes or assumes that there is an objective definition of what a "person" is.It has to be that way otherwise States or individuals could simply abridge Constitutional rights by imposing their own subjective definition of who a person is ("in my world blacks are not persons"). If that all is true, there has to be a societal definition of what a person is....not an individual one.I'm not saying it has to be point of my view that isn't the appropriate place. What I am saying is that it is a mistake to leave the decision of when a fetus becomes a person to the mother.There should be a uniform societal definition. And the fact that there isn't agreement on when that occurs isn't really relevant. There is never a uniform consensus on any legal rights,minority rights, religious rights....but we as a society draw the lines anyway.I have always seen Roe as an attempt by the Supreme court to draw that line at viability. I guess that is as good as any. But it can't simply be up to the whim of the individual.Freedom of choice occurs with the decision to have sex. After a fetus is created competing rights come into play.

Jonathan said...

Marshall, I appreciate your frank yet humble approach to dialoguing, if only this were more common in our society! Your reply really helps me understand how we are coming at this from different angles. Both of us are coming to a logical conclusion, but from a different starting point. It sounds like you currently believe that whether a fetus is a human life is a matter of personal belief that is largely (entirely?) informed by one's religious views. From this standpoint, I completely agree, it would be Theocratic in nature to legally force others to see a fetus as a human if this perception was only coming from one's Christianity.

Conversely, my perception of a fetus as a human life comes purely from a scientific and logical standpoint. The science: I had the exact same DNA as a fetus as I do now as a fully grown adult, which is quite distinct from the DNA of my mother. The logic: The best definition of when an individual human life begins is when something living is created that contains human DNA unique to any existing human. Any other definition of when life starts would require arbitrary and irrational frameworks, such as change in location (in or out of uterus) or degree of development (we never stop developing!). Indeed, take a non-political context of what defines a human identity: crime-scene investigation. We determine how many humans were involved in a crime scene based off how many sets of DNA are found. It seems inarguable to me that if something is alive, human, and has a unique set of DNA, this is a human life we must be talking about by pure logic alone, no politics or religion required. For this reason, if a maniac stabbed a pregnant women in her belly and the fetus was killed, even pro-choice people seem to be okay with the logic that a homicide has occurred. My conclusion: science and logic are all we need to confidently and objectively say that the fetus is a distinct human life. Where Christianity can now be helpful is to say that all human life is inherently precious and valuable. Therefore it is always wrong to intentionally kill an innocent human life, even if it is in a very early stage of development.

What I find so fascinating is that when I debate with my pro-choice family and friends long enough, they actually concede that the fetus is a human life! They have to, there is no logical alternative. Their true hand is now revealed: they justify abortion anyway because "the world is already overpopulated" or "it's better to be aborted than be born to a drug-addicted single mother." In other words: in the absence of God, eugenics always seems to rear its ugly head in the never-ending quest for utopia, or at the very least maximizing one's sexual freedoms without any responsibility-bearing consequences.

So that's my hot take: even pro-choice people agree on some level that's a "human" in there, but their next step is to deny that human's personhood because a sufficient level of development and/or socioeconomic status is required to "earn" one's personhood. I don't personally think it's Theocratic to want to legally push back on eugenics, but if our secular society eventually ends up championing eugenics unabashedly, perhaps it would eventually be seen as Theocratic to want otherwise! It's a complicated world we live in.

Marshall Davis said...

Thanks again, Jonathan, for your reply. It is refreshing to have a civil dialogue on this topic. Too often such discussions quickly devolve into hysterics. From your reply it seems that I have failed to communicate my position well. So let me try again.

You say, “It sounds like you currently believe that whether a fetus is a human life is a matter of personal belief that is largely (entirely?) informed by one's religious views.” Whereas you say that your perception of a fetus as a human life “comes purely from a scientific and logical standpoint.” Actually I see our roles as reversed. I see your position as a matter of belief. On the other hand I am approaching it from a scientific and medical viewpoint.

The scientific reality is that there is consensus that human life begins at conception. But there is no consensus in the medical or scientific community regarding when a fetus becomes a “person.” You are right in seeing “personhood” as the additional issue that needs to be addressed. It is not just a matter of unique DNA. There is no consensus on when a fetus is a person, which is where ethics and laws come in. Laws are about persons. Clearly there is a difference between a microscopic zygote and a full term baby. The question is when that happens. In this matter there is no scientific or medical consensus. That is why the AMA permits abortion under its code of ethics.

This is where one’s beliefs kick in. Your beliefs lead you to conclude that a single celled zygote is a full human being with all the rights of a one year old child. Others looking at the same science would say that the zygote becomes a person somewhere further along in the pregnancy. Where this happens is up for debate. People who love certainty will retreat to the moment of fertilization. That seems on the surface to be the logical place. But the process is more complex than that. Why not when it is a morula or a blastocyst? Why not implantation in the uterus? Human decisions are seldom clear cut. It is because of this lack of consensus that the Supreme Court says that the science is inconclusive, and therefore the decision must be made by individuals and doctors and not by the state.

Even though I would tend to agree with your assessment of the situation (I remind you that I am pro-life) I am also very conscious that I may be wrong in my assessment. We need to have a certain level of self-awareness of our own fallibility on such issues. To outlaw abortion would definitely result in the deaths of undisputed lives – mothers - in illegal and botched abortions. Because of this uncertainty it is not for us – certainly not a minority of us (which is what the pro-life stance is) - to impose our beliefs on others who do not share them. So until scientific facts or consensus changes – if for example the AMA weighs in differently - we must allow people to make this decision for themselves.

Once again, thanks for the opportunity to talk this out. Hopefully we both learn something in the process.

Jonathan said...

Thanks for the reply, sorry I didn't fully understand your position the first time. I think I understand now that you agree there's a consensus that a fetus is a human, and it is rather when personhood begins that is a matter of belief. As long as we agree that a fetus is objectively a unique human life, I am happy to concede your point that what defines personhood can be much harder to pin down and is subject to one's belief system. Thanks for the clarification and this dialog has refined my own thinking on this topic.

Where we are likely to disagree, which is perfectly fine, is whether it should be allowable (from a legal standpoint) to separate the concepts of a human life and a person in the first place. From my perspective, any time history has tried this it has not turned out well. I'm thinking in particular of how America had suppressed the personhood of African Americans during much of its history, or how Nazi Germany denied the personhood of Jews and the disabled. In all such cases there was no dispute that these were human lives, but they were not deemed of sufficient quality to merit full personhood. I suppose I'm having a hard time seeing why it's any better of an idea to deny the personhood of a human just because their cell count (i.e. age) happens to be low for a brief moment. The two historical cases I just mentioned denied personhood based on race and/or religion. Is it really different to deny personhood based on level of physiological development? Considering that our country was founded on the notion of all lives being equal in dignity, and we agree that a fetus is a life, that should be enough. I don't personally think I am imposing a Theocracy to want our government to protect all lives, whether they are rich or poor, white or black, young or old, secular or religious.

I will close by taking your key statement, that there is no consensus on when personhood begins, and take it to the opposite conclusion you do. I submit that the very fact it is "fuzzy" and without consensus is actually ammunition for legalizing protection for the unborn. Think of it this way: if we were about to demolish an old baseball stadium, but half of the demolition crew was certain there was still a person inside, would it not be insane to assume the other half of the crew was correct and demolish the building anyway?

Anyway, this may have to be where the conversation winds down, as we have both learned from each other's perspectives and identified our common ground and also our places of disagreement. Like I said, conversations such as this do remind me that the distinction between a human and a person do matter to a lot of people, even if it's something that I can't myself wrap my head around intellectually or morally. Thanks for taking the time to talk with me.