Sunday, March 21, 2021

Recognizing Religionism

There is an ongoing conversation about racism in our country, and rightly so. Our country has a long history of racial prejudice … and white denial of it. Racism is a serious problem in our American culture, including church culture. The church has historically been part of the problem, and it has an historic opportunity to be part of the solution. Yet if recent statements and decisions by the Southern Baptist Convention are any indication, many Christians are not making use of this opportunity.

There is another conversation that is not being held at all. It is about religious prejudice. It is religionism. Unlike racism, you may have never heard the term. What is religionism? Religionism is prejudice based on religion. It is often accompanied by racism because religious groups tend to divide along ethnic and racial lines.

Racism believes that one race is superior to others. Religionism believes that one religion is superior to others. Racism and religionism often go hand in hand. White racists believe that whites are superior to nonwhites. Christian religionists believe that Christianity is superior to non-Christian religions.  When these two join together you get the KKK burning crosses and white Evangelicals waving Confederate flags.

There is prejudice in many – although not all - religions. There is the widespread belief that one’s own religion is superior to others. Religions tend to see their teachings as true and others as false. Sometimes adherents of a particular faith claim to be a chosen people, divinely selected for special privileges in this life and the afterlife. Adherents of other religions are labeled false teachers, heretics or evil. Religionists believe that God will punish them in this world or the next.

I am most familiar with Christian religionism, but it is not unique to my faith. In Arab countries it is Islamic religionism. In Israel it is Jewish religionism. In India it is Hindu religionism. In Myanmar it is Buddhist religionism. It has been the cause of countless holy wars and acts of religious violence, from the Crusades to the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center to the 1/6 attack on the US Capitol. It is the reason the founders of these United States fought to keep religion separate from government.

The problem facing religion in the 21st century is not just the resurgence of extremism, fundamentalism and fanaticism. The problem is more foundational than fringe elements. Religious prejudice is at the heart of many religions and taught in many scriptures. The biggest problem concerning religionism is that we do not recognize it as a problem. In this way religionism is similar to racism. 

As a Christian I can see it most clearly in my religion. Christians today prefer Jews over Muslims, since our scriptures assert that the Jews are God’s chosen people. There was a time when Christianity was rife with anti-Semitism, but now Christians seem to be overcompensating for past sins. Christians favor Israelis over Palestinians, even Palestinian Christians, which is ironic. They try to outdo each other in their support for the nation of Israel. Christians say that the Old Testament gives the modern state of Israel the divine right to the land of Palestine, while we ignore the rights of people who have lived on that land for millennia.

In a similar fashion Christians consider ourselves “the people of God” in accordance with the New Testament. The inference is that adherents of other religions are not God’s people. Some American Christians expand this preferential identity to include the United States as a “Christian nation.”  That is the heart of the resurgent Christian Nationalism in our country. 

Many Christians are adamant about their unique place in American society, complete with special status and privileges. Any infringement of Christian privilege in order to make room for the freedom of others is viewed as persecution of the church. We want prayer back in public schools, but we would not tolerate Islamic prayers offered in our schools. We do not see that as hypocrisy.

American Christians feel it is their right to legislate Christian morality – outlawing abortion, the teaching of evolution, and same-sex marriage. The decline of Christian influence in our culture is perceived as a moral and spiritual crisis for America. It is remedied by praying for religious revival and “taking America back for Christ.” It is no accident that Billy Graham called his evangelistic meetings “crusades.”

When are we going to recognize the problem of religionism in our churches, our country and the world?  When are we going to talk about the need for a new reformation that eliminates religious prejudice from Christianity?  When will we admit that the problem of religionism is as serious as racism … and that they are inextricably related? There is only one race, and it is the human race. All peoples are one Humanity. There is only one religion, and it is Truth. All religions partake of one Truth.

I am a Christian. I have been a professional church leader all my adult life. I am deeply devoted to my faith and to Jesus Christ. I also admit that I am blind to the full extent of racism and religionism in my own heart and my church culture. Yet I dream of a Christianity free of religionism and racism. I dream of a gospel of unconditional love being preached from Christian pulpits in our land. I know I will not live to see that become a reality, but I pray that one day my grandchildren will see it come to pass.