Belief in God isn't a rigid beam, but a malleable ball of putty that fits whatever the opinion of the moment is.
Conservative Christians are defined not by what they’re for, but by what they’re against. The American religious right preaches against abortion and birth control; against sex of any kind outside heterosexual marriage; against evolution, climate change and stem cell research; against secular public schools and church-state separation; against a social safety net that catches everyone; and many more.
However, they don’t believe what they say they do. Whatever they claim about their motives, their real intention is to use religion to control others. Their appeals to the will of God are mere cynical excuses for why they should possess unlimited wealth and power.
How can I make a sweeping statement like that with confidence? Surely there must be some who are sincere in their beliefs, even if atheists and others disagree. By what right can I peer inside someone else’s head?
Simple: I base my conclusions on the evidence. They don’t act like people who believe what they say they believe.
Can the law prevent sin?
Let’s start with a small-scale example. Liberty University, the conservative Christian college founded by Jerry Falwell, has a code of conduct, the “Liberty Way“. Among other things, it requires Liberty students to maintain gender separation in unchaperoned settings:
For example, students should avoid visiting alone with the opposite sex at an off-campus residence, entering the residence hallway, quad, or on-campus apartment of the opposite sex or allowing the same, or visiting any dwelling or residence with a member of the opposite sex in inappropriate circumstances.
What’s the purpose of these rules? To prevent sin, their defenders say: if men and women mingle outside marriage, they might be tempted to have sex. By preventing unmarried male and female students from coming into too-close contact, Liberty removes that source of temptation and keeps them from falling into sin. For the same reason, many Christian men make it a point to never be alone with a woman they’re not married to (this is the “Mike Pence rule“).
However, according to Jesus, this is the wrong way to approach the problem:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”Matthew 5:27-28
Jesus says that committing adultery “in your heart”—by ogling an attractive person, or by fantasizing about them—is just as serious a sin as the more traditional kind of adultery. If that’s true, then all of Liberty’s rules are pointless.
By the evangelical standard, there’s no such thing as degrees of sin. A lustful glance at a stranger on the street is just as bad as arranging a secret rendezvous in a motel for adulterous sex. They’re both motivated by the same impulse, and both will send you to eternal damnation if you don’t repent and ask Jesus to forgive you. Sin isn’t an action, it’s an attitude in your heart, and no number of externally imposed rules or restrictions can change what’s in a person’s heart.
But then, what’s the use of the Liberty Way or the Pence rule? They don’t keep people from committing sin. They can’t!
Now let’s consider how this applies to a bigger and more significant Christian cause: their long-running battle against marriage equality.
The religious right says that God detests homosexuality and judges same-sex relationships to be sinful. Let’s say for the sake of argument that they’re right. Even so, there’s a step missing in that chain of logic.
They presume that outlawing same-sex marriage would be in furtherance of God’s will. They never ask the obvious question: If we were to ban same-sex couples from getting married in the eyes of the law, or to otherwise strip LGBTQ people of legal rights… would that prevent them from committing sin?
Phrased this way, the question answers itself. Is there any gay or lesbian person, ever, who would have the thought: “Well, I guess I can’t get married to the person I love. Might as well go back to church!”
Even laws against sodomy, which the Christian right would love to bring back, suffer from this problem. By decreeing harsh punishments, it might be possible to deter LGBTQ people from having sex. But so what? What, in the scheme of Christian theology, does this accomplish? If they have the same desires as before, they aren’t a single step closer to salvation, even if they’re intimidated into not acting on them.
The religious right’s entire political platform is like this. Abortion? Ban it! Birth control? Ban that too! Transgender people? Make it illegal to transition! Sex ed? Abstinence only! Immigrants? Slam the door in their faces! School prayer? Mandatory! Some of them are even calling for the revival of blasphemy laws and Sunday blue laws.
Their dominionist ideology proclaims that conservative Christians have a sacred right to take control of all spheres of society. However, they show no intentions to use that power to persuade people, much less to help them. All of their policy proposals are either coercing people to take part in religious exercises, or outlawing actions that they believe to be sinful. Some of their elected officials denounce the very idea that people should be free to make their own choices.
For the reasons already given, this makes no sense. The Christian right has built a political program around passing laws to control others’ actions, even though their own text says it’s beliefs that matter. And no law, however it’s written, can reach into what a person believes.
What would a truly Christian society look like?
A truly Christian political movement would look very different from the religious right as it exists now. If they took the Bible seriously—that is, if they cared about saving souls—they’d forego coercion and pour all their effort into persuasion, into getting people to convert of their own free will. By their own standard, that’s the only way to produce genuine faith.
This might lead them to breach the separation of church and state in other ways: say, by hiring an army of state-sponsored evangelists to preach the gospel. But the one thing they wouldn’t do is try to prevent sin by making it illegal. After all, God could prevent humans from committing sin himself if he wanted to. He could have put an eight-foot barbed-wire fence around the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden. Why didn’t he?
If saving souls isn’t the point, then why does the Christian right have this single-minded emphasis on control, rules and punitive laws?
To answer this, start with the age-old question: “Cui bono?” Who benefits when the populace is accustomed to obedience?
This, too, is a question that answers itself when phrased properly. The leaders of the religious right benefit when they command the obedience of large flocks who are used to doing as they’re told. I’m talking about the ones who run the ministries, who own the megachurches and TV stations, who rake in the donations, who rub elbows with the rich and powerful. Time after time, we’ve seen them exposed as the grossest of hypocrites.
I’m talking about people like Jerry Falwell Jr., who took over Liberty University from his father, and who—by his own admission—cynically held his students to a strict standard of behavior while he lived a life of debauchery.
Or the prosperity gospel preachers, who live lives of vast wealth and opulence with money sieved from their poverty-stricken followers.
That’s not even to mention monsters like Ravi Zacharias, who preached Christianity across the world while preying on vulnerable women in his private life.
It’s obvious how a strict rule-based worldview serves the interests of these powerful people. They don’t want to face uncomfortable questions or to have their self-serving actions exposed. They seek a hierarchical society where obedience flows upward, where the rulers decide what truth is, and where doubt and questioning can be silenced by force. They want people accustomed to doing as they’re told and not thinking for themselves. It’s the same tune across the ages, from medieval popes in gold robes to antebellum plantation owners to modern televangelists with private jets.
The presumption of sincerity
No matter how cruel or backward or obviously self-interested their beliefs, professional Christians tend to enjoy the presumption of sincerity because, they say, they’re merely obeying what God commands. Millions of people in our society are all too willing to view “God’s will” as the supreme value, the one that sanctifies every intention. It’s treated as a load-bearing element, like the keystone of an arch that supports all the weight resting on top of it.
But this view is wrong. God is not load-bearing.
If following God’s will were the overriding concern, Christian preoccupations would be consistent across time and space. They’re reading from the same book, after all; they profess to pray to the same God and hear his voice in their hearts. Instead, the issues they care about and the political stances they take swerve wildly from one decade to the next. The only thing that stays the same is that they always believe God endorses their view, whatever it is.
When Catholics and Protestants slaughtered each other in religious wars, both sides believed God was on their side.
When monarchy was the law of the land, the royalists believed God was on their side.
When America fought a Civil War over slavery, the slave owners believed God was on their side.
When Americans marched and protested and argued over civil rights, the segregationists believed God was on their side.
When Prohibition was established, those who wanted to ban alcohol believed God was on their side.
When women weren’t allowed to vote or to have their own bank accounts, the male supremacists believed God was on their side.
In eras when America turned against immigration, the nativists and xenophobes believed God was on their side.
When Jews were persecuted and oppressed, the anti-Semites believed God was on their side.
When same-sex marriage was illegal, the homophobes believed God was on their side.
Now these controversies have been settled (mostly), and the vast majority of Christians no longer claim that God endorses these views. Indeed, most believers claim that God wants freedom, peace and tolerance—and always did.
However, they’ve learned nothing from the mistakes of the past. Christians today brandish their belief in God just as confidently as their ancestors did, but to back up their new political causes of banning abortion, building border walls, oppressing transgender people, fighting “wokeness,” and whatever else Fox News and Donald Trump are telling them to be scared of today.
That’s why I say God isn’t load-bearing. Belief in God isn’t a rigid beam that can’t be shifted, but a malleable ball of putty that can be reshaped to fit whatever the opinion of the moment is. The true load-bearing keystone of their faith is the desire for worldly power among the Christian elite—regardless of what rules they invent to justify it.