Hi and welcome back! As many people do now, I feel disquiet and dread when I check out what Christians are doing lately. And I’m not just talking about the obvious ones shooting protesters and screeching about their worship of Donald Trump. To me, the range of behavior we see in Christians reflects the cardinal truth about their religion itself. Today, let me share that truth with you: Christianity is only as good as the Christians practicing it, for a reason.
I’d Settle for Christians Being Halfway Decent With God.
Lately, we’ve been talking about Christian Smith’s book Atheist Overreach. A big part of that book involves his fretting about how atheists can possibly be “good without God.” To him, “religion” — and by that term he means Catholicism in particular — offers the only possible moral framework for humans that works. Thus, atheists must (in his view) subscribe to the moral framework he likes best, even if they don’t believe in the imaginary friend at the center of it. That’s the only way humanity will survive intact into the future. Absolutely. The only way, yes. Plain ole humanism isn’t good enough at all!
I guessed more than once that Smith is either ignoring Catholicism’s own history, or never knew it in the first place. That’s the only way someone can belong to Catholicism and think that it’s morally superior.
But one needn’t be a student of history at all to look at the news lately. There, we can easily, quickly, and it seems constantly see what the loudest self-proclaimed TRUE CHRISTIANS™ are up to, in this twilight of their religion’s dominance.
The short answer is simple and brutal, a reflection of truth everlasting: they’re showing us what the game always was for them. It was always about power and dominance, nothing else. All those sweetsy-syrupy platitudes and simpering songs masked the game.
But now the masks are off for good. And it’s off for all of them, not just the toxic ones.
Love Your Enemies.
But to those of you who will listen, I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone takes your cloak, do not withhold your tunic as well. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what is yours, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you. (Luke 6:27-31)
In Portland, one group causing trouble lately is Patriot Prayer. This is a hard-right bunch of authoritarian nutjobs who worship Donald Trump and MURRIKIN JAY-ZUS. They’ve shown up at Black Lives Matter (BLM) rallies in the past to fire paintball guns and pepper spray at protesters. They do not ever hesitate to engage in violence to win their fights. They describe themselves, according to this OPB article, as “western chauvinists,” which indicates that they’re quite proud of treating women like property.
One of them has made a sort of hobby of going to anti-protest rallies with these nuts:
For Joe Reminar, he said Saturday’s event was the fifth or sixth Trump rally he’d attended. “Today is about freedom and showing that antifa doesn’t have the full chokehold on Portland and that we’re taxpaying citizens and we don’t want shit tore up,” he said.
I suppose it’s more fun doing that than all those boring-ass things Jesus specifically told him to do.
One of these “western chauvinists” apparently got shot — for real, with a real bullet. Beforehand, he’d been intensely hassling protesters. I’ve heard rumors (and have seen supporting evidence) that a BLM medic tried to help him. His pals (ETA: sympathetic cops, as it turns out) kicked and pushed her away. They also thoughtfully destroyed her medical supplies.
Their friend might have survived if his tribe hadn’t allowed their hatred to interfere with their compassion.
Instead, he bled out.
In response to this violence, Donald Trump only fanned the flames of violence and tribalism.
Give To Everyone Who Asks You.
For that matter, Donald Trump’s recent Republican National Convention (RNC) rally was widely and rightly mocked for its strident, violent overtones. It only reinforced my impression of lit-powderkeg violence about to erupt.
Kimberly Guilfoyle, who appeared onstage for no other reason I can discern except that she’s dating one of Trump’s weird sons, had a whole series of things to say about her enemies that do not in any way reflect the self-sacrifice and self-denial preached in the Beatitudes. Vanity Fair brings us the text of her outright fascist speech:
“They want to destroy this country and everything that we have fought for and hold dear,” Guilfoyle said, describing the opposition party as she yelled to an audience of none. “They want to steal your liberty, your freedom, they want to control what you see and think and believe so that they can control how you live. [. . .]”
“The screaming lady’s” solution clearly centers around punishing her tribe’s enemies and fighting them on every single front to defend their “turf” (to borrow Christian Smith’s wording).
Trump had promised in his nonstop tweetstorms that this rally would be “uplifting and positive,” but it’s very hard to perceive either quality in anything whatsoever that Guilfoyle screeched in her brief time at the podium.
The Truth of Tribalism.
When I talk about toxic Christians being tribal people, this is what I’m talking about. Guilfoyle painted very clear tribal lines in her speech.
Hers = good, superior; everyone else = bad, inferior.
Hers = best-suited to rule; everyone else = ickie, must be destroyed and utterly dominated.
She sees her tribe as engaged in a fight for its life against its enemies.
And she intends to win that fight, no matter what it takes.
When we compare the behavior of these Christians with the Bible section I quoted earlier, I see absolutely nothing in them that reflects the commandments of their stated Savior. Instead, I only see belligerence, rage, stoked-up fear, and mindless urges to lash out and strike back and take and rend and hurt.
When these Christians felt secure in their dominance, they could afford to at least make a pretense of acting vaguely like they sorta cared about what Jesus had commanded. It’s easy to be gracious in such circumstances — or at least, to pretend to be so.
But lately, they do not feel that security anymore. Lately, they understand that they’re bleeding members nonstop and losing incalculable amounts of social capital. They intuit that there’s no chance in the world of reversing that trend or regaining that capital. They sense they are not looked-up-to, not envied, not admired, and not even respected, but rather despised and dreaded.
(Indeed, the better people outside their tribe know them, the less they like them — a position unique among all religions’ adherents.)
And the Truth about Christian Tribalism.
The likes of Paula White and Donald Trump should have been shut down ages ago. And it should have been Christians who shut them down. If Christians really want to show people like myself who’ve been victimized by its leaders that “true Christianity” isn’t abusive, they’ve got to stop turning a blind eye to all of the abuse.
Here, though, is the really bitter truth about tribalism that nice Christians don’t even like to think about:
Those decent-hearted Christians like to tut-tut about these “bad apples.” They show up on message boards and forums to chide people for lumping them all in together. Indeed, they get far angrier about that lumping-together than they do about the stunning wickedness and hypocrisy on display.
In this way, they are as guilty of tribalism as their more toxic bunkmates. In fact, there seem to be very, very few non-tribalistic Christians.
Instead, “nice Christians” are so invested in being seen as “nice Christians” that they can’t fully engage with negative information about their religion, not even to acknowledge the great damage done to these victims. Their first priority is defending their tribal idol against critics: not on showing love.
These nicer Christians don’t trouble themselves overmuch about the overwhelming number of “bad apples.” Those folks just aren’t practicing Christianity correctly, donchaknow. They go to bed serene in their own faith, because they know they’d never, ever shoot BLM protesters with paintball guns or kick a medic away from a dying man because she’s a member of the enemy tribe.
Those guys are just Jesus-ing wrong.
The Truth About Hypocrites.
Oh, sure, these nice Christians will gladly and probably sincerely mouth a few words at the ceiling for their imaginary friend to magically make these “bad apples” more compassionate. Then they’ll head off to their online haunts. There, they’ll endeavor to protect their tribe’s reputation from getting too tarred by the brush currently being applied to all those “bad apples.”
But that’s all they can do.
It’s so much easier to try to control us than it is to reason with all the Christians who are Jesus-ing incorrectly.
They might not have explicitly worded the reasoning behind their preference. It shows through all the same.
They know the truth about their religion, even without saying the specific words of the truth out loud.
There’s Just Not Anything, I Dunno, DIFFERENT About You.
How long has it been since you met someone who really had something, I dunno, different about them? And how long has it been since you found out that such a person was a TRUE CHRISTIAN™? Did you, perhaps, think to yourself: wow, self, I should check out whatever that person’s doing!
Probably not, even if you have ever experienced this sensation.
Most people know better than to connect Christians’ faith to their qualities as people.
I know several extremely wonderful people who happen also to be Christians. I do not think, in any of their situations, that Christianity itself produced or even encouraged their finer qualities. They just happen to be wonderful people, and they slotted themselves into a version of Christianity that nurtured — or at least didn’t snuff out — those qualities. Should they leave Christianity, they will likely only become better people.
Christianity itself has no positive bearing on a person’s basic emotional makeup: their honesty, their kindness, their compassion, their love of objective truth, or anything else.
Instead, it works exactly like alcohol: it only brings out what was already there, and magnifies the worst of it.
A God In Their Own Image.
In other words, the quality of the Christian depends not at all upon the ideology itself nor upon any imaginary friends. It all comes down to the quality of the Christians themselves.
The truth is not always easy to hear.
Violent asshats like the “western chauvinists” in Patriot Prayer? They slotted themselves into the flavor of Trump-worshiping evangelicalism that pleases them most. Their Jesus is 100% A-OKAY with them shooting people and hassling protesters seeking justice. He likes to see them intimidating black people and scaring the literal pee-water out of trans women. And they are more than happy to oblige their version of Jesus.
Hardline Catholics and Calvinists like Christian Smith slot themselves into a flavor of Catholicism that supports pretentious, high-end apologetics. Their Jesus makes them feel smart and superior to other people. He requires them to offer long-winded, tedious speeches about immutability and OMG MORALITY. He likes hearing them insult their enemies for not caring enough about Aristotelian ethics. And they are more than happy to oblige their Jesus.
Meanwhile, compassionate people like Rev Clancy (Clancy’s daughter, a PCUSA pastor) slot themselves into denominations that emphasize social justice and human decency. And they care very deeply about obliging this Jesus.
And never shall these three Jesuses meet, friends. The one is as foreign to the other as to t’other over there. They might as well be three completely different beings (and not the sorta-kinda-different-but-same three beings of the Trinity, for all those Oneness-rejecting heretics).
These groups all use the same sourcebook, but it was not an imaginary friend nor the sourcebook’s own virtues that led each group to their own interpretations and behavior. No. It was them, only them, always them that drove those decisions. The imaginary friend and the sourcebook might as well not have existed.
Seeing the Truth Laid Bare.
I wish I knew what to say to the decent Christians who are no doubt distressed by the constant display of hypocrisy these other Christians offer the world. It’s not easy seeing an ostensible bunkmate revealing the truth. Speaking as a someone struggling with a similar situation, I know the feel. There’s not really an answer that’s comfortable to hear. I know they’re doing their best, and I know they’re nowhere near as bad– yes, nowhere near. I know they’re hurting.
But that’s what’s happening. It’s the truth.
No gods are involved in Christianity. None.
I can say that as easily as I can say that no unicorns are involved (though we still adore Arnie’s pink and shining mane).
All those Christian pretensions of divinely-granted ethics and morality dissolve like morning-mist in sunshine when we check out the news every day. That lofty ethics and morality sure ain’t driving those nutjobs. Similarly, decent Christians’ claims about Jesus’ great love of justice and kindness dissolve as well. For some reason, that super-compassionate version of Jesus ain’t doing a thing to rein in those Patriot Prayer wackadoos.
Wackjobs and bad apples reveal the truth about a group.
More than that:
They reveal a truth we all need to heed.
Ignoring it brings us more pain than confronting and embracing it and coming through it to the other side where the sun shines and reality reigns.
Decent Christians seem to be getting more and more disgusted with what they see in their bunkmates and leave (either disaffiliating with church culture or deconverting entirely). That leaves only the awful Christians in the pews. That winnowing and sifting will only become more pronounced as the years pass and Christianity loses even more cultural power and social capital.
In other words, more Christians will opt out of those groups.
That’ll be happening particularly in the more toxic flavors of the religion. Toxic people hear the clarion call of the horn being blown by toxic Christians. They always have.
However, this is only one story about Christianity’s decline. Maybe it’s the most dramatic and attention-getting, but it’s still only one story.
There’s another story, and it’s not pleasant to consider.
But we are telling the truth here, you and I, in this very special space we have carved out together in this strange new world. So here it is:
As that winnowing/sifting process continues, we’ll see a lot more compartmentalization and tribalism in the other groups of Christians. And it’ll cause its own exodus.
In this other story, “nice Christians” will push their “bad apples” further and further away from the title of “Christian,” a term which they will allow only for the Christians who don’t embarrass them. Everyone else is Christian in name only, or merits even more offensive insults than that (like “Christian Atheist” — really).
Oh yes, they’ll have a whole series of narrow gates through which would-be mountain-climbers must pass. In other words, they’ll create an opting-in process for themselves.
They’ll try to eke out a campsite on their mountainside that only approved people can enter. But they won’t actually change anything for the better. After all, their “bad apples” think they’re the fake Christians who are Jesus-ing all wrong, and must shape up before being allowed into their campsite on the mountainside.
(The kicker? The campsite for both tribes happens to be in the same exact location — with all of them mixed together and walking around bumping into each other and pretending like they’re the only group in the camp. It’d be the most absurd premise ever for a French existential movie, but it’s happening in reality right now.)
None of these Christian tribes can actually control or change the others. So they’ll just do their best to negate and invalidate and most of all ignore them. I can easily see this process leading to more disaffiliation, as Christians question what good their ideology and god really do.
The Truth About Being Good Without Gods.
None of what I describe sounds even slightly divine, does it?
It shouldn’t. It isn’t.
It’s just humans doing what humans have always done. We’ve been at it since long before the first god got its first glimpse of the world from the first human bone-carver’s hands.
As for me: If Christians represent what it means to be “good with God,” then I’ll gladly take my chances on “good without God.” What they have doesn’t work, and it never did. It depends utterly on the morality of its members themselves, following the morality they have already accepted as truth for themselves.
When those members act in deeply immoral ways, then nobody in or out of their tribe can tell them they’re wrong — and no one can rein them in.
This is a religion without a real emergency brake of any kind.
And that is why it is failing now, why no reputable researchers anywhere give it a chance of returning to dominance, and most of all why it utterly deserves this fate.
Christians have had this reckoning coming their way for about 2000 years. I just hope whatever comes next will reflect the best of humanity’s truths, instead of pandering to the worst of them — like Christianity does at its core.
NEXT UP: The real goal isn’t persuading us to believe. It’s forcing us to comply. I’ll show you how and why — tomorrow. See you soon!
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Last note: As I wrote this post, I kept thinking about those movies where a bad guy realizes that he’s on the bad-guy team when he’s shocked by something that transgresses ALL of his own moral boundaries. There’s that moment of dawning horror as he realizes just what a group he’s thrown in with. That situation is a trope for a reason. I wonder how many Christians are going through that same situation right now. I hope they act wisely with the reality they finally accept.