America’s Religiosity: A Gut Check of Its Christianities

It’s hardly news anymore that a growing number of Americans are checking the box “none” on surveys of religious belief. According to Pew Research Center polling, one-fifth of the public and a third of those under thirty are unaffiliated with any religious entity.

Among those left who still report being affiliated, the percentage of fundamentalists and other conservatives is increasing. It’s the pie that’s shrinking and leaving the right-wing to have a bigger share.

Relying on figures publicized by denominations is problematic. There are convenient ways for memberships to be counted.

But even the granddaddy of right-wingers, the Southern Baptist Convention, reported this year that it’s losing members and baptizing fewer people. Their response, of course, wasn’t to question their teachings but to assume they needed better marketing.

Those who are religiously addicted never question what they’re teaching. They’re so invested in it that to do so would be a real downer for their high of righteousness.

They always assume that it’s the packaging that needs up-dating. Hence the stagings of hipster churches, or prosperity mega-churches like Joel Osteen’s and Rick Warren’s that refuse not to smile.

These fundamentalist-with-a-positive-attitude approaches have become multi-million dollar empires. Many drawn into them cherish those positive feelings without commitment to their worn out hidden theologies.

They eschew the language and public demeanors of the Fred Phelpses or other regressive clergy who get national media attention for their otherwise insignificant congregations through outrageous anti-gay acts, burning Qurans, or rantings about divine punishment ready to rain down on the country for whatever cultural fears they can stoke in the gullible who feel they’re losing in the victories of American oligarchy.

It’s still this Christian movement that, like the addict in a family, gets most of the attention, steers the agenda, and keeps progressives in a defensive posture. There are a number of reasons for that.

First, and foremost, right-wingers are the religious category with the most money to spend on their causes. How many pastors would take a more progressive stand on numerous issues, believing that it’s what Jesus would do, if they weren’t afraid that key people would leave their churches, particularly the wealthiest givers, who’re usually conservative?

Conservative theology attracts many of the rich because it justifies the accumulation of wealth. It preaches that wealth is as a sign of divine blessing.

Look at the right-wing Green family that owns Hobby Lobby. Their recent Supreme Court victory seemed to have little to do with their faith because they profited from selling what was made in a country that mandated abortion and had previously funded the contraceptives they discovered to be against their beliefs only when a president they wanted to destroy backed them.

The conservatives’ choice of Biblical passages to take literally is never “It’s harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of god” or “Give all you have to the poor and follow me” or the numerous passages in the Hebrew scriptures about usury that say never loan money and ask for ANY interest. And the dominant religion in any culture is the one that supports the status quo and its powerful.

Second, progressive churches regularly fail at acting progressive. They have progressive theologies, but aren’t sure what to do with them, often out of nervousness about upsetting the very status quo that marginalizes Christian progressives.

This has left challenging regressive Christianities to atheist, agnostic and skeptic organizations along with non-Christian religious movements. The established baptist-inspired Americans for the Separation of Church and State has been joined by more anti-religious groups such as the Freedom from Religion Foundation. And to the original American Humanist Association a growing list of others have been added.

Progressive churches have instead taken up charity activities. In the light of strategic conservative attacks on the government safety net, compassion seems to demand it.

But two observations need to be made here. Right-wing defunding of government assistance programs is a deliberate strategy intended to move liberal money away from politics into making up the difference through funding charities. This gives mega-rich corporations and right-wingers even more of an advantage in buying the political arena while progressive funds are diverted into charities.

But conservative churches do charity as well, and with their major goal to convert recipients to their brand of sectarianism. So, doing charity work, as admirable as it is, doesn’t distinguish progressive churches from fundamentalist ones.

In the mind of younger generations from Generation X to the Millennials, then, there is little reason to come back to a progressive church. These generations are looking for actions that speak to a sense of justice, not what goes on Sunday mornings inside some pious-looking building.

For the progressive church to grow, it will have to move beyond charity to taking a public place in the front line of justice work. For the ten years I was president of the board of a campus ecumenical ministry, what attracted students was exactly that.

Only when convinced we practiced justice, did they ask what we believed and how it fit. Did we march to stand for LGBT rights? Did we support the dignity and power of working people? Did we fight for ecological justice and the future of the planet? Did we live as if all oppressions are offensive and intersecting?

So, when the United Church of Christ filed a lawsuit to protect it’s first amendment right to perform same-sex marriages in North Carolina, that was a belated example of progressive Christianity standing out from all the regressive sectarianism. Their progressive action even led a Baptist alliance to follow them.

And that contradicts the third reason why the religious addicts have dominated national attention. Progressive Christianity has been defensive, always having to respond to what it isn’t, rather than on the offense.

When any position leads, people take notice. Then they see it as a real option, one that real people really believe, walking their walk not just talking some talk.


Robert N. Minor, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas, is author of When Religion Is an Addiction; Scared Straight: Why It’s So Hard to Accept Gay People and Why It’s So Hard to Be Human: and Gay & Healthy in a Sick Society. Contact him at www.FairnessProject.org

The Big Whopper

“Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain. (Exodus 20:7)

“Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” (Exodus 20:16)

When they stop talking about the Bible and actually read it, people are surprised to find that there is no Commandment, per se against lying. At least, not one that simply says, “Thou shalt not lie.” I keep hearing that anti-gay Christians are biblical literalists – great sticklers for following Holy Writ to the letter. This must be why so many of them lie.

I’ve been watching the social conservatives’ reaction to the Republican Party’s 2012 presidential election loss with interest. Will they finally get a clue about the need to make the GOP relevant in the Twenty-first Century? The experts on political strategy have strongly counseled them to adapt. Recent developments suggest that they are indeed adapting, though the way they’re doing it offers little reason to hope.

Instead of accepting the truth that gay people exist, that we are not gay by choice and that most of us merely wish to live whole human lives like everybody else, the anti-gay Right is choosing to retreat into a lie. It isn’t really a new one, since they’ve been telling it all along. But now they want to craft it into a grand meme – to be accepted by everybody. A frustrating number of people – even those who consider themselves our allies – are buying into it.

It is, moreover, precisely because it’s becoming so apparent that it is not true that the Religious Right has decided to push it. Like science and reality, truth itself is their enemy. By sheer persistence – and in the face of public ignorance or indifference – they hope to establish their lie as accepted truth.

The grand meme, the Big Whopper, is that all Christians must be anti-gay, and that all gays must be anti-Christian. Sure, we’ve heard it before. At one time, many of us actually believed it. But it’s never been pushed, before, with such dogged determination and vehemence. This is an all-out, full-throttle campaign.

I don’t like to write so blatantly about politics here. I know this is a magazine about religious faith. But those who oppose our total inclusion in the human race are so utterly determined to drag politics into religion, and religion into politics, that it’s impossible to keep the two spheres apart. We can respond to what’s happening neither as Christians nor as Americans unless we understand how for the sake of our status as either, both are being threatened.

If the Religious Right is permitted to get away with this lie, they will be able to use their “religious freedom” as a blank check to make war on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. And if they proceed with their whopper brazenly enough, they think they can bluff it through.

The recently-failed Arizona SB 1062 “religious freedom” bill is a case in point. It’s already perfectly legal to discriminate against LGBT people in my home state, so this bill was redundant. Most people dismissed it as political grandstanding, but it actually had darker implications. It was a test run of the Big Whopper.

My own religious and moral principles are deeply offended by the Religious Right. I believe it comes as close to being the Antichrist as any entity that has ever existed. As I don’t want one dime of my money going to support it, it’s fine and dandy by me if they don’t “have” to serve me. But anybody who takes seriously that SB 1062’s intention was to protect my religious freedom is several crab puffs shy of a pu-pu plate.

How many people could these hucksters get to believe the meme? Judging from the spectacular way that the Arizona bill went down in flames, your guess might be, “not many.” But the issue of LGBT equality under the law is still being debated as if the Big Whopper can be unquestioningly accepted as truth. And as long as that remains the case, our enemies’ assault against us will continue to have traction.

The bill was hugely unpopular, not only in Arizona but around the country, because it was so obviously mean-spirited and transparently aimed at LGBT people. But the lie undergirding it – that a clear battle line can be drawn between godless gays and Christians who disapprove of “homosexuality” – was never really challenged. Not, in any case, by anyone whose viewpoint the mainstream media bothered to cite. We certainly had defenders among Christians in our state – lay and clergy, gay and straight. But the shapers of public opinion almost totally ignored them.

Dishonest memes, of the sort the Religious Right is now trying to ram through, are never based on self-evident truth. If they were, their propagators wouldn’t need to craft them as memes and ram them through. Journalists who do not carry water for these people – those who consider themselves our allies, or at least cultivate a reputation for fairness – need to be taken to task for aiding and abetting the Big Whopper.

Now that many Christian scholars and clergy are challenging – very articulately and effectively – whether the Bible actually condemns same-sex love, insecurity is motivating anti-gay Christians to assert themselves. They are driven by fear, because when the other side is presented, their own argument is revealed as hollow. This is why they’re trying so aggressively to get their prejudices enshrined in law. Responsible journalists — those who genuinely care about the truth – will no longer be able to ignore this if we insist on holding them responsible.

The point, at this juncture, is not even which side is “right” and which is “wrong.” It is that there are two sides – neither of which comes from a worldview that is anti-Bible or hostile to Christianity. But those who would deny this truth are truly anti-Christ, because they wish to stifle not only public debate but the very movement of the Holy Spirit. They are entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts.

It is an opinion that their interpretation of Scripture is the right one. It is a fact that it is not the only one. Those who hold to one opinion over the other are simply people with an opinion. Those who claim there’s only one opinion are liars and frauds.

My purpose, in this essay, is not to frighten, but to motivate – and to mobilize. To make readers aware of what is going on, and to issue a call to action. We can only fight the Big Whopper if we understand that it is being deliberately crafted, by those who know it is a lie, and that these knowing liars are promoting that lie with great determination.

They are taking God’s Name in vain, and they are bearing false witness against us. Each of those offenses violates one of the Ten Commandments. And they are misusing the Word of God in the service of their lies. Next time they wave the Bible in our faces, we should tell them to look up the Ten Commandments. For any honest student of Scripture, those would be pretty hard to miss.

We know they’re lying because they claim we don’t exist – when we know we do. We know they’re unscrupulous and utterly without principle because they’re willing to cynically hijack and degrade our faith in order to defeat us. We know that they’re dangerous, because those in Kansas – who crafted a similar Big Whopper bill – originally wanted to enable even police and fire departments to refuse to protect us, and because their cohorts in Uganda lobbied to have gay people killed. We must not underestimate how dangerous these people are, because it has become very clear that they will stop at nothing.

That is, unless we stop them. “You will know the truth,” Jesus told us, “and the truth will set you free.” Never has that been more true – and more urgent – than in the face of the latest Big Whopper.

Should Liberal Christians Compromise?

The latest Internet brouhaha has been the apparent “rift” between progressive or more centrist Christians and the religious left. In my latest post over at Religion Dispatches I make the case that liberal Christians can stand their ground with compassion – just like that guy Jesus did.

Here’s an excerpt:

Those in the more centrist progressive camp seem quick to sell their liberal souls for a little piece of “common ground” and “political privilege” on issues like abortion—arguing for “abortion reduction” while often sacrificing unfettered abortion rights for women. Or, forsaking their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters altogether as Jim Wallis and other politically privileged “progressive” Christians are doing. What motivates the search for “common ground”? Are those on the religious left really seeking systemic equity or are they simply seeking to “establish a private kingdom of self-service”? It’s a question that needs to be seriously considered.

Read the full article here.