All the Things Mainstream Christianity Gets
Terribly Wrong Gives Me a Feeling of Total Dismay
by Rev. Paul J. Bern
Once in a while I have one of those days where it seems like I’m the only soldier on the twin battlefields of truth and justice fighting in the sacred name of Christ, and today feels like one of those days (can I get a witness?). This all began when all the “prophecies” I’ve been reading about or watching on You Tube and other similar Internet media what was supposed to be this big prophetic climax around the time the Shemitah year ended back in mid-September. But the date – or series of dates if we include the Feast of Tabernacles and the Day of Atonement – all came and went without incident. I was still waiting up until this past week. The same thing happened when the fourth Blood Moon came and went without so much as a whimper back on September 28th, 2015. Moreover, if everything we’ve been told up until now about End Times Biblical prophecy is to be believed, the “rapture” of the church should have already occurred. This is based on the words of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel chapter 24, verses 32-35: “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree; as soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things, you will know that it is near, right at the door. I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”
OK, what was our Lord and Savior talking about here? First, for the benefit of all you new friends and followers, the fig tree is a Biblical symbol for the nation of Israel. Israel became a nation in May of 1948, and there was a movement within Christendom back then that said “since one generation in Jesus’ time was 40 years, Jesus will return for His church in 1988”. Evidently we’re all still here, so now the religious pundits have been saying that 2018 will be the year of our Lord’s return (one modern generation supposedly equals 70 years). But there’s no way that can be right either, and here’s why. According to the prophet Daniel and the Book of Revelation, and verified by Jesus himself elsewhere in the four Gospels, the Great Tribulation will last for seven years, with the rapture of the church taking place at the midpoint of that Tribulation Period (never mind the pre-mid-post-trib debate, that’s a separate topic). Well, if that is true, the Great Tribulation should have started sometime in 2011, with the ‘rapture of the church’ taking place sometime in the summer of 2015. As before, so it is again – evidently we are all still here. Now let me be abundantly clear right here. This does not mean I think there is anything wrong with the Bible. On the contrary, the Bible is the infallible written Word of God. No one who has read this book would arbitrarily dismiss it unless they have lost touch with reality, atheists excluded. Like the Tribulation debate, I regard atheism too as being a separate topic at best, or maybe even totally irrelevant to what I’m writing about today.
The clash between Christianity and Islam is of a similar nature. It is political on the surface, but very religious when examined in depth. What’s wrong with that? Not much, unless you start killing people. Killing people in the name of religion has got to be the ultimate contradiction. When we Christians get political, we often do so because we believe that we have God on our side. This is true whether we are progressive or conservative, and throughout most of American history there have been both. When we examine that history, it quickly becomes evident that Christians have frequently been on the wrong side of it, to put it mildly. Here are some more things that American Christians, particularly those of the conservative stripe, have gotten completely wrong when they were so sure they were speaking on God’s behalf.
1) Slavery. Both sides of the American slavery debate claimed to be speaking from profound Christian conviction. The Bible has a rather matter-of-fact view of slavery, something pro-slavery Christians routinely pointed out. Abolitionists took a broader, less literal view of the Bible. Unsurprising that this divide led to the South being, to this day, home of the most people who take a fundamentalist view of Christianity. Of course, nowadays you can’t find even the most literalist fan of the Bible who is willing to agree with their predecessors in the 19th century who believed the Bible endorsed slavery. Of the many things conservative Christians have gotten wrong over the years, the pro-slavery argument is one that will hopefully never be revived.
2) Women’s suffrage. Unsurprisingly, conservative Christianity was hostile to women’s suffrage, just as it’s been hostile to women’s progress ever since the apostle Paul wrote that “women should be silent” in the church. Women’s “God-given” roles were routinely referenced in arguments against giving women the right to vote, such as when Susan Fenimore Cooper – daughter of James Fenimore Cooper – wrote in Harper’s that “Christianity confirms the subordinate position of woman, by allotting to man the headship in plain language and by positive precept.” While the argument is clearly wrong in retrospect and disavowed by most modern conservatives, there are tragically still some Christian conservatives who continue to believe that the issue isn’t resolved and should still be up for debate.
3) Evolution. From the time it became evident that life on earth evolved over millions of years, many conservative Christians were aghast and resisted this as hard as they could. The Scopes monkey trial is the most famous example, but the Dover trial of 2005 over the teaching of intelligent design in schools is up there in terms of sheer humor. The Republican-appointed judge even went so far as to describe the Christian conservative defenders of creationism as liars pushing a theory of “breathtaking inanity.”
4) Pain relief for childbirth. The Bible explicitly lays out pain in childbirth as Eve’s punishment for sin, so unsurprisingly that’s what many Christians continue to believe has to be so. Once reliable pain relief in childbirth began to be developed, there was a lot of resistance to it from Christians who feared it defied God to let women have some relief. The truth is that pain in childbirth is not a punishment from God, but the product of evolution, which is a far from perfect process. Eventually, the argument that women owed it to God to suffer through childbirth faded to the fringes of right-wing Christianity. Natural childbirth has seen a resurgence in popularity since the 1960s, but that was more of a reaction to some medical overreach than a belief that women are sinful and deserve to suffer.
5) The Catholic church. Modern American conservative Protestants embrace Catholics and have even started to borrow some Catholic arguments against things like abortion and contraception. But from the early 19th until the mid-20th centuries, there was widespread anti-Catholic sentiment, much of it tied up in hostility to Catholic immigrants. There was even an anti-Catholic political party in the early 19th century. Catholics were viewed as idolaters and drunkards by many Protestants, but by far the most bizarre relic of anti-Catholic paranoia is the fear that evil shenanigans were going on in nunneries. A woman writing under the pseudonym “Maria Monk” penned a best-selling book where she claimed to have escaped a convent where she was forced to be a sex slave and pressed into the act of killing babies and hiding their corpses. Needless to say, none of her accusations should be taken as anything approaching true. Anti-Catholic paranoia also led to another “Christian” led folly…
6) Prohibition. Hostility to Catholic immigrants was a large part of the reason temperance mania took over many Protestant communities in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Despite the fact that Jesus and the apostles were wine drinkers, abstinence from alcohol — and forcing abstinence on others by force of law— became a major Christian cause during this period, which led up to Prohibition. This was true, even though many in the temperance movement were also aligned with the suffragist cause, making Prohibition one of the primary conservative Christian follies. Luckily, it took little more than a decade for this colossal Constitutional error banning alcohol to be fixed.
7) Segregation. Religious leaders like Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led the desegregation movement, but it’s also important to note that the pro-segregation movement was also conceived as a Progressive Christian one. Arguments against “race mixing” were largely framed in religious terms. The judge who initially ruled against the interracial couple in Loving v. Virginia argued that the “Almighty God” put people on separate continents and “did not intend for the races to mix.” Christian right leader Jerry Falwell got his start fighting to uphold segregation, giving sermons about how integration was offensive to God. As Max Blumenthal noted in the Nation, the modern religious right as we know it started off as a movement to defend slavery first and segregation later.
8) Contraception. From the beginning of the “birth control movement,” Christian conservatives fought to keep women from being able to have sex without getting pregnant. Devout Christian Anthony Comstock successfully convinced Congress in 1872 that contraception was ungodly, leading to a federal ban on sharing birth control information across state lines. This was finally repealed in 1936. In 1963, the US Supreme Court ended anti-contraception laws for married women. Then in 1971, the Supreme Court also eliminated the last of the anti-contraception laws banning birth control for single people. Nowadays, 99 percent of sexually active women have used contraception at some point in their lives.
9) School prayer. Along with supporting segregation and opposing feminism, the third issue that created the modern religious right is the issue of prayer in public schools. In 1961, the Supreme Court ruled against school-led prayers, even if they were supposedly voluntary. All attempts to have this decision overturned failed in court up until this point. There’s no evidence that these bullying tactics have ever converted anyone to Christianity, but they keep on trying anyway, like banging their heads on a wall. If your children want to go ahead and pray in school, they should be able to do so just to themselves without fear of punishment or bullying.
10) Marriage equality. The religious right, which in my view is neither, is still fighting like it’s not obvious that they’re wrong on this one. The tide is shifting so fast it’s quickly becoming apparent that this issue, like segregation, is going to be one where they’ll be pretending they didn’t fight so hard for the side of wrong in a few decades. The majority of Americans now support same-sex marriage. The momentum is in the direction of justice and equality. Christian conservatives are, as with most things, on the wrong side of the issue too.
As a result of all of the above, let me just say I’m glad to be a Progressive Christian. The phrase ‘conservative Christian’ is a contradiction. Conservative people are those who do exactly as the word implies – they conserve – they don’t spend money, they hoard it. The same goes for cars, food, houses and other investments, plus whatever else they can buy at a low price so they can sell for a higher one. Conservatives are, for the most part, tightwads. Rich people stay rich by not spending any more than they have to. They hoard the rest. Jesus kept nothing for himself, but freely gave to his apostles and to those in need. “Freely you have received”, Jesus said, “freely give”. We have all received freely the salvation of Christ through His shed blood on the cross. Let’s freely give as the Spirit would lead us.