By Peter Oliver
Here's where Christianity goes to die: in the fetid, polemic sinkhole of politics.
As a preface, here's a little background. I grew up in a Christian family that went to church every Sunday. I attended an Episcopalian prep school where students went to chapel every morning and where Sacred Studies was part of the curriculum every semester. (Sacred Studies wasn't as dogmatically pious as it sounds. Readings, which were engaging and enlightening, focused on philosophy, theology, and ethics rather than on scripture, drawing from the works of such deep thinkers as Reinhold Niehbur, Paul Tillich, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.)
I grew up a Christian, yet I no longer consider myself a Christian today. I do not attend church or believe in the miracles of immaculate conception, resurrection, or eternal life. But I do hold on to the spirit of Christianity as I learned it -- a spirit that exalts tolerance, compassion, and forgiveness.
Look now at the way Christianity has become horribly contaminated on the battleground of political argumentation. Under the banner of so-called Christianity -- evangelical Christianity specifically -- spins a whirlpool of intolerance, disdain, contempt, and prejudice.
Some political positions attributed to conservative Christians might have at least some connection to traditional Christian probity. Opposition to abortion is an example: a well-reasoned argument can be made that abortion entails the unethical taking of human life. I don't agree with that argument, because I don't believe a zygote is anything more than a tiny blob of tissue. But at least I can see a moral basis for pro-life reasoning.
Morality is utterly absent in other political positions embraced by conservative Christians. Given that a core principle of Jesus's teachings is to love thy neighbor as thyself, how can intolerance toward minorities and immigrants (many Christians themselves) be justified?
Anti-vaccine conspiracy theories were widely promoted by evangelical pastors during the pandemic, based not on Christian principle but on a secular mistrust of government. Among other deluded concepts, vaccination was deemed an attempt to sterilize women, to implant Manchurian-candidate microchips, and to change political persuasion. As a result, many evangelicals refused vaccination and were sickened and died at a higher rate than the general population. It is doubtful that Jesus, a healer, would have approved.
Evangelically driven anti-intellectualism, which came to a head a century ago in the famous Scopes trial of 1925, has seen a robust rebirth with the purging of schoolbooks that that might touch upon anything deemed to violate conservative political sensibilities. "Be transformed by the renewal of your mind" wrote the apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans. Stultifying the learning process certainly seems a contradiction of such Biblical guidance.
Perhaps most disturbingly, more than three quarters of those identifying as evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in the last two presidential elections, and they continue to support him. Consider Trump through the prism of the noble virtues typically associated with Christianity -- such stuff as compassion, humility, generosity, honesty, kindness, altruism, empathy, forgiveness. Trump is a truly exceptional human being in that, when it comes to virtue, he is an utterly empty vessel, the apotheosis of all things un-Christian. He's chronically dishonest, serially adulterous, compulsively vindictive, repeatedly disparaging toward his fellow men and women, and irredeemably absorbed in self-adulation. He even stole from his own charity. He is a likely soon-to-be-convicted felon.
He demeans Christianity by touting his faux faith only for the sake of political convenience. The Bible is no more than a performance-art prop, which he brandished above his head (in front of the church I attended as a child), in playing the role, absurdly, of a prophet leading his flock. This is the man many Christians have hitched their political wagon to, and Jesus would be appalled.
“The embrace of Trump is really, finally a cynical calculation concerned with power, one that has the thinnest of possible Scriptural justifications,” says Steven Millies, a noted Catholic scholar. Cynicism and the pursuit of power -- repeat: Jesus would be appalled.
Of course, Christians have never been a singular, cohesive group, either religiously or politically. Despite shared Christian precepts, Catholics are different from Episcopalians, who are different from Baptists, who are different from Methodists. There are certainly Christians and Christian leaders who have not turned their backs on Christian virtues, who have not bartered away principle for political expediency.
It is likely that many Christians voted for Trump reluctantly, holding their noses in seeking, in particular, a reformation of the federal judiciary to curtail abortion rights. Paul writes repeatedly in the New Testament about a forgiving God when it comes to a person's past sins. Perhaps, then, the sin of voting for the dissolute Trump can be forgiven, with abortion laws now severely restricted. The end, presumably, justified the means.
But that end has now been achieved, and evangelicals still side overwhelmingly with Trump. These supposed Christians continue to allow their faith to founder in a political sinkhole, forsaking the deepest principles of Christian decency. Christianity might not yet be on its deathbed, but many Christians seem intent on taking it there.
Oliver lives in Warren.