There Is No “War on Christmas”


John Denver and the Muppets

John Denver and the Muppets (photo by djwudi – Flickr)

I don’t know if you believe in Christmas
Or if you have presents underneath the Christmas tree,
But if you believe in love,
That will be more than enough
For you to come and celebrate with me.

– Noted theologian Kermit the Frog
(using the words of Dan Wheetman)

In order to have something to complain about during a season that most people use for generosity and love, some of my fellow Christians are perpetuating the idea that the month before Christmas Day has historically been a sacred, holy time dedicated to celebrating  the birth of Jesus.  This claim has no basis in Christian tradition or history, but the minor inconveniences of facts and historical perspective has not stopped them from fabricating a myth about the Christian origins of this season.

The establishment of this myth is essential to their goal of perpetuating a tale of victimization.  In the tragic story as some Christians tell it, evil forces of secularism are persecuting faithful believers in a “War on Christmas” designed to draw our attention away from the stable-born child who, we are told, is the “reason for the season.”  These claims of religious persecution are all-the-more bizarre considering the fact that seventy-six percent of Americans self-identify as Christians.  It takes a real talent for delusional rhetoric to portray a group that makes up three-fourths of the country as a threatened minority.

Their real complaint, however, is not about holiday observances.  As Ross Douthat recently noted in The New York Times, this is a “Tough Season for Believers.”  While Christianity may continue to enjoy a majority in the U.S., the attitudes and prejudices that some consider inseparable from the tradition are on the wane.  Social conservatives and far-right evangelicals are struggling with their increasing irrelevance in twenty-first century America, and the prominence of both pluralistic observances and secular traditions this time of year draw particular attention to that reality.

Unfortunately for those on the losing side of this culture war, the history of the “Christmas Season” does not make a strong case for their complaints.  The argument from the conservative evangelicals is simple: all of the positive things we associate with this time of year have their origins in traditional, Christian observances of the birth of Christ held during the month leading up to December 25.  This claims has several flaws, most notably the fact that Christians do not celebrate the birth of Jesus at this time of year, and that our “Christmas” traditions far predate Christianity.

The first of these points is perhaps the most important.  The time between Thanksgiving and Christmas day is not, in fact, the “Christmas Season.”  It has become the Christmas Shopping Season, but that is a very different animal.  Identifying this time of year with Christmas has nothing to do with Christianity, Jesus, the Nativity or anything theological.  Instead, advertisers and shopkeepers refer to this time of year as “Christmas” to use the theme as an emotional lure to persuade people to buy more things they do not need.  Even Christian fundamentalists realize this.  Their main complaints in “defense of Christmas” are about the failure of companies to refer to Jesus’ birth in their advertising.  Apparently these defenders of Christmas do not see the irony in pushing for more commercial uses of the image of the man who told a wealthy questioner that the way to salvation is giving away all your  possessions to the poor.

Irony is not all they are ignoring.  In creating this myth that this time of year is intended to commemorate Jesus’ birth, radical conservatives are choosing to draw attention away from the actual theological theme for this time of year.  For Christians, this is the season of Advent – a time when anticipating the celebration of Jesus’ first arrival causes us to focus on the doctrine of his Second Coming.  On the night of December 24 we will focus on the Nativity; but we use the time in the four weeks prior to look toward the distant future and the end of time.  For this reason, the texts read in Christian churches this time of year are about judgment and divine anger.  They mention separating wheat from chaff, and talk about the axe that rests at the root of the tree.  In all of these passages, those who are found wanting perish – usually quite painfully.  A hungover teenager afraid their parents will come home early understands more about the Christian meaning of this season than an indignant suburbanite chewing out a retail clerk for a well-intended wish of “Happy Holidays.”

For Christians, Advent is a time of expectation, of hope tinged with fear and self-evaluation.  The misguided campaign to relocate the Nativity into the retail Christmas shopping season completely ignores this traditional, Christian understanding of the season.

Of course, long before those Christian traditions developed, this was already a special time of year.  People have always gathered together at the time when the nights were at their longest and the weather its most bitter.  Feasting, small gifts of affection, fires and candles, evergreen trees, and all the other hallmarks of “Christmas” find their origins in much older traditions around observance of the winter solstice.  If we want to dig back for the “reason” for this season of decorations, celebration, and goodwill, we find that Jesus has nothing to do with it.  When Christianity rose to prominence in Western Europe, people took their existing festal activities and whitewashed them with a veneer of the gospel.  The origins of those traditions, however, are no more Christian than those of Easter eggs or the Easter Bunny.  This was a time of goodwill and generosity long before anyone heard of a baby born in a stable.

In fact, the most familiar and heartwarming stories we associate with this time of year often have a negligible theological component to them.  Dickens’ A Christmas Carol – which almost singlehandedly brought about the modern observance of the holiday – has nothing to do with Jesus.  Scrooge is not redeemed by the gospel; he is redeemed by his realization that his greed has cost him more than he could ever measure in gold.  Likewise, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is not the story of divine incarnation.  It is a celebration of the quiet heroism of those who choose love of their neighbor over love for themselves.  As with the Christmas traditions themselves, these and other stories of this holiday season – from Miracle on 34th Street to Polar Express – are reminders that this is the time of year when we open our homes and our wallets to care for friends, family, and strangers alike – whether or not we (or they) are Christians.

This seems obvious, but apparently it bears repeating: a season of welcome and sharing, regardless of the religious beliefs of those who observe it, is a good thing.  This is why it seems nonsensical that some pugnacious conservatives want to insist that those around them ignore the long history of this season and portray it as explicitly and exclusively Christian.  It is not, and should not be.  Just as Christians need the imperatives of Advent and the joy of Christmastide, all of us need a season of goodwill.  Long before the time of Christ, friends and families gathered to ward off the cold with food, fire, and fellowship.

We need those gifts even more today.  We should commend any attempt that others make to express those positive family values in the most inclusive way possible.  If “Happy Holidays” helps draw more people into the beautiful,  secular meaning of this season – wonderful!  It never was a Christian season in the first place.  Belligerently claiming that we are in “Christmas time” distracts from Advent and undercuts the meaning of the actual Christmas season.  Besides, Christians have enough opportunities to separate ourselves and be exclusive.  We should let this season be what it has been since our ancestors first erected Stonehenge – a time when everyone was invited in from the chill of winter for the warm gifts of hospitality and kindness.


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Thoughts on the 2012 Presidential Election

President Obama on Election Night

Following the Facebook, Twitter, and old media discussions of the 2012 presidential election results has led me to an unsurprising conclusion:  many Republicans, including some of my friends, are horrified that President Obama has won.  Considering the tenor of the race, I expected as much.  What confuses me in reading their comments, is that the President Obama they are vilifying has nothing in common with the man who has led our nation for the past four years.  In response, I have a few observations about the President and the direction of the GOP:


President Obama is a Christian

It’s time to let go of the argument that “President Obama is not a Christian!”  This is the one most squarely in my area of expertise, and the one that is most offensive to me.  Perhaps it is only an issue here in the Deep South, where religion permeates everything, but I am at my limit with the “We must remember God is in control, even if we don’t have a Christian in the White House” comments.  They are as insipid as they are absurd.

Where to begin?  First, President Obama is a Christian.  Plain and simple.  He is not the caricature that fundamentalists insist defines the religion, but fundamentalists do not speak for Christianity.  In fact, they rarely seem to even understand it, historically or biblically.

Which leads to my broader point in this regard.  Not only is it indefensible to attack the President’s faith, it is equally irrational to claim that there is one singular “Christian” perspective on specific political topics.  Opposition to same-sex marriage is not the “Christian” perspective on the issue.  Opposing abortion rights or reproductive freedom is not the “Christian” stance.  Capitalism is not the “Christian” economic system (despite embarrassingly ludicrous claims to the contrary).  Individual Christians, and Christian denominations, have vastly different perspectives on all of these issues.

Interestingly, fundamentalist Muslims, fundamentalist Jews, and fundamentalist Christians tend to agree on all of them.  So, if you’re looking for an adjective that describes unanimity on those views, “Christian” is inaccurate.  “Fundamentalist” is spot on.  Billy Graham’s regrettable decision to privilege what he calls “biblical values” over actual Christianity is the perfect example of this.  Graham was willing to functionally endorse the Mormon candidate (who, Southern Baptists are very clear, is not a Christian – see here as well) over the Christian candidate because Graham’s narrow, fundamentalist interpretation of Scripture is more important to him than historic Christian faith.  This privileging of politics over actual Christian theology has become the norm in fundamentalist Christianity, leading to their willingness to ignore enormous theological differences in order to push their agenda of intolerance.

Christians as a whole, however, have a broader understanding of the gospel and our Scriptures.  With 42% of Protestants and 50% of Roman Catholics voting for President Obama, it is time to move past the myth that one party represents the Christian view or Christian values.  The language is a code anyway.  What people – on either side of the fence – mean when they say “Christian values” is:  “my values, which I defend using religious language.”  As a result, the descriptor is meaningless, and it demeans the breadth and complexity of our tradition.

The only real consequence of fundamentalist claims to an exclusive “Christian” platform is that it inspires fierce, partisan disdain for the other side.  Rather than being a political opponent, members of the opposite party become theological adversaries.  They are not just the enemy of our ideas, they become the enemy of our God as well.  Instead of analyzing and evaluating ideas on their own merits, people unequivocally and passionately reject them as heresy.  This kind of thinking has never ended well – during the Inquisition, in Calvin’s Geneva, or under the auspices of the Taliban in Afghanistan.  More importantly, and to repeat, it is simply not true.  Christians have different views on every political issue, and there isn’t a universal “Christian” perspective on any of them.

Let this one go.  At best, it is intellectually dishonest.  At its worst, it is an excuse to hide selfish and bigoted ideas behind a smokescreen of religiosity to prevent them from being challenged.


President Obama is not the Enemy of the Economy

Another claim – perpetuated in some circles – with near-religious zeal is the myth that President Obama is spending money willy-nilly to drive us off the looming fiscal cliff.  This claim is made despite Forbes identifying President Obama as the “smallest government spender since Eisenhower.”  The myth goes unchallenged because the popular perception is that Republicans are more responsible than Democrats, but spending under Obama is not a dramatic increase over past presidents.  In fact, even the popular perception of Democratic spending Republican could use some revision.

As Daniel J. Mitchell of the conservative Cato institute points out, both parties spend too much money.  Where they differ is how to subsidize their over-funding.  Republicans argue that preserving the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy will generate more overall wealth and, consequently, more tax revenue for addressing the deficit.  This is patently untrue, and Romney’s tax cuts would certainly have favored the wealthy or ultimately cost revenue.

Most Americans, overwhelming, realize this and support raising taxes on the wealthy.  That’s hardly unfair.  Despite what how people think wealth is distributed in the US, 80% of the wealth in this country is in the hands of 20% of the population, with a staggering 1/3 of all wealth in the hands of only 1% of the population.  That top 1% actually got richer during the economic downturn.  Meanwhile, those who make minimum wage have to  work more than 70 hours a week to afford rent.

In a time when the economy is weak, reducing the taxes on the wealthy – who are clearly doing just fine, and at a time when people working two jobs can barely pay their rent – does not make sense.  The 2012 GOP could not see this, and their rhetoric centered on people whom they viewed as self-described “victims” “dependent upon government.”  Americans who actually work for a living, however, realized that this is patently false, and that, even as the fabulously wealthy enjoy the benefits of a healthy, stable, safe nation maintained by their labors, it is increasingly hard for the people who make that America possible to make ends meet.

If Republicans want to represent working people, they cannot be the party of the one percent.  They have to realize what hard-working Americans already do, giving further benefits to the wealthy does not help the American people.


Health, Healthcare and the Environment are not Partisan Issues

Limiting our ability to regulate the impact of corporate greed on the health of our citizens or our environment – no matter how economically expedient – does not help us either.  Republicans disagree, but this should not be a partisan issue.  It does not matter how many jobs might be created, it does not matter how much money there is to be made, if it is accomplished at the expense of American well-being the cost is too high.  Mitt Romney may not be worried about the rising oceans, but the rest of us are.

Nevertheless, Republicans are trying to perpetuate the myth that corporations simply cannot afford to create jobs and make a profit if they must do so in a context that insists that they do so ethically (with fair wages, healthcare for every employee, and without harming the environment or public health).  Their claims have no grounding in fact.  Corporations are doing just fine, as are their executives.  Obviously, they want to make as much as they can, but it is our jobs as citizens to insist that the tremendous profit they earn at our expense be done ethically.  Government regulation is how we accomplish that.

As a side note, government investment in innovation is also how we do it.  Much has been made of the dramatic failure that was Solyndra.  It was a risk, on important innovation, that went wrong, but it was hardly a catastrophic one on the scale of past erroneous attempts at innovation.  We need a president who will create a strong vision for the future, and that requires the risk of innovation.


Civil Rights Are Not a Partisan Issue

As we move into that future, our citizenry is changing almost as rapidly as our technology.  Let’s look at the demographics of the presidential voters again. Republicans did very well with rich, old, white men.  But this is not the era of old, rich white men.  This is one area where mainstream media and conservative evangelicals agree, and the election results are proof that America’s demographics are changing.

This is bringing civil rights issues to the fore again in a way not seen since the Sixties.  As the Human Rights Campaign reports, November 6, 2012 was an unprecedented night of victories for equality issues.  The first openly gay Senator was elected.  Three states passed referendum’s supporting gay marriage, and LGBT-friendly politicians, including the President, fared very well.

Mitt Romney’s lackluster record on civil rights hurt him badly in this election. Likewise, other Republican candidates who talked about “legitimate rape” and children conceived in rape as a “gift from God” were soundly defeated.  Attitudes and comments that might be acceptable in the locker room or the Gentleman’s Lounge at the club are no longer acceptable for those who want to lead a diverse nation of women and men.

Republicans have felt comfortable speaking from the position of privilege – white privilege, male privilege, heterosexual privilege, and the privilege of wealth – for far too long.  If they want to remain a national party, they will have to move beyond that.  The groups who voted for President Obama are the growing edges of the electorate.  Perhaps more importantly, young people of both parties no longer see the partisan lines on social issues that their elders considered immutable.

Certainly these issues still galvanize a certain section of the Republican base, but they are increasingly distasteful to the young, educated, and diverse voters who will lead our country into the twenty-first century.  Additionally, immigrants – who make up an increasingly large part of the electorate – are unlikely to support a party that continues to treat them as second-class citizens, or not even citizens at all.


Obama Has Not Governed as a Liberal

Finally, and sadly, despite all of the rhetoric from the fringe right, President Obama is not a liberal, or at least has not governed as one.  A liberal would not have allowed any arctic drilling.  A liberal president would not have been soft on Wall Street.  A liberal president would not have allowed a former Monsanto Vice President anywhere near the FDA.  A liberal president would have pushed for a single-payer healthcare plan, rather than a conservative plan that favored insurance companies.  President Obama is a moderate conservative.


Final Thoughts

So, if Obama was the conservative in the race, what does that make the Republican Party of 2012?  Simply put, they are a fringe party, pulling themselves toward irrelevance.  Re-defining “Christianity” to mean fundamentalism and then pushing a theocratic agenda.  Defending the super-rich at the expense of the working classes.  Protecting corporate interests and profits over the health of our citizens and our environment.  Opposing civil rights for women, sexual minorities, and immigrants.  These are not “conservative” positions, they are anachronistic ideas that should be repugnant to all citizens of the twenty-first century.

Unfortunately, in an astonishing case of myopia, some Republican voices are promising to go even further to the right.  They would be wise to listen to Republican Senator Linsey Graham, who observed, “We’re not losing 95 percent of African-Americans and two-thirds of Hispanics and voters under 30 because we’re not being hard-ass enough.”  He is right, but the problem runs even deeper.  The issue is not that the Republican Party isn’t pushing its conservative values “hard” enough.  The Republican Party has exchanged actual conservative values – of community, integrity, and personal responsibility – for pseudo-religious hypocrisy, greed, self-destruction, and ethnocentrism.  Until the Republicans can jettison those anti-social values, the only relevant conservative party in America will be the Democrats.


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Chicken Sandwich with a Side of Shame

Little Rock Integration Protest

Little Rock Integration Protest (source Wikimedia Commons)

Yesterday a right-wing,  fundamentalist preacher/politician/media personality urged his fans to go to Chick-fil-A to show their support for the company’s opposition to LGBT rights and same-sex marriage.  Purchasing a chicken sandwich, or refusing to do so, became a political statement leading to some of the most heated discussions I have ever seen erupting on Facebook.  I watched friendships end in rather dramatic ways, and I read vitriolic remarks of astonishing potency on both sides of the conflict.  Although I weighed in on plenty of these discussions in bits and pieces, I wanted to put all of my thoughts in one place:

It’s not about Freedom Of Speech

One aspect of the rhetoric that initially astonished me was the claim by many of the Chick-fil-A supporters that they were going to the restaurant to support Dan Cathy’s “First Amendment Rights” which – apparently – they thought were under attack.  If I understand their argument correctly, Mr. Cathy exercised his freedom of speech by publicly espousing his support for “biblical marriage” and the media response to his comments was an attempt to squelch Mr. Cathy’s right to speak his mind.

Mind you, no one told Mr. Cathy he could not say the things he said or had no right to say them.  No one refused to publish his comments.  In fact, they were reproduced in every possible media outlet.  They were tweeted and facebooked, they were mentioned on television news, and journalists reprinted them in print and online.  No one said Mr. Cathy should not be allowed to say or think these things.  No one challenged his First Amendment rights.

But “I’m supporting Chick-fil-A because I believe in Free Speech” is much more palatable than “I’m supporting Chick-fil-A because I oppose same-sex marriage.”  Hiding their true agenda like this is not a new tactic for the Far Right.  They already try to claim that opposing same-sex marriage is about protecting “family values” and “defending traditional marriage.”  Of course, the reality is that keeping people who would make great parents from adopting children is not supporting family values.  Similarly, keeping two people who love each other and want to make a lifetime commitment to each other from marrying is not protecting marriage.

In a similar vein, telling someone that something they said is bigoted and ignorant is not opposing Free Speech, it is using Free Speech in exactly the way the freedom was intended – to hold an idea up to public examination and critique in a way that allows for all sides of an issue to be considered.  Dan Cathy has a right to say any ignorant thing he likes, and we have a right to point out all the flaws in his statements.

The heart of the matter is that support for same-sex marriage and LGBT rights is rapidly becoming the norm in the United States and in the Western world.  Even Chick-fil-A realized this with their hastily-published attempts to back out of the debate.  Opponents of same-sex marriage realize that they have to cloak their rhetoric of hate behind innocuous or falsely positive language.  Otherwise, they will quickly be dismissed as ignorant, bigoted fundamentalists trying to hide a political agenda of exclusion behind empty religious claims.

Yes, this is Bigotry and Hate

All it takes is a quick look at what’s at stake, however, and it becomes clear that their arguments are just that.  I have already discussed how the claim by opponents of same-sex marriage that they are just being “biblical” is disingenuous at best and – more accurately – theologically indefensible.  I’ve also discussed why I insist on using the term “bigotry” when talking about those who oppose LGBT rights, but I am happy to elucidate further.

The only argument against LGBT rights (adoption, marriage, protection from discrimination) is one drawn from a particular interpretation of certain sacred texts, an interpretation is not even the normative one among mainline religious scholars.  When a person uses a selective, minority interpretation of sacred texts to withhold rights from another person, that is bigotry.  We saw this happen with slavery in the nineteenth century.  We saw this happen with religious opposition to women’s suffrage in the early twentieth century.  We saw this happen with the American Civil Rights movement in the middle of the twentieth century.  In fact, fifty years ago religious claims were frequently used to argue for sustaining the laws forbidding “interracial” marriage.

The pattern is the same every time.  When our understanding of biology, psychology, human nature, sex, gender, or ethnicity changes, the only way to sustain the superstitions of past generations is to argue from the religious texts written during those times.  Eventually, of course, even those arguments fail, and in hindsight future generations identify them as exactly what they were:  prejudicial ignorance.  I see absolutely no way in which the debate over same-sex marriage differs from the debate over two people of different ethnicities marrying, and so I label opposition to same-sex marriage as what it is:  bigotry.

That does not, necessarily, mean that it is hatred.  Sometimes prejudice can be well-intentioned in  its cruelty, rather than intentionally hateful.  And yet, many of us have charged that Chick-fil-A funds “hate groups” with their profits.  David Badash in the Huffington Post offered an explanation for why we make this claim.  His citations from GLAAD itemizing the comments from the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins and Peter Sprigg give ample reason why the Southern Poverty Law Center considers FRC a “hate group.”

It is one thing to say (however erroneously) that “my religious beliefs require me to oppose same-sex marriage.”  It is another thing entirely to dedicate millions of dollars to spreading malicious misinformation about your fellow citizens in an attempt to deny them access to the same rights and freedoms others enjoy.  The former is simply ignorance, superstition, or bigotry.  The latter is hateful.

What Else Did that Chicken Sandwich Buy?

Our lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender brothers and sisters, parents and children, teachers and warfighters and public safety workers, bosses and employees, friends and neighbors cannot help but hear it any other way.  For those of you who proudly purchased  a chicken sandwich yesterday, what message were you sending them?

Yesterday you told my two friends in California (who are legally married there) that they aren’t real mothers to their brilliant, charming, beautiful son.  You told them that they shouldn’t be allowed to have or raise children, and that it is biologically impossible for them to do as good of a job as opposite sex parents.  I have seen how they parent with wisdom, intentionality, and love. You are wrong.

You told my dear friends, one a professor and the other an artist, that their relationship of over thirty years is somehow inferior to the opposite-sex marriages we see falling apart all around us.  You said that their love, commitment, and sacrifice for each other – in the face of the additional hurdles of prejudice – don’t matter and aren’t worth the effort.  You have said that their love should not be honored, and that their values don’t support strong families.  I am in awe of the depth and maturity of their relationship.  You are wrong.

You told my various gay and lesbian friends who are pastors openly serving congregations that they have no place in the pulpit, and that their communities of faith are not welcome at your Eucharistic table.  You have said that the Sunday afternoons spent in hospital rooms, the 2 a.m. phone calls, and the lifetime dedicated to study, prayer, and service in answer to God’s call are meaningless and a source of shame to the Church.  You are wrong.

You have supported every parent who threw their child out of the house for their “sinful lifestyle choices” or shipped them off to be “re-programmed.”  You have supported every charitable group that fired a leader or denied a volunteer because their love for another person contradicted the organization’s “values.”  You have sided with the hospitals who have blocked people from sitting beside the deathbed of their lifelong partner.  You have joined your voice with the chorus of people who, through actions large and small, have insulted, wounded, marginalized, and excluded our gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender brothers and sisters.

You are free to do so.  Likewise we are free to point out that such behavior is shameful and has no place in twenty-first century society.

Final Thoughts

Dan Cathy, Mike Huckabee, the Family Research Council, and all those who supported their prejudicial policies of exclusion and ignorance yesterday are on the losing side of history.  They know this, and that is why they are trying to hide their reprehensible “values” of intolerance behind empty and irrelevant rhetoric of Constitutional freedoms.  We must look past the innocuous-sounding language to the actual consequences of their policies.  The reality is that anti-LGBT laws and practices destroy families, break hearts, scar souls, deprive children of loving parents, block hard-working professionals from experiencing the fruits of their labors, and in every way make us weaker, poorer, and less healthy as a society.  It is our duty as citizens, and as neighbors, to correct that shameful injustice by consistently and unequivocally standing against bigotry wherever it rears its ugly head:  in the classroom; in the legislature; in the pulpit, bima, or minbar; and yes, even in the fast food line.

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Let’s Talk about the Bible

Still Life with Open Bible - Vincent van Gogh

Still Life with Open Bible – Vincent van Gogh

Disagreements with fundamentalists ultimately end with a discussion of the Bible, an area that should be fertile ground for debate.  Unfortunately, social progressives, mainstream Christians, and non-Christians all-too-often surrender the high ground to those who claim to “believe the Bible,” operating on the assumption that social conservatives probably believe more of the Bible than they do.  This is very likely not the case.

The Christian Bible is not a single book, it is a collection of 66 canonical writings, divided into the Hebrew Bible from before the time of Jesus and the New Testament from after.  Those writings span over a thousand years, with input from multiple sources and multiple rounds of editing for purposes both theological and political.  Cultures can change a lot in a thousand years, and the writings of the Christian Scriptures consequently contain a number of different perspectives on every major issue they address.  As a result, nearly any idea can be supported “biblically” simply by privileging one text over another.

Think that women should not be allowed to be ordained?  I Corinthians 14:34 says that “women should be silent in the churches.”  Think they should?  Galatians 3:28 says that “there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  Believe there is one God?  Monotheism was well-established in Jerusalem by the time the  second half of Isaiah was written, and Isaiah 43:10 states that there was no god before or after the god of Israel.  However, there’s still some polytheism lingering in the biblical writings.  The plural pronouns and verbs in Genesis 1, for instance, or the poetic references to the “gods” in the Psalms (82, 86, 95, 135).

Whether you want to defend or oppose predestination (Ephesians 1:4-5 vs. Galatians 5:4), pacifism (Matthew 5:39 vs. Luke 22:36), or poverty (Matthew 6:19-21 vs. Malachi 3:10)  as Christian virtues (or vices), you can take a “biblical” stance simply by privileging one verse over the other.  If you privilege the right texts, you can even defend child sacrifice (Judges 11:29-40)  or genocide (Joshua 8:24-26).  Of course, if you do, people will think you are a “nut” or a “fanatic” for taking the wrong texts literally.

And therein lies the difficulty.  If you are a Christian, and have an opinion on any of the issues I raised above, you already know the arguments used to minimize the texts that disagree with your position and privilege the ones that agree with you.  If you are a person of any faith, it’s “common sense” to you that the texts that support really heinous things are not intended to be interpreted literally.  Regardless of what the text actually says, or meant to its original audience, our natural instinct is to explain away that which fundamentally disagrees with our respective ideas of who God is.

None of this is logically consistent, but it doesn’t matter because – for almost everyone – sacred texts work more like a mirror than a lamp; we see our own beliefs reflected clearly in the book open before us.  As a result, some people get away with making ludicrous claims like “God wrote every word of the Bible” and “God’s Word never changes” and “I believe the Bible is literally true.”

If that’s the case, then God thinks that victims of rape should be executed if they do not scream out during the assault (Deuteronomy 22:23-24), and that otherwise they should marry their rapists (Deuteronomy 22:28-29).  God thinks that genocide, including the massacre of children, is justifiable (Joshua 8:24-26, 10:37).  God sends spirits into the world to lie to us (I Kings 22:19-23) and do evil (I Samuel 19:9).  God advocates rape as a legitimate form of acquiring wives (Judges 21:10-24), and even promises to give a king’s wives to their rapist, so that they can be raped “in broad daylight” (II Samuel 12:11-14).

Again, those who are raised with the claim that being a Christian means “believing every word of the Bible” have a stockpile of ready explanations for each of these texts.  “Things were different then.”  “These are very specific circumstances.”  “God doesn’t approve of this, it’s just what they believed or did.”  None of these excuses are consistent with actually believing that an unchanging God wrote every word of the Bible, but that is not really relevant to their argument.  They want to believe two mutually exclusive things: “God holds the same basic values I do” and “Every word of the Bible is literally true.”  Rather than resolve the conflict with critical thinking, these well-meaning believers simply re-interpret – against all evidence and logic – that which is inconsistent with their idea of God.

Nearly everyone does this on the really heinous material (of which I have given only a few examples, above).  This then lays the groundwork for privileging some texts over others on the more controversial theological claims (also mentioned above) while still claiming to believe every word of the Bible is from God.  The end result is that anyone can come up with any idea and claim it is “biblical.”  That adjective is as meaningless (and persuasive) as the claim to “believe the Bible, every word,” and both claims are hard to challenge in a way that persuades the claimant, so they rarely are.

In fact, cultural biases actually help those who want to make these claims.  Most people think “conservative” and “traditional” means what their grandparents or great-grandparents believed or did.  They lack the historical literacy to know what Christians believed or did a thousand or two thousand years ago.  As a result, when fundamentalists claim that they are the “traditional” Christians who “believe the Bible” because they oppose homosexuality or women’s rights or social welfare programs or whatever their cause du jour is, most folks – conservative or otherwise – let them get away with that claim.

In reality, their claim is absurd.  They are ignoring just as much of the Bible, and just as much Christian tradition, as the “liberals” they oppose; but, because the general assumption is that the social conservatives must be the ones who take the Bible literally, no one calls them out on it.  Unfortunately, the claim to biblical authority is surrendered on all fronts.  Their fellow fundamentalists assume that the social “conservatives” are taking the Bible literally because they are already in their camp, and they are already picking and choosing in the same fashion.  Everyone else takes the fundamentalists at their word because there is a general belief in the wider culture that the biblical writers must have been socially conservative themselves.

In other words, even though no one, not one single person, takes everything in the Bible literally, fundamentalists are allowed to make the claim that they are the biblical literalists because their fellow conservatives refuse to admit their own cognitive dissonance, and because their opponents lack the historical or biblical knowledge to fully deconstruct the absurdity of the claim.

And so, there is a continual process in which biblical “literalists” selectively ignore the things with which they disagree while simultaneously vehemently quoting the Bible to fight progressive changes in the culture.  Then, when those progressive ideas become “common sense” in the culture, the biblical “literalists” add the passages they previously quoted so passionately to the list of texts they now ignore or reinterpret, and then move on to a new battle in the culture wars.

There are two obvious examples of this.  The first is the idea of a round Earth in a heliocentric solar system.  In the early Renaissance, one of the few things that the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Christians could agree on was that any Bible-believing Christian knew that the Earth was the center of the solar system, and the Universe.  The Bible was definitely on their side.  Joshua 10:12-13, Habakkuk 3:11, I Chronicles 16:30, Psalms 93 & 96 and many other texts describe a fixed Earth resting on sold foundations, around which the Sun and Moon orbit.  The very oldest story in the very first book even describes how the Earth was formed with a clear dome above it to hold back the “waters above” – beyond which the Sun and Moon orbited.  An omnipotent God, writing an infallible text, certainly could not have made such an egregious and repeated error, and the biblical literalists of the Early Renaissance knew this for certain.  Eventually, however, the scientific evidence made a heliocentric solar system indisputable for every person with even a minimal education, and the biblical “literalists” now interpret those texts allegorically.

[As an aside, they often do so with wonderfully circular logic.  “How do you know it’s intended allegorically and not literally?”  “Because it’s not literally true, so God must have meant it to be an allegory.”  “So, anything in the Bible that is not literally true must be an allegory, because the Bible is always literally true?”  “Yes!”]

A more recent example is the issue of slavery.  The biblical writers are very clear about their perspective on the issue of owning someone and using them as your property – they are fine with it.  Slavery comes up regularly in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, and none of the writers take the opportunity to condemn the institution.  Slaves who are not taken from the Israelites (who are specifically exempted from the “harshness” of slavery) are property – plain and simple (Leviticus 25:44-46).  Exodus gives rules for parents who sell their daughters into sex slavery, but it never condemns the practice (Exodus 21:7-10).  The Pauline epistles are very clear that slaves are to obey their masters (Ephesians 6:5, Colossians 3:22, I Timothy 6:1-2).  Jesus himself talks of slaves getting beaten, with the ones who didn’t know what they did wrong only receiving a light beating (Luke 12:42-48).  Also in Luke, Jesus is quoted as noting that a person does not invite their slave to come in and eat with them after they have worked in the fields; instead they are told to also fix supper.  “Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?  So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have only done what we ought to have done!” (Luke 17:7-10).

Prior to the nineteenth century, good biblical literalists knew what these passages meant:  God was fine with slavery, and even set rules for how to go about selling your daughter into sexual slavery and the importance of being an obedient slave.  Of course, the culture has shifted since then, and now even those who claim to believe that an unchanging God wrote every word of the Bible refuse to take these passages literally.  They can’t ignore the references, so they try to make claims that the “slavery” of the Bible was somehow different from the abusive slavery of more recent eras.  Of course, in the biblical version of slavery, a slave could be beaten severely, as long as they did not die immediately “for the slave is the owner’s property” (Exodus 21:20-21); and the penalty for raping a slave was only financial, not capital (Leviticus 19:20-22), so those claims seem more than a little disingenuous.

This pattern – of selectively quoting some passages and ignoring others while claiming to “believe the Bible” – has been repeated for centuries and will likely continue for as long as the Bible is read and quoted.  Ultimately, however, any claim about what is right or wrong, good or evil, holy or sinful, healthy or destructive – any such claim can be defended with Scripture.  “I know this makes no sense otherwise, and I know it seems mean or spiteful or bigoted, but I only believe it because I believe the Bible” is the refuge of cowardice and ignorance.  Not only is the person already ignoring or subordinating everything in the Bible with which they disagree, the Bible can be used to support any position.  People don’t argue from the Bible; the argue using the Bible.

So then, is the Bible useless?  Certainly not.  Even while denominations were forming to defend the institution of slavery, and slave-owners were using the Bible as a tool for oppression, the slaves working in the fields heard in the story of Exodus their own story, and found hope of deliverance.  Like any versatile and finely-made tool, the Bible can be used to create or destroy, to oppress or give hope.

To use it effectively, however, we have to let the Bible be what it is:  a collection of writings shaped by the wisdom and the prejudices of a plentitude of different authors and editors.  Once we make that admission, when we find something in Scripture that we might be inclined to use to oppress, to harm, to wound, or to exclude another of God’s creatures, we are much more likely to recognize that it is best to err on the side of compassion and common sense.  Recognizing that no one takes the Bible literally, and that every generation changes what they are certain it means to understand the Bible, we must all accept the possibility that we are wrong.  Once we realize that we have no choice but to live with that level of ambiguity, then we are obligated to err toward inclusiveness, kindness, and love – because “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13), for God desires “mercy, not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6; Matthew 12:7).

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Why I Use the Word “Bigot”

Portrait of Galileo Galilei by Giusto Sustermans

Portrait of Galileo Galilei by Giusto Sustermans (Wikimedia Commons)

So why do I refer to people who deny full inclusion to LGBT persons in their communities as bigots? This is actually a fairly common question raised by those who comment on my various writings and Facebook posts. Here is my response.

After fifteen years as an ordained member of the clergy – during which I have consistently advocated for LGBT rights, even at the cost of a very traumatic firing from the pulpit – I now hear anti-LGBT comments with the same visceral response that I have when I hear people use racial epithets.

Thankfully, we have reached the point in educated, polite society where it is as unacceptable to make anti-LGBT statements as it is to make anti-ethnic or anti-woman comments. That is to say, people still do so, but everyone – even the bigot speaking – knows that you are not supposed to.

The one place where there seems to be an exception to this is the Church, or at least in certain expressions of the Church. This is due to a widely-held attitude that religious beliefs are not accountable to the same standards of critique as other ideas. I find the preposterous. Some beliefs are – quite simply – stupid. Others are ignorant or ill-informed. Some beliefs are nonsensical or incoherent. Some beliefs are patently and obviously wrong. I will not pretend otherwise because certain folks want to shield their otherwise-unacceptable beliefs behind the veil of “theology.”

Religious ideas should be critiqued, analyzed, and – sometimes – mocked using the same criteria we apply to any other idea. Using religion as an excuse for treating LGBT persons differently is bigotry, whatever the justification. Denying ordination to women is bigotry, whatever the justification. Seeking to impose medieval or ancient social customs on the modern legal system is bigotry, whatever the underlying theological claim.

Frankly, if we cannot shed bigotry and superstition from our religious systems, one of two things will happen: either religion will become irrelevant as humanity moves into the future or, more terrifyingly, the culture as a whole will be unable to move forward because a narrow interpretation of religious beliefs held us back.

I value the work of my colleagues in fostering the dialogue that will bring us forward. My role, I think, is to make sure that bigotry does not hold us back.

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