In Part One of this post I posited that “good Christians disagree” about important things for reasons heavily correlated to two 2000-year-old variants in the faith that still foster both diversity and division. When you envision God primarily as Michelangelo’s bearded white male on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and think of a mighty Christ “sitting on God’s right hand” in Heaven, life gives you very different answers to its most basic questions versus if your “first take” view of Jesus is the sandaled, wandering healer, or if you visit the forests or view the infinite night sky or listen to Mozart to “experience God.”
And those underlying assumptions of faith inevitably, I argue, turn political. If your deepest commitments of faith have any impact on how you live your daily life, then they will inevitably affect your view of the societal decisions being made all around you. I have often said that an Episcopalian woman from Massachusetts has few opinions in common, either theologically or politically, with a male Baptist from Alabama, even though both would consider themselves “professing Christians.” These two “vectors,” expanded out below, explain a lot of that yawning gap.
Two critical Christian-Political wedges
We are daily experiencing two issues in particular that fall into the above diagram, creating new divisions within once-cohesive Christian congregations, and even whole denominations, especially the ones in the expansive middle of the pack. How active Christians respond to medical and scientific advice on Covid-19 has been straining interpersonal relationships in local churches throughout the U.S. Pastors have been fired and entire families have walked away from lifelong religious associations as response to medical advice has split on partisan lines.
The Trump presidency in general and his post-defeat stoking of religion-based supporters has amplified what had once been a fringe Christian doctrine regarding the role of the church in the political process. Very conservative Republicans who have challenged this viewpoint, such as Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, have basically been thrown out of the party. Increasingly, Republican activists are demanding unquestioned fealty to one particular leader, and this demand will undoubtedly further spread among “the people in the pews.” It is already the dominant voice in conservative social media.
Biblical literalism meets science acceptance
The battle fought along the green vectors above goes back at least to Galileo, but the flames have recently been fanned anew. The observations of scientists who seek the objective truths of the natural world have often run afoul of religious authorities who fear a challenge to their Bible-based authority. The direction of my arrows suggests that a very literal reading of the Bible, especially in the Genesis stories where God “walks in the garden” with Adam and Eve, pushes believers toward an anthropomorphically-correct picture of God.
“The Bible says it and I believe it!” says an old fundamentalist faith statement. While the earliest and shortest gospel of Mark often describes a very human Jesus who gets tired and short-tempered, the last gospel written, ascribed to John, firmly places the Risen Christ as “the creator from the beginning of time,” directing adherents further up the vertical scale on my graph.
On the other hand, reading Genesis and the other books from the Hebrew scriptures as a remnant of late Bronze Age literature, or even as religious metaphor, as St Augustine of Hippo preached in the early 5th century CE, often frees professing Christians up to accept what Charles Darwin had to say about the evolution of life on the planet. Francis Collins, the retiring director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has walked this fine line for years, often receiving flak from both sides, as both an evolution-believing scientist and an active and openly-professing Christian.
Importantly, this church-science tension has been a changing minefield over time. Opposition to the Copernican model of the solar system, which put the Sun in the center, was long opposed by Christian leaders because it runs counter to the story of Joshua telling the sun to stand still in the sky so that he can win a battle. The discovery of calculus was likely delayed for over 100 years because the Catholic church saw the idea of the infinitesimal as heretical. Yet, I don’t know any Christian fundamentalists today who oppose teaching these topics to young people. The battle lines have shifted, even for Biblical literalists.
The book publisher that employed me for many years would spar regularly with the Texas State Board of Education’s highly politicized and sectarian system for selecting school textbooks for the public schools. However, since we did not publish science or history books, we were spared the worst of the battles that my friends working for publishers of those subjects had to fight on the touchy topics of antebellum U.S. history, evolution, and sexuality.
Those battles over the science of Covid and racial realities in American history have now gone national. Let me suggest that Christian “pew-sitter” positions in this disjunction between literalism and science correlate very well along the diagonal of my diagram above. “Good Christians” are beginning to fight an ideological and political war among themselves that promises to get really ugly in 2022 and 2024. Church congregations at the extremes of my chart have already picked sides in this war, but the many churches in the “messy middle” will likely see some irreconcilable differences leading to more fired pastors and membership-dividing divorces.
The long established “germ theory of disease,” surprisingly, has found itself unable to pierce “literalist immunity” in many faith communities. Basic disease mitigations supported by Republicans and Democrats alike since the earliest polio vaccines for preserving the “public health” are currently cleaving some churches down the middle. The longer people resist the mitigations the longer the virus will persist, and the deeper the congregational pain we will see, especially in the “fat middle” of the chart above.
Social justice, dominionism, and politics
For those who claim that Christians should not be inserting themselves into politics, the magenta vector in the diagram above seems to demand a political response from either extreme. Dominionism is a “Last Days” urgency to seize control of local, state and national political bodies, by force if necessary, in order to insert conservative Christian morality and authority more deeply into secular law and institutions, with the returning-to-Earth “Divine Christ” at government’s eventual, literal head. This theology is preached every Sunday from conservative pulpits across the country.
I have written in the past how odd it has been that the most publicly profane and “unchurched” man ever elected president (except maybe Andrew Jackson, his idol) has been adopted as the standard-bearer by religious Dominionists. And they are still on fire, unapologetic over the failed attempt to change the vote on January 6, 2021, still trying to overturn Joe Biden’s 8 million vote margin and presidential win. And they have brought that political battle into many church congregations. Pastors continue to openly preach support for Donald Trump and open opposition to President Biden from the pulpit.
Pointing in the opposite direction are the people sometimes derogatorily proclaimed “Social Justice Warriors” (SJWs), who cite the hands-on ministry of a very human Jesus. The many instances cited in the gospels where Jesus walks among the poor, bringing healing and the proclamation that “the last shall be first,” are the mantras of the ministers walking at the front of the line, demonstrating for civil rights and equal treatment of all people in the judicial system. The story of Jesus upending tables and driving money-changers out of the Jerusalem Temple is sometimes used as a pretext for more physical action to stop very real injustices faced by millions of “casualties of the dominant culture.” SJWs know that you need political power to effectively address homelessness, for instance, although as Finland demonstrates, you don’t necessarily need a heavily-churched populace.
Again, most Christians likely fall somewhere in the “messy middle.” They hear Dominionist sermons from the pulpit and sing “Thou art Worthy, O Lord” praise choruses from the pews. But on their social media they watch videos of one Black man choked to death by policemen on a Minneapolis street, or another chased down and murdered by men with shotguns in Georgia. And they know something is wrong. They oppose the government telling them to wear a mask, but quietly get vaccinated when they see their pastor in the hospital on a ventilator.
I will confess that I have taken sides in this debate. My life has led me down and to the left on my own grid over the years. Unfortunately, my side is facing this fight largely unarmed. Perhaps the weaponless have more faith than the other guys. We will need it.