They Can't Handle the Truth

Once and future Presidential candidate Rick Santorum doesn't like hearing about Christianity's dark side. He's not alone.

Nine days ago, in his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast, President Obama committed blasphemy: he spoke about the atrocities committed by terrorists in the name of Islam--this wasn't the blasphemy--and then made note of Christianity's long history of waging campaigns of violence against unbelievers, persons of other faiths, and even against other Christians who differed from the majority in terms of skin color, language, or interpretation of the Gospel.

The President was not slandering the faith. All the crimes against humanity he referred to--and he did it in as diplomatic a manner as it is possible to say such things, short of simply not saying them at all--are well-documented historical truths, some of them taking place within his own lifetime. Truthful and diplomatic though these remarks might be, simply saying them was enough to stir up a hornet's nest of controversy on the Christian Right. Criticizing the faith I grew up in--though in the President's case, it was simple acknowledgement--is, to many members of that faith, an unforgivable sin.

I can understand where some of these Christians are coming from. In my adolescence, as I began wondering about the validity of the claims made by the religion into which I had been born, I took offense at criticisms that came from outside my comfort zone. I had been raised intellectually liberal, taught that asking questions about my faith was not just permissible, but to be lauded and encouraged. Even so, my own personal faith was so tenuous that any critique hitting too close to home rocked me into doubt, so that instead of questioning truth claims I was questioning my own grasp of them. If, I reasoned, I was doubting the Resurrection, then perhaps I had lost my faith entirely, and without that I was, as the Apostle Paul put it, "of all people most to be pitied." (1 Corinthians 15:19)

Perversely, such challenges to my faith became, in college, challenges to my intellect. I began seeking out stories of confrontations between believers and unbelievers. Taking the popular C.S. Lewis seminar (an evening course, offered by the Religion department at Willamette, that was always too full for a normal lecture room, and had to be held in a small auditorium), I was drawn to the "righteous skeptic," a character appearing in most of his novels, and wrote my final paper on this archetype. Taking "Soviet Political Systems," my final paper was on Christianity in Communist China. This fascination continued on into seminary, where I found myself confronted on a regular basis with information about Christianity's conflicts with and oppression of other world religions, as well as the intramural wars fought over doctrine. The religion of the Prince of Peace, I came to realize, had drifted considerably from the practices prescribed by its founder.

I've written about much of this before in this space, so I'll just mention briefly the church's centuries-long oppression of Jews, culminating in the Holocaust; the abomination that was the Crusades; and the interminable wars Christians have waged against each other over differences of opinion on whether the Bible should be translated, whether Transubstantiation makes sense, and how much authority the Pope should have. I don't want to spend any more time on these things because the main focus of the rest of this peace is much more recent history. I'm talking, of course, about Jim Crow.

As Jamelle Bouie writes in Slate, racist Christians of the Jim Crow era couched much of their hate-mongering in the language of Scripture, and created whole rituals around lynching, race-bating, and other acts of terrorism. When George Wallace cried "Segregation yesterday, segregation today, segregation forever," he did it in the rhythms of Southern preaching. Christians of the American South didn't just inherit racist ideas, they recast them in the language of their faith. The Ku Klux Klan burned crosses to associate the Church Militant with the suppression of persons of color. Organized racists claimed to be members of the "Christian Identity" movement, a prettified euphemism for institutional bigotry. When white teenagers screamed racial slurs at African-American children pioneering school integration, they did so with the sanction of their pastors. Police officers and their posses who ended the first march from Selma to Birmingham with a horrendously violent assault on people seeking to exercise their right of free speech were in church the following Sunday, thanking God for helping them put down a demonstration.

And as I said, these events are not buried in our distant, barbaric past. It's been just 50 years since the brutal suppression of Selma, and the legacy of Jim Crow is still poisoning the social mobility of African-Americans throughout the United States. In a report released five days ago, the Equal Justice Initiative documents 3959 racial terror lynchings that occurred in the South between 1877 and 1950--700 more than previous estimates--and this is just the murders reported by newspapers. The great Black Exodus to Northern cities, it seems, was far less about opportunity than it was escaping a region of the country in which God-fearing white Christians viewed Black lives as cheap and expendable.

The Christian Right doesn't want to hear about religious complicity in the century-long systematic campaign to keep African-Americans indentured, segregated, and politically powerless. They don't want to be reminded of how many American churches divided along pro- and anti-slavery lines before the Civil War, divisions that continue to haunt even the reunified churches to this day. They don't want to know that Sunday morning at 11 a.m. is the most racially segregated hour in America, again a legacy of church complicity in the exploitative genocide that began with the arrival of white Christian conquerors in the Americas five hundred years ago. Nor do they want to be reminded of the racist, xenophobic motivation of the Crusades, or that Muslim culture in the Middle Ages was far more civilized than its Christian equivalent. And above all, don't try to tell them how the roots of the Holocaust can be found in the Gospels of Jesus Christ.

What all this denial tells me is that the Christian Right has a lot in common with my teenage self: they can't handle the truth about their faith. They've got nagging suspicions that it's too simplistic, too paradoxical, too superficial, too literal, suspicions they're afraid to voice because they feel disloyal and even blasphemous. They're afraid if they give their faith the scrutiny it deserves it will evaporate and they'll be left of all people most to be pitied. And they're right.

It was in my third year of ministry that I cost a middle-aged Welshman his faith by exposing him to the truth.

The Williamses were some of the first people I met in Britain. They reminded me of Archie and Edith Bunker, working-class people with broad accents, good hearts, and unsophisticated faith. When I began teaching a Bible study at Trinity Church, they were some of the first to attend. I drew my material from my scriptural studies in seminary, introducing them to literary and historical criticism. We started in Genesis, where I unpacked the many layers of editing that resulted in two contrasting Creation myths presented side by side. People loved it: the apparent contradictions had long bothered many of them, and finally having an explanation for it, seeing how each story served its own purpose and revealed something different about the faith of early Judaism, helped them reclaim this book for themselves. I moved on from Creation to the Flood, giving it the same critical treatment, parsing out the parallel passages and the presence of at least two sources, not to mention a far more ancient mythical level, in the story. And this is where Alan Williams went ballistic.

Alan's faith, it turns out, was based on a belief that the Flood really happened.

I'm not sure what fed that belief. I can remember watching a documentary in the 1970s called "In Search of Noah's Ark" that claimed it had been located through satellite photography, and yet never explained why no expedition had ever confirmed that the boat-like image was, in fact, the remnants of a huge ship. (I believe Leonard Nimoy narrated that documentary, lending it authority to my Star Trek-obsessed 13-year-old self.) And I knew that there had been, in the 1800s, much speculation that a stratum of debris found by geologists in many parts of the world had been called evidence of the Flood, though I believe it's now considered proof of the meteor collision that ended the age of the dinosaurs. Whatever tabloid science Alan was drawing on, it was vital to his faith that the Flood actually occurred. If he couldn't believe that, then everything else he believed would come tumbling down.

So that evening in the parlor of Trinity Church, Alan did the only thing he could to protect his teetering faith: he exploded at me for casting doubt on it, and stormed out of the building. He and Joyce stopped attending Trinity, choosing a different Methodist church where they could pretend they'd never heard the frightening words of the young preacher.

There were probably others whose doubts were stirred up by my insistence on digging deeper into the mythology of the Bible. It ultimately cost me my own faith, as I could no longer relativize the abominations both recorded in and inspired by this book, or the atrocities committed in the name of Christianity, Protestantism, and even Methodism. I found that, to handle the truth, I had to accept it and permit it to change me. I had to give up being a Christian in order to become a better child of God.

That's a choice no one on the Christian right wants to make, even though, if the outcry over President Obama's careful remarks is any indication, there are plenty of them who are afraid they'll eventually have to make it.


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