There has been an awful lot written lately about American Evangelicalism and the current political landscape. Not only is America deeply divided, but that divide cuts deeply through American Christianity as well. A number of Christians for example, including elected officials have been explicit in their preference to put aside credible allegations of molestation, sexual predation and harassment as long as it means a reliable vote for their political party.
I have to sympathize with Christians, clerics and laity, who have to try to square the idea that 81% of Evangelicals, Trump’s most reliable supporters, explicitly support policies that seem completely antithetical to the message of their religion’s founder – on matters of health insurance for children, health insurance availability overall, food and other assistance for the most needy, deportation and immigration policies, tax policy, the environment, separation of Church and State, discrimination and civil rights. If our laws reflect our national values and our collective heart, it’s very difficult to get from here to Jesus.
Also of concern to this remnant minority of believers in the US (presumably about 19%) is the fact that people are leaving churches and religious beliefs more and more every year. I received this question from Peter Hamm, pastor of Norwood Grace United Methodist Church in Norwood, Ohio.
I am looking for your perspective (you’re helping me write a sermon). When you look at the recent news cycle (I mean the Roy Moore news cycle)… what does that make the word “Christian” mean to you…
My response, lightly edited:
Thanks for the question. Honored that you would think of me and I’m happy to give you my perspective for what it’s worth.
I don’t think of Christianity the same way I used to, or the same way I think many Christians do; that there is one unified, singular, orthodox “Christianity.” I know Christians think of the Body of Christ, or “the Church” somewhat more in those terms while at the same time perhaps thinking that their own practice of it is closest to the germinal Christian truth. They may also allow that other sects, denominations or versions of Christianity, while perhaps mistaken on certain points of doctrine or theology still qualify as ecumenically “Christian” in that larger inclusive sense.
Interestingly then, some disqualify other self-proclaimed Christian faiths as “not Christian;” I’m thinking mostly about Mormons, JWs, and even Catholics, and all kinds of fringe sects for one reason or another, and people have their stated reasons for doing so. If someone identifies as Christian, in my opinion they are Christian, no matter how unorthodox the theology or beliefs might be. There is after all, no authority on what constitutes “Christian,” although there are bodies throughout history that have laid claim to the authority to judge. And while we could look at the dictionary definition of the word “Christian,” as “Christ-like,” or “follower of Christ,” even there we could make multiple conflicting arguments and we see through a glass darkly, especially where the bible is silent or ambiguous about many of the major and central moral issues we face in our complex societies and civilizations.
Given all that, when someone like Roy Moore or Jimmy Swaggart or any number of others like them show up, I do not fault Christianity necessarily for those failures, even when those folks frame their situation explicitly in religious terms. Religion gives people good cover for whatever they choose to believe and practice. This seems patently obvious to me since there is such a wide range of beliefs and practices all (or many) of which lay claim to scriptural, traditional, ecumenical or some other kind of authority. And yet they so widely disagree, and what’s to be done with that?! Oh well! I can use scripture or tradition to justify any number of beliefs, virtuous or abhorrent.
I personally am only really interested in one line of thinking when I consider religion, or Christianity specifically; 1) What are its objective truth claims; 2) what is the support for those claims, and 3) what are the results of belief in those claims in the lives of sentient beings? I believe Roy Moore is a Christian because he says he is; one type anyway. I also believe there is very little basis for accepting his truth claims about the world, the human condition or the cosmos. I also believe his particular version of Christianity causes great harm to a large number of people, and if he were elected the potential for harm would increase by orders of magnitude. But I still take him at his word, that he’s a Christian.
Does that erode the validity, credibility and value of Christianity overall? I don’t think it does necessarily. It certainly erodes his version of it, and those of his supporters and I feel I can (and must) safely and easily reject it. But he and they are just one point on a continuum of Christian beliefs and practices, or maybe one point on a scatter plot might be a better way of thinking about it. I don’t think Christians have a very robust basis for saying, “Well, Roy Moore is not really a Christian,” or “Roy Moore is not acting as Jesus would have,” or “That’s not really a good example of what Christianity is or what it’s all about.” I think those statements are wrong and I can support that with many, many examples. It may not be what MY Christianity is all about or YOUR Christianity is all about, but I don’t think those statements have an irrefutable authoritative foundation.
Clearly child molestation is antithetical to most versions of Christianity. What I’m really talking about is his idea of how he frames sexuality, sin and how he’s dealing with this scandal presently. But Roy Moore is human just like the rest of us. He’s probably also lying, in my opinion, just based on the preponderance of the evidence. His religion has not yet been able to override any of this, and that DOES go to what I see as some of Christianity’s claims – that Christians are the salt of the earth, the city on a hill, the light in dark places, that they will be known for their love for one another. There also seems to be no basis to accept those claims. In the end, he is merely human and his religion ineffective and harmful, and I think that says something.
Some folks use their religious beliefs to work toward admirably and (allow me to say) almost enviously virtuous, shining examples of the highest expression of what humans can become. I even know some! I have no problem with that at all, even when they credit it when they are successful while often blaming their own humanity when it’s not. They have at least shown that their motivation and result of their practice is the well-being of sentient beings and in the end, that’s what’s most important to me. I consider any other theological claims proposed besides that a distraction, perhaps an interesting academic discussion, but if people feel they need those beliefs to bring a high level of love to the world, then who am I to criticize that unless it becomes harmful for any reason?
But I also know folks of other faiths, agnostics and atheists that are at least equally virtuous. I believe it is not necessary to hold religious beliefs and that seems patently obvious too. No religious tradition can lay claim to a higher level of morality, ethic, love and human expression than any other, and all religions have their Roy Moores. To me that argues against certain religious claims made by religious points on the scatter plot, but no, it’s pretty easy for me to see this current religio-political climate as the domain largely of religion’s bottom feeders, using primitive and superstitious religion as a cover.
You can follow Peter Hamm on Twitter at @peterhamm or visit his Website.