David Roy

Progressive Religion…Is Not an Oxymoron

Religious Nonsense from the Pews, the News and the Capital

One of the Community Alliance’s dear friends, Jim Compton-Schmidt, sent an e-mail recently where, in his low-key style, he complained quietly about the cabal of fundamentalist religious leaders and ultraconservative political types “who have not a clue we live in the 21st Century…[I am] sick and tired of people with this mindset deciding everything that goes on in this country.”

Jim, of course, is not alone. There is, in fact, another Jim, Jim Wallace of Sojourners, who also wants to challenge those who fail at keeping their calendar pages flipped to the correct century.

Wallace is one of the small number of visible Christian leaders publicly and systematically pushing back hard against the theological and religious nonsense being used to justify wholesale destruction of our meager social safety net, our marginal efforts to safeguard the environment and our progressive advances in general.

Non-Fundamentalists Need to Push Back!

Our Jim (Compton-Schmidt) recognizes that part of what is needed to silence these shrill voices means that Christians not in this reactionary, fundamentalist camp, “must develop a backbone” and confront the nonsense that is being promoted and sometimes the people who are promoting it. “[As] long as organized religion is not doing something to stop it, [these religious extremists] will continue to run over our rights in this country.”

Reactionary Fundamentalists Are a Small Minority

Because this reactionary, fundamentalist contingent gets so much attention in the media, it is easy to assume they are the vast majority of Christians. They are not. Not by a long shot.

Let’s look at some facts posted at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (http://religions.pewforum.org/). They have many pages reporting the results of the extensive (35,000 people) U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. It covers many facets of religious life in America, including affiliation, attitudes toward current social issues (e.g., homosexuality, environment), the origin of the bible, whether one’s faith is one among many and so on.

Only 24% Claim to Have the One True Faith

A few items from the study: Although 78.4% of Americans say they are Christian, only about 25% say theirs is the only true faith. Among Christian evangelicals, often thought of as largely intolerant of other Christians, let alone other religions, actually only 36% say theirs is the only way. A healthy majority of evangelicals (57%) affirm pluralism of belief. Evangelicals constitute the largest single group in the entire study (26.3%).

(The Pew survey does not distinguish between conservatives and fundamentalists. My experience is that you can find conservative Christian evangelicals who are far more open than one might expect. Christian fundamentalists, as with all fundamentalists, typically are far less so.)

So, even among the group that appears disproportionately represented in the media and the capital, the majority actually favors diversity. The widespread public face of the intolerant Christian evangelist really amounts to about 7.5% of all Christians.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons are the only groups with a majority adhering to the one true faith idea (80% and 57%, respectively). Together, they constitute about 2.5% of the total U.S. population.

Key Social Issues Reveal a Similar Pattern

Longstanding conflict has centered on attitudes toward abortion and homosexuality, for example. Even with current trends toward a more conservative public overall, at least 50% support the more liberal perspective in both cases. This breakdown translates almost identically to all Christians as they make up close to 80% of the U.S. population.

(Unfortunately, the Pew study for some reason does not give a combined Christian figure but leaves it as all Protestant [including Evangelicals, Mainline Christians and Historically Black Churches], Catholics, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Orthodox and Other Christians. I did compute the actual Christian totals for the one true faith item, but it is time-consuming and most likely will not change appreciably from the overall U.S. figures.)

Among all Americans, 51% believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, 27% want it illegal in most cases and 16% want it illegal in all cases. Evangelicals report 33%, 36% and 25% in the same categories; mainline churches are 62%, 25% and 7% in these categories; and Catholics are 38%, 27% and 18%.

Half of all Americans believe homosexuality should be accepted and 40% feel it should be discouraged. Acceptance among Evangelicals drops to 26% and discouragement rises to 64%. Among mainline churches, 56% affirm acceptance and 34% the opposite; 58% of Catholics are supportive and 30% not.

Facts Don’t Support the Rhetoric—So, Why Is This Ignored?

If the facts do not lend credibility to the belief of solid, broad and deep political support for this rampant politically conservative crusade, why is this being ignored? Why are we not hearing reports that the emperor is naked? There are probably several reasons:

Lack of organization. Although true believers easily can be recruited to defend fiercely their articles of faith—which are, from their perspective, unconditionally necessary for survival now and in the future—the vast majority of Christians are all over the place with beliefs and practices. There is often a competing multiplicity of viewpoints as to what is important.

Passion. The single, clear message that roars with emotion sets the stage for organized efforts to broadcast the viewpoint. Social conservatives, particularly those in the extreme, are good at this type of organization. They have been doing this for decades now. By contrast, moderates, liberals and progressives seldom can agree on a single, overarching point of view and therefore rarely come together and act as a single body. When they do, powerful things happen, as witness the civil rights movement in the last century.

Big (BIG) money. Another key factor is that many of those with what might be called “antisocial” agendas have a great deal of wealth and, collectively, far more than the usual suspects on the more liberal-progressive side.

In conclusion, this comes down to better organization based on single-mindedness, passion and wealth.

We Can Still Act Locally by Countering the Prevalent Theological and Biblical Distortions

There are, however, things we can do on a local and the state or federal level (depending on access). One of these options is to counter the distorted and even perverse theology and religion that gets tossed around.

At another time, I will share some insights into the origin of these egregious distortions of the original position that Jesus took in relationship to key areas of human need.

For now, I simply want to lay out some of the most important of those positions and let you see how far off the mark the media’s view of the Christian religion has become and, likewise, how far some Christian leaders and their political counterparts have moved away from Jesus’ original core message.

The Jesus of the Bible

The Jesus of the Bible was a man of peace who cared for the poor as expressions of God’s unconditional love.

Jesus was a man of peace, regardless if this was a shrewd calculation given the extraordinary power imbalance between the Jewish citizens of that era in that part of the world or a matter of deep moral conviction. He did not order his followers to fight. Instead, he told them they should love their enemies (Matthew 5:44b, Luke 6:27b) and should not retaliate but turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39, Luke 6:29a).

He told them that they should care for the poor and the hungry, those who could not take care of themselves and those who had no standing or power (Luke 6:20–26). He said to forget the law (regarding keeping the Sabbath) when people were hungry or ill (Mark 2:23–28).

He told them to let go of their attachment to “things,” thereby freeing them to be open to God’s spirit in the here and now (referred to as “the Kingdom of God; Matthew 19:23–24).

He told them that God’s basic nature was unconditional, unstoppable love, a love that they should emulate for their neighbors (Mark 12:28–31).

(For further information on Jesus’ sayings, a good starting place is The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, edited by Robert W. Funk et al.)

Keep the Handy Little Guide (see sidebar) with you and use it when necessary. This will help counter those Christian clergy, their media conduits and their Washington counterparts, all of whom are determined to use any and all methods to bully Congress and the public into accepting agendas that employ the tactics of a hostile takeover in order to destroy programs that are, in fact, helping to fulfill Jesus’ mandates about peace, poverty, goodwill, asceticism and more.

A Handy Little Guide to What Jesus Really Said

Print this out and carry it with you at all times so that you can quickly pull it out and read it aloud when you want to counter religious nonsense from the pulpit, the media and politicians.

Q. Did Jesus say to kill our enemies or to love our enemies?
A. To love our enemies! (Matthew 5:44b, Luke 6:27b)
Q. But at least it’s okay to retaliate?
A. Sorry, but the answer is definitely, “No!” It’s certainly human nature to strike back, to get even, but Jesus was definitely counterintuitive on this one. (Matthew 5:39, Luke 6:29a)
Q. Didn’t Jesus say to let the poor (or hungry, destitute, etc.) suffer their miserable fates? After all, it is their laziness that’s to blame and they should stop trying to make us feel guilty. Right?
A. Wrong! Jesus said to take care of the poor, the ill, the hungry. (Luke 6:20–26) He even broke the Law concerning the Sabbath by encouraging his followers to collect grain on the Sabbath! (Mark 2:23–28)
Q. Surely Jesus said it was okay to acquire material wealth as a sign of God’s favor, right?
A. Nope! Just the opposite. The more things to which we are attached, the more difficult it is to be harmonized with God’s aims, to “enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 19:23–24)
Q. Well, at least Jesus knew right from wrong and made sure that sinners knew that God would cut them off from God’s full and complete love; right?
A. Sorry, wrong again! Jesus made it absolutely clear that nothing could stop God’s love, no matter how awful we were. (Mark 12:28–31)

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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