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Dec 01 2009

Christianity and the allure of “cheap grace”

One aspect of religion that has often come under atheists’ critical fire is the way in which it enables the most egregious hypocrisies amongst its most devout adherents. Considering how important Christians will tell you Scripture is to their lives, it’s remarkable how selective they are in their reading of that Big Book of Multiple Choice. The warnings against hypocrisy among believers that comprise most of Matthew 6 would be sufficient to shut up almost the entirety of the American Christian Right, if they were the kinds of people who practiced what they preached.

But I think there is something about religion that’s even more insidious than hypocrisy, and that’s the way it puffs up believers’ hubris, allowing them to think they’re more special and entitled and deserving, even (and especially) without having done anything to earn it. Religion tells people they’re part of a select group, favored over others by God. And yet these are the same people who routinely like to attack unbelievers — and the intelligentsia many unbelievers are part of — as “elitists.” What could be more elitist than believing everybody but you deserves eternity of torture in hell, simply because you belong to the Jesus Fan Club and they don’t?

I’ve been thinking about this over the last couple of days since my attention was drawn to something that hasn’t really turned up on atheists’ radar: the Manhattan Declaration. This is a kind of manifesto that has recently been put together by several prominent conservative Christian figures — among them arch-bigot Tony Perkins and Kazim’s old pal Chuck Colson — as something of an ideological purity test. It begins as follows:

We are Orthodox, Catholic, and evangelical Christians who have united at this hour to reaffirm fundamental truths about justice and the common good, and to call upon our fellow citizens, believers and non-believers alike, to join us in defending them. These truths are:

  1. the sanctity of human life
  2. the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife
  3. the rights of conscience and religious liberty.

Some quick Googlage has revealed that this Declaration has already ruffled the feathers of liberal, progressive Christians, who have quickly called the whole thing out as an effort to enshrine conservative prejudices as “fundamental truths about justice and the common good.” Only the most smug and arrogant bigots could claim with a straight face that a Declaration that openly repudiates GLBT marriage equality is one that favors “justice” in any form. I think that word, to quote The Princess Bride for the 80 billionth time, doesn’t mean what they think it means.

Basically, the highfalutin language of the thing does little to disguise the fact that it’s a huge anti-gay-rights and anti-abortion petition, and it takes a Bushian “with us or against us” attitude that is nothing less than a gauntlet thrown down to all those liberal Christians who haven’t toed the Hate Line to the satisfaction of their conservative betters.

Surfing the blogosphere, I come upon this post by blogger Hugo Schwyzer — who, as an avowed pro-GLBT liberal feminist Christian, is about as far from the fundies’ notion of ideological purity as a guy can get — where he takes the Manhattan Declaration to task for being little more than a reactionary pushback against the tendency among the younger generation of modern Christians to reject right-wing fundie obsessions with “pelvic morality” (basing culture war talking points on sexual and reproductive issues to the near exclusion of everything else) in favor of broader moral concerns — saving the planet, helping the needy — that are generally of interest only to those damn latté sipping libs. Schwyzer makes an astute point about the “cheap grace” enjoyed by fundies whenever they beat their chests and pontificate over such narrow-minded issues: that these are fights they love precisely because they have nothing at stake.

Here’s the thing: fighting against abortion and gay rights is, in the end, cheap. It requires no particular personal sacrifice or reflection on the part of those who claim these are the top issues. Men who will never get pregnant; heterosexuals who have the privilege to marry those whom they love — they surrender nothing precious to them by fighting tooth and nail against reproductive and glbtq rights. The struggle against global poverty and the struggle to save the planet from environmental degradation, on the other hand, make radical claims on all of us — particularly on the affluent in the West, whose unsustainable consumption patterns are directly linked to human and animal suffering. Fighting against climate change and poverty require that the wealthy transform their lifestyles; fighting against gay rights requires nothing more than censorious and self-righteous indignation.

Bam! — direct hit, below the waterline. But I’d caution Schwyzer not to forget that, in a very real way, “cheap grace” is at the heart of all Christianity, not just the version practiced by wingnutty Sarah Palin and Carrie Prejean fans. Christianity presents believers with this odd notion about morality, sin, and fate: that, merely by virtue of being alive, a person is a worthless sinner damned to eternal agony because of the Fall; but hey, not to worry, because Jesus took all of that punishment upon himself, poor chap, and now by virtue of his sacrifice, you’re good to go, and all you need to do is make sure (at some point before you die) you publicly high-five Jesus for taking one for the team, accepting him as your savior. So, we’re damned, but we’re not, and eternal salvation is ours simply by the rough spiritual equivalent of clicking a confirmation email.

So right from the outset, Christians are more or less raised in the extremely confident belief that all the heavy lifting for their own personal redemption was already done 2000 years ago. Their own efforts require no personal sacrifice at all. If this is not cheap grace, what is?

The very thing that Christianity tries to sell as its most morally and spiritually profound element — salvation by proxy — in fact cheapens the entire notion that in life, self-respect, the respect of others, and an enduring reputation as the kind of good person whom the rest of us should want to emulate, must be earned. The whole notion of salvation by faith and not works (which, admittedly, might be more favored by conservative Christians than liberal ones, though I think God, if he’s up there, ought to do his job right and clarify matters) gives Christians the ability to think pleasingly of themselves as among the saved elect, regardless of how they might actually behave in their lives. The popular Christian bumper sticker “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven” conveys egotism, not humility, as it’s basically saying, “Yippie! I’m a Christian, and I never have to change, never have to better myself, never have to take responsibility at all.” The very hypocrisy Matthew 6 rails against is enabled by Christianity’s entire salvation mechanism. How else could so many arch-scumbags (insert names here, but off the bat I think of Kenneth Lay and Jim Bakker) preen with such pride while living the sleaziest, most immoral lives they could manage?

So, while I’m always pleased to see liberal Christians who aren’t afraid to take on the Right Wing Noise Machine (a thing we have pointedly challenged them to do for a decade on AETV), I’d caution Schwyzer and his liberal Christian brethren not to overlook the cheap grace at Christianity’s very foundation. But to be fair, perhaps the fact that guys like him, at the very least, do try to live decent lives of higher personal responsibility, supportive of the real meaning of terms like “justice” and “equality” that the wingnut
s simply treat as pious catchphrases, means they’re more aware of it than they might like to admit.

30 comments

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  1. 1
    Jeffrey Shallit

    Very perceptive. Christianity is all about convincing yourself that the creator of the universe — the creator of all that has been and will ever be — is intimately and exclusively concerned with the welfare of one species of primate on one planet circling one sun in a not-particularly-distinguished galaxy. If that's not the height of hubris, I don't know what is.

  2. 2
    March Hare

    I agree with almost all of this, but have to pick up on one feature:Fighting against climate change and poverty require that the wealthy transform their lifestyles;erm, how is this true or backed up by any facts?I really hate people making massive statements about poverty with 1. no evidence and 2. no knowledge of basic economics. Our wealthy lifestyles, coupled with free trade, are the last, best hope for reducing poverty in the 3rd world.Also, climate change science has taken a massive hit recently and I would suggest that a trillion dollar economic readjustment to stop the falsified change (change might be real, but the data was compromised/exaggerated) might just be counter-productive to reducing 3rd world (and even domestic) poverty.

  3. 3
    Kenton

    I've said it for years. Christianity is the lazy persons religion. It costs nothing because you must do virtually nothing. It's the religious equivalent to putting a yellow ribbon on your car to "support the troops", but taking actual responsibility for things is a different matter. That would require action and actual sacrifice.

  4. 4
    Martin

    March Hare: Fighting against climate change and poverty require that the wealthy transform their lifestyles;erm, how is this true or backed up by any facts?Well, I see no reason to argue with the idea that if you're roaring around in a colossal H3 that gets 15 MPG, you're not doing your part to reduce our dependence on CO2-spewing foreign fossil fuels. (And I know Hummer has unveiled a 100-mpg model, though it doesn't really get that unless you limit your driving to 60 miles per day.)And if you're a wealthy guy who loves yachts, watch out! Fuel consumption and maintenance nightmares. A yacht can be likened to a hole in the water you throw money into.

  5. 5
    Ing

    @March HareMaybe you should look into the "HIT" the evidence took. There's no evidence of data fraud. Just scientists talking amongst themselves about how to deal with a massive ideological anti-science movement. Exactly the same sort of talk biologists might have about creationists. Sceptic's Guide has an episode where they chat about it.

  6. 6
    Heretic Tom

    Well put, Martin! It is all hubris! I'm a former Catholic priest who "saw the light" and is now an atheist."The devil made me do it," is the biggest cop out and it is at the core of Christianity. Well that, and believing that everything will be perfect in heaven (translation: screw earth and what we're doing to destroy this world because heaven is where it's at).To me, prayer is the ultimate hubris: believing that a divine and all loving being (the Santa Christ) would pick you out out of the entire universe and grant you your deepest desires, while millions of others starve, die, and suffer around you. That is hubris.Check out my blog: http://www.gospelaccordingtohate.comIt's all about unmasking hypocrisy in religion.

  7. 7
    Zurahn

    The arrogance gets me more in terms of the "personal experience" argument. How enormously and literally holier-than-thou can you get than saying God himself spoke directly to you, and not billions of others?

  8. 8
    Kazim

    Also refer to this post on the climate change emails.At worst, the emails indicated use of inappropriate methodology by some individuals, not some major conspiracy to deceive.

  9. 9
    Torgo

    This reminds of the Dostoevsky line that theists often throw out: "If God does not exist, then everything is permitted." To which we can reply, as your post nearly does, "If the God of evangelical Christianity exists, then everything is permitted." If salvation has nothing to do with works, only belief, if grace comes this easily, then why feel any need to do good? And why not do evil if that's what you want to do?

  10. 10
    Craig

    Oh looksie, he's back!The internet's very own 'I'm-not-concerned-about-atheism-but-I'll-spend-my-time-trolling-every-atheist-outlet-I-possibly-can' kind of guy.I saw you on alt.atheism a few days ago posting… exactly the same crap. Ur kut n paste skillz r 733t

  11. 11
    Martin

    Oh for fuck's sake. (Deletes Markuze trollfest.)Right everybody. Full time moderation back on until the men with butterfly nets catch up to Markuze again. Jesus.We now return you to your regularly scheduled comment thread.

  12. 12
    March Hare

    FFS, no-one is denying (well, I'm not) that chucking millions of tons of CO2 will not change the climate and increase average temperatures.However, you feck with the numbers and the whole science has to start from scratch.Does no-one else think that the stupidity of climate change scientists have massively harmed the reputation of science so when evolutionists point out the masses of evidence for it the deniers have an easy 'science lies' card?

  13. 13
    March Hare

    Ignoring the climate change nonsense (yes climate is warming, blah de blah, but the science is broken! Anyone trying to influence public policy on the basis of broken science may as well try to stop stem cell research on the basis that they're all alive and have souls!).However, massive international trade and economic activity is the best and only way for Africa to exit the 3rd world existence most people experience.

  14. 14
    Martin

    Okay, March Hare, this is veering toward major thread drift, so future comments debating climate change (from anybody) will not make it through moderation. While it's fine to discuss climate change in the context of the actual post (as an example of a "culture war" issue that involves greater personal investment than simply bashing teh gayz), this is not the place for a greenies-vs-denialists cage-match.

  15. 15
    Michael

    Your all going to Hell and I pity you. You can only see what's in front of you. God hides himself from the proiud and arrogant thats why you haven't found Him yet.

  16. 16
    Martin

    So erudite in their reasoning, these believers.

  17. 17
    M J Shepherd

    So terrible their English as well.

  18. 18
    Michael

    I don't know what erudite means and I won't look it up even I know it's an insult. I ask you what came before evoltion? If not God what?

  19. 19
    Martin

    I don't know what erudite meansI figured that.and I won't look it up even I know it's an insult.Actually, it isn't, which ought to tell you you shouldn't have napped your way through 8th grade English. I did, however, use the word sarcastically.I ask you what came before evoltion? If not God what?If you'd like a primer on evolutionary biology, go here. Otherwise, this isn't an evolution thread. Threadjacking is frowned upon here.Your concern about our hellbound state is noted, thanks. Now please, unless you have something pertinent to say in reply to the actual post above, by all means, don't let the door hit you in the ass on your way out.

  20. 20
    Michael

    I feel terribly guilty.It's a rainy Thursday in Melbourne, the office is empty, I was bored and I thought I'd try an initial stab at 'fake-trolling'. It's quite the thing, apparently.Except I did it on a blog I love, which, in retrospect, was a mistake. Straight to hell I would be heading if there was one.You fell for it though, didn't you? Hardly surprising. My half-assed aping is too realistic for its own good. Scary.Sorry to have bothered you. I'm an avid AE and NP follower and Martin I think you're brilliant.I will bother you no more.

  21. 21
    Martin

    O_oPoed? By an expert!Okay okay.But that's the thing about being good at it. You were indistinguishable from the real thing. Literally. And just after deleting another dozen or so crazy rants from Dennis Markuze and having to enable moderation again…yeah, the timing probably wasn't the best.By all means, comment again. Just do it as yourself in future, please?

  22. 22
    Michael

    Will do. Gladly.You guys rock.

  23. 23
    Ing

    Poe or a set up to evolve into a concern troll? BUM BUM BUUUUUUUM!Fight the conspiracy!

  24. 24
    Jeff the Giant

    There is a reason cheap grace becomes so appealing to the believer. Certain religions raise the bar so high, no human being can make it. In essence they must create the disease before they can sell you the cure. Once they've engendered a sense of hopelessness in you, they provide you the Nonsense Jesus. Nonsense Jesus satisfies God's law by suffering and dying for you. No justice system in the world would think it's just to punish an innocent man for someone else's crime. Why is God's law so much less just than our own meager systems?Side note: the quickest way to make almost everyone feel sinful is to demonize human sexuality. Since sexual feelings are a deep part of who we are, everyone is snared by this broad net. Way to go religion!

  25. 25
    Guillaume

    I thought "Michael" was not real, as his posts were too much of a caricature. I mean, not knowing what "erudite" means? Come on! But it seems that, while his troll-fundie persona does not exist, people got fooled because there are real people like "him". I find it hard to believe.Does that make any sense?

  26. 26
    Martin

    But it seems that, while his troll-fundie persona does not exist, people got fooled because there are real people like "him". I find it hard to believe.Guillaume, believe it.

  27. 27
    Ing

    The best book for children who you want to get thinking about this is "The Whipping Boy" where they have a child who is designated to be beaten when the prince misbehaves to punish the prince. I now really read that as a metaphor for that.

  28. 28
    Kyle S

    My two cents on "cheap grace":As an ex-fundy myself, I remember a lot of this distinctly. There's a debate within fundagelical circles about that very subject. Have any of you heard of John MacArthur's books The Gospel According To Jesus or Faith Works? MacArthur, an evangelical minister, had as his thesis that anyone who is "saved" – i.e. accepted Jesus as savior, would inevitably produce evidence of that by how they live their lives. Lack of evidence or "good fruit" is to be a sign that the professing Christian isn't a Christian after all, and, barring "genuine repentance", that professing Christian would be in for a rude awakening come judgment day.Plenty of Christians with whom I was acquainted subscribed to this, including the pastor of the last church I attended regularly, a large SBC church in Denver.Of course, this doesn't make the message of Christianity any better. It's still an immoral system. But I did want to clarify that there are plenty of fundagelicals aren't "cheap grace" proponents.

  29. 29
    Marella

    Or as Tim Minchin puts it, it's about the idea that god takes time out from systematically murdering African babies to find you a parking spot!! My favourite example of this was when Serena Williams won the Australian Open a few years ago, she thanked god for helping her. Yeah, god helps Serena win a bloody tennis match ffs! Dunno what he had against the poor bitch who lost!

  30. 30
    WoundedEgo

    The Catholic Church brought us:* the Trinity (LOL!)* the BibleThe Protestants brought us:* "faith apart from corresponding actions"* "grace" – the "force that manipulates dirt to do the divine work"I am hard pressed to say which inventions are worse… but since the Protestants replicate the sins of their fathers and add their own, they are clearly the "Biggest Losers!"

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