I grew up in Sri Lanka in a family that worshipped in the Methodist Church. I was strongly influenced by my family and also by the minister in my church and the chaplain in the private Anglican (aka Episcopalian) school I attended. These priests had such an influence on me that I became quite religious and studied to become a lay minister in the Methodist church, and was ordained soon after I graduated from college.
In that capacity I would be sent to various churches on Sundays to conduct services. As a lay minister, I was authorized to run every aspect of the service except the communion. I was even invited me to go to theological college and become a full minister and I briefly, but seriously, considered the offer. But in the end, I decided that I really wanted to be a physicist and declined.
But after I came to the US (first time as a graduate student to do my PhD in physics, then the second time to work here) my religious devotion waned considerably and I eventually became an atheist.
The story of what prompted that particular personal transition is not relevant here. The point that I want to make is that the kind of Christianity that I see in the US now is quite different from the kind that strongly attracted me as an adolescent and young adult. The priests who taught me were people who focused on the Jesus of the Gospels, and reminded us that belief in God carried with it responsibilities as well, the primary ones being to help bring about a better world, especially for those less fortunate than ourselves. While the idea of eternal salvation was not ignored, what was emphasized was that just professing our belief, and only worrying about the well-being of ourselves, our families, and our immediate community or nation, was not enough. We were supposed to live our beliefs by working for the betterment of everyone. These clergy preached tolerance for those who were different and believed different things, and an inclusiveness that sought to find ways to welcome all people. I was brought up to believe that it was more important to be good and kind than to be devout.
The social justice consequences of religious beliefs were what attracted me to religion then and I still support those religious groups (Christian and other) that seek to build a better world and fight injustices. There is no question that the quest for justice based on religious beliefs can lead people to make immense sacrifices for the collective good. The martyrdom of people like Archbishop Oscar Romero and the Ursuline nuns in El Salvador (who were killed for speaking out against brutal dictatorships that were oppressing the people there) and the humiliations suffered with dignity by civil rights marchers in the US, are inspiring. It is clear that for such people, it was their religious beliefs gave them the courage to do what they did.
But that view of religion as an agent of social justice, although still present in many churches and other groups in the US, is being pushed aside in the public sphere by those who have quite a different view. Think of the people who appear repeatedly on TV as spokespersons for religion. The names that immediately come to my mind are Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and James Dobson. The emergent Dominionist group that was highlighted by Chris Hedges and Jeff Sharlett in the May 2005 issue of Harper’s Magazine, is close to them in their view of what Christianity means.
Issues of social justice seem not to be a major concern for members of this Dominionist Christianity. In fact, Hedges points out that “They are picture-perfect members of a new Christian elite, showy, proud of how God has blessed them with material wealth and privilege, and hooked them into the culture of power and celebrity.”
If being materially successful is taken as a sign of God’s blessings, then the corollary is that being poor and deprived must imply that you have somehow found disfavor in the eyes of God. If that is the case, why should one concern oneself excessively with poor people, since their wretched condition must be largely their own fault, due to their own sinfulness or faults of character? This may explain why this form of Christianity is so closely aligned with capitalist ideology and why Pastor Ted Haggard (profiled by Sharlett as the head of the New Life Church in Colorado Springs and also head of the National Association of Evangelicals which, with over 30 million believers, makes up the nation’s most powerful religious lobbying group) says that they “like the benefits, risks, and maybe above all, the excitement of the free market” (Jeff Sharlett).
This would also explain why such churches like to stay in the suburbs and rural areas and see the cities (especially inner cities) as dens of sin to be avoided because of their “homosexuality, atheistic school teaching and ungodly imagery” and humanism. Also, if you think that material success equates with God’s favor, it makes sense to oppose (or at least not support) social security, social welfare programs, public schooling, and all other programs that have egalitarian goals, since the distribution of society’s material goods is a measure of ones spirituality, and not every one is equally good. So the alignment of these religious groups with political parties that advocate anti-egalitarian policies makes sense.
Needless to say, this particular form of Christianity is not at all appealing to me, and is totally in opposition to the message that was taught by the inclusive and tolerant priests of my youth. But tolerance and inclusivity are out, replaced by Manichaean thinking that sees everything in good-evil/we-they terms.
In a later posting, we will see that there is more to be concerned about than the seeming lack of concern about social justice and the absence of empathy for those less fortunate than ourselves.
There is also the knotty problem of how, if you believe in being tolerant and accepting of diverse views and beliefs, you deal with people who not only think that they are right and you are wrong, but that their religious views alone should be given pride of place by the government and used as a basis for state policies.