Christianity, Relevance, and No True Scotsman

Let’s Stop Pretending Christianity Is Actually Relevant, Okay?, despite a pretty clickbaity title, is a very good article. The author laments that so many Christians have become so focused on keeping out refugees, plastering the Ten Commandments on everything, and keeping the legal definition of marriage tied to their particular religious definition. All of this at the expense of loving your neighbor and doing unto others as you’d have them do unto you.  I share his frustration with some Christians’ total inability to grasp the concept of freedom of religion.  The money quote is:

It’s a strange practice to ask people who don’t hold the same beliefs as you to conform to your morals because you quoted a book they don’t read.

He gets into the history of Christianity, talking about how in the early church, Christianity was about radical love and inclusion. Church funds were used to free slaves, women were treated as equals, the poor and the sick and the dying were cared for.  I think every progressive Christian on the planet, myself included, wants to go back to that as the core definition of Christianity, especially if it doesn’t come with a side of being thrown to the lions. (Actual lions that eat you, not fake lions who require public businesses to serve the public or courthouses to refrain from endorsing a specific religion).

He also talks about the amount of freaking out that Christians are doing because of the church’s loss of influence:

much like a parasite trying to reconnect to its host for fear of dying, many Christians are thrashing about trying to create waves and convince people they are relevant within our culture

But there are two major places where I think this article misses the mark.  The first is that he drastically underestimates the amount of power and influence traditional Christianity still has in the United States.  Evangelical Christians elected Donald Trump. They had help from epic levels of misogyny (which that form of Christianity supports and promotes), Russian hackers, and the FBI, but that demographic was crucial in the last election. The majority of public officials at any level are still Christian, and even though the ACLU keeps fighting it, plenty of public schools, courthouses, and government buildings prominently post the Ten Commandments or other Christian messages. In large portions of the country, it’s perfectly legal to be fired from your job for being gay or trans. There are plenty of places where not going to church or not being a Christian puts you in real danger. It may not technically be legal to fire someone over their religion or decide a court case against them because they’re not a Christian, but it happens.  Hell, Alabama took *years* to actually protect kids from violent abuse because the abuse was “Christian” in nature.

I think the author makes too much of a poll stating that only 18% of millennials view Christianity as relevant.  In 20 or 30 years, when most positions of power are held by millennials, that will make more of a difference.  Right now, the average age of members of the House is 57, while the average senator is 61. For incoming S&P 500 CEOs, the average age was 53 in 201. At age 35, I’m either an old Millennial or a young Gen Xer, and I’m just barely old enough to run for President. If you take the later cut-off for the millennial generation and include birthdates in the early 2000s, not all of the millennial generation can even *vote* yet.  So, “relevant to millennials” and “wields significant political and cultural power” are not at all synonymous.

But it’s the second error that I think is worse.  The author longs for Christianity to lose its political power because he hopes that this will get rid of “cultural converts.”

Everyone is a Christian because they grew up in Texas. Or they go to church. Or their mom and dad raised them that way. Hell, according to the U.S. census 70% of Americans identify as “Christian.” But the vast majority of those responses are nothing more than cultural identification, not Christianity. I imagine that’s why so many people despise Christians. Their belief is cultural, and no one intends to follow the man they claim governs their life, so we end up this giant homogenous blob of hypocrites that judge and condemn people, instead of looking like they did in 165 AD. Instead of rushing to the aid of others, or paying for pagan burials like our ancestors did, we have half-hearted followers who run rampant through the streets of social media pointing the finger to everyone except themselves.

The problem with the “homogenous blob of hypocrites” is not that they’re “half-hearted” or “cultural converts.”  Nobody with lukewarm faith opens up a camp to preach and pray gay teenagers straight.  Nobody who’s halfhearted about their beliefs drives a giant bus around the country proclaiming that boys have a penis and girls have a vagina. Nobody who only goes to church out of habit showed up at Franklin Graham’s Donald Trump Is Our New Messiah Tour Decision America Tour and prayed fervently for God to put Donald Trump in the White House.

Here’s another example of judgmental Christianity being anything but half-hearted. Last week, there was a board meeting for my local library to discuss a controversial sex ed program. Controversial in that it teaches safer sex and acknowledges that gay and trans people exist. There were speakers from Together We Will, Planned Parenthood, and the LGBTQ community.  And there was a random guy sprinkling holy water on those speakers without their permission.  Yes, someone actually thought that wanting kids to get accurate sex ed indicated a need for divine guidance, or maybe an exorcism.  Fortunately, the guy was asked to leave. Unfortunately, the religious zealots won, and there will be no sex ed at the library. Holy Water Guy was the most blatant zealot, but nobody who took time out of their busy lives to make sure kids didn’t get sex ed because it’s against *their* religion did so out of lukewarm religion.

If anything, toxic and destructive Christianity suffers from an excess of conviction rather than a lack of it. The focus on faith as the only important virtue pushes people toward dogma and makes it hard for them to question what they’ve been taught.

I sympathize with the desire to paint theological opponents as half-hearted or insincere, because it’s hard to make sense of the alternative.  When you can’t fathom how someone could read the same Bible you have, adhere to the same core beliefs as you do, and have such differing outlooks on absolutely everything, it’s tempting to assume that they didn’t actually do the reading. Or they haven’t really thought about it.  But that’s the same  tired argument that gets lobbed at progressive Christians all the time: “If you read your Bible, you’d be a Republican” or “If you really pray about it, God will show you that being gay is a sin.”  The assumption of thoughtless superficiality isn’t any more correct when we lob it at conservative Christians then when it gets thrown at us.

Labeling the ugly side of Christianity as lukewarm, half-hearted Christians is also a textbook example of the No True Scotsman fallacy.  If we can separate “them” from “us” then we don’t have to wrestle with tough questions about our own beliefs, and we don’t have to take responsibility, as a part of the whole church, for the damage caused by Christianity. It also makes it easy to ignore or dismiss abuses in our own churches. If “we” are sincere and “they” are half-hearted, then “we” couldn’t possibly enable abusive pastors or ignore racism or contribute to injustice.

As difficult as it is, we have to acknowledge that Christianity–specifically Republican evangelical Christianity–still holds a huge amount of power in the United States, and that isn’t changing any time soon. We also have to acknowledge that this kind of Christianity is adhered to by believers no less sincere or committed than we are–probably moreso if you look at church attendance numbers. We can’t hide behind the idea that they’re not real Christians.

 

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2 thoughts on “Christianity, Relevance, and No True Scotsman

  1. Seph says:

    Labelling people as ‘not really Christian’ is not just fallacious—it doesn’t exactly embody the Christian ideal of radical inclusiveness either. It isn’t anyone’s place to doubt people’s profession of faith, although I can’t help seeing conservatives as not living up to the ideals of that faith in some important respects.

    FWIW, I think there is a big difference in the way evangelicals (even those who don’t take an inerrantist view of things) see Scripture: as somehow definining what it means to be Christian. From my (independent catholic) perspective, the Bible is a part of the liturgy, a collection of writings that church tradition regards as suitable to be read during services, something which as Christians we are obliged to take seriously, but not necessarily to agree with.

    As far as the political relevance of Christianity is concerned, I wish the Church had never got entangled with government in the first place, way back in 324. It would have been a lot smaller, but also a lot truer to itself.

    Sorry for the very long comment.

    • KellyK says:

      No need to be sorry at all. It’s an excellent comment! I totally agree that Christianity would be much better if not for its entanglement with politics.

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