Religion More About Politics Than Theology

Steve BenenEvery Saturday, Steve Benen writes, This Week in God. He seems to grab snippets from the news during the week and then he features one story and provides a paragraph each for all the rest. What really comes across is just how politic religion is. This is my big problem with religion now, then, and always: it isn’t about God in any theological sense. It is about using a concept as a political tool. And this is why most religious people I run into are “useful idiots.” They are politically conservative because they think that is what God wants, but they are really just doing the work of the power elite.

This week, one of the minor items concerned an article in Religious News, Secularism Grows as More US Christians Turn “Churchless.” It is based upon research by David Kinnaman that finds that roughly four-in-ten Americans (38%) are either atheists, agnostics, or believers who never go to church. He refers to these people as “churchless.” According to the article, “If asked, the ‘churchless’ would likely check the ‘Christian’ box on a survey, even though they may not have darkened the door of a church in years.” Actually, the data only indicate that 32% identify as Christian, but that’s still higher than the 25% who identify as atheists or agnostics.

But a lot of these churchless Christians are real believers. They talk to Jesus all the time and one can only assume that Jesus answers their prayers as readily as he answers the prayers of those who go to church: not at all. But one would think that it wouldn’t matter. I mean, as St Ignatius said: wherever Jesus is, there is the Church. But of course it does matter to the religious elite, just as it matters to Bob Iger that people keep dragging the kids out to the newest Disney film. In fact, I’m sure if they could, religious leaders would copyright Jesus, so that praying along would be a crime.

I know that a lot of people would claim that the problem with people not going to church is that they will get lost in ever mounting heresies. But I’ve always wondered about that. Isn’t it the thought that counts? Wouldn’t God look at someone alone studying the Bible trying to figure out exactly what God wanted them to do and show mercy? Wouldn’t he send them to heaven just for giving it the old college try? But at least the Catholic Church can make the argument that it has made for 2,000 years: the Bible is a difficult book and it is best left to the experts. The protestants are all about going directly to the Bible. What authority do they have to claim that Christians need to go to them to be spoon-fed the meaning of scripture?

This, I think, is why protestant denominations have gone so far off the rails in terms of politics. Their only real appeal is essentially a tribal one: come to church because that is what good people do. It is hardly a step at all from “Good people go to church” to “Good people believe in tax cuts for the rich.” I’m not saying that all leaders of churches are especially interested in the politics; they are most just trying to fill the pews. But there is no doubt that sermons about how we all need to stop the “baby killers” are more exciting than those calling for humility and turning the other cheek.

Back in May, Randall Balmer discussed the history of abortion as an issue with the religion right. The movement didn’t sprout up because they had been reading Thomas Aquinas and had discovered that the soul enters the body at fertilization. No, the movement started with more banal, political reasons:

Some of these anti-Roe crusaders even went so far as to call themselves “new abolitionists,” invoking their antebellum predecessors who had fought to eradicate slavery.

But the abortion myth quickly collapses under historical scrutiny. In fact, it wasn’t until 1979—a full six years after Roe — that evangelical leaders, at the behest of conservative activist Paul Weyrich, seized on abortion not for moral reasons, but as a rallying-cry to deny President Jimmy Carter a second term. Why? Because the anti-abortion crusade was more palatable than the religious right’s real motive: protecting segregated schools. So much for the new abolitionism.

[Emphasis added. -FM]

This is in reference to these protestant churches not wanting to have to let black children enter their schools. Ever wonder why black evangelicals haven’t followed their white brethren down the path of abortion monomania? Now you know. But white, black, or purple, churches are fundamentally about political power. And I think that’s just fine. What I don’t think is fine is their claim that they speak for God. I know that Pope Francis will probably be a disappointment to us liberals. But it is remarkable that he shows humility and says publicly that he is not in the business of judging. This is something we don’t hear from Pat Robertson, who told television viewers last week about raising the dead, “That power is there, we just aren’t using it.” Humility!

2 thoughts on “Religion More About Politics Than Theology

  1. My favorite study about the power of prayer was done a few years ago. It’s well-documented that sick people who have family and friends praying for them recover better than those without family and friends. Duh. So this study (http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/31/health/31pray.html?_r=0) measured the recovery rates of sick people who had total strangers pray for them without telling the sick people they were being prayed for. You can guess the results.

    • I don’t understand why more Christians aren’t like Roberts. After all, to be a literalist, you have to believe that God did all kinds of miracles thousands of years ago and doesn’t do them now. It would make more sense to claim that it is just because we aren’t trying anymore. Silly people.

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