Saturday, June 10, 2017

Here's Your Handbasket

My mother believes that I'm going to Hell. She's a Jehovah's Witness, and I'm not, so for her it's a simple, if very unfortunate, fact of life. Or afterlife, as the case may be. I understand that various strains of Evangelical Christianity (among other Judeo-Christian-Islamic sects) believe that they, and they alone, have exclusive access not only to spiritual Truth, but to salvation. And I don't have a problem with this. While I don't claim to be a theologian of any stripe, I understand concepts like Original Sin, Total Depravity and Divine Grace, and I see how people put these things (among others) together into a picture that says only certain people will be "saved."

What makes conversations with my mother about this interesting is that she's unafraid of the topic, but doesn't come off as being mean about it. When I was younger, and the family was still Roman Catholic (to varying degrees), some of my father's family could also be very open about the fact that we were all going to Hell, because we weren't the right type of believers. But that openness carried with it a very clear strain of not only divine, but personal, condemnation. My father wasn't a very religious person one way or the other, and so it was my mother, who'd been educated in Catholic schools, who was the main driver of family religiosity. And to my paternal grandmother and some of my aunts, she had driven us into sin by miseducating my sister and me. (Word to the wise: Adults like to think that they can be subtle enough about these things that children won't notice. They normally can't, although I will admit that it took me a while to understand exactly why there was a current of hostility there.) In the eyes of my father's family, my mother had willfully chosen the Wrong Religion, and was thus, basically, deplorable. This is a fairly common line of reasoning, especially for those people who understand divine mandates to be self-evident.

Senator Bernie Sanders (I/D? - Vermont) has stirred up a minor hornet's nest by challenging Trump administration nominee Russell Vought, tapped to be deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, over whether or not non-Christians are condemned. While there is a fair amount of crying "Foul!" on the part of Christian groups in the United States, I can understand why the Senator posed the question.

"Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology," Vought wrote. "They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned."
To Senator Sanders, this smacks of Islamophobia - although "non-Christian-ophobia" may be just as appropriate a formulation. Christians, unsurprisingly, tend to hold a different viewpoint.
[Russell] Moore[, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention] says there's nothing hostile about Vought's comments. "In Christian theology, no one is righteous before God," he said. "[Evangelical] Christians don't believe that good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell. Christians believe that all of humanity is fallen."
With all due respect to Mr. Moore, I suspect that he could do with being more in touch with the way that many American Christians, Evangelical or not, actually go about the practice of Christianity. Because "good people [especially one's friends and relatives] go to heaven and bad people go to hell" is precisely the way that many people talk about how the afterlife works.
But most first-graders are not subtle or critical thinkers; they just about understand "good" and "bad" and "right" and "wrong." Religion at this age is indoctrination, as it must be, but it's naive to believe that such indoctrination doesn't affect the outsiders. One mother, who herself teaches Sunday school but nevertheless opted out of the program, explains it better than I ever could: "I asked them whether Jesus was a Christian and they said 'yes.' When I said, 'Jesus was a Jew,' one girl said, 'But Jesus was a good person.'"
Dahlia Lithwick. "Bible Belt Upside the Head" Slate Magazine, 16 Feb., 2005
And from having known religious people of all ages throughout my life, that conflation between Christianity and one's "goodness" as a person isn't limited to first graders. For many outsiders, the religious person's judgement as to whether they are saved or condemned is more than a point of theological dogma - it's an assessment of their worth and value as a person. While it's easy to point fingers at groups like the Westboro Baptist Church and hold them up as what "genuine" Christians are not, they don't have a monopoly on the idea that God has reasons to hate not just sins, but sinners. And from there, it's a short step to the idea that Christians in government shouldn't be in the business of abetting sinful behavior.

This is not to say that everyone who publicly takes the position (even if they seem to be unwilling to own it if presses) that non-Christians are "condemned" views non-Christians as evil or of diminished worth. But the formulation that Mr. Vought used in his defense of Wheaton College, implies that non-Christians have brought the condemnation of God down on themselves for their willfulness - in much the same way my grandmother and aunts regarded their daughter/sister-in-law. This undermines the "hate the sin, love the sinner" argument that is often advanced to blunt charges of judgementalism.

Trevor Noah, host of Comedy Central's The Daily Show, made a really interesting point in an interview once. He basically said that no-one knows what God is thinking, so that when people (especially laypeople, one expects) say "this is what God wants," what they're really saying is "this is what I would want, if I were God." Which is an arguable point. But it's also one that I wouldn't be surprised to find is fairly widespread. And so I suspect that for a lot of non-Christians, their is a belief that Christians point to the condemnation of the unbeliever by God as way of distancing themselves from their own negative thoughts about non-Christians. Senator Sanders' questions to Mr. Vought don't raise this directly, but they touch on it.

When my mother and I talk religion, she's willing to be open about her understanding of how the afterlife works. And that openness is generally missing in the broader discourse. In response to what were basically yes or no questions from Senator Sanders, Mr. Vought replied with "I'm a Christian," and "I believe that all individuals are made in the image of God and are worthy of dignity and respect regardless of their religious beliefs," which were intended to settle the question, but likely came off as evasive. And so I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Senator Sanders feels that Mr. Vought understands "dignity and respect" differently than he does.

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