By William C. Shelton
(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville News belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville News, its staff or publishers)
I’ve often heard that it’s unwise to discuss religion or politics in polite company. Having been raised by politically conservative fundamentalist Christians, I heard both topics discussed often and together from the time that I could understand words. And I will be discussing them both in this and the following column.
The most intractable conflicts in the world today are often described as a struggle between Islam and the West. They are not. They are a struggle between fundamentalism’s blind obedience to dogma and a post-Enlightenment world that honors evidence and reason.
The struggle isn’t just in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Tahrir Square, but also in Congress, state capitols, and local school districts. And the fundamentalists call themselves Christians and Jews as well as Muslims.
From the late 18th Century onward, scientific findings obligated thoughtful observers to question a literal reading of the Bible. How does one reconcile geological ages, dinosaur fossils, and a 14-billion-year-old universe, for example, with their all having been created in six days?
Some Christian leaders reasoned that men wrote the Bible, while God made the universe and gave us minds that could discover how old it is. So the Bible’s truths might go beyond a literal interpretation.
These views evoked a bitter reaction. Organizers of the Niagara Bible Conference (1878-1897) defined what they believed to be fundamental to Christian faith. The Fundamentals, twelve pamphlets published between 1910 and 1912, popularized the word “fundamental,” and its adherents came to be called “fundamentalists.” The most fundamental of the fundamentals is that every word of the Bible is literally true. It is “inerrant.”
Reactionaries among the other two great monotheisms encountered the same problem and came to the same conclusion, except that it was their own holy texts that were inerrant, while others were false, or obsolete.
The American Academy of Arts and Sciences sponsored a scholarly research project (1987-1995) that found commonalities among religious fundamentalisms, the following among them:
- Women and children are to be subservient to men.
- Children should be separated from nonbelievers until they learn and abide by rigid religious rules.
- The rules apply to all of humanity, no exceptions.
- Those who follow them are embraced, and those who don’t are enemies.
My family held to these beliefs. I was forbidden to go to movies, dance, play cards or engage in a variety of “worldly” pastimes that other people call “fun.” There are probably fundamentalist churches where people feel the joy of the Spirit, but the five church services that we attended each week were grim. They were mostly about sin, punishment, and our only hope of redemption.
The congregation’s political views, often voiced from the pulpit, were grim as well. The U.S. is a Christian nation that has gone astray. The New Deal was wicked. Abortion is murder, but social safety nets that might reduce our high infant mortality rate are immoral because they undermine self-discipline and personal responsibility.
The government is not to be trusted. Regulation exists to control us rather than protect us. It is intrusive, except when punishing drug users, homosexuals, sodomists and adulterers. Taxation is onerous. But we must be willing to pay for a military that can annihilate any godless nation that threatens us.
I read the Bible a lot. I memorized large portions of it. And I developed a serious case of “cognitive dissonance.” A lot of what Jesus said seemed to be at odds with what my church taught, even though it also taught that every word was inerrant.
The church enjoined us to exterminate communists, while Jesus said, “Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you.” (Luke 6:27)
The church said that capitalism was virtuous, but Jesus told his disciples, “Again I say unto you. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:24; Mark 10:25; Luke 18:25)
To a rich young man who asked the way to salvation, Jesus said, “Go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven.” Dang! That sounds “socialist.”
Matthew (22:15-22), Mark (12:13-17) and Luke (20-26) report that some questioners with bad intentions asked Jesus as to whether they should pay Roman taxes which, unlike U.S. taxes, actually were onerous. Jesus called them hypocrites and then asked them to produce a Roman coin.
“And He saith unto them, Whose is the image and superscription? And they said unto him, Caesar’s. And Jesus answering said unto them, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.”
Hmmm. Separation of church and state? Respect state authority and pay your taxes? That couldn’t be right.
The longest teaching by Jesus reported in the Christian Bible is the Sermon on the Mount. The full version is in Matthew 5-7; the Reader’s Digest version, in Luke 6.
In it, Jesus described the characteristics of the people of the Kingdom of Heaven, and He urged his followers to strive toward this perfection. Rather than focusing on sin, force, and punishment, He preached love, compassion, and humility. He rejected an-eye-for-an-eye justice. He condemned those who judge others.
It didn’t sound much like what I was hearing in my fundamentalist church, even though it preached biblical inerrancy.
And then, there was “The Acts of the Apostles,” which follows the gospels in the Christian Bible. Among other things, it describes the founding of the first Christian church. (Acts 2:44-45)
“And all that believed were together, and had all things in common. And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.”
No private property? Each according to his need? This sounds like… Naaah! It couldn’t be.
But two chapters later (Acts 5:1-11) a married couple who were church members sold some of their property, but held back part of the money so obtained, and lied about it. Peter confronted them, and God struck them dead.
Sweet Jesus! Is God a communist?
To be continued