Out of Religion, Deeper into Bigotry

Conservative churches bear responsibility for rising bigotry.

“For years, political commentators dreamed that the culture war over religious morality that began in the 1960s and ’70s would fade,” writes Peter Beinart in The Atlantic. “It has. And the more secular, more ferociously national and racial culture war that has followed is worse.”

Beinart’s “Breaking Faith” is a fantastic, comprehensive, terrifying examination of how religion and politics are splintering. The most worrisome part isn’t that Black Lives Matter activists aren’t using the Christian model of MLK (one many see as catering to white notions of respectability, a position a bit ahistorical, but who can blame them in the time of a whitewashed King?). It’s that conservative whites are leaving conservative Christianity, which taught, at least officially, that, in God, “there is no Jew nor Gentile”–in other words, that, before God, all people are equal.

When white progressive Christians leave Christianity, it’s often because even the most progressive form of the faith is too conservative. (“Ding, ding! Unitarian Universalism! Last stop before ‘religious none‘!”) When white conservatives leave their faith, they don’t become more liberal. Argues Beinart, “They become intolerant in different ways.” White conservative Christian defectors are more racist, more Islamphobic, and more xenophobic than their peers who stay in church–but less homophobic (which may tell you about how much homophobia gets preached and taught in churches).

Beinart isn’t arguing causation; it could be that dropping out of church makes you more of a bigot, or it could be that bigots are more likely to drop out of church. But what is clear is that conservative churches are missing an opportunity to help white people overcome bigotry.

In fact, churches are likely contributing to the problem. Beinart doesn’t go this far, so I want to be clear that this is my argument, not his. Beinart draws his supporting data mostly from quantitative research on church attendance and political views (which makes sense as he’s a political scientist). My work is qualitative and draws from texts (sermons, Sunday school curricula, radio broadcasts, blogs, etc.) produced by religious believers and leaders.

Conservative churches support bigotry when they claim that America was founded as a Christian nation.

First, it’s not true. This means that attempts to make it true require telling lies about our history, including erasing the many non-Christians who participated in the nation’s founding,and pretending that native genocide and the slave trade were somehow “Christian.” Second, this claim shows a fundamental misunderstanding of our form of government, which has no place for religion in it.

Above, a video promoting David Barton’s Wallbuilder’s tour of Washington DC, which explores America’s “Christian heritage.”

When churches repeat this lie–for example, peddling the work of pseudo-historian David Barton or booking his “Christian heritage” tours of Washington DC–they are really saying We are willing to lie to insert ourselves into a place of importance.  They are also saying, This is country is ours, not yours. 

Conservative churches support bigotry when they claim that America is a falling nation. 

Few Christians go so far as to say that we’re doomed (though Westboro Baptists ran godhatesamerica.com for years; it highlighted all the reasons why God hates the USA), but many Religious Right fundraising newsletters are filled with the claim that we’re just on the brink of losing God’s blessing. That threat is used to inspire participation in all kinds of foolishness–from engagement in the “War on Christmas” to blind support for Israel. In Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction, Kathryn Gin Lum traces out much of the history of the declension narrative (We need a volume II, Redemption to the Present). The good news is that this history is long–we’ve apparently been angering God since the start, but he’s not destroyed us yet.

Image result for righteousness exalteth a nation AND billboard

Above, a billboard includes the first part of Proverbs 14:34: Righteousness Exalts a Nation. The second part of the verse stresses that “sin is a reproach to all people.” The lower part of the billboard encourages voters to “Vote Biblical Values.” In the middle, there is an image of a colonial-era American flag and a Minuteman, implying that the US was founded as a Christian nation and was exalted before God because of Christians’ righteousness. 

When churches teach that America is falling apart, that our nation is dying or already doomed, and that the only way to save it is to diminish the rights of others, they are really saying, It’s non-Christians’ fault that the nation is a mess. 

Conservative churches support bigotry when they claim that Christianity should be given special honor by our government. 

Fifty years after mandatory faculty-led prayer was removed from public schools, conservative Christians still feel the sting of being told that they aren’t special–at least in terms of public support for their faith. Their resentment at being denied their rightful place (see “founded as a Christian nation” above) in our culture and politics is a constant source of humiliation–and motivation for ridiculous efforts to force Christianity on everyone. The great Baptist tradition of keeping the government out of one’s religion has long been set aside by the Religious Right. When churches teach that Christianity should be given special honor, they are really saying, People unlike us should be treated worse than us. 

These messages form the core of conservative churches’ teachings about the place of Christianity in the US. Evidence to the contrary–like the fact that church attendance was pretty low throughout most of US history or that our premarital sex rate has always been pretty high or that the pledge didn’t always include Under God and that our money didn’t always include In God We Trustdoesn’t mean much when folks are committed to seeing themselves as very special and underappreciated.  When these churches say that they are welcoming, what they mean is that they welcome people like them. It’s not hypocritical for them to say that non-Christians don’t belong because they don’t believe that non-Christians founded the nation, help the nation, or deserve to be in the nation.

When these messages are combined with the many failures of the US church today–its derision of working class and the working poor, its judgments about gender that rob poor men and women both of their dignity, its failure to support the reality of families–the result is that many white conservatives leave, and they leave genuinely hurting. Maybe they believe in God or maybe not, but it’s not clear that he or religion has done much to improve their lives.

But they keep believing some of the messages they’ve heard at church (and that are reinforced in messages they from their narrow selection of rightwing news sources and their conspiracy-minded political leaders): This country is mine, not yours.  It’s your fault that this country is a mess. If people like me dominated, it wouldn’t look like this. You deserve less than me. You are a danger to this nation. 

Conservative churches bear responsibility not just for the departure of former believers but for where they end up next–and for how that endangers everyone.


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