Erick Erickson’s Low Standards

Joel, you are quite kind to engage Erick Erickson as if he had something of theological substance to offer.

Erickson whined this week that people who aren’t Christians and “don’t believe in Jesus” shouldn’t criticize politically conservative Christians for cutting funding to Meals on Wheels–as if it’s wrong for non-Christians to note Christian hypocrisy.

If Erickson cared about Christianity, he would be begging non-Christians to call Christians out for being hypocrites so that Christians would act with more integrity. Religious believers’ hypocrisy is a major reason why so many are turned off from religion. It was actually a major theme of Jesus’ teaching: to take the plank out of your own eye rather than pointing out the splinter in someone else’s. If non-believers are willing to call Christians out for their failures, Erickson should thank God  that they are still paying attention and still expect Christians to act like Jesus.

And, as you keenly point out, “If they want to hold society to their standards, it’s only fair that the rest of us try to hold them to their standards too, no?” Why should the rest of us have to honor the Bible and say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” if conservative Christians aren’t going to even bother caring for widows and orphans in a way that actually cares for widows and orphans?

Above, an image from a charismatic church service in Illinois, with men on one side of the church and women on the other. Churches were overwhelmed by needs from congregants and were often unable to care for even members, leaving those outside of churches even more vulnerable. This 1939 photo was by Arthur Rothstein, who captures many such images of rural life during the Depression. It is housed in the Library of Congress. 

The Trump budget that Erickson is defending illustrates an old argument between Christian conservatives, who say that it’s churches and voluntary organizations that should provide welfare services (because it’s not “compassionate” to make people pay for services they don’t directly benefit from), and Christian progressives who say that Christianity demands that we collectively care for the poor via the government. Conservatives are all about being “subject to governing authorities” but a lot more hesitant about rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s when they think that Caesar is redistributing wealth downward.

Christian conservatives are wrong in their argument because, though religious organizations do tremendously valuable work in caring for the needy, they can’t do it alone; the need is simply too great. Alison Collis Greene’s fantastic No Depression in Heaven: The Great Depression, the New Deal, and the Transformation of Religion in the Delta shows us what happened when churches couldn’t meet the need of the people. And some jobs–protecting the environment, discovering cures for diseases, creating a public transportation system–are well beyond the scope of a church and can only be accomplished by the government. And conservative Christians are hypocritical in their argument that Christianity shouldn’t be invoked when it’s part of an argument for social welfare but should be invoked when supporting war or prayer in public school and opposing gay rights and abortion. Which is it–we obey authorities and pay up or resist them?

Conservative Christians like to point out that progressive Christians are hypocrites for invoking religion in defense of immigrants, refugees, and the environment and rejecting religious arguments against feminism or mandatory public displays of religiosity. This, though, is a false equivalency: progressive arguments rooted in Biblical mandates to care for the vulnerable (hungry elders, hungry children, the sick, the imprisoned) support policies and programs (Meals on Wheels, free and reduced lunch, the ACA, prison reform) that are also supported by social science. I think the fact that my religious beliefs work in reality is a pretty good sign that they’re good beliefs–you can’t get good fruit from a bad tree, after all. Conservative Christian budget ideas… well, they yield bad fruit.

Above, an Orthodox depiction of Jesus cursing a fig tree that had no figs on it. To be fair, it wasn’t fig season. But when Jesus wants figs, you better produce! 

Mick Mulvaney lies: we know which programs work and how and why, and we have good ideas about how they can work better. In contrast, conservative Christian arguments for government intervention are far more often supported by religion alone. (I’m going to carve out a big exception here for abortion, which I think can be opposed on grounds that aren’t religious.) There is no reason to argue that we should “put God back in school” or prevent same-sex couples from getting married except for religion.

But, if I’m taking Erickson as a sincere believer, there is an even bigger problem with Erickson’s argument: instead of humbly asking how conservative Christians can better live out the first and second greatest commandments–to love God and to love their neighbor–he implies that non-Christians must be less Christ-like than Christians simply because they are non-Christians.

Who cares if they are? Shouldn’t Christians act more Christ-like than non-Christians? If believing in Jesus doesn’t produce Christ-like Christians, what is the point of believing? Why believe if it doesn’t matter? Erickson sets a pretty low standard here. Many non-Christians have considered their experiences with Erickson and his co-religionists and have reached their own conclusions, as the continued decline in religious believers suggests.


What can non-Christians tell Christians like Erick Erickson about Christianity?

President Trump’s budget came out Thursday, with big increases to military spending and big cuts to pretty much all other discretionary spending. Lots of people raised a big stink, to which conservative Erick Erickson responded:

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So. Can Christians learn anything about Christianity from non-Christians?

I’d like to think so. Certainly, we can read the Bible as well as any Christian can, and if we who are atheist or agnostic or Jewish or Muslim can read those words, look at how Christians behave, and draw some conclusions about the sincerity or authenticity of that faith.

We can read, for example, Mathew 25:

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

…and expect Christians to act accordingly.

Don’t get me wrong: There’s still plenty to argue about, I guess, regarding the “how” we feed the hungry and clothe the naked. Does that have to be a government program?

But understand: American Christians bring their religiously based moral understandings to bear on a whole bunch of government policy — especially as regards reproductive rights, but also a whole bunch of other stuff. If they want to hold society to their standards, it’s only fair that the rest of us try to hold them to their standards too, no?

Rod Dreher takes his ball and goes home


I’d like to talk a bit about Rod Dreher.

Do you know of him? He’s now a writer at The American Conservative, but I’ve been following his career for years — back when he was a Catholic pursuing the Catholic abuse story at a time when doing so was still a difficult thing to do (his angst was so great that he converted to the Eastern Orthodox church) and back when he was one of the first conservatives to break with the movement over the Iraq War. I’m not sure why, but I’ve always had an affinity for conservatives willing to stand apart from movement orthodoxy, and he fits the bill.

But it’s complicated.

I love Rod Dreher. I hate Rod Dreher. He’s essential reading. I sometimes have to turn off his RSS feed for weeks or months. He’s incredibly thoughtful. He’s a kneejerk reactionary. He’s terrified of the influence that gays will have on American society. He’s really good friends with Andrew Sullivan — who kind of helped kickstart the gay marriage movement decades ago. He’s profoundly human, but I wish he could be a bit more humane and less purely contemptuous of people who think differently than he does. I think there’s stuff we have to learn from him, and for God’s sake sometimes I wish he’d just shut the hell up.

There aren’t many writers who produce this kind of reaction with me, but there you go.

I mention him because he’s got a new book out, “The Benedict Option,” that’s probably worth our notice. I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve read his blog over the years as he developed the ideas in the book, so I think I can fairly sum up the core idea.

  • American Christians no longer dominate American society like they used to — see the rise, and widespread acceptance of, gay marriage.
  • As a result, the religious liberty of American Christians is threatened — one small example being the whole wedding cakes issue — which, in turn, threatens their ability to freely live out their religious beliefs, which in turn threatens the survival of authentic faith in America.
  • So it’s time to start limiting participation in the broader culture, to cloister up into small Christian communities that limit interaction with and influence from the outside world, in order to be able to continue to live authentically Christian lives.  

Damon Linker distills Dreher down to this:

This means, specifically, that Christians need to turn inward, steeling themselves against the pernicious moral influences swirling around them by adopting a “rule for living” that turns their faith into the orienting focal point of their lives. Roughly half of Dreher’s book offers practical suggestions for how to live out this vision of deep piety amidst the ruins of Christian civilization: Attempt to live in proximity to like-minded Christians; pull children out of aggressively secular public schools; recover liturgical worship; tighten church discipline; devote family time to studying scripture; place strict limits on digital technology in the home; and so on. Only when a comprehensive form of Christian living has been recovered and instantiated in concrete communities will believers be equipped to begin the daunting task of attempting to win back the wider culture from the forces of secular nihilism.

And here’s Dreher giving his elevator pitch during an interview:

It is withdrawal for the sake of renewal. My book is heavily influenced by a 2004 essay in First Things written by the early-church historian Robert Louis Wilken. He said we in the West were losing our cultural memory of Christianity. Because of this, he said, there is nothing more important for Christians today than the church telling itself its own story, and nurturing its inner life. His point is not that we shouldn’t evangelize, but that we are forgetting what Christianity means. We cannot give the world what we do not have. Therefore, we have to withdraw in meaningful ways for the sake of contemplation and formation — this, so we can truly bring the light of Christ to the world.

And here’s one more good summary of the arguments involved. Also, Dreher’s Christianity Today cover story

Given that this is Dreher, I’m of two minds how to react.

I kicked off our conversation by asking, essentially, if Christianity was essentially a tribal exercise or a spiritual undertaking. Dreher’s answer to this seems to be: “Yes.” By which I mean: It seems that Christianity is for societal ordering, until it’s no longer in that position, after which it’s time to turn inward and focus on our souls.

Dreher, to be fair, would probably contest that characterization, and counter with the the idea that America being ordered along Christian lines has given individuals the room they need to focus on their souls — and that the shifts in society require an intentionality on the soul-cultivation front that maybe wasn’t quite as pressing.

Either way, here’s what’s frustrating: Society is no longer ordered to Dreher’s liking. So he’s taking his ball and going home. My instinct isn’t to like this.

On the other hand, there’s scriptural and traditional basis for Christians walking away from situations they consider unwelcoming. Here’s Matthew 10:

11Whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy and stay at his house until you move on. 12As you enter the house, greet its occupants. 13If the home is worthy, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you. 14And if anyone will not welcome you or heed your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town. 15Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.

And what’s more: You and I are heir to and participants in the Mennonite tradition — a tradition that includes a lot of fleeing and cloistering. The Mennonites I grew up with in Central Kansas told their story as such: They started out in Germany, fled from there to Russia when they could no longer freely practice their pacifism, then from Russia to America when they could no longer freely practice their pacifism there. The older Mennonites where I grew up spoke a  “low German” dialect that signified some of this history. (They were still using it in worship services well into the 1950s.) Maybe I’m not in a good position to critique Dreher’s own sensibilities here.

So maybe my problem here with Dreher is that he sees gay liberation as a zero-sum game: If they get full rights, then conservative Christians will end up oppressed. I don’t like that idea very much at all.

Still waiting for my copy of the book, which may provoke more discussion yet.

— Joel

Discerning Divine Foolishness


I think Joel’s got it exactly right: Jesus asks his followers to act counterintuitively in ways that level the playing field and even preferentially treat the weak and poor. The world sees this as foolishness, but Jesus says that it is the kingdom coming.

Large groups of Christians have, as Joel has noted, unfortunately, picked up the wrong kind of foolishness. Joel cites anti-climate change teachings, which are the perfect example of a broader, longer trend: religiously-justified anti-intellectualism. The anti-science effort, in particular, is long-standing. Some Puritans, for example, objected to lightning rods because they were an effort to control the will of God. When Boston was struck with awful earthquakes in 1727 and 1755, many explained it as God’s punishment for people who thought they could avoid his punishment via lightning rods. (Some Amish sects today still forbid them out a belief that they are a sign of lack of belief in God’s providence.)  The first generation of anti-vaxxers thought the same way: vaccinations were just an effort to thwart God, who might have wanted to smite you with smallpox.  Such anti-intellectualism is foolish, but not in the way that makes the first last and the last first. In fact, anti-intellectualism today tends to be foolishness that destroys vulnerable populations in an effort to protect and bolster the wealthy—say, oil companies profiting at the expense of indigenous people and cultures.


Above, dinosaurs deny the reality of an asteroid about to hit the earth. A T-rex proclaims, “Fake asteroid!!!” and a triceratops says, “Lying media!!” as the asteroid approaches.  Christians deny climate change to everyone’s peril.

Christians compound this foolishness when they use religion to justify anti-science and anti-intellectualism.  Instead of being countercultural in ways that result in them loving their neighbors as themselves (the second greatest commandment), they fight against efforts to make life more peaceful and just. And then, they drag God into it.

Exodus 20:7 delivers this pretty important commandment: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” The NRSV is a bit clearer about what in vain means: “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.” The question then becomes What is the right use of God’s name?

For Christians, the New Testament shows us when people rightly and wrongly invoke God. The religious leaders of his day frequently got it wrong—like when they asked Jesus about whose wife a remarried widow would be in the afterlife or hoped to criticize him for healing on the Sabbath.  They were invoking God, but their goal wasn’t to free the oppressed but to maintain the status quo, which harmed women and those with disabilities. Their use of “but religion says so!” wasn’t just vain (in the sense of pointless)—it was an effort to make trouble for those already burdened with troubles.

woman caught in adultery

Above, Christ and the Adulteress by Titian, 1508-1510. The painting is in the collection at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow Museums in Scotland.  Trying to make trouble with the name of God, the religious leaders ask Jesus if they can stone a woman caught in adultery, as Moses said.  Jesus is remarkably patient with them and instructs the one without sin to cast the first stone. In a rare moment, they seem to get it and leave the stones on the ground.

When political leaders today invoke God, you can almost always bet that they aren’t doing so to lift troubles from the shoulders of those already weary.   Instead, they are being foolish—careless, wasteful, vain, wrong, mischief-making, exploitative—with God’s name. You can always tell by who their actions serve and who they harm. 


On foolishness


This concluding sentence from you blew me away:

“We have no models of Jesus scolding anyone for being too generous in their sacrifice, their love, or their hospitality—and plenty of models of grand and often dangerous gestures of generosity.”

Well said. Quite right! A mission statement, even!

And it was that particular turn of phrase — “often dangerous gestures” — that turned my mind to a bit of Scripture. Let’s pick up the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians:

“Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God, the world through its wisdom did not know Him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.”

These verses don’t get talked a lot about in public these days, yet I suspect they do incredible damage to our discourse and politics.

See, I read Paul’s words as suggesting that the path of God can be counterintuitive — requiring your “often dangerous gestures” of generosity. But I think many Christians have interpreted this passage as … allowing them to embrace real, actual foolishness.

I’m thinking here of conservative attitudes on climate change. While it’s true that there’s a subset who take a faith-based foundation to defending the environment, the sad truth is that many American Christians (evangelicals, at least) have decided to accept Republican teaching on the matter, which amounts to: “Ignore all that science and scientists who tell you that human-made climate change is real and poses risks. It isn’t and doesn’t.” Why do American Christians buy into this? Well, many of them regard environmentalists as (literally) idolatrous nature lovers; some are just binding themselves to GOP tribalism — and a few figure the End Times are just around the corner, so screw it.

But: The Republican teaching is … foolish. There are lots of people — lots and lots of scientists — who say so. And I suspect this makes some conservative Christians cleave ever more closely to these ideas, because the “wise men” of the age are calling them foolish. That’s proof that they’ve taken the right position!

That’s obviously self-reinforcing. I’m not sure how one argues against that kind of logic. And it’s a logic that gets applied to all kinds of issues.

So. How to decide what’s really foolish? And what’s wisely foolish? How do we not end up chasing our tails on this whole damn thing?

Oh dear. I think I just went full Obi-Wan:

Rebecca, you offered a pretty good measuring stick the other day when you wrote this: “We can actually measure who Christianity is for by looking at who benefits from American Christianity. And that answer is pretty clear:  the same people who have always had power. American Christianity protects the status quo.”

I suspect that asking that question would help clarify the effort to distinguish real foolishness from God’s (wise) foolishness, assuming one isn’t trying to get to a predetermined conclusion.

Wait. How does this relate back to your “often dangerous gestures” comment?

Only this: I’m not so sure it’s God’s foolishness to believe and act the way that oil companies, as well as the politicians and think tanks they buy, want you to. If a senator says exactly what you believe on C-SPAN, there’s probably not much divinely counterintuitive going on.

I don’t think God’s foolishness requires believers to ignore mounds of evidence in favor of a proposition — that makes God a trickster, and every day a sort of “Opposite Day.” Instead, I think God’s foolishness requires one to consider and discard conventional wisdom, and that is much, much more difficult than merely taking the side of everybody else in your political party.

I think living God’s foolishness is legitimately, terrifyingly difficult.

Giving your coat when asked for it. That’s hard. Turning the other cheek when you’ve already been struck. That’s hard. Loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you. That’s damn near impossible. Acting in God’s foolishness often requires putting something on the line — your life, maybe, or your reputation.

It requires “often dangerous gestures” of generosity.

— Joel

P.S. We’ve started off with some heavy questions and thinking, haven’t we? I promise, Rebecca, that we’ll do some lighter stuff. I want to talk about books and movies with you. And I want to elicit some thoughts from you, in the near future, about how to raise “aware” kids. We’ve got a lot of time and ground to cover. We’ll get to it all eventually!

The Spiritual Tribalism of American Christians

I shared in an earlier post that my attraction to the Mennonite faith was due to my respect for their commitment (not always lived out perfectly) to opposing the status quo, to the “upside-down kingdom” that privileges the poor, sides with the weak, and triumphs in death. This model requires some folks—the high and the mighty—to lose. Christians shouldn’t be afraid to lose; in fact, it’s what we’re called to do—to humble ourselves, even to the point of losing everything, even to the point of death.

But if we define Christianity according to what the conservative Protestants who have such cultural power in the US right now do with their faith (the “lived religion” way of defining religion), the picture doesn’t look promising. In fact, I’ll lob a pretty big insult at them, one they’ve hurled at Catholics for ages: they are cultural, nominal Christians, NASCAR Christians who can’t be bothered with church if it interrupts the race (the equivalent of C&E Catholics), people who care more about political power than the gospel and who identify as Christian only in that life is easier when they do so; their Christianity is a way to protect, not risk, themselves. Also, they’re lazy and uninformed about the religion they claim to adhere to. That’s not just me sneering (it actually hurts my heart): the research shows that the poorer their understanding of their faith and the weaker their ties to religion, the more committed they are to Donald Trump.

Joel wondered if American Christians are more tribal than spiritual, but their spirituality and their tribalism work together.  (In fact, tribalism is too kind of a word for their practices. Tribes care for their members. And spirituality is probably too kind of a word for their faith.) An entire theology of selfishness and entitlement—best exemplified in the prosperity gospel that has been so influential in Trump’s outreach to Christians but also integral to Christian arguments in favor of “Biblical immigration” and the end of welfare—circulates in Religious Right churches and media in softer and harsher versions.

Speaking from a scholarly perspective, it may be a losing formula. Conservative churches are bleeding members right now, especially young people. (It’s tough—you have to balance the donations of the old folks against the longevity of the younger members. I’m sure some consulting firm has a formula to figure out how far you push each demographic before losing funds or future congregants.)  Younger people are tired of the culture wars but yearning to put their faith into action in ways that don’t harm their LGBT loved ones. My own students (overwhelmingly Baptist or Church of Christ) rarely want to talk about abortion or gay marriage, but they are eager to talk about sex trafficking and human slavery.

The result of a continued commitment to spiritual tribalism may be smaller, less diverse, and more ideologically pure churches; more unaffiliated “spiritual but not religious” young people; a continuing small stream of new converts to the Episcopal tradition, Catholicism, and the Orthodox Church, which provide sacramental life without quite so much of the political baggage; and more religious “nones”—those who are done with the whole endeavor. Conservative churches may become even more conservative, louder, and more dangerous to democracy.

Panel - Christ Feeding the Five Thousand

Above, a late 12th/early 13th century stained glass depiction of Jesus feeding the 5000, currently in the William and Eileen Ruddock Gallery at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The story does not tell us that he asked anyone he fed for their passport, visa, or birth certificate; he did not inquire about pre-existing conditions, political ideology, or the details of their faith. He did not demand they provide proof of income to insure that they were among the “worthy poor.” He fed them simply because they were hungry, even though he was personally tired.  Some of them probably even wasted their food or were ungrateful. Some of them probably didn’t join up with his movement, despite his generosity.  He seems to be okay with all of that. 

Speaking from a Mennonite perspective, the spiritual tribalism of much of conservative Protestantism is wicked, an offense to the wideness of God’s mercy, a show of disdain for scripture, and a usurpation of the authority of God, who did not charge us with gatekeeping. (For those who would like to toss out my perspective because you might assume that Christian progressives don’t care about sin, scripture, or God as sovereign—read that previous sentence again.) We have no models of Jesus scolding anyone for being too generous in their sacrifice, their love, or their hospitality—and plenty of models of grand and often dangerous gestures of generosity.

WHO is Christianity for?

I love that Joel starts with the big questions: What is Christianity, anyway? And what is it supposed to be for? And is Joel weird? The answers, in order, are: Good question, wrong question, and yes, but only in that he’s not a cynical as some others of us, for which I am grateful. I’ll tackle them each briefly.

What is Christianity?

Writes religion scholar Sam. D. Gill on the effort to define religion: “Most religion scholars have grown weary of the effort… despite the widely accepted principle that a word that cannot be defined is a word of limited…  value.” But defining religion isn’t merely an exhausting academic exercise: if we don’t know what religion is, how can we insure that it is protected by the First Amendment? Right now, for example, rightwing anti-immigrant forces are attempting to define Islam not as a religion but as a political ideology in order to strip Muslims of First Amendment rights.

But just because it’s important to know what religion is doesn’t mean that it’s easy.

The humanist tradition stresses religion’s distinction between the sacred—what sociologist Emile Durkheim called “things set apart and forbidden”—and the profane—the petty concerns of an individual’s everyday, ordinary life. In religion, says the theological Paul Tillich, we are “grasped by an ultimate concern.” Rudolph Otto said that, underlying all religion, was the numinous experience of mysterium tremendum et fascinans—experiencing a Wholly Other that, despite its awesomeness, attracts us.

All very charming, but the result of defining religion this way is that much world religion got ignored or derided—and not just the religions of the people Europeans colonized and enslaved the world over but also the religion of European women and poor people. While much religion does, indeed, have to do with the sacred, much of it also has to do with our everyday lives. We might not agree that Soul Cycle is religion, but lots of us have religious experiences that are also mundane, something not possible in Durkheim’s set-up.  We certainly have religion that isn’t about encountering God or being transformed. This notion likely offends evangelical Christians and faithful Catholics (who, after all, are supposed to be encountering the literal body and blood of Jesus at mass each week), but if we are looking for a useful definition of religion, we have to recognize that many religious people are not “spiritual” and that the supernatural is not all that (or even at all) important to them.

We might be better served by thinking of religion as a syndrome—a set of signs that often “run together” and characterize a condition. So we can say that religion often includes a concern for the sacred, a belief in the supernatural, a moral code, a set of prescribed behaviors insuring avoidance of the profane, beliefs, symbols, rituals, revelations, scriptures, and an erasure of the invention of all these things (a key point in the definition for anthropologist Clifford Geertz), but not all religions display all these characteristics.

As for defining Christianity, we can define Christianity by asking self-identified Christians what it is—that is, a descriptive rather than prescriptive definition. That’s a lot of people—about 2 billion, worldwide—with a lot of variation and considerable disagreement even on the basics and some answers that would make our Sunday school teachers sigh in frustration. This is a “lived religion” approach to the question, and I think it’s the one that is most useful.

Who is Christianity for?

Joel actually asked, What is Christianity supposed to be for? but that question is teleological, suggesting a purpose to Christianity that somehow informed its origins—an interesting historical question, but not one that addresses this rather terrible moment in American Christianity.

So I’ll ask instead: Who is American Christianity for today? If you’ll allow me to define Christianity as what Christians say it is, then we can actually measure who Christianity is for by looking at who benefits from American Christianity. And that answer is pretty clear:  the same people who have always had power. American Christianity protects the status quo. If you’re a Christian and that grosses you out—well, I think it should.

Above, Donald Trump speaks at the Values Voter Summit on September 9, 2016. The logos on the wall behind him belong to various religiously conservative political organizations. In his speech, he promised that he would, as president, insure that “our Christian heritage will be cherished like never before.” The our inserts him into the Christian family, while the Christian heritage appeals to both Christian and white nationalists. The will be hints at a legal mandate to recognize Christianity as important in US culture, and the like never before is an appeal to the politics of resentment felt by entitled white conservative Christians who have argued for decades that they have been denied their place of supremacy in American culture. The standing ovation that Trump received for this speech helps us see how American Christians define their faith: as something that deserves to be officially vaunted by the US government.

This is not new. From colonization to Indian removal and “pacification” to slavery and segregation up to today’s social Darwinist delight in the death of the poor, Christianity has insured that the weak stay weak and the strong stay strong. (Note that I don’t say Christianity has been used to do bad things. I’m saying that Christianity has done bad things. Because there is no pure, innocent, ideal Christianity apart from how people use it.) Some heroes have resisted this and risked their lives for a Christianity that  lifts up the downtrodden, but they are the exception. What makes them—Bartolemé de la Casas, William Wilberforce, Corrie ten Boom, Oscar Romero—heroes is that they defied their own Christian traditions (sometimes after too long of a wait) in order to care for those more vulnerable.

I don’t have a lot of love for Russell Moore, who, along with other Southern Baptists, has spent decades now using fear of women and sexual minorities to drum up support for the Republican Party (and that’s beside the fact that, no, 150 years after the end of the Civil War, I do not forgive them for being on the wrong side of emancipation). But while I think that Moore should have taken this position far earlier, I appreciate his effort to remind his fellow Southern Baptists that a marriage of politics and religion is seldom good for religion. As the Baptist hero Roger Williams wrote:

When they [Christians] have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world, God hath ever broke down the wall itself, removed the Candlestick, etc., and made His Garden a wilderness as it is this day.

Moore is getting hammered by fellow Southern Baptists because he opposes the invocation of faith to support the general moral depravity of Donald Trump. But Moore has also long been associating with people who would only use religion to advance their own interests. He didn’t challenge their lazy, self-centered theology earlier because it didn’t upset his thinking about sexuality. The consequence of his anti-gay teaching has been that thousands of queer Baptists kids were spiritually, sexually, and physically abused; many are homeless because their parents refuse to allow the “sin” of gay sexuality in their homes. If the pro-Trump backlash is millstone that drowns him for the violence he’s done to the “least of these”… well, perhaps that is a risk he took.

But I share Joel’s concern for what he sees as “a wound to Southern Baptist integrity.” We are wounded because we expect religion—Christianity broadly and specifically Southern Baptists, who do, with their tradition of religious liberty, have a lot to offer—to do better. I think, in the long run, that’s actually a realistic expectation.