May 06, 2005

The changing media face of Christianity

I grew up in Sri Lanka in a family that worshipped in the Methodist Church. I was strongly influenced by my family and also by the minister in my church and the chaplain in the private Anglican (aka Episcopalian) school I attended. These priests had such an influence on me that I became quite religious and studied to become a lay minister in the Methodist church, and was ordained soon after I graduated from college.

In that capacity I would be sent to various churches on Sundays to conduct services. As a lay minister, I was authorized to run every aspect of the service except the communion. I was even invited me to go to theological college and become a full minister and I briefly, but seriously, considered the offer. But in the end, I decided that I really wanted to be a physicist and declined.

But after I came to the US (first time as a graduate student to do my PhD in physics, then the second time to work here) my religious devotion waned considerably and I eventually became an atheist.

The story of what prompted that particular personal transition is not relevant here. The point that I want to make is that the kind of Christianity that I see in the US now is quite different from the kind that strongly attracted me as an adolescent and young adult. The priests who taught me were people who focused on the Jesus of the Gospels, and reminded us that belief in God carried with it responsibilities as well, the primary ones being to help bring about a better world, especially for those less fortunate than ourselves. While the idea of eternal salvation was not ignored, what was emphasized was that just professing our belief, and only worrying about the well-being of ourselves, our families, and our immediate community or nation, was not enough. We were supposed to live our beliefs by working for the betterment of everyone. These clergy preached tolerance for those who were different and believed different things, and an inclusiveness that sought to find ways to welcome all people. I was brought up to believe that it was more important to be good and kind than to be devout.

The social justice consequences of religious beliefs were what attracted me to religion then and I still support those religious groups (Christian and other) that seek to build a better world and fight injustices. There is no question that the quest for justice based on religious beliefs can lead people to make immense sacrifices for the collective good. The martyrdom of people like Archbishop Oscar Romero and the Ursuline nuns in El Salvador (who were killed for speaking out against brutal dictatorships that were oppressing the people there) and the humiliations suffered with dignity by civil rights marchers in the US, are inspiring. It is clear that for such people, it was their religious beliefs gave them the courage to do what they did.

But that view of religion as an agent of social justice, although still present in many churches and other groups in the US, is being pushed aside in the public sphere by those who have quite a different view. Think of the people who appear repeatedly on TV as spokespersons for religion. The names that immediately come to my mind are Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and James Dobson. The emergent Dominionist group that was highlighted by Chris Hedges and Jeff Sharlett in the May 2005 issue of Harper's Magazine, is close to them in their view of what Christianity means.

Issues of social justice seem not to be a major concern for members of this Dominionist Christianity. In fact, Hedges points out that "They are picture-perfect members of a new Christian elite, showy, proud of how God has blessed them with material wealth and privilege, and hooked them into the culture of power and celebrity."

If being materially successful is taken as a sign of God's blessings, then the corollary is that being poor and deprived must imply that you have somehow found disfavor in the eyes of God. If that is the case, why should one concern oneself excessively with poor people, since their wretched condition must be largely their own fault, due to their own sinfulness or faults of character? This may explain why this form of Christianity is so closely aligned with capitalist ideology and why Pastor Ted Haggard (profiled by Sharlett as the head of the New Life Church in Colorado Springs and also head of the National Association of Evangelicals which, with over 30 million believers, makes up the nation's most powerful religious lobbying group) says that they "like the benefits, risks, and maybe above all, the excitement of the free market" (Jeff Sharlett).

This would also explain why such churches like to stay in the suburbs and rural areas and see the cities (especially inner cities) as dens of sin to be avoided because of their "homosexuality, atheistic school teaching and ungodly imagery" and humanism. Also, if you think that material success equates with God's favor, it makes sense to oppose (or at least not support) social security, social welfare programs, public schooling, and all other programs that have egalitarian goals, since the distribution of society's material goods is a measure of ones spirituality, and not every one is equally good. So the alignment of these religious groups with political parties that advocate anti-egalitarian policies makes sense.

Needless to say, this particular form of Christianity is not at all appealing to me, and is totally in opposition to the message that was taught by the inclusive and tolerant priests of my youth. But tolerance and inclusivity are out, replaced by Manichaean thinking that sees everything in good-evil/we-they terms.

In a later posting, we will see that there is more to be concerned about than the seeming lack of concern about social justice and the absence of empathy for those less fortunate than ourselves.

There is also the knotty problem of how, if you believe in being tolerant and accepting of diverse views and beliefs, you deal with people who not only think that they are right and you are wrong, but that their religious views alone should be given pride of place by the government and used as a basis for state policies.


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Mano, your experience and understanding of Christianity is very similar to mine. Perhaps that is why I enjoy reading your blog so much?

There is more to tell than can fit in a blog comment, but in summary, I was grew up in a conservative religious environment and devoted large amounts of time to the study of the bible. I too considered seminary (was very decided on it at one point) and was encouraged to lead Sunday morning services. Long story short, I too have become atheist over the years.

I feel like I have similar frustrations toward Chrisitianity as you. One of the reasons I left the "church" was because, strangely enough, I felt like I could be a more socially/morally responsible person and have a more positive influence in the world by not associating myself with Christians.

Regarding Mr Dobson, his son published a book recently. It scares me. The title is "Be Intolerant":

Posted by Aaron Shaffer on May 6, 2005 08:52 AM

Mano, it's interesting how our backgrounds and religious experiences affect our view of these fundamentalists and Dominionists. I grew up in a Methodist environment as well, and the attitude of tolerance and emphasis on social justice that you mentioned was exactly what I grew up understanding as Christian duty. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve drifted away from going to church—mostly because I feel that nowhere I’ve gone recaptures the atmosphere I so enjoyed in my childhood—but my belief in the importance of acting like a Christian, being tolerant, and helping others remains.

It’s frustrating to me that Dominionists are gaining the attention of the world as “the voice of true Christians� because, to me, they are anything but that. If they were interested in being Christ-like, then they would abhor intolerance and persecution and dedicate themselves to the betterment of the same programs—social welfare, public schooling, etc.—that they lambaste.

I’m interested to hear your views on how to deal with such individuals, and I’ll be reading your upcoming posts with avid interest.

Posted by Nicole on May 6, 2005 10:57 AM

the Christians concerned for social justice and change are quite in existance, and they are arguing against the more 'Right wing' Christian political attitudes. Jim Wallis and the Sojorners being the most visible of these organizations, but there are smaller groups who are working from the grass roots level, the Isaiah group in Minnesota is a wonderful example. These groups are vocal within Christian political circles, and are driven as much by the need for social justice as they are the memories of religious leaders who fought and died for social change.
In addition, American Christianity as a whole is more and more influenced by the African Christian churches, who are getting louder voices within the Christian communities. They've always acted as a counterweight within the Southern Baptist congregation, but African American presbyterians and methodists are becoming more and more prevalent, and, as a general rule, they hardly agree with the Dominionist idea.
I don't know why the general media doesn't report on these groups (theories are presented in Jim Wallis's "God's Politics"), but, within Christian literature, ministerial conventions, and in congregations, they exist.
Gregory Sutton

Posted by Gregory Sutton on May 6, 2005 06:20 PM

Mano, your blog today made me think of a phrase "True spirituality is to religion, as a tree is to a telephone pole"
I think the religions we are presented with today may have been initially borne out of some true spiritual teachings, yet over the years they have been deadened (uprooted from their source), so manipulated by man they are unrecognizable. Which is why so many thoughtful, reflective people are walking away, and understandably so.
Yet why are there only 2 choices (I hear this so often), either one follows a traditional religion or one becomes an atheist. Why not the third way, which seems to be the path these prophets themselves took who these religions are erroneously based on. Why not bypass the "political entity of religion" altogether, and go straight to the initial teachings themselves. Can one not find God without an intermediary?
I will refrain from suggesting another one of my societal conspiracy theories to control the masses, so I better stop here. Ha!

Posted by Mary on May 6, 2005 06:54 PM

Hello Mano,

Like the others who've commented, I claim sympathy with your experience of American Christianity, as a religion, in all it's unattractiveness. However, I've found that holding a contrarian viewpoint often produces some of the same brain-hurdles that are regarded so ridiculously by a devout opposition. In my opinion, the kind of polarity expressed by fundamentalists, on whatever side, does neither viewpoint justice. For instance, I don't think it does Christianity justice to state, nor does it follow, that an abundant material provision should be an indication of divine favor, and hence a lack of provision should be an indication of disfavor. Perhaps I have more faith in humanity than I should, but I believe that most non-third-tier-Christian-pundits (whose names you've already mentioned) would tell you that God's favor is not only more complexly expressed, but that material wealth should probably be one of the last indications. How can we raise the level of discourse to avoid the same sweeping notions that have wrought this ongoing discord among human beings throughout recorded history?

Posted by Kurtiss Hare on May 6, 2005 08:15 PM

Why anyone would think a leftist atheist has anything interesting to say about Christianity qualifies as a modern day wonder.

Posted by Jerry on May 6, 2005 10:59 PM

Jerry has stumbled upon a great way to send the level of discourse into an open ended chasm. Funny how such a comment comes only after an exhortation to do just the opposite. *sigh*

Posted by Kurtiss Hare on May 7, 2005 09:24 AM

The problem with some of those on political extremes is that they resort to tactics of destruction instead of tactics of debate in an attempt to avoid any meaningful discourse. While I have been accused, by some, of being a right-wing extremist, such an accusation seeks to deprive anything that I may say or do of any validity because, after all, I'm an extremist.
It is quite true that I am a political conservative and that my opinions often would place me right-of-center among conservatives. It is also true that, as an Orthodox Jew, my religious beliefs lead me to agree with conservatives on certain issues; however, I have many disagreements with many people, no matter where they stand on the political spectrum. (For the record, before anyone assumes otherwise, I do not believe that either "Creationism" or "Intelligent Design" has any place in public education.)
Being Jewish, I often have a very hard time understanding various Christian perspectives on the world. One thing that I do believe, though, is that misfortune does not only strike those who sin: everything happens for a reason, and one can learn much both from experiencing misfortune and from helping others to deal with misfortune. Labels are also used as mechanisms of division, and are therefore often unhelpful. And words often have meanings far beyond the obvious, which is something that should be learned in any high school English class (if not learned during religious studies when studying the Bible).
The purpose of this forum is civil discourse of issues, just as political fora should, ideally, be devoted to the civil discourse of issues and solutions to problems. However, this is no longer the case, and people would rather utter simple, meaningless rhetoric than understand the issues with which they must deal and try to solve the big problems. Changing debate from true discourse to rhetoric eliminates the core meaning of much of what is written, and makes people want to act impulsively instead of attempt to understand texts and data. While I could go on for screens and screens, I end with this note about the Bible: anyone who thinks that "an eye for an eye" carries the plain meaning of the words - that one who causes another to lose his eye must forfeit his own eye - has quite a bit to learn.

Posted by William Sherwin on May 8, 2005 01:18 AM

I think William is spot on when he talks about rhetorical divisions, names, and their often inadequate relationship to the helpfulness of said devices. I think it's pretty evident that the limitations (and I can at least speak for myself here) of the human brain, and it's ability to comprehend, necessitate abstraction and ontology. It seems the very tools required for human comprehension also lay the boundaries (brain-hurdles, above) for deep and meaningful discussion. Let's not forget that humans are lazy; it's alot easier for me to pretend like I understand everything by developing a rich (but very limiting) system of abstraction by age 21, than it is to spend a lifetime participating in civil discourse with potentially lifechanging results on a far too-frequent-to-be-comfortable basis. Only recently have I formalized my heuristic for judging the validity of an abstraction and it's corresponding boundaries: to _attempt_ an objective evaluation of the abstraction's helpfulness. Some of the most common unhelpful abstractions correspond to the big ____-ist stereotypes. In certain cases, you might be able to provide concrete evidence for the existence of a stereotype, but before I use it as an abstraction, I should likely know that it is a helpful abstraction to hold. Is it helpful to enter into a discussion with William by labeling him an extremist? No, because the conversation ends before any "objective" measure of the value of a conversation might have taken place. Unhelpful.

As far as I can tell, and I'm just playing devil's advocate here (or God's, as it were?), William has registered an argument against literal Biblical interpretation by appealing to a common-sense (at least in these modern times) notion that retribution on par with infringement is a destructive cycle, with little positive value. Makes sense to me. However, my understanding of the "eye for an eye" passage, in a Christian framework, is that of a bygone law, made completely irrelevant by Jesus' act of self-sacrifice. It's existence in the Bible, like many other old testament laws, remains important, if at least to metaphorically underscore the type of transition Christians believe takes place upon salvation: moving from life evaluated against an unattainable set of laws, to life under the freeing grace of God (read, from "eye for an eye" to "turn the other cheek"). So, while I have my own unresolved issues with the value of a literal (or any, for that matter) Biblical interpretation, I would not count this among them. Full disclosure here.

Posted by Kurtiss Hare on May 8, 2005 02:56 AM

Well, I don't always mean to say that literal interpretation is bad... For example, where the Torah says, "You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk," we still interpret that literally; additionally, we do believe that the happenings in the Bible actually happened. However, some statements are meant to be taken literally, and some are not, and one can learn further about how different passages are interpreted - literally or otherwise - from reading commentaries. The most famous commentator on the Torah (and much of the rest of the Bible, and the Talmud) was Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzhak (Rashi), who lived in medieval France; another one was Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides), who also wrote A Guide for the Perplexed.
In short, I don't think that there is enough space in this forum to delve into Jewish philosophy and methodology of law and study. However, the passage that incorporates the phrase "an eye for an eye" means that one whose actions deprive another of his eye must compensate the victim monetarily for the value of the lost eye.
Anyone who has any questions about anything that I have written should feel free to contact me directly; if that happens, perhaps, excerpts of e-mails might make their way into this forum... Of course, questions raised to me on this forum will still be answered on this forum as concisely as possible...

Posted by William Sherwin on May 9, 2005 12:29 AM

As I've said before in an earlier posting, developing a personal philosophy of life may be one of the most important things a person does and there can be no prescriptions for how do so. One's religious upbringing plays on important role, but so do all the other life experiences. And one should expect that philosophy to evolve and grow as one grows older.

For some people, some elements of that philosophy are non-negotiable and these usually take the form of a religious formulation. So if a belief in God is important to you, then other elements on your philosophy must conform to it. There is nothing wrong with this. If it works for you, that's all that matters. So to respond to Mary's specific question, there are not just two choices that one can make, there are an infinite number.

In my case, I have chosen one particular formulation that works for me. In this, a belief in God is not an essential element of my personal philosophy, so I am willing to relinquish it. I am comfortable with my choice but it will not work for everyone, and they will have to make their own choices.

What I am advocating is that people be allowed, even encouraged, to explore all the possible options without fear of feeling that they are going into forbidden territory. They should feel free to put all their beliefs under scrutiny, to discover just what is really important to them personally and why.

Posted by Mano Singham on May 9, 2005 02:57 PM

After reading your weblog for a few months, it really surprises me to learn of your background as a lay minister. I myself have grown up in the Methodist church but through the years have also attended Baptist, Pentacostal, Catholic, and several other church denominations. This so-called American Christianity which has turned you and others to become athiests is surely not limited to one denomination. I think this change in American Christianity is due to a change in focus of the church not due to the church's changing face in the media.

The media is always looking to report on the shocking and out of the ordinary events. That is why the Christains who are out of the mainstream are the ones portrayed in the media. This is nothing new. What is new is that the mainstream church has changed its focus.

Instead of the church being an agent to serve God's plan, they have decided to follow there own agenda. Many churches have become like religious country clubs. They have good intentions but have lost their moral compass. Instead of preaching from the Bible, many sermons now are more like an episode of Dr. Phil. It's no wonder that material success has been equated with being a "good Christian." Of course, these types of sermons are more apt to fill the pews and the offering plates, but they won't get any souls into heaven.

Finally, it saddens me that the state of Christianity in America has changed you from a potential minister to an athiest. Your situation is very analogous to that of a devoted sports fan. Professional sports is now more about marketing, big salaries, steroid scandals, and face time on ESPN than going out and playing ball. This commercialization of modern sports is disgusting enough at times to drive away even the most die-hard fans away. I urge you to look back to your youth and remember the true essence of Christianity. Just because George Steinbrenner has soured your taste for baseball, don't let Jerry Falwell do the same to Christianity.

Posted by Joe Felix on May 9, 2005 07:24 PM


The reasons for my switch go well beyond the things I spoke about here, and I may write about them later. And I know (and have met) many religious people here whom I admire, so I am not hostile to religion in general.

But the fact is that at this time in my life, I see no need in my own personal philosophy of life for religion and am comfortable without it.

Posted by Mano Singham on May 12, 2005 02:58 PM