Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity

Overview

From the author of the widely acclaimed A Place at the Table, this is a major work, passionately outspoken and cogently reasoned, that exposes the great danger posed to Christianity today by fundamentalism.

The time is past, says Bruce Bawer, when denominational names and other traditional labels provided an accurate reflection of Christian America's religious beliefs and practices. The meaningful distinction today is not between Protestant and Catholic, or Baptist and ...

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Overview

From the author of the widely acclaimed A Place at the Table, this is a major work, passionately outspoken and cogently reasoned, that exposes the great danger posed to Christianity today by fundamentalism.

The time is past, says Bruce Bawer, when denominational names and other traditional labels provided an accurate reflection of Christian America's religious beliefs and practices. The meaningful distinction today is not between Protestant and Catholic, or Baptist and Episcopalian, but rather between "legalistic" and "nonlegalistic" religion, between the Church of Law and the Church of Love. On one side is the fundamentalist right, which draws a sharp distinction between "saved" and "unsaved" and worships a God of wrath and judgment; on the other are more mainstream Christians who view all humankind as children of a loving God who calls them to break down barriers of hate, prejudice, and distrust.

Pointing out that the supposedly "traditional" beliefs of American fundamentalism--about which most mainstream Christians, clergy included, know shockingly little--are in fact of relatively recent origin, are distinctively American in many ways, and are dramatically at odds with the values that Jesus actually spread, Bawer fascinatingly demonstrates the way in which these beliefs have increasingly come to supplant genuinely fundamental Christian tenets in the American church and to become synonymous with Christianity in the minds of many people.

Stealing Jesus is the ringing testament of a man who is equally disturbed by the notion of an America without Christianity and the notion of an American Christianity without love and compassion.

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Editorial Reviews

New York Times Book Review
"Stealing Jesus" may prove of value simply for its clear exposition of what today's American 'fundamentalists' believe and want to do. Bawer's readers will no longer be able to greet that term with a condescending smile.
Library Journal
Author of A Place at the Table, a groundbreaking book on homosexuality, and of articles on religion, Bawer argues that fundamentalism is a recent development that defies the values of Christianity.
Kirkus Reviews
Bawer wants to rouse liberal America from its lazy indifference to the rising tide of Christian fundamentalism.

A literary and cultural critic, Bawer has written on spirituality in modern fiction (The Aspect of Eternity, 1993) and normality in the lives of gay men and lesbians (A Place at the Table, 1993). Now he turns his critical sights on the history, reigning personalities, and ominous future prospects of Christian fundamentalism in America. Bawer traces fundamentalism back to the 19th-century English theologian John Nelson Darby, who first articulated the doctrine of dispensational premillennialism—a periodization of sacred history that will culminate in a thousand-year reign of Christ—and to C.I. Scofield, who incorporated Darby's ideas as commentary in his Scofield Reference Bible. Bawer goes on to critique Pat Robertson, Ralph Reed, Hal Lindsey, James Dobson, and Bill McCartney (head of the much- publicized Promise Keepers). He subsumes these men under the larger rubric of a wrathful "Church of Law," which he contrasts with the more truly Christian "Church of Love," best represented by the late Harry Emerson Fosdick, famed liberal preacher at Riverside Church in New York City. That the most distinguished American representative of the Church of Love is dead is just Bawer's point: Nonlegalistic Christians must find their voice again before the legalistic ones steal Jesus away. But with his love/law dichotomy, Bawer succumbs to the very type of black-and-white thinking he decries in fundamentalists. The dichotomy is especially unfortunate in that it both perpetuates an ancient Christian prejudice against law that has often spent itself on Judaism and Hebrew scripture, and distorts religious experience, which some scholars have understood to include both loving and wrathful dimensions.

Bawer lightens his critique with stretches of autobiographical narration, but the overriding (and unrepentant) tone of fulmination lends his book the feel of a sermon that has gone on too long.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780609802229
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/28/1998
  • Pages: 340
  • Sales rank: 819,852
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Bruce Bawer is the author of A Place at the Table, Diminishing Fictions, and The Aspect of Eternity. A practicing Episcopalian, he has delivered talks and sermons in churches around the country and has published essays on religious subjects in the New York Times and elsewhere.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments.....................................................ix
1. "Are You a Christian?"............................................1
2. "Who Is My Neighbor?"............................................29
3. Love and Law.....................................................53
4. Darby's Kingdom..................................................77
5. Rauschenbusch's Kingdom..........................................91
6. "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?"................................109
7. The Legalistic Boom.............................................131
8. Takeover........................................................155
9. God's Generalissimo.............................................167
10. The Choirboy...................................................187
11. "No More Gray".................................................201
12. "A Lie Straight from the Devil"................................221
13. The Doctor and the Coach.......................................247
14. "These Secular Times"..........................................267
15. Did Lucy Convert?..............................................285
16. Abiding Messages, Transient Settings...........................303
Bibliography.......................................................329
Index..............................................................334
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First Chapter

CHAPTER ONE

"ARE YOU A CHRISTIAN?"

SPRING 1996, NEW YORK CITY. I'm standing on a moderately crowded subway car reading a paperback when I look up to see a man about my age--thirty-nine--who is standing a few feet away and staring at me with disconcerting intensity. For an instant we gaze speechlessly into each other's eyes. I expect him to say (as sometimes happens) that he's read one of my books and recognizes me from my dust jacket photo. Instead he asks me a question.

"Are you a Christian?"

The question takes me aback, though I know why he has asked it. I am reading Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, whose author, the Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong, is notorious for his denial of many orthodox Christian doctrines and for his work on behalf of an inclusive church. It occurs to me that my interlocutor, whose question marks him as a born-again Christian, has probably noticed the word Bible, which is in large type, and cannot make out the rest of the title.

"Yes," I reply.

"Are you born again?" His eyes meet mine in an unsettlingly intimate gaze.

I pause for a moment. We have entered difficult territory. Am I born again? Eight years ago, after a decade of feeling that one couldn't be both homosexual and Christian, and after a year or so of listening to sermons that had, for the first time, explained Christianity in a way that made sense to me, I was baptized at Saint Thomas Episcopal Church in New York.

Am I born again? I look into the man's eyes. "I think so."

"Do you accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior?"

Another pause. "Yes ..."

"Then you're born again!" he declares conclusively. "Next time someone asks, answer with confidence that you are!"

"Well," I reply, falling into a tone that sounds to me rather stiff and academic in comparison with his unrestrained ardor, "if I sounded hesitant, it's because I consider myself `born again,' but by some people's definition I'm not."

I don't explain that part of the problem for many people, himself probably included, would be that I'm gay. In the kinds of churches whose members are in the habit of describing themselves as born again, being gay is considered utterly incompatible with being Christian. Another part of the problem is that I'm an Episcopalian, a member of a church that fundamentalists and many conservative evangelicals don't consider a legitimate church at all because of what they see as its theological leniency. Nor do I add that the book I'm reading was written by someone who has helped to change the Episcopal Church in ways that would doubtless horrify my interlocutor.

"How long have you been a Christian?" the man asks, his eyes fixed on mine.

"Eight years," I tell him.

He seems delighted by my answer. Why? Because I've been a Christian that long? Or because I became one as an adult, which presumably suggests that, like him, I'm a "born-again Christian" who went through a "conversion experience," and am thus more serious and committed than many nominal Christians? Or because I remember how many years it's been--which suggests that my conversion continues to be an important event for me?

"I've been a Christian for nine years," he says. "I was going to commit suicide and then Jesus Christ saved me. I was filled with the power of the Holy Ghost."

I'm at a loss for words. What can I say in response to this testimony? After all, I'm an Episcopalian. Most of us don't talk that way, especially not to total strangers. "Good for you," I finally say.

When the man gets off the train a few moments later, we exchange a friendly good-bye. The doors close, and the train moves on. Yet the brief conversation haunts me for hours. I'm at once perturbed and impressed by the man's zealotry. Evangelical Christians, fundamentalist and otherwise, can walk up to strangers on the subway, tell them they're Christians, and testify about how they found Jesus. There's something wonderful about that. Mainline Protestants--members of such long-established, moderate-to-liberal denominations as the American Baptist Church, the Disciples of Christ, the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church, the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, and the Reformed Church of America--don't usually do that sort of thing. And we Episcopalians are probably the worst of all: Some of us are self-conscious about discussing God even in church. A century ago sex was seen as a private matter that simply shouldn't be discussed in public; today our secular society teaches us to view religion in the same way, and most of us unquestioningly oblige.

*

"Are you a Christian'" It's not as easy a question as it may sound. What is a Christian? How to decide who is or isn't one--and who does the deciding?

I probably wasn't more than seven or eight when I first noticed that the word could mean very different things, depending on who was using it. Many of my Protestant relatives in South Carolina routinely distinguished between "Christians"--meaning themselves--and "Catholics." In the middle-class neighborhood where I grew up in Queens, New York, many of my Catholic neighbors made it clear that they regarded themselves and their coreligionists as the only true Christians, and that in their minds everyone else--Protestants, Jews, whatever--blended into a non-Catholic, non-Christian sameness. Among fundamentalist (and many evangelical) Protestants today, such an exclusionary posture toward outsiders is not only alive and well but is a matter of essential doctrine. Fundamentalists, by definition, view only themselves and other fundamentalists as true Christians; conservative evangelicals generally view only themselves, other conservative evangelicals, and fundamentalists as true Christians.

When we speak of American Christians, of course, we may divide them into Protestants and Catholics. (Eastern Orthodox Christians account for only 1 percent or so of the total.) But today there is a more meaningful way of dividing American Christians into two categories. The mainstream media often refer to one of these categories as the Religious Right or the Christian Right and call people in this category conservative Christians; people who fall into the other category are frequently dubbed liberal Christians. The terms conservative Christian and liberal Christian can be useful, but I will try to avoid using them here because they suggest political rather than theological orientation. Generally speaking, to be sure, the political implications are accurate: Conservative Christians tend to be politically conservative, and liberal Christians tend to be politically liberal. But there are exceptions; and, in any event, it needs to be underscored that what distinguishes the members of these two groups of Christians is not politics but their essential understanding of the nature of God, the role of the church, and the meaning of human life. It is not an overstatement, indeed, to say that these two groups, despite the fact that they both claim the name of Christianity, have fundamentally divergent conceptions of the universe.

What, then, to call these two categories? Most Americans employ fundamentalist as a general label for conservative Christians--which is why I've used fundamentalism in this book's subtitle--but in its strict sense the term is too narrow for my purposes. Phrases like traditional Christian and modern Christian are, to an extent, legitimate, for conservative Christians tend to champion tradition and to reject much of the modern science and biblical scholarship that liberal Christians embrace; yet, as shall become clear, it is extremely misleading to suggest that the kind of theology to which conservative Christians subscribe is truly more traditional, in the deepest sense, than that of liberal Christians. Likewise, labels like biblical Christian and Bible-believing Christian, which many conservative Christians attach to themselves, wrongly suggest that there is something unbiblical about the faith of liberal Christians. We might speak of "exclusionists" and "inclusionists," because conservative Christians, unlike liberal Christians, tend to define the word Christian in such a way as to exclude others--including, in most cases, a large number of their fellow conservative Christians.

But it seems to me that the difference between conservative and liberal Christianity may be most succinctly summed up by the difference between two key scriptural concepts: law and love. Simply stated, conservative Christianity focuses primarily on law, doctrine, and authority; liberal Christianity focuses on love, spiritual experience, and what Baptists call the priesthood of the believer. If conservative Christians emphasize the Great Commission--the resurrected Christ's injunction, at the end of the Gospel according to Matthew, to "go to all nations and make them my disciples"--liberal Christians place more emphasis on the Great Commandment, which in Luke's Gospel reads as follows: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself."

Am I suggesting that conservative Christians are without love or that liberal Christians are lawless? No. I merely make this distinction: Conservative Christianity understands a Christian to be someone who subscribes to a specific set of theological propositions about God and the afterlife, and who professes to believe that by subscribing to those propositions, accepting Jesus Christ as savior, and (except in the case of the most extreme separatist fundamentalists) evangelizing, he or she evades God's wrath and wins salvation (for Roman Catholics, good works also count); liberal Christianity, meanwhile, tends to identify Christianity with the experience of God's abundant love and with the commandment to love God and one's neighbor. If, for conservative Christians, outreach generally means zealous proselytizing of the "unsaved," for liberal Christians it tends to mean social programs directed at those in need.

In these pages, accordingly, I'll refer to these two broad categories of Christianity as legalistic and nonlegalistic. Further, I'll use the terms Church of Law and Church of Love to describe the two different ecclesial ideals toward which the Christians in these respective categories strive--remembering always, of course, that every church and every human soul has within it a degree of legalism and a capacity for love.

This book will focus primarily on Protestant legalism and nonlegalism; some of the things I say will apply as well to the parallel split within Catholicism, while others do not. Though there are broad sympathies between legalistic Protestants and Catholics, and between nonlegalistic Protestants and Catholics, the strongly divergent doctrinal emphases of Protestantism and Catholicism make it difficult to generalize about "legalistic Christianity," say, as opposed to legalistic Protestantism or Catholicism.

Among the differences between legalistic and nonlegalistic Protestants are these:

* Legalistic Protestantism sees Jesus' death on the cross as a transaction by means of which Jesus paid for the sins of believers and won them eternal life; nonlegalistic Protestantism sees it as a powerful and mysterious symbol of God's infinite love for suffering mankind, and as the natural culmination of Jesus' ministry of love and selflessness.

* Legalistic Protestantism believes that Jesus' chief purpose was to carry out that act of atonement; nonlegalistic Protestantism believes Jesus' chief purpose was to teach that God loves all people as parents love their children and that all humankind is one.

* Legalistic Protestantism understands eternal life to mean a heavenly reward after death for the "true Christians"--the "Elect," the "saved"--who accept Jesus as their savior and subscribe to the correct doctrines; nonlegalistic Protestantism more often understands it to denote a unity with God that exists outside the dimension of time and that can also be experienced in this life.

* Legalistic Protestantism holds that God loves only the "saved' and that they alone are truly his children; nonlegalistic Protestantism holds that God loves all human beings and that all are his children.

* Legalistic Protestantism sees Satan as a real creature, a tempter and deceiver from whom true Christians are defended by their faith but by whom atheists, members of other religions, and "false Christians" are deceived, and whose instruments they can become; for nonlegalistic Protestantism Satan is a metaphor for the potential for evil that exists in each person, Christian or otherwise, and that must be recognized and resisted.

* Legalistic Protestantism believes that individuals should be wary of trusting their own minds and emotions, for these can be manipulated by Satan, and that questions and doubts are to be resisted as the work of the Devil; nonlegalistic Protestantism believes that the mind is a gift of God and that God wants us to think for ourselves, to follow our consciences, to ask questions, and to listen for his still, small voice.

* Legalistic Protestantism sees "truth" as something established in the Bible and known for sure by true Christians; nonlegalistic Protestantism sees truth as something known wholly only by God toward which the belief statements of religions can only attempt to point the way.

* Legalistic Protestantism reads the Bible literally and considers it the ultimate source of truth; nonlegalistic Protestantism insists that the Bible must be read critically, intelligently, and with an understanding of its historical and cultural contexts.

* Legalistic Protestantism encourages a suspicion of aesthetic values and a literalistic mentality that tends to thwart spiritual experience; nonlegalistic Protestantism encourages a recognition of mystery and beauty as attributes of the holy.

Some legalistic Protestants are fundamentalists, whose emphasis is on keeping themselves apart from the evil mainstream culture and thus pure; others might more accurately be described as conservative evangelicals, whose emphasis is on bringing the word of Jesus to the "unsaved," or as charismatics, who seek to model their worship on early Christians' miraculous experiences with healing, prophecy. and "speaking in tongues"; some may consider themselves to be all three at once. Members of all these groups believe in a wrathful God who rewards "true believers" with an eternity in heaven and condemns all others to an eternity in hell.

More legalistic Protestants belong to the Southern Baptist Convention (the nation's largest Protestant group) than to any other denomination; many others belong to such Pentecostal bodies as the Assemblies of God and the Church of God, which place special emphasis on charismatic manifestations; still others belong to congregations, Baptist or otherwise, that are independent (often fiercely so) of any established denomination and that, in both worship and doctrine, may strike a unique balance among fundamentalist, evangelical, and charismatic features. Many mainline church members are also legalists, though the percentage varies widely: The United Church of Christ contains far fewer legalists, for example, than does the United Methodist Church. As noted, so-called traditionalist Catholics, who in earlier generations would never have been grouped (either by themselves or by others) with Protestant fundamentalists, fall into the legalistic category; so do most Mormons, Seventh-day Adventists, and Jehovah's Witnesses. Though many in this category would not consider many others in it to be genuine Christians at all, they share a propensity for narrow theological views and reactionary social and cultural values, and consequently they tend to function as practical allies in the so-called culture war against "secular humanism."

Fundamentalist, evangelical, and charismatic Christianity cannot easily be discussed and understood without reference to the distinctive characteristics of American culture. Yes, these forms of legalistic Christianity claim adherents on every continent; but it is in America that they have taken root most firmly and borne the most fruit. They barely exist in Western Europe; their success elsewhere owes everything to American missionary work among the poor and undereducated. In their suspicion of the intellect and their categorical assertion that the Bible contains all truth, these kinds of Christianity reflect the American distrust of mind described by Richard Hofstadter in his book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, indeed, they can be understood as ways of avoiding the obligation to think--and, especially, to think for one-self. As William Ray puts it, "fundamentalism demands believers, not thinkers"; Ray's observation that "no evidence, no logic, no personal experience, nothing can change the fundamentalist's mind about `revealed truth' "applies equally to conservative evangelicals and charismatics "Questioning `revealed truth' in any way, even hypothetically," notes Ray, "challenges the ... belief system at its core.... The more successfully any `revealed truth' is challenged, the more vehemently the challenge must be rejected,"

Why did this kind of religion develop in America, of all places? Well, first of all, America is the place to which the Puritans came, and their fixation on stark antitheses (God and Satan, saints and sinners), their conviction that you're damned unless you believe exactly the right doctrine, and their tendency to equate immorality with sex all helped lay the foundations for today's legalistic Christianity. So did the pragmatism and materialism of the pioneers, whose respect for "honest work" and suspicion of professors, philosophers, and others who don't produce anything "real" spelled success for faiths that involved quantifiable sacrifice, little or no abstract reflection, and a concrete payoff in the form of a tangible heaven. Those pioneers' individualistic sentiments, moreover, made them distrust ecclesiastical elites and accept the right of every person to interpret the Bible according to his or her own lights; this emphasis on scripture was also fed by the notion of America as a new Eden, which, as the religious historian George M. Marsden has noted,"readily translated into Biblical primitivism," the idea that "the Bible alone should be one's guide." Yet given those pioneers' literal-mindedness and aversion to abstract interpretation, it was a short--and disastrous--step from the idea of the Bible as guide to a twisted insistence on biblical literalism.

Nonlegalistic Protestants figure far less often in the mainstream media than do legalists. Indeed, they sometimes seem virtually invisible. They worship a God of love, and they envision the church, at its best, as a Church of Love. They tend to belong to mainline Protestant churches or to relatively small bodies such as the Quakers and Unitarians. Some are Catholics: some are even Baptists or Seventh-day Adventists. If the public face of conservative Christians today is that of Pat Robertson and his Christian Coalition, liberal Christians as yet have no public face to speak of. Recently, liberal Christians have formed such national groups as the Interfaith Alliance and Call to Renewal, but so far they have failed to receive even a fraction of the media attention routinely accorded to the Christian Coalition. Few Americans even know they exist.

Nonlegalistic Christianity has its problems. Those who worship a God of love can sometimes appear to reduce the majesty and mystery of the divine to something pat and shallow. While legalists obsess over the presence of evil in the world, nonlegalists can seem naive, even blinkered, about it. How to explain the existence of evil, after all, if God is totally good? If God does love all his children unconditionally, then why do so many people live out their lives fee]ing worthless, lonely, and unloved? In a world full of heartless brutality, belief in a God of wrath is hardly inexplicable. Karen Armstrong, the distinguished author of A History of God and hardly a legalistic Christian, has written that we must "accept evil in the divine" in order to "accept the evil we encounter in our own hearts." This is certainly one solution to the age-old problem of evil, and it is consistent with much that we read about God in the Old Testament. But it is not the religion of Jesus.

In any event, the problem with legalistic Christianity is not simply that it affirms that God can be evil; it's that it imagines a manifestly evil God and calls that evil good. In effect, as we shall see, it worships evil. In America right now, millions of children are taught by their legalistic Christian parents and ministers to revere a God of wrath and to take a sanguine view of human suffering. They are taught to view their fellow Americans not as having been "created equal," as the Declaration of Independence would have it, but as being saved or unsaved, children of God or creatures of Satan; they are taught not to respect those most different from themselves but to regard them as the enemy, to resist their influence, and to seek to restrict their rights. This is not only morally offensive, its socially dangerous--and it represents, for obvious reasons, a very real menace to democratic civil society. America's founding fathers, as I shall show, respected religion because they saw it as strengthening people's best selves and checking their worst selves; too often, legalistic Christianity--which has deceitfully portrayed the founding fathers as its philosophical allies--does precisely the opposite.

*

Now, what do I mean by the title Stealing Jesus?

In recent years, legalistic Christians have organized into a political movement so successful that when many Americans today hear the word Christianity, they think only of the legalistic variety. The mainstream media, in covering the so-called culture wars, generally imply that there are only two sides to choose from: the God-of-wrath Christian Right and the godless secular Left. Many Americans scarcely realize that there is any third alternative. And many, unable to take the Christian Right seriously as a cultural force, view it as a holdover of traditional Christianity" that has inexplicably lingered into these "secular times" and will gradually fade away.

This notion is dangerously misguided. To be sure, the kind of legalistic Christianity that flourishes in America today does have a long historical background of which Americans need to be more aware--and which I will briefly trace in these pages. Legalism has, then, been a part of the Christian picture from the beginning. Yet today's legalistic Protestantism is very much (to borrow a favorite legalistic term) a "new creation." As new species evolve from old because they are specially equipped to endure a changed environment, so today's legalism--an animal unlike any that had ever existed before--emerged as an adaptation to modern secular democratic society. Far from being a vestige of traditional Christian faith, in short, it is a distinctively modern phenomenon--one that, while making tradition its rallying cry, has at the deepest level betrayed Christianity's most precious traditions. In fact it has, as we shall see, carried out a tripartite betrayal:

* Doctrine. It has replaced the traditional emphases of Christian belief with bizarre doctrinal strictures that have no legitimate basis in scripture, reason, or tradition.

* Authority. It has replaced the foundational Protestant trust in the individual's "soul competency" with a dictatorial system of clerical absolutism.

* Law. It has replaced Christ's gospel message of love, which drew on the noblest parts of the Hebrew Scriptures, with the harshest edicts from the Pentateuch. the epistles of Paul, and the Book of Revelation.

Born out of anger, modern legalistic Christianity has, over the long arc of the twentieth century, become steadily angrier in reaction to spreading secularism. During that period it has also spread like a cancer, winning adherents by the million and posing an increasingly serious threat to other faiths and to democratic freedoms. It has, in the process, warped Christianity into something ugly and hateful that has little or nothing to do with love and everything to do with suspicion, superstition, and sadism. And, quite often, it denies the name of Christianity to followers of Jesus who reject its barbaric theology. In essence, then, it has stolen Jesus--yoked his name and his church to ideas, beliefs, and attitudes that would have appalled him.

Yet to an extraordinary extent, the American media--which are widely denounced as liberal and which tend to be controlled and staffed by secularists and by nonlegalistic Christians--have allowed their own way of using the word Christian to be strongly influenced by legalistic Christian activists. This is especially true, unsurprisingly, of the conservative press. In 1996, the right-wing policy magazine American Enterprise published a special issue on religion in which the word Christian was routinely used to mean only legalists. One article referred to the increasing "involvement of Christians in school boards"; another gauged the "Christian influence" on the media and adverted to "Christian media" and `Christian periodicals.' Over and over, in short, the word Christian was used in a narrow way to include only legalistic Christians and to exclude pretty much everybody else. Certainly there aren't "more Christians" on school boards or on Capitol Hill than there used to be; there are simply more legalistic Christians in these places.

Such usage is probably to be expected in a periodical like American Enterprise, whose editors consider legalistic Christians their ideological allies. But it is rather more surprising in the case of the New York Times, which legalistic Christians almost universally despise for what they view as its liberal, anti-Christian slant. Given the fact that legalistic Christians tend to view the Times as their single greatest enemy in the media establishment, and given the Times's history of extremely careful usage, it was remarkable to find Times religion reporter Gustav Niebuhr, in a 1996 article, using the word Christian to mean a legalistic Protestant. Niebuhr refers to "Christian booksellers" whose `Christian bookstores `feature "Christian music videos" by "Christian musicians." That neither Niebuhr nor his editors considered it inappropriate to say "Christian" rather than, say, "conservative evangelical" indicates the extent of the Religious Right's success at getting even some of the most responsible and reflective elements of mainstream America to accept, however unconsciously, the notion that legalists are the only true Christians--or, at the very least, are in some way "more" Christian' or more urgently or authentically or fully Christian, than other Christians.

The increasing tendency to use the word Christian to mean only legalistic Protestants has given the word an unpleasant flavor for many Americans--Christians included. In a 1996 sermon, a friend of mine who is an Episcopal priest recalled that he cringed when, at a social event, he met a man "who rather quickly identified himself as a Christian." When the man said the word Christian, several other words immediately went through my friend's mind: "bigot, arrogant, mindless, intolerant, rigid, mean-spirited." Though the encounter proved pleasant, my friend was struck by his initial reaction to the man's seff-identification as a Christian, and by the fact that the word had come to stand for so many bad things that even a devout clergyman could find himself recoiling at the sound of it.

A friend of mine who teaches theology at a Catholic university noted in a 1996 personal letter that at a recent meeting of his academic department, "one of my colleagues pointed out that the administration has found it unwise to use the word `Christian' in its official statements.... Why unwise? Because in the public perception `Christian' is hitched to `Coalition.'" Indeed, as the Reverend Canon John L. Peterson, the secretary-general of the Anglican Consultative Council, observed in his opening remarks at an international evangelism meeting in 1995, "in certain parts of the world the word Christian has become an embarrassment because it has been aligned with movements which are contrary to the Loving Christ that is at the heart of our message. I hold my head in shame to hear Jesus' name being affiliated with political movements that isolate, inhibit and breed hate and discontentment between human beings."

Why haven't nonlegalistic Christians made more of an effort to rescue the word Christian from the negative connotations it has acquired in the minds of many Americans? Partly, I think, because nonlegalistic Christians are used to thinking of religion as a private matter; they aren't in the habit of talking about what they believe, let alone organizing politically to do so. Partly because they feel cowed into silence by the aggressive, unapologetic manner in which legalists draw boundaries between "true Christians" (themselves) and false ones. And partly, perhaps, because they have a quite proper attitude of awe and humility about the fact that they are Christians--and an alertness to the danger of seeming smug, strident, and self-congratulatory in their profession of faith.

Yet one unfortunate result of this reticence is that the nonlegalistic Christian point of view has played an almost invisible role in the discussions of religion and "values" issues that have roiled our society in recent years. Instead, those discussions are almost invariably represented in the mainstream media as a clear-cut contest between "Christians" (that is, legalists), who supposedly uphold responsibility, values, and family, and liberal secular humanists, who support rights, tolerance, and separation of church and state. A major problem with this vision of the conflict is that neither side of it, as presented by the media, is speaking for Jesus Christ--for what he was and is really about. Indeed, it often seems that the media, secular liberals, and legalistic Christians alike take for granted that the most prominent legalistic spokespeople--men and women like Pat Robertson, Ralph Reed, Phyllis Schlafly, and James Dobson--do speak for Christianity. Even as many se

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 6, 2004

    Unsupported Thesis and Finger Pointing

    The author tries to speak about love yet uses the same old message of hatred drawing a line between 'us' and 'them.' He does nto support his opinions yet acts as though his statements shoudl be taken as law. He uses many of the same attacks on fundamentialists that fundamentalists use against other Christians. Why should the abuse be any more cogent or acceptable coming from him than from the fundamentalists? He has created another division in a great demonstration of the futility of his thesis!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 30, 2002

    Eye-opening literature

    This book was one of the most provacative and frustrating books that I have read during my seminary career, but finishing it was worth it. I wanted to throw the book across the room after the first 100 pages, but I was encouraged to finish the book and see Bawer through to the end. I am glad that I read all of the work and I am a better person because of the new found information contained in this work. I offer this one piece of advice to someone thinking about reading this book: 'Innocence lost cannot be regained.' In closing I would ask that you take a new look at Romans 8:38 upon finishing this book - if you grew up fundamentalist, it will be a new reading and a new understanding of that verse and its meaning in society.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 16, 2001

    An accurate portrait of the world's second most dangerous group (the Taliban is the first)

    As a former fundamentalist, I can assure the reader that Bawer's characterization of the Church of Law is scathingly accurate. I had all but abandoned the faith because I was unaware of the existence of a Christian alternative (the Church of Love). I am encouraged that I can begin my Christian walk again; at the same time I am disappointed because the people who really need to read this book will probably come nowhere near it. However, the chapters criticizing Pat Robertson, Ralph Reed and James Dobson, while accurate, were a bit mean-spirited. That is the only reason I could not give this book five stars. All in all, it is an eye-opening read. I hope Bawer writes a sequel.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 30, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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