By Richard E. Wackrow | 1 May 2017
Observers of the pious are continually faced with the same dilemma: What, exactly, is a “good Christian (or Muslim)”? Or phrased another way, how does one define a “devout” believer of any faith? By the degree to which his behavior adheres to someone’s idealized vision of Jesus (or Mohammed, or whomever), or by the extent to which the person in question follows the dictates of the applicable religious dogma (holy book, usually)?
Immediately after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, for example, religious apologists of various ilks pointed out that Muslims worship the same God of Abraham as do Jews and Christians (a fact that Christianists and other religious xenophobes and bigots conveniently ignore) — and that the terrorists were not “true (presumably peace-loving) Muslims.”
This is a manifestation of the belief-in-belief syndrome: the assumption that all religious people mean well — except, of course, for the rare anomalous few who are mass murderers, suicide bombers, pedophiles, and so forth.
So when a Muslim shoots and kills 49 people at a gay nightclub in Florida, or a devout Lutheran murders nine people in a black church in South Carolina, a conga line of theologians and other religious apologists invariably follows — quoting cherry-picked scripture, or contrasting the abhorrent behavior to that of their personal Jesus or some other prophet, in an effort to show that the perpetrator wasn’t a “true” or “devout” whatever.
Fortunately — in the only case I know of his actually being involved in the furthering of human knowledge — that question was to a large extent settled by the election of Donald Trump as president.
Of the four headline candidates, Trump was demonstratively the least religious. Reports vary as to his professed religion. As Michael Shermer explains in Politico:
As a self-proclaimed Protestant, or Presbyterian, or something he describes as “a wonderful religion,” Trump nominally attends the nondenominational Marble Collegiate Church in New York City. Marble Collegiate was the one-time pulpit for the self-help evangelist Norman Vincent Peale, author of the mega best-seller The Power of Positive Thinking, an amalgam of pop psychology and cherry-picked scripture (without the guilt and sin). … In other words, at most this is Christianity Lite, or Cafeteria Christianity, where one orders only the most appealing items on the menu.
Also, Trump was the poorest at muttering the theobabble demanded by the media. After being badgered since August 2015 to name his favorite Bible verse, Trump finally came up with “an eye for an eye.” This Mosaic-law rule can be found in the books of Exodus and Leviticus in the Old Testament — and was repudiated by Jesus (“turn the other cheek”) in the New Testament book of Matthew.
Yet despite his demonstrated lack of Christian piety and ignorance of scripture, Trump received 81 percent of the white evangelical Christian vote, 60 percent of the white-Catholic vote and 61 percent of the Mormon vote. (For the record, he received less than 30 percent each of the votes of Hispanic Catholics, Jews and the religiously unaffiliated.)
So it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that evangelicals voted for Trump not on the basis of his feigned fealty to Jesus, but on his demonstrated behavior: homophobia, xenophobia, racism, misogyny, religious bigotry — the ethical and social values touted throughout the Good Book.
But don’t take my word for it. Prior to the election, Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby reported that leaders of the religious right who condemned Bill Clinton for his sexual escapades were embracing Trump-the-letch during his presidential campaign:
Far from leading the opposition to the GOP’s grotesque nominee, [Ralph] Reed chairs [Trump’s] religious advisory board. Nothing in Trump’s long record of lecherous and disreputable behavior has shaken Reed’s support — not even the video in which he boasts explicitly of groping women.
[TV evangelist Pat] Robertson, who has said that Trump “inspires us all,” isn’t backing away either. The Donald’s talk of grabbing women by the crotch, Robertson indulgently explained to his TV audience, was just his way of “trying to look like he’s macho.”
Jerry Falwell Jr., the current president of Liberty University, fulsomely endorsed Trump in January. “Donald Trump lives a life of loving and helping others as Jesus taught,” [he] gushed. He, too, sees no reason to walk back his blessing.
Now, my understanding of any religion is that it makes certain statements about the world, and that the behaviors it prescribes and proscribes are not subject to individual interpretation or cherry-picking. Yet it seems that each person has his own personal definition of what is a “good Christian,” a “devout Muslim” or whatever. And you can get nearly as many different answers to the question “What would Jesus do?” as the number of professed Christians you ask.
As William Blake concludes in his poem “The Everlasting Gospel”:
The Vision of Christ that thou dost see
Is my Vision’s Greatest Enemy.
Thine has a great hook nose like thine;
Mine has a snub nose like to mine.
Thine is the friend of All Mankind;
Mine speaks in parables to the Blind.
Thine loves the same world that mine hates;
Thy Heaven doors are my Hell Gates.
Socrates taught what Melitus
Loathd as a Nation’s bitterest Curse;
And Caiphas was in his own Mind
A benefactor to Mankind.
Both read the Bible day & night,
But thou readst black where I read white.
If one picks the bits of his professed religion that fit his earthly needs and ignores the ones that don’t, he’s not following that religion. He’s inventing his own. And not knowing what behaviors each personal religion dictates means that, in the end, we can’t count on the faithful to act in good faith.
Granted, when someone says he’s an atheist, we don’t know how he behaves toward his fellow human beings. But at least atheists don’t insult our intelligence by alleging that as such they are more moral than the rest of us.
Reprinted with permission from the author.
Richard E. Wackrow is the author of Beginner’s Guide to Blasphemy.
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