Bill O’Reilly and the fight to secularize Christianity

Last week, Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly insisted that Christianity was not, in fact, a religion, but rather a philosophy.

That prompted this righteously funny, indignant response from Jon Stewart:

In his bluntness, I think O’Reilly clumsily pulled back the curtain on a growing idea.

Over the past several years, political conservatives have been insisting that Christianity is nothing more than a secular philosophy for wielding worldly power and authority. For the most part, Big Christianity has been willing to play along, as long as they get to be a part of the ruling class.

This subset of Christians is so obsessed with dominating and subjugating their tribal opponents that they are willing to sacrifice the religious significance of their symbols to score political victories. They will hand over the cross if it means they can use the government’s authority – with its implied and explicit enforcement powers – to put their neutered version of Christianity in a position of privilege above other beliefs (and, of course, non-belief).

In one case, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia famously argued that the cross is a secular, symbolic representation “of the resting place of the dead,” while castigating the lawyer who had the temerity to suggest that Jews had their own burial marker traditions. Right-wing legal organizations have argued, sometimes successfully, that other crosses – though notably only crosses on public land – are non-religious symbols. Perhaps more incredibly, the Supreme Court once ruled that créches do not advocate a religious message. While the nativity scene has been heavily fictionalized and dramatized over the centuries, it’s usually been to more clearly mark the significance of the birth of Christ, not to drain it of its religious meaning.

Then you have the Christian groups who have repackaged the creation stories of Genesis into an ostensibly secular mishmash of pseudoscience called Intelligent Design, all in an effort to defeat their secular opponents in public schools and on the Supreme Court. They’ve also made efforts to strip invocations and benedictions of their religious significance, just so they can continue to use peer pressure in public schools to enforce the superiority of tribal Christianity.

And then you have Christian leaders like the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Albert Mohler, who described the 2012 Presidential election – in which a ticket with a Protestant Christian and a Catholic defeated a ticket with a Mormon and a Catholic – as “an evangelical disaster.” For Mohler, evangelical Christianity can be reduced to a handful of political issues, and when those issues lose, Christianity loses.

No one has done a better job of documenting the dissolution of evangelicalism into tribal politics than Fred Clark. But this pattern goes well beyond evangelicals – it’s now the dominant strain of thinking among the Catholic leadership. It’s easy to see when the US Council of Catholic Bishops obsesses over fighting against marriage equality and abortion, while not having time to discuss poverty at their annual meeting. Or when Catholic priests deny sacraments to Catholic teens when they disagree with Church leadership on Facebook.

But besides the Catholic hierarchy, it’s also evident in prominent lay Catholics like Scalia. Like New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. Like Rick Santorum. Like Paul Ryan. And like Bill O’Reilly:

Transcript, from Towleroad:

MCGUIRK: The war on Christmas is very, very real, and if you ask me, in addition to some grouchy misanthropic heathen atheists it has to do – at the root of it – with two things – abortion and the gay rights agenda, because Christianity is against those things. It’s subtle but that’s why it’s so pronounced in recent years.

O’REILLY: Hundred percent agree. I absolutely agree 100% that the diminishment of Christianity is the target and Christmas is the vehicle because the secularists know the opposition to their agenda (legalized drugs is in that as well) comes primarily from the Judeo-Christian traditionalist people.

Did you catch that? The only reason anyone would oppose Christianity is if they favor abortion rights and “the gay rights agenda.” Therefore, Christianity is nothing more than opposing the rights of women to choose an abortion and opposing the rights of gay people. O’Reilly slips in his own hobby-horse there, too, suggesting that Christianity is also defined by opposing legalization of certain drugs. (And, sure, maybe there are a couple of other issues that define who is a Christian – I mean, Richard Cizik was forced out of his leadership role in the National Association of Evangelicals for suggesting that global climate change might be real, along with waffling just a little bit on gay rights.)

And the fact is, these (politically) conservative Christians are winning. As Rachel Held Evans wrote in “How to win a culture war and lose a generation”:

When asked by The Barna Group what words or phrases best describe Christianity, the top response among Americans ages 16-29 was “antihomosexual.” For a staggering 91 percent of non-Christians, this was the first word that came to their mind when asked about the Christian faith. The same was true for 80 percent of young churchgoers. (The next most common negative images? : “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” and “too involved in politics.”)

Note that none of those descriptors are particularly “religious.”

I think you can make an argument that this strange secularized Christianity is partially the result of political realignment, used cynically by political strategists and Christian leaders for electoral and fundraising power (E.g., Ralph Reed). Or you can make an argument that it can be best described by the framework of privilege – especially since the subset of Christians we’re looking at is almost entirely white, male, heterosexual, and wealthy. You can make the argument that it’s a result of theological choices, from increasingly individualistic interpretations to the Prosperity Gospel and its offshoots to neo-fundamentalism. You could also argue that it’s the result of cultural fragmentation, leading to a Christianity reduced to consumer demand for separate music and books and films. I think it’s the convergence of all of those things, though I’ll leave it to people smarter than me to figure out the proper proportions.

This obviously isn’t the first time that Christianity has been led astray in search of worldly power. But I think there is something unique in the way this movement to secularize Christianity has expanded to envelop mainline Protestant churches, evangelicals, and Catholics.

So how can Christians recapture their faith from those who would mortgage it for political power? I think Rachel Held Evans hits on the best way to start: storytelling.

We need to listen to one another’s stories.

Time and time again, I talk to Christians whose experiences, like mine, go something like this: “I used to think that homosexuality was a sinful, promiscuous lifestyle that people chose in rebellion to God, and that Christians need to rally against the ‘gay agenda’ through legislative action. Then, my best friend (or brother or sister or son or daughter or high school buddy or neighbor or mentor) came out, and everything changed. Their story didn’t fit the stereotype. It didn’t fit into my previous categories. Their story made me see that things aren’t that simple, and that the ‘war’ between Christianity and homosexuality represents a false dichotomy that is incredibly painful and destructive to Christians with same-sex attractions. After that, I could no longer support the sort of rhetoric and actions that only serve to make this world a more hostile and hopeless place to the ones I loved. I kept thinking about all the depression, all the suicides, all the secrets. I just can’t support a culture that, perhaps inadvertently, fosters that.”

Everything changes when you are confronted with someone else’s story.

I agree that this is a necessary – but not sufficient – first step. Like Rachel points out, it can’t just be us telling our stories – we need to make sure other Christians, especially those who have been pushed to the sides, have the space and the opportunity to tell their stories for themselves. We need to make sure that there is more than one image of Christianity that is being projected to the world. We need to share the stories that provide a testimony that the Cross still has a meaning beyond partisan politics.

We will always need more stories, and your story is as important as mine or anyone else’s – but let’s face it, the stories are already out there. If someone hasn’t already heard these stories, it’s because he is avoiding them – because he doesn’t want to be confronted with something that might change his mind. While we as Christians are commissioned by our faith to keep forgiving him, it doesn’t mean we need to accept his closed ears as limitations on our faith. We need to remember and proclaim that love and empathy are gifts that allow us to do the right thing, even when we don’t have the specific stories to guide us.

John Waters on The Simpsons

“Well, Homer, I won your respect, and all I had to do was save your life. Now, if every gay man could just do the same, you’d be set.” 
(© Twentieth Century Fox)

We acknowledge that there are times when all of us wait, like Thomas, for the truth to walk up to us, so that we can put our fingers in the wounds and make sure they’re real. But we know that we’re called to be and to do better than that – and when we fail to hold ourselves and our brothers and sisters to a higher standard, we are falling short.

Further reading:

Secularizing the Cross (Christian Activists: Be Careful What You Wish For)“, Steven Waldman, Beliefnet, October 8, 2009.