Jean Stimmell, retired stone mason and psychotherapist, lives in Northwood and blogs at jeanstimmell.blogspot.com.
Religious beliefs have varied enormously over the centuries around the world, including in the U.S. today, where articles of faith differ radically between individuals. Ordinarily, one could argue this is good, that our breadth of views validates the complexity of the topic, proving, once and for all, the grand and sacred mystery of life.
Having a breadth of views is admirable, but it becomes disastrous when different dominations feel compelled to fight for their beliefs. While the old saying is false that “More people have died in the name of religion than any other cause on earth,” neither is religion an innocent party, as Alain de Botton, a philosopher, has observed.
“None of this is to excuse the undeniable barbarity unleashed by religionists over the centuries. The misogyny, beheadings, terrorism, killings, beatings and cruelty are real. They continue. Today we see a growing battle in the Middle East between Shi’ite and Sunni; a Jewish state unleashing militancy against Christian and Muslim Palestinians; and an anti-gay crusade led by some Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders that threatens the sanctity of life itself.”
Continuing on this theme, Thomas Merton, the celebrated Trappist monk, accused Catholics during the Cold War of being infected with worldly values for advocating military force, even threatening using nuclear weapons, to protect their power. He expressed sadness that believers did not take Jesus’s non-violent ethics seriously. Merton’s point is relevant to the present moment in more ways than one.
A recent NYT article documents how far-right Christian candidates are pursuing power by mixing religious fervor with conspiracy theories, even calling for the end of the separation of church and state. They encourage the violent overthrow of our government, urging citizens to arm themselves for the fight ahead.
A good example is Doug Mastriano, Pennsylvania state senator and a Republican gubernatorial candidate. He is explicitly promoting Christian power in America supported by an armed citizenry. At the opening of a far-right event where he spoke, “A robotic voice-over forecast a ‘great awakening,’ and an image of a guillotine blade accompanied the promise of ‘executions, justice, victory.’”
No talk here about Jesus turning the other cheek.
Another example is extremists in the pro-life movement pushing for “abortion abolition,” “a move to criminalize abortion from conception as homicide, and hold women who have the procedure responsible — a position that in some states could make those women eligible for the death penalty.”
What is next, witch trials?
Elizabeth Neumann is a devout Christian raised in the evangelical tradition and a former top official at the Department of Homeland Security. She warns us that such violent extremism is not an aberration but “the troubling-but-natural outgrowth of a strain of American Christianity…having nigh-apocalyptic stakes and a strong authoritarian streak.”
Some Christian nationalists are overtly embracing war. A recent book, Christianity at War, the Manifesto for Christian Militancy, takes it as a badger of honor that Christianity has been at war since the beginning of humanity; the author believes the last battle is now at hand: the final struggle between Christendom and the empire of Anti Christ.
Professor Andrew Whitehead, the lead author of the award-winning book, Taking America Back for God: Christiam Nationalism in the United States, writes that Christian nationalism is a political theology that legitimizes the type of violence we saw on Jan. 6, not in service of democracy but instead for fundamentally anti-democratic goals.
The latest Supreme Court decisions have further encouraged these conservative religious zealots, causing them to escalate their venomous and violent rhetoric, divorcing them even further from Jesus’s Golden Rule.
If nothing else, it proves the old proverb — “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”