Read James 1:27.
I have received a few emails from readers who don’t understand why I’m writing. On the one side are those who think I’m wasting my time looking at the Bible and trying to reason with believers about its inconsistencies. Like Sam Harris, this group feels that the best thing to do with religion is to eradicate it. On the other side are believers who think that I unfairly paint all Christians with the same brush, or that I waffle between saying the Bible isn’t true and chastising them for not following its teachings more closely.
To the first group, I would say that, while I am a big fan of Mr. Harris, the elimination of religion is neither constitutional nor within the realm of possibility. I am unequivocally against any form of what I would call ‘thought police’, whether it be for or against religion. I am free to question the claims made by Christianity and other religions – others should be free to accept them. What people do in the public sphere is another matter; if Christians want to push American scientific understanding back into the dark ages, for example, that hurts all of us – and therefore non-believers need to push back.
To the latter group, my reasoning goes something like this: There is a very vocal group of conservative Christians in our country that feel the Bible is a guidebook of sorts on how America should operate. These folks are convinced that their interpretation of ‘the word’ and how it applies to government is in line with God’s plan. Anyone who disagrees with them is either motivated by Satan or Socialism. I am told there are many moderate Christians who do not feel the same way – if this is true, they are certainly very quiet. In the US at least, I don’t see much resistance against the politicization of Christianity and the hard right ideological direction it continues to go in. If you pass along Sarah Palin quotes on your Facebook account without criticism, I’m going to assume you agree.
Of these folks, I would ask two things. First, try to really understand the nature of the document on which you base your worldview. If necessary, ask your church to offer a Bible history class so that you really understand where the New Testament came from and how it was put together. If you’re going to say you have the road map, you should learn how to read it. Second, if you decide that you still want to read the New Testament as the literal, inerrant word of God, then pay attention to ALL of it, not just a few pet passages. I mean, really, it isn’t that long of a book – would it kill you to read it in a couple of different translations, maybe think about how it fits (or doesn’t) into the scheme of a democratic form of government?
Once the believer has done these things, it is my hope – not that he will lose his faith – but that he will realize that his religious claims are no more or less valid than those of any believer of any other creed. Perhaps he will at least realize that many of the claims he makes really do not have that much basis in the actual writings of the New Testament, but more in our American interpretations of those writings. That, in my opinion, is the kind of secularism that would be an important step in getting our democracy back on track.
A case in point would be a reading of the last verse of James chapter one. Here he says real religion, accepted as pure and faultless by God, involves basically two things – taking care of widows and orphans, and keeping oneself from moral pollution.
Let’s look at the latter part of this verse first. No matter how ‘moral pollution’ is defined, it doesn’t seem like church folk are doing a very good job on this front. Numerous studies show that those who call themselves believers differ very little in their daily habits from those who do not. There are a few minor variations – Christians smoke a few more cigarettes than non-Christians do. They drink a bit less, but pay for a little more pornography. Young people who take ‘chastity pledges’ remain virgins on average about six months longer than other teenagers. But by and large, there is little difference between believers and non-believers when it comes to infidelity, child abuse, theft, fraud, drug use, murder, prostitution, alcoholism, and a host of other activities that could be described as immoral.
Notice that the writer does not demand that Christians rid society of immorality – he admonishes them to purge themselves of impurity. James is not pleading with Christians to become more politically involved. He is asking them to to raise their lives to a higher level of morality than those around them. Ted Haggard should have spent less time preaching about how homosexuality was ruining America and more time worrying about his own activities – even if you don’t classify homosexuality as immoral, certainly extra-marital, paid-for sex, crystal meth use, and jerking off in front of one’s parishioners would qualify.
I know, I know – for every Haggard, there are hundreds of Christians living wholesome lives, winning some battles with sin, losing some, but mostly managing to do right by most everyone, raise families, and stay out of jail. But the same could be said for Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists as well. In fact, atheists, by almost every measure, are more ethical than the religious.
One of my greatest frustrations as a believer was that there was little evidence of the power of the gospel in the life of most believers, including my own. If being a Christian makes one no more able to live a ‘good’ life than anyone else – then Christianity loses one of its major claims to relevancy. If my life as a Christian differs from that of the non-believer in only what I say, not what I do, then I have succeeded in becoming nothing but a hypocrite. If my religion makes me feel guilty about my actions while offering no real means to improve myself, then it’s no good. Most people want to live a life in harmony with society – in a melting pot like America, religion is not conducive to that goal.
James does not say that the purpose of faith is to cleanse society of immorality – he only says that it can effectively cleanse the believer. I would say that statistics generally do not support that claim, and that Christians who want to legislate morality understand neither the thrust of the gospels nor the foundations of democratic government.
But go ahead and believe if you want, if you feel it makes you a better person. Just don’t claim that others are infringing upon your religious liberties when they disagree with you.
As for the first part of James 1:27, taking care of widows and orphans – well, that’s another post.
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