I’m very disappointed that I have to write this particular post, and I’m a bit disappointed in the people who have made this post necessary. I shouldn’t be surprised, but I guess I retain a little optimism that people will show enough historical knowledge and intellectual honesty and humility to avoid saying stuff like this, but I guess not.
This isn’t something that bothers just me. I have talked about the issue with my wife, and with some friends, and we found this concerning, both because of its cavalier disregard of actual historical truth, and for its breathtaking arrogance.
So here it is (paraphrased):
“Christianity ended slavery, reduced violence against women, and as Christians lose their influence, our nation will go to hell.”
This is, simply put, bullcrap on a stick.
And I am embarrassed both for those who keep saying it and for those who nod along and say “amen.”
So, let me offer my rebuttal and my argument why we Christians need to stop saying stupid lies like this.
- Saying “Christianity ended slavery” is like saying “Humans ended slavery.”
Both statements are true in the most technical of senses, but highly misleading, and therefore untruthful.
Yes, William Wilberforce (a hero in the truest sense) was a Christian. So was Abraham Lincoln.
But, so was Robert E. Lee and so was Jefferson Davis, and nearly everyone who owned, sold, and traded slaves.
The vast majority of those on both sides of the Civil War were Christians.
But it is more than that.
The arguments against the abolition of slavery were made by extremely devout Christians. The ones who took the Bible the most literally. And they accused the abolitionists of being a bunch of apostates, Unitarians, and atheists. (Certainly there were “free thinkers” as atheists were called back then on both sides as well.)
So sure, some Christians helped end slavery. And some Christians fought to the death to fight against the end of slavery. Some Christians enlisted the Bible as a source for abolitionist views. And some Christians used the Bible in support of slavery. (I don’t have room for a comprehensive list of these, but a bare minimum of research will turn up numerous primary sources.)
For example, this gem from Jefferson Davis:
"Slavery was established by the decree of Almighty God. It is sanctioned in the Bible, in both testaments, from Genesis to Revelation."
So, this wasn’t a “Christians versus Atheists” thing. It wasn’t Christians on one side against the atheists over slavery.
It was “Abolitionists versus Supporters of Slavery.” And we need to be honest about that.
Here is a great money quote from Abraham Lincoln, from his second inaugural address:
"Both [North and South] read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes."
Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson
His troops slaughtered thousands to preserve the right of white men to own black men.
His chaplain, Robert Lewis Dabney, - also a devout Christian - would later write A Defense of Virginia, a book acknowledged in its time to be highly racist. It made an argument from the Bible for the inferiority of Africans and women to white men.
2. Don’t use the “No True Scotsman” fallacy.
“But they weren’t real Christians.” Yes, yes they were. You don’t get to pick and choose. They were Christians, many of them devout.
Yes, they were wrong about slavery. But no, they weren’t atheists or non-Christians, and you can’t claim that they were without lying. Don’t do that.
3. Almost without exception, those defending the Confederacy today are conservative Christians.
Here’s looking at you, Doug Wilson and the rest of Christian Reconstructionism.
I do not know a single atheist who is arguing that slavery was a good thing for African Americans, actually. Can’t think of one. Can you?
To take it further, just about everyone that I know that thinks the Civil Rights movement was bad for America is a conservative Christian. And that’s even before we get into the vile stuff I’ve seen posted in the aftermath of Ferguson.
Oh, and guess who is advocating for the abolishment of the Civil Rights act...so that Christians can refuse to serve gays? Oh, that would be Matt Walsh, who is all too beloved in conservative Christian circles.
So, to assert that “the world will go to hell” has a problem, doesn’t it?
Tell you what, I’ll make a bet. I’ll bet that if every American Christian disappeared tomorrow, we would NOT return to slavery. I also bet we would not see the repeal of the Civil Rights Act. You willing to take that bet?
4. Christianity didn’t reduce violence against women.
The credit for that should go to Feminism.
It wasn’t until the 1880s that a woman could divorce her husband for beating her.
Throughout most of the history of Christianity, as a matter of fact, it was considered fine for a husband to beat his wife. (I discussed this in more detail in this post.)
Things started to change in the late 1700s with the advent of first wave feminism, which asserted the (then) radical idea that women were not in fact congenitally inferior to men, and in need of rule and correction as if they were children (or slaves.) (For more on the history of misogyny, see this installment of my series on Modesty Culture.)
It was Feminism that drove the change in the laws and attitudes.
True, many early feminists were Christians, and many of the American feminists of the 1800s were conservative Evangelical Christians.
But also, most of those fighting against feminism were Christians too. And often devout. Hello Robert Lewis Dabney...
It wasn’t until 1993 that marital rape was made an equal criminal offense to stranger rape in all 50 states.
In fact, it wasn’t until the 1970s that marital rape was even made a crime in all 50 states. Let that sink in a bit.
That’s pretty crazy, if you think about it.
Also in 1993, Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act.
Both of these developments were driven by Feminists. And this time, the weight of American Christianity was opposed to the reforms.
So, what was the result of these Feminist driven reforms?
Hmm. It appears that in the last two decades, domestic violence has declined dramatically. (The decline started before that, but it really accellerated with the widespread acceptance of the idea that women were equal and that hitting them was wrong - and low class.)
And this, during the time that conservative Christianity has declined in numbers and influence.
Guess what? Christians cannot take credit for this decline. Sorry.
Actually, instead of trying to take credit for this, more Christians are simply in denial about it.
For example the Council For Victorian Gender Roles Council On Biblical Manhood and Womanhood claims in its “Danvers Statement” that there is an “upsurge of physical and emotional abuse in the family.”
Now maybe there is an increasing problem in CBMW type churches. I could see that as a possibility since the teachings likely attract abusive men. But there sure as heck isn’t any such upsurge in society at large.
It is the exact opposite. Violence against and abuse of women and children is on the decline.
So, will CBMW stop lying about it? I doubt it.
5. Almost without exception, the voices telling women to stay and be beaten and raped are conservative Christians.
Hello, John Piper. And others. (On a related note, Piper also thinks that abused Christians should go back to an abusive leader too. So what if there were “bodies under the Mars Hill Bus...)
Oh, and who is it who thinks that “marital rape” is an oxymoron? That would be some conservative Christians. This is just one of a number of instances. And I have heard the same argument made by friends and acquaintances too. This isn’t a fringe view.
So, want to make a bet? Do you really believe that if all the Christians disappeared, we would go back to allowing men to beat and rape their wives? Really?
So, be honest. What is more likely? All the Christians disappear and we go back to beating and raping our wives?
Or that if Christians disappeared, we would lose the last few voices defending violence against women. I’m a devout Christian, and I greatly fear that it would be the latter.
6. We shouldn’t pat ourselves on the back because others in the past have done good things.
I am not arguing that there haven’t been Christians in the past who did good things motivated by their faith. There were, obviously.
But there were also many who did good things who were motivated by their Enlightenment values, or their own conscience, or their other beliefs.
And there were also many who fought against those good things, also motivated by their Christian beliefs. And there were many who did downright evil things because they believed their faith compelled them to do it. (See, for example, the Crusades and the Inquisition and witch burning and the Native American genocide and so on…)
We cannot simply claim the credit for the good, while eluding blame for the bad.
Furthermore, even if the past were an unblemished credit to our faith, it wouldn’t give us personal credit for ourselves now.
The fact that William Wilberforce did amazing things to help end an evil does not make me a better person because I share his faith. The question is, what is MY faith motivating me to do now?
Is my faith motivating me to fight injustice in the world? Or is it leading me to oppose access to contraception for those who haven’t “won” at our economic system enough to pay out-of-pocket? (That’s just one example that has been eating me in recent years.) Does our faith motivate us to care for Ebola victims in Africa? (In many cases, yes. Those people are heroes, even if conservative darling Ann Coulter dismisses them.) Or is my faith leading me to deny health care to children because of the sex their parents are having?
Or, directly on point to this discussion: Is my faith leading me to speak up on behalf of the oppressed and to try to undo the continuing malign effects of racism and white supremacy that still plague us 150 years after the end of the Civil War? Does it lead me to call for an end to police brutality? Or does it lead me to moralize against the poor and “ghetto” culture?
Does it lead me to support policies that reduce violence against women? Or does it lead me to advise women to stay in abusive relationships and submit?
This isn’t meant to be a diss of Christianity. For goodness’ sake, I am a Christian, and I obviously believe in it, or I would leave the faith.
Christianity can be - and has been - a strong force for good. It has also been - and sometimes is now - a strong force for evil.
7. Faith by itself is not enough.
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
(James 2:14-17 NIV)
As I have pointed out, historically speaking, Christian faith has not been a guarantee of good beliefs or good actions. Faith is not enough by itself. It must be accompanied by good beliefs about non-theological issues, and good actions.
Slavery was not defeated by a nebulous “faith” in Christ. It was defeated by a specific belief. Namely, that slavery was wrong and should be abolished. It doesn’t matter whether one came to that realization as a result of Christ’s teaching on love and the golden rule, or whether one came at it from the idea that all men are equal and should not be owned by one another, or from simply sympathy for the plight of slaves. This belief is called “abolitionism.”
Domestic violence isn’t being reduced by some nebulous “faith” in Christ, but by a specific belief that women are fully human and fully equal to men. Many Christians don’t want to admit this, but violence against women is also being reduced by the rejection of the belief that women are to obey men. (After all, if women must obey, how are men to compel obedience?) A belief in full equality is a belief that a hierarchy is wrong. This belief is called “feminism.” Specifically, per the dictionary, the belief in the full social, economic, and political equality of women.
Simply saying “come to Jesus” doesn’t end evil. Working to end evil ends evil.
8. Rather than pat ourselves on the back, American Christianity needs to do some serious soul searching as to why WE are the ones standing on the side of evil all too often.
It is beyond the scope of this post to explore this in detail, but American Christianity is currently in an unholy alliance with certain political positions that are more in line with the teachings of Ayn Rand than with those of Christ.
Suffice it to say, for the purposes of this post, that at least when it comes to the issues raised in this post, namely slavery and violence against women, that the Church seems to be more interested in returning to and idolizing the past than actually working to rid the world of these evils. If anything, the effective efforts that others have made to end these evils are opposed primarily by conservative Christians.
As I have noted, the opposition to VAWA, the defence of the Confederacy and Jim Crow, and the current opposition to anything the smacks of the Civil Rights Movement or Feminism is coming primarily - nearly exclusively - from the conservative religious right.
Instead of smugly saying “Just imagine how bad things would be without us,” we need to be saying, “How can we stop making the world a worse place by our actions opposing the good efforts of others?”
Instead of feeling good about humanitarian victories of the past, we need to consider whether we are currently furthering their efforts - or fighting to keep current evils in place.
9. Our subconscious fear
We like to say that we fear that as we lose our influence that the world will go to hell.
I think our deeper fear is that as we lose our influence, it won’t.
And then we would have to answer the question of how we became so irrelevant to the cause of justice and the fight against evil. And that is a terrifying thought that we don’t want to face. It’s easier to shake our heads about gays the sins of low income people and feel superior.
10. Stop lying.
I’m not sure why we insist on telling these lies about the past. Probably, there is a combination of reasons, and different people will have different motives. But in any case, we need to stop with the lying.
If we tell these lies because we are historically ignorant, we need to spend a little less time reading yet another Christian self help or theology book, and actually learn some history. The past wasn’t the golden age we like to think it is. It was, in many measurable ways, much more violent and evil than the present, and we tend to forget that.
For the Civil War, I recommend The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.
There are abundant resources on Feminism and domestic violence, both in print and online. There is also abundant evidence of the ongoing and substantial decline in all kinds of violence, and some compelling theories as to the causes.
We cannot hope to make our faith attractive if we cannot even bring ourselves to learn history and tell the truth about it. Denying our own past and present evil only makes things worse.
For others, I suspect that there is a lot of denialism regarding the past, and a willful refusal to reconsider the real-life consequences of certain political positions.
It is deeply dear to our theology that faith in Christ makes us better people. Ergo, if more people are Christians, the world should be less evil. The reality is much more complicated. If history shows anything, it is that mere “faith” is pretty useless. We become better people as we become more like Christ, which is a wholly different thing.
Another reason that this idea gets any traction is, in my opinion, the obsession with sex that plagues the American church. As a result of that obsession, we find it easy to believe that the world is getting worse. Of course, there are problems in the world today. The declining faith in the institution of marriage is a huge one, and one that the Church has failed to answer (largely, in my opinion, because it’s answer is usually “go back to the past”). But the real issues the Church believes are plaguing the world are 1) women are able to have sex out of wedlock like men always have without dire consequences, and 2) gays. Because societal beliefs have changed in these two areas, there is widespread pearl clutching.
But the church has missed a huge and long term decline in violence over the last century as a result. (Stay tuned for a book review on this issue.)
Because of the obsession with sex as the primary indicator of morality, the Church is having a hard time noticing substantial modern moral improvements, such the decline in domestic violence. That’s how CBMW can make a ludicrously false statement. The theology says that female virginity and female submission leads to happier and less violent marriages, so it must be true, right? Even if the evidence is contrary. And all our problems would be solved if people would just stop having sex, right?
So please. Stop lying. Just stop.
You’re not winning any new converts, and you are driving the intellectually honest out of the church.
The truth shouldn’t scare us. I agree with both Thomas Aquinas and John Milton that all truth is God’s truth, and that it will ultimately win out. It may well require us to rethink some theological commitments. It may mean that human culture, laws, and institutions will change. It will absolutely mean that we will have uncomfortable moments when we discover we have been wrong.
But shouldn’t we, as Christians, be concerned with the truth?
So let’s stop telling lies, even - especially - when they make us feel better about ourselves.
11. The arrogance.
More than anything, the Church right now reminds me of a certain type of kid I remember from my teen years. We used to play pick-up basketball (and occasionally other sports) with neighbor kids. It seems there is always this one kid.
He thinks he knows the rules better than everyone else, and feels a need to let everyone else know it. He whines and moans constantly about how he is getting fouled every time he touches the ball - and even when he isn’t. He is sure he is the best player on the court, when he is actually a poor player. Most of the players try to humor him, because, well, everybody should get a shot. Some might try to give him a pointer on how to improve. He’ll have none of it, of course, from those losers. But a few (the Richard Dawkins’ of the playground) start teasing him.
Eventually, he can’t stand it anymore. People won’t play by his rules, and won’t give him privileges, and then they tease him. He takes his ball and goes home, sure that everyone will realize just how much they lost when he left. Instead, everyone breathes a big sigh of relief.
Likewise, the Church right now spends its time on imaginary slights, moralizes about the sex everyone else is having, thinks it is the Michael Jordan of morality and ethics, when it really can’t even identify the narcissists and abusers in its own midst. An atheist or two starts pointing out its weaknesses, and rather than learn something, it just lashes out and pouts.
In the end, the Church expects that it will take its ball and go home get raptured out of the world, and everything will go to hell. And then Christ will ride in on his horse and smite all those who dared to disrespect the sore loser, and all will be right with the world.
Maybe it’s just me, but I believe now is not the time for arrogance. It is time to listen and learn from those outside our bubble.