If you ever wanted a dissection of conservative Christianity in its entirety, this article is for you.
There’s a moment in the seminal stage play Inherit the Wind where a character, at second hand, quotes… Well, we actually don’t know who the character quotes. The line has been variously attributed to Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The play itself is a (heavily) fictionalized version of the Scopes Monkey Trial, in which schoolteacher John Scopes was sued for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution in 1920s Tennessee. (It is perhaps appropriate that a play which revolves around misconstruing things quotes a line with no solid attribution.) The girlfriend of the John Scopes analogue, defending her beloved from the stand, is told that the fellow has been quoted as saying that Man created God, not the other way around. The girlfriend clarifies:
“[He] didn’t say that! He was just joking! What he said was: ‘God created man in His own image — and Man, being a gentleman, returned the compliment.’ ”
This is a pithy line, and typically gets a good reaction from both the on-stage courtroom spectators and the in-theater audience. But it’s also truer than it seems at first glance.
GOD AS MAN
God is often anthropomorphized — and, with “anthro” being the Greek-derived prefix for “man,” I do mean anthropomorphized. Even at my liberal college, we had to whisper when we described the Holy Spirit as a she. The idea of God the Father is so inextricably linked to the Judeo-Christian mythos that any attempt to re-gender Him (or even render Him gender-neutral) hits a huge wall of resistance, not just from chauvinists but from bog-standard Christians who simply don’t want to go through the bother of changing. (I was a regular attendee when the Vatican re-translated the ritual elements of Mass in 2011 and changed, amongst other things, “And also with you” to “And with your spirit”. I bet there’s still people getting it wrong.) Ritual is ritual; comfort is comfort, and people don’t like shake-ups to the things they know. Especially when those changes don’t really seem that necessary. (“And with your spirit” may be more accurate, but was it worth the trouble?) Inertia is hard to fight, is what I’m trying to say. And God has been a He for a very long time.
But even more than that, there is a long-standing habit of rendering God as, at the very least, human. Let’s face it: God could be anything. It could be a giant spark of light. It could literally have three faces. It could be a Flying Spaghetti Monster! But because humans sympathize with things that look human, we tend to render Him as a human. My very favorite Christmas carol is by a man named Alfred Burt. It’s called Some Children See Him and it’s about how people of different ethnicities and skin colors see God, and more specifically Jesus, as reflecting those ethnicities and skin colors. It’s a wonderful bit of diversity, written in the 1951 back before that kind of thing was even on the forefront of anybody’s minds. But even in this relatively open-minded carol, we still see God as something — someone — human.
Now let’s take it one step further.
GOD AS VIRTUOUS MAN
I have written before about Republican Jesus. We have talked about his example, and how selfish and callous he is. And we have talked about how there is evidence in the Bible to support this interpretation of the Judeo-Christian god. The God of the Old Testament is, to put it frankly, kind of a dick. He sets fairly arbitrary rules as tests of faith, and if you break them, He kills you without a second thought. He wields his power as He sees fit, without any real thought of the consequences that might befall His chosen people. If you study Exodus closely, you’ll notice that it was actually God’s will that Pharaoh remain resistant until the tenth plague was visited on Egypt. God wanted to kill all the firstborns. God wanted to fuck the Egyptians. And instead of just doing it outright, He forced the Egyptians to resist His plagues so that He could claim it was their fault. “They made me do it! It’s their own fault that their sons are dead!” Good times with the victim-blaming there, YHWH.
God, as described in the Old Testament, is a fairly standard example of the idea that power-over grants ownership. Since God created the universe, only He can determine its value, and the repercussions of any such decisions on the universe itself are irrelevant. Value is totally subjective, after all (where else have we heard that idea? Republicans, perchance?), and things only matter if He says they do. By the same logic, if I invent the cure for cancer and I don’t want anyone to be cured of cancer, I can destroy that cure and still be able to look myself in the mirror. I am not obligated to do good works, and choosing to withhold medicine from the dying is not morally objectionable (where else have we heard this idea? Republicans, perchance?).
(And let’s not even get into the horror of the idea that power-over does in fact grant ownership. By that token, the current President of the United States owns you. And if you like that idea, remember how you would have felt about being owned, body and soul, by the previous one.)
Obviously, this picture of God is very different than the one that Jesus describes, but it’s all still in the Bible and it’s all still canon. It doesn’t help that the Bible is filled with continuity snarls. Overall, the book is like a Wikipedia article that has been edited multiple times… Only, there isn’t actually a definitive version. It should be pointed out that Genesis alone has two different creation myths. First there’s all that stuff about “on the third day, God created etc etc”, and then in the very next chapter there’s the Garden of Eden. These are two completely different explanations of how the universe came to exist, and they’re not 100% compatible. And yet there are both supposed to be, well, gospel canon. (Being able to accept Christianity at face value requires you to ignore some contradictions.)
In theory, Christians should be worshipping the all-loving, endlessly benevolent God described by Jesus… But much Christian theology spends time with the sadistic God portrayed by the Old Testament. After all, they’re theoretically the same entity, so we have to reconcile these two very different characterizations.
The interpretation which theology has settled on is… troubling.
LOWERING THE BAR ON VIRTUE
God, so priests say, is omnipotent. He has the power to destroy everything; He holds our lives in the palm of His hand. But God is also all-loving, and has chosen to allow us to live. Therefore, we should be grateful to Him. Because, after all, choosing not to abuse one’s power is not something that just any old person with a conscience would do; no, it’s only something that an extremely virtuous entity would do.
Let me repeat: Humans do not have a right to exist unless God says they do. The reason the Founding Fathers had to forbid the establishment of a state religion is that Christianity explicitly disagrees with the idea that humans are endowed with an inalienable right to life.
By the same token, pedestrians should thank me every time I choose not to run them over. By the same token, we should thank police officers every time they choose not to murder us, and police officers should thank us every time we don’t do drugs or rob liquor stores. By the same token, every husband should thank his wife daily for not chopping off his penis with a kitchen knife. After all, she could!, but she’s chosen not to, and therefore we owe her thanks and praise. By this same token, in short, human beings are not expected to do good works. Being neutral is all that is required, and doing good works is going above and beyond. Simply not murdering people is grounds for sainthood.
Because that’s ultimately the place that (modern) Christianity has come to: the idea that abuse of power is not unethical. How can we think it wrong, when we accept that it’s just par for the course? Our only choice is to do as God says and hope that we please Him — a hardship that many an abused or battered wife can speak of from experience. (Suddenly, the fact that the Church is sometimes known as the “bride of Christ” takes on a sinister new dimension.)
Compare the 1960s Batman movie (starring Adam West) where Batman has to run around with a lit bomb, trying to find somewhere unpopulated to dispose of it. Corner after corner, nook after cranny, he keeps seeing people; finally he arrives at the edge of the docks and prepares to throw the thing into the water, only to see… a bunch of ducklings chirping away. “Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb,” he sighs (leading to a lot of unintentional laughter some 45 years later when getting rid of a bomb is the climax to Christian Bale’s adventures during The Dark Knight Rises). But that’s not my point. My point is that Batman is unwilling to kill ducklings. Batman does good deeds for no reward, while God does morally-neutral deeds for applause. Batman is, empirically speaking, more ethical than God.
GOD AS MORAL EXEMPLAR
This revelation, astounding enough in its own right, makes a number of Christian ideas, and particularly Christian-American ideas, look downright sinister.
1 It shows just how problematic so-called “objective morality” can be. Christians claim that they hold to “objective” morality because someone else — specifically, the higher power called God — decides what is right and what is wrong; atheists and agnostics, on the other hand, have to use their own, subjective, intelligence to determine morality. But God is Himself subjective. He does as He does, and we must follow his whims. If God says that something relatively harmless — say, the woman getting on top during sex — is evil, then we must obey. If God says that something bad — say, killing a bunch of Muslims just because they happen to live in a spot that has historical significance for Christianity — is a good thing, then we have to do it. True followers of God are not allowed to have a conscience.
2It puts a lot of gun-rights advocates in perspective. The “good guy with a gun” fallacy relies on the idea that a person can be trusted with power so long as they are not tempted to abuse it. But, according to Christianity, we cannot trust people to not-abuse their power; after all, we are supposed to praise the Lord for doing so, implying that non-abuse-of-power is something that we should not expect, something that is not due to us. For God to allow us to exist is a privilege, not a right. By logical extension, the NRA, by parroting the good-guy-with-a-gun fallacy, claims that Americans do not have the right to be not-murdered, and instead are allowed to live on sufferance by gun owners who are well within their ethical rights to kill anyone they please; it is simply that it does not (currently) please them to kill anyone.
3It makes you think about those “nice guys” and their various pathologies. We discovered these folks when we talked about rape culture: fellows who believed that if they just engaged in appropriate behaviors — namely, being nice to women — their carnal desires would be fulfilled. The media-analysis website TVTropes has a cynical, if accurate, description of this behavior: Wants a Prize for Basic Decency. (Warning: do not click that link unless you have at least one afternoon to devote to unproductive, if extremely enjoyable, wiki-diving.) It’s a seemingly ridiculous demand, to be applauded for merely meeting basic standards of human behavior… until, again, we put it in context of the LORD, who wants the same thing. Nice Guys, men’s rights activists, the Rabid Puppies, white fragility… all of it goes back to this idea that “not being a bad person” is identical to “being a good person,” and that sins of omission don’t count.
4 It makes us realize that the central emotion of Christianity is not love, as Jesus espouses it. No, the center of Christianity is fear. Again, we saw this with Republican Jesus, who motivates his followers by drilling into them the fear that if they (his followers) step out of line, they will suffer for eternity. Well, it turns out that this interpretation is part of non-radicalized, mainline Christianity as well. We are supposed to fear God. In addition to His being all-loving and all-caring, He is also all-destroying and all-vengeful. Good Christians live in fear of being destroyed by one wrong or careless word. Which makes the “all loving & all-caring” part ring rather false.
5 And, perhaps most practically, it undermines Christianity’s status as a beacon of moral virtue. We saw this with the election of Trump, with evangelicals’ continued defense of the sexual predator Roy Moore, with Catholicism’s inability to address or prevent sexual predation amongst its priests. These things can only happen if Christians themselves are okay with them… and Christians are okay with them. The Public Religion Research Institute polled Americans on whether a politician with (private) vices could still execute their (public) office virtuously. In just six years, the number of evangelicals who answered that question “yes” changed from 30% to 72%. Hypocrisy is acceptable to them — an irony, when we considered what Jesus had to say in Matthew 23.
Remember: God created Man in His own image. Therefore, whether or not God does sin, God must be capable of sin. After all, Man is. (Unless you want to argue that God somehow screwed up His creation. If you do, you’re kind of proving my point, not your own.)
God may encourage us to do as He says, not as He does. But He should know that we follow His example. And if His example is to threaten us with death and destruction and then complain that we aren’t grateful that they are only threats, then He must expect us to visit the same behavior on our neighbors. And He cannot be surprised that we do. After all, if it’s good enough for God, it must be good enough for His creations.
Does great power come with great responsibility? Not according to God. Are you okay with that? And are you okay with worshiping someone who doesn’t believe that?
I mean, you could always worship Batman.