|"Most people are willing to take the Sermon on
the Mount as a flag to sail under, but few will use it as a rudder
by which to steer."
Oliver Wendell Holmes
Face it: progressive Americans are in a desperate struggle with religious-right fundamentalists. Moderate Christians and Republicans should join this struggle, for the survival of our democracy is at stake.
Certain of their possession of "eternal truths," these fundamentalists have no use for compromise or accommodation with non-believing (ergo, eternally damned) fellow citizens. They can not be persuaded by science or reason. What they believe to be The Word of God trumps the will of the American majority, established law, and the Constitution of the United States. In short, they have no use for democracy.
There is only one voice that might speak to the fundamentalists and persuade them to re-evaluate their ethical norms, their moral behavior, and their political agenda. That is the voice of Jesus of Nazareth.
Read the presumed words of Jesus in the Gospels, and you will find that the Jesus depicted there was a liberal, in the original sense of that now-abused word.
If we quote his words and cite his teachings (with special attention to the Sermon on the Mount -- Matthew Ch. 5-7), over and over, we just might get through to some of our fundamentalist compatriots. Not their leaders, Falwell, Robertson, Dobson, et al, for they are beyond redemption. But without their supporters ("disciples" ) they are nothing. Many, perhaps most, of these supporters are good, decent, people who have been seduced by the modern-day "scribes and Pharisees." Reintroduce these good Christians to the ethical teachings of their Lord and Savior, and enough may come to their senses to disarm the threat of the religious right to our republic.
Yes, yes, I can hear the secular progressive's rebuttal, even as I put forth this proposal: "That's all we need -- still more Bible-thumping, playing in the fundies' ball park according to their ground rules. This is a tactic that is bound to fail."
Not so. I am not proposing a "battle of the Bibles," for which only competing factions within Christianity are qualified to engage. The contest is open to all -- Christians, Jews, Moslems, and adherents of no organized religion. I identify myself in that final category -- as a secularist who is nonetheless fully entitled to confront the fundamentalists with the moral teachings of Jesus.
I am what one might call a "secular Christian." I admire and endorse the moral teachings of Jesus as recorded in the four Gospels, although I am unpersuaded by the Christian theology. More precisely, I endorse the presumed teachings of Jesus as presented in the Gospels. The actual words and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth are unknown and unknowable.
I affirm the moral teachings of Jesus, but with the critical eye of a professional moral philosopher -- not without some reservation, and occasional disagreement. I do so, not because I believe them to be the infallible words of the Almighty, but because with my scholar's mind's eye I recognize their validity, as I find them in all the great world religions.
I do not believe the Bible to be the inerrant Word of God. Instead I regard it as an anthology of texts emerging from the fog of ancient history, written between the Seventh Century BC and the Second Century AD by various and generally unknown authors, and with a contradictory assortment of moral instructions.
The fundamentalist will, of course, totally reject this secular and scholarly view of The Bible. No matter. The teachings of Jesus remain powerful weapons, for believer and non-believer alike, in the political struggle against the religions right.
While most Americans, including, I daresay, most professed Christians, believe that the Bible contains myths, errors, and morally unacceptable rules of conduct, the essential point is that the fundamentalists believe the Bible, from start to finish, to be the inerrant Word of God. And that conviction is the gentle trap that their Bible has set for them. They can, and no doubt will, emphatically reject any scientific, empirical, rational and historical arguments. But they can't ignore or dismiss what they proclaim to be the authentic words of their Lord and Savior.
Read the Gospels carefully and critically, and you will discover that the religious-right fundamentalists are not, strictly speaking, "Christians" -- at least not in the moral sense. Contrary to the teachings of Jesus as presented in the Gospels, they endorse warfare, they condone and seek the acquisition of great wealth, they are merciless, they are unforgiving, they are not compassionate. (See my "How Would Jesus Vote?").
To be sure, fundamentalist preachers are skilled in "verse-picking" in support of some of their outrageous doctrines. Even so, they would be hard-pressed to find in the gospels, any condoning of warfare and personal wealth, or any excuse for hypocrisy. For example, while Jerry Falwell's article, “God is Pro-War.” cites the Old Testament and the Book of Revelation, there is not a word in that piece attributed to Jesus in the Gospels in support of this blasphemy.
Their doctrine of "The Rapture," popularized by the "Left Behind" novels and the religious-right broadcasters of the "Teleban" is found nowhere in their "inerrant" Bible, but is instead an invention of mid-nineteenth-century American preachers. (See Moyers, Monbiot, and Lyons). While they post a "rapture index" on the internet, predicting the time of Christ's second coming, they conveniently forget that Jesus said, "But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father." (Mark 13:32)
Most importantly, right-wing fundamentalism is not "Christianity," it is one of many versions of Christianity -- and a minority faction at that. To put it bluntly, it is more a cult than a religion.
And many of the precepts of this cult appear to reflective individuals, including most Christians, to be morally repugnant. For example, the theocrats would have us believe that the scoundrel, who in his deathbed confesses that Jesus is his personal Lord and Savior, has earned himself a ticket to paradise, while a courageous, just and virtuous unbeliever must burn in Hell for eternity -- that even at this very moment, the souls of Socrates, Gautama Buddha, Muhammad, Thomas Jefferson, Mohandas Gandhi, and Andrei Sakharov are roasting in Hell. In short, the fundamentalists expect us to believe that "God so loved the World" and the billions of souls that have dwelt and will dwell within, that He has chosen to damn to eternal torment the 99-plus percent of humanity who do not agree with Jerry Falwell.
Anyone who can believe that this is to be the fate of virtually all of humanity is likely to feel that the lives of non-believers -- e.g., the Iraqi Moslems -- are of little value. Accordingly, the fundamentalists have little compunction about promoting and supporting warfare against the unbelievers, including their women and children. And, certain in their possession of "eternal truths," the theocrats have no use for compromise or accommodation with non-believing (ergo damned) fellow citizens. (See my "One Nation, Under God, Divisible").
These were not the teachings of the Nazarene "Prince of Peace." Instead, he told us to "love one another." He repeated The Golden Rule (in fact, taught by all the great world religions), "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." He instructed the rich young man to sell all he had and give to the poor. He told the parable of The Good Samaritan. And he summarized his moral message in a few, simple rules:
Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called sons of God.
Nowhere in the Sermon on the Mount, or in the Gospels for
that matter, do we find these precepts followed by the words: "Except
Finally, Jesus directed his greatest condemnation to the hypocrites:
Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites... This people honoureth me with their lips but their heart is far from me. (Mark 7:6)
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye devour widows' houses, and for a pretence make long prayer; therefore ye shall receive thy greater damnation. (Matt. 23:14)
The fundamentalists ask: "What would Jesus Do?" The plain and simple answers are provided in the Gospels, and most notably in the Sermon on the Mount. (Matthew 5-7). Nonetheless, having been supplied their answers, they then choose to disregard these teachings of their "Master" as they proceed to wage war, seek to acquire enormous wealth, exploit the poor, ignore the misery that they cause. All the while they proclaim that they are the only authentic Christians, and that they are in exclusive possession of God's eternal truths.
Herein lies the potential downfall of the theocrats and an
opportunity for their adversaries -- moderate republicans, secular
libertarians, progressives and, to be sure, the majority of Christians --
together a solid majority of American citizens. In your confrontation with
the fundamentalists, forget about science, reason and empirical evidence,
for they will count for nothing. Don't bother sharing your innermost moral
feelings and convictions; the fundamentalists are not interested, for they
are convinced that you preach "false doctrine" and are damned in the eyes
of the Lord.
Instead, confront them with the received teachings of Jesus. Regardless of whether you are a liberal Christian, a Jew, a Moslem, an agnostic or an atheist, these words are your strongest weapon. Like myself, you may not believe that these are actual words of Jesus contained in inerrant Holy Scripture. But the fundamentalists do believe that these are the authentic commandments of the Lord God Almighty. So they are "stuck" with them.
Persistently confront the fundamentalists with the teachings of Jesus. Josef Goebbels famously spoke of "the big lie" which, when repeated endlessly, eventually is believed to be true. Even more powerful is "the big truth" which likewise must be repeated over and over until it finally begins to sink in.
So when you are approached by fundamentalists, eager to save your immortal soul and to "sell" you their political agenda, stand your ground and cite what they believe to be the authentic words of their Savior. At the very least, they will shut up, walk away, and leave you at peace. And who knows, they just might, at long last, pause, reflect, and begin to take those words seriously.
Copyright 2005, by Ernest Partridge
Conscience of a Progressive: A book in progress.
Partridge's Scholarly Publications. (The Online Gadfly)
Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers".