By Ravi Chandra
September 21, 2020
Donald Trump has made a mockery of the Constitutional separation of Church and State. This raises important questions about the role of religion in the American psyche, as well as foundational questions about Christianity itself. Is Christianity in its current form compatible with democracy, science or harmonious civic life? Does current practice of Christianity by elected officials threaten human dignity, by trampling on the rights of those who have different beliefs? I believe we are entering another Great Awakening in American life, a Great Conversation to allow our civic life to meet secular ethics and reason. We must place boundaries on derealizing and distorting delusions and propaganda that take us away from our common humanity. This article is dedicated to the memory of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the spirit of honesty, love, and repair. I think we can heal our divisions by drawing attention to the processes of division themselves.
The main problem with visionary delusions is that they are self-centered, or at best, tribalistic. Delusions are by definition self-centered. White supremacy is one of the primary rotten selfish, tribalistic and harmful delusions extant in the modern world. Religious delusion comes a close second, though it is so closely linked to White supremacy in Christianity as to be practically indistinguishable. Tom Wolfe called narcissism the “Third Great Awakening” in 1976. I would call our current era the Fourth Great American Awakening, our American Reckoning, and the Great Conversation. We are awakening to our interdependence, our equality, and also reckoning with the ways we have fallen short of honoring human dignity. Our conversation must include frank discussion of how unchecked religious beliefs have led us astray.
I am a practicing Buddhist, but also a psychiatrist, humanist and rational thinker. I do my level best to keep my personal philosophical preferences out of my therapeutic and other relationships, except as commitments to personal growth, mindfulness, compassion, relationship and creativity. I am absolutely committed to the Dalai Lama’s three main priorities, one of which is the promotion of religious harmony (the others are promotion of common human values, and commitment to the Tibetan cause, which I believe he has sometimes also stated as commitment to Tibetan culture). I am committed to religious harmony and reason; however, I must also recognize that in America, Christianity, particularly Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christianity, but also Protestantism and Catholicism, has not been similarly committed. This lack of commitment to religious harmony, reason, compassion, open-mindedness or the well-being of citizens who do not share their belief systems is a significant source of conflict, and seems woven into the fabric of the delusion of White Male supremacy which has plagued the continent since settlers first arrived here over 400 years ago. As I wrote in a prior article, the binary algorithm for Fundamentalists, religious imperialists, or frankly, religious cult members, seems to be:
White, Male, and Fundamentalist Christian is “right,”
Non-white, non-male, and non-Fundamentalist Christian is “wrong.”
Anyone is welcome to hold whatever beliefs they choose. However, the First Amendment to the Constitution proclaims:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
President Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802:
“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”
President Trump, the self-proclaimed wall-builder, has torn down that wall of separation and our Union has suffered for it. You can see it in the way he poses with the Bible for political purposes, the way he has said “Joe Biden hates God,” and the ways that he and his subordinates, such as NSA Advisor Robert O’Brien, use the language and mindset of self-righteous, triumphant Fundamentalism to argue for support of their policies in Israel, against a woman’s right to choose, and for government pandemic aid money to pay for clergy salaries. Columbia Law School’s Public Rights/Private Conscience Project issued a report in the early days of the Trump presidency highlighting seven ways President Trump had infringed or was likely to infringe on the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment:
Devaluing religious and civil rights of Muslims.
Devaluing reproductive justice and sexual liberty.
Discriminating against the LGBTQ+ community.
Favoring government funding of private religious schools.
Halting enforcement of the Johnson amendment barring clergy from making political endorsements.
Favoring governmental expression of religious belief.
Tilting the Supreme Court against separation of church and state.
I am not a Constitutional scholar, but President Trump may have also violated the separation of church and state with this tweet and lie on August 22, 2020 at 4:22 am.
These unconstitutional actions and biases tear at the heart of America as a secular state committed to freedom of expression and freedom of mind for all its citizens. We are talking a lot these days about implicit biases regarding race. We must also talk about the biases introduced by religious belief and practice, not only because they are unconstitutional when codified into governmental laws and practices, but also because these beliefs cause othering, non-belonging, disconnection and judgmentalism in our relationships and society at large.
Religious biases are an affront to human dignity.
Human dignity is a concept drawn from the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution (forbidding cruel and unusual punishment) and was first mentioned in US case law in Justice Frank Murphy’s dissent in the Yamashita case of 1946. General Tomoyuki Yamashita of the Japanese Imperial Army was found guilty of war crimes committed by his troops even though there was no evidence that he knew of them. He was hanged in 1946. Justice Murphy wrote in dissent of the opinion that led to Yamashita’s execution:
If we are ever to develop an orderly international community based upon a recognition of human dignity it is of the utmost importance that the necessary punishment of those guilty of atrocities be as free as possible from the ugly stigma of revenge and vindictiveness. Justice must be tempered by compassion rather than by vengeance.
By introducing religious bias into the workings of the Supreme Court, Executive Branch, and Congress, we are creating the conditions that will lead to injustice, corruption, a degradation of human dignity, and the advancement of cruelty as a State principle. Some say we are already there. President Trump and his allies are hardly “free as possible from the ugly stigma of revenge and vindictiveness.” Their biases steeped in the language of religion are not only delusional but also corrupt. We must act quickly to remove them from power before more damage ensues our republic.
Growing up in America means absorbing Christianity almost by osmosis. I went to a Catholic school in Alabama for Kindergarten and the 1st grade. My best friend’s parents took me to Sunday School in Nashville in the 4th grade. After years of public schooling, I graduated from a high school in Michigan that was originally associated with the Episcopal Church. I played the role of one of the Three Wise Kings in the annual Christmas Pageant (“We three Kings of Orient are; bearing gifts we travel afar…”) My alma mater, Brown University, was originally founded as a Baptist institution, and its motto is still “In Deo Speramus,” or “In God We Hope.”
I joined a Black Gospel Choir during my first year at Brown, because I loved singing, but I couldn’t read music and was not selected for the a cappella groups I tried out for. I really got into the vibrant, uplifting and rapturous spell of gospel, and became friends with other Choir members, but at the end of the year, I left the group when its leadership insisted on a homophobic creed. When I took time away from Brown, I took classes at Augusta College in Georgia, where I was horrified to hear some of my classmates voicing their opinion that “AIDS is God’s punishment against gays.” I knew I wanted to return to the greater inclusivity of the Brown community that year, but comments like this gave me extra drive.
My “religion” became biology. I felt grounded by science and reason when racism and traumas of my own family experience were too hard for me to bear. I was lifted by both the poetry of biology and the possibility of helping people as a physician. At Stanford, my “religion” was medicine, based on science and humanity. But I also needed connection and solace. I joined a Methodist Church in Palo Alto soon after graduation, and was even baptized, though I have since renounced that youthful act. I was inspired by what I saw as the social justice mission of Christ and Christianity, and I needed community. I somehow submerged my own racial and ethnic identity in pursuit of commonality with a largely white community. I somehow became blind to previous inspirations in Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, the Bhagavad Gita and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I think I thought I could keep all of the above, that my path in life would be largely secular and inclusive, and that religion was just a way to have footing as an immigrant to America. Part of me naively hoped that Christ and Christianity could ease the suffering and isolation I felt as a young man. I didn’t think that I was in danger of white-washing my Asian American identity and diluting my Asian cultural heritage. I didn’t think Christianity would cause conflict with my true self. I didn’t love myself at the time; and I felt I needed to be loved by Christ in order to be a whole human being.
Goodbye Krishna, Hello Christ.
Pretty soon, though, Christianity became dissatisfying to me on an intellectual and personal level. Frankly, it wasn’t deep enough for me. Christianity was a religion of cognitive closure, dogma and certainty, and often stubborn and non-negotiable certitude, particularly for those whom it considered “good” or “bad,” “acceptable” or “unacceptable.” It was phenomenally judgmental, absolutist and close-minded in practice, not given to questions, doubt and reason, by and large. It relied on scripture and the aphoristic sayings of its founders, rather than reason, intellect and pragmatic, present-centered compassionate moral understanding of the world and people as they are. It was prone to authoritarianism, centralized, undemocratic control, and rigidity, and seemed to encourage superficiality and rah-rah boosterism in many of its adherents, while only occasionally prompting intense personal transformation, and even then, without clear guidance for transformation, other than reading Bible verses and identifying with Christ, who upon my examination, seemed only partially interested in non-judgmental, compassionate love, and primarily interested in asserting his own authority and primacy over others. Christ and Christianity seemed more about power than love, in other words, completely hypocritical to its supposed founding principles.
Furthermore, the Christian ethos of “saving” depends on the delusion of individual identity and delusional notions of original sin made up out of whole cloth some 300 years after Christ’s death. But we are not purely individuals – we are interdependent. We are all embedded in causes, conditions and relationships. Judgment about an “individual” is absurd and delusional, because we are all embedded in the socio-cultural matrix. This has implications for our criminal justice system as well – also founded on the myth of individualism and the idea that we must punish individuals rather than transform the conditions that produce disconnection, crime and criminals. Christianity treats people as objects, to be used at Christ’s will. Thus Christianity is inherently objectifying and dehumanizing. Christianity seems to consider some as full humans, and others as less than and worthy of pity, scorn, judgment and scapegoating (e.g. ‘non-believers,’ minorities, etc.). I will have more to say about American Christianity and both the prison industrial complex and the metaphorical prison of suffering in a future article.
Even Krishna didn’t call for this kind of single-minded devotion, submission and subordination. Krishna and Buddha, to my eyes, respected the journeys of the individual seeker embedded in the matrix of relationships, causes and conditions, and didn’t see them simply as separately existing sinners needing to be hailed, bailed or punished.
Christ and Christianity have, psychiatrically speaking, a delusional savior complex. The effect is to frighten people into submission, or to catch them at their most vulnerable moments and thus leave them no options other than to submit, and once they submit, to then double down on their commitment by converting others. This is precisely how a cult operates. Those with savior complexes create situations to make themselves feel needed, cloaking others in their narcissism. Who will save Christ and Christianity from their own narcissism?
The challenge for anyone who posits themselves as a leader atop a hierarchy is ego. The leader is idealized by followers, and this leads to problems of self-idealization, face, saving face, arrogance, and entitlement. A self-idealized leader is prone to narcissism, jealousy, brutal competition to win at all costs, and on the other hand, extreme despair, frustration and rage when their goals seem distant or are met by obstacles. When such a leader or his followers becomes self-centered and tribalistic, they are also prone to paranoia and derealization, because they become detached from the reality of interdependence.
This is precisely what we see happening in the camp of Donald Trump’s followers, as defensive individuality and the hero/warrior/savior myths of the American psyche, supported by delusional religious beliefs, are meeting the reality of a country in the throes of demographic, technological, and relational growth and change. The archetype of Jesus seems forced into becoming a persecuting, self-righteous, judgmental figure for them, and his followers identify with this and then spread their distressing views and strife through conspiracy theories about government and society and support for a policing and criminal justice systems that have been racist from the get-go. I believe this is largely because they have been primed to authoritarianism and racism by their religious beliefs and communities. They hold group and leadership archetypes particularly in need of grounding in Buddhist practices of mindfulness, compassion and relationship, or a deeper affirmation of the human ethos of love, at times exemplified by Christ and Christians, who at other times seem ready to sacrifice love and common humanity on the altar of political assertion and control over other people’s lives.
Christ of the Bible and the Gnostic sayings I have read seemed like a ‘know-it-all expert,’ not given to encouraging questioning. He had all the answers. He did die at 33; it is possible that he could have grown out of his youthful stridency over time, his arrogant sense of containing the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and thus devaluing others. I later read Jay Haley’s classic “Power Tactics of Jesus Christ” and this confirmed my growing discontent. (See my capsule summary in “The Power Tactics of Donald Trump,” Psychology Today, February 8, 2016.) There is an absolutist, dogmatic strain to Christianity that callously and superficially rejects the medicines offered by lived experience, and the other spiritual traditions that help bring us to that lived experience. In other words, Christ and even those practicing Christianity can mistake Christ for the moon, instead of being the fingers pointing towards the moon.
Jesus: Hi, My Name is Jesus. Gender pronouns capital-H He, capital-H Him, capital-H His. Pleased to meet you. Oh, by the way, it’s all about capital-M Me and you are all capital-M Mine.
Shakyamuni Buddha: Wow. That’s capital-U Unreal. Buddha means awake. Someone asked me if I was a god or human, and I just said I was awake. That stuck. I also said the summary of my philosophy was “do not cling to anything as ‘I, me or mine.’” So Jesus, you – capital-Y You – have some, uh, issues. Gender pronouns are a bit beside the point to me, because at the level of consciousness and mind, we are all a blend. Masculine, Feminine and Queer energies all coexist interdependently. But sure, feel free to express yourselves this way if it makes you feel better.
Christ doesn’t need an anti. He needs both an Auntie and an Uncle. He needs an anti-dote. And if I feel Christ and Christianity have abused me and the world, it’s not that I have seen wrongly. It’s that we might also understand both Christ and Christianity as abused children themselves, who manifest their abused psychological history in power complexes, a desire to dominate and divide others to achieve their power goals, while “love” is its own Netflix spinoff. Binging Christflix is very, very confusing. It’s propaganda with a side of chicken soup, as if Oprah occasionally appeared on Hannity, and Hannity was the chicken soup. In other words, I feel the propaganda of superficial love from Christianity, but not the actuality. No offense to Oprah, who’s as real a deal as I’ve seen on the streets of San Francisco or the screens of the world.
And yes, you read this correctly. I just said Hannity smells like the chicken soup from Christ’s soul to me. I’m also questioning how “real” any of this is, because the country itself has become increasingly derealized. Christianity, as a self-centered delusion, is prone to derealization, as we get bombarded with propagandistic, cult-like pronouncements from Christian adherents who are especially gullible and prone to accepting on faith anything said by their sacred cows – er, sacred chicken soup.
I apologize to anyone eating chicken soup at this moment.
A CBN article about Hannity and Christianity reports that “Jesus was – and is – unafraid of using people who are a little rough around the edges, of reaching out to those society has deemed outcasts.” (Goins-Philips T, Sean Hannity praises Kanye West, Opens up About His Own Faith: “I’m an aspiring Christian.” December 14, 2019). This sounds like “universal acceptance,” but I would note Buddha also befriended and even ordained those considered outcastes in what is now India. He taught meditation to prostitutes and even murderers, and they became part of the sangha, or spiritual community. One infamous murderer, Angulimala (meaning “necklace of fingers” because he wore the fingers of his victims around his neck) became a doula and helped birth many children, after Shakyamuni Buddha reached his mind. The Buddha renamed him “Ahimsaka” or nonviolent one. The Buddha ordained women, supported the creation of a community of nuns, and helped wealthy and poor alike. Many of these people are reported to have “attained enlightenment.”
What does Christ do when he “uses” outcasts? Who are these people who like to be “used” by Christ, for Christ’s purposes? Would Christ, for example, use people against any he deems non-Christian? Would Christ subordinate and harm people like Buddha, Socrates, Confucius, Lao-Tzu, Malcolm X, and a whole world of thought because it didn’t fit his Christian view? Would Christ create and “use” homeless and mentally ill people to challenge or bring down American government because he deems our economic system totally corrupt? In other words, does Christ and Christianity make it all about themselves and their narrow goals, rather than respecting human dignity and the needs of the many?
Christianity has not earned my trust or the trust of the world to allow me to rest easy with these questions. Those Christians who believe Christ would or should do these harms are harming others in Christ’s name, and this is another reason there must be “a wall of separation between church and state.”
In the public arena, the power complex of white male American ego has combined with the power complex of Big Church. Every power structure needs a bad object, and to Trump, Hannity and the religious right, compassion and common humanity themselves have become the bad objects. This has completely muddied and even falsified American Christianity entirely.
I also have to question the effects of Christianity on the mental health of the nation. Unlike most of the rest of the world, our general ethos seems to be that “happiness is getting what I want.” When we don’t get what we want, as is the norm in much of life, our distress tolerance seems low. “I’m not happy, and that’s someone’s fault. In order for me to be good, you have to be bad.” There are significant portions of the population that seem prone to falling into a self-righteous and self-justifying antagonistic blame game of friends and enemies. When these individuals have difficulty in life, it’s hard for them to get out, because they fall into vicious cycles of self- and other-hatred very easily. Shame, reinforced by Christian beliefs and all-too-often superficial communal understanding of emotion, can lead those with mental health and substance abuse challenges to hide their conditions, delay treatment and even die. Christian belief and practices are prone to making many people feel unacceptable and unlovable, already a problem in a society where we tend to value ourselves for status, possessions, wealth and status instead of our basic humanity, which reinforces unhappiness. Thus we see many of Trump’s supporters take glee in the president’s racist, snarky blame-game with demographic change, Democrats, and human suffering. This all reinforces hierarchical power relations instead of equality, equal treatment under the law, and common humanity.
Christian charity and Christianity as foundational religious experience for Martin Luther King, Jr. and other great leaders remains important to me. The Black Church might be the saving grace for Christianity as a whole. In large measure, the Black Church is the conscience of this nation. But White Christians are more likely to hold racist views than non-Christian Whites, according to research by Robert Jones and the Public Religion Research Institute. I am hopeful that conditions on the ground have changed since 2018 when the research was done, but the fact is that the biases are apparent on our national stage, and they have been consistent in two decades of study.
Blacks have a complicated history with Christianity, and there is disagreement about it within their community. While it has always been a source of resilience and creative resistance, it has also been called the “slave masters’ religion” because it promised salvation after death, but kept enslaved Blacks in bondage, and justified slavery and white supremacy. There are plenty of Black thinkers, including Malcolm X, humanists, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, and so forth, who have found other paths to truth, identity and freedom. 79% of Blacks in the U.S. self-identify as Christians, about the same as whites, but an increasing percentage, particularly of young Blacks, are identifying as unaffiliated with any religion. In 2014, 18% of Blacks said they were unaffiliated, including 29% of Blacks between ages 18-29. (Masci D, 5 Facts about the religious lives of African Americans, Pew Research Center, February 7, 2018.)
Of course as a human being I am inspired by the way Christianity and the story of Christ resonates with suffering. There is healing power in this mythos. People have benefited, no doubt. Christians worldwide have taken on their own suffering and suffering in the world with some incredible results. But we must still deal with coexistence and the delusion that “Christ is THE way” to “salvation,” or the 1700 year-old Christian notion that Christ’s death on the cross repaid the “debt of original sin.” Original sin, as I mentioned before, is itself a delusional story created to explain human shame, loss, grief and abandonment. “We must have done something wrong to make ‘god’ upset.” As if any significant consciousness humans would call ‘god’ would not understand suffering except to put it in patriarchal and authoritarian terms.
People gravitate to these philosophies out of unaddressed vulnerability, sheer lack of willpower, lack of analytical rigor and psychological insight, desires for certainty, and simple tradition. Any philosophy which leads to cognitive rigidity is going to be challenged in a changing world. When philosophies or people become more self-centered under conditions of stress, they travel the road of delusion, derealization, and temporary power at others’ expense. The call to all life under stress is to adapt and grow, or die. Can Christianity or any other creed adapt to modern life and scientific knowledge? Only time will tell, but we are already seeing crumbling edifices and frayed edges throughout many of the world’s shopworn ancient philosophies. I can only hope that a new axial age is upon us.
As it stands, Christianity rests on the personality of Christ. The Bible claims he said he was “the way, the truth and the life.” This is on its face a self-centered delusion, prone to creating a cult of personality and dogmatic followership. As a self-centered, hierarchical faith, it may be incompatible with democracy unless strict limits are placed on its influence. Preceding the 1960 presidential election, John F. Kennedy had to emphasize that he was not beholden to the Catholic church. It is now incumbent on all political candidates to draw a sharp line between their spiritual faith traditions and opinions and their decision-making capacity to serve the rational interests of the country. Donald Trump has made appeals to the religious community that seem more like mob boss assertions than appeals to our better angels. The Bible has been a convenient cloak for his racism, misogyny, bullying and cruelty inexcusable in governmental leadership.
I still enjoy Christian-inspired music, from Aretha Franklin to much of classical music to, in the 90s, the gospel a cappella group Take 6. But hard as it is for me to admit, music isn’t enough to keep me in the Christian faith tradition. In fact, a lot of my personal, lived experience with Christianity, in addition to Christianity’s history of racism and empire, makes it sometimes hard to listen to the music of its followers. I cannot blindly be in praise of a tradition that has done so much harm and so far, so little to mend this harm. The Western world has enriched itself through colonialism, slavery, subjugation, cultural looting, Crusades, materialism, greed, the “Prosperity Gospel,” and exploitation of nature, all of which were supported by Christian theology. Racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, and religious intolerance have all been mainstays of Christian practice for centuries. These are human problems. Every religion and person is prone to them. But Christianity has hardly cleaned its own house, or exhibited that it even has the tools to do so in and of itself.
As far as Christian charity goes, if you leave a 10% tip at a restaurant after wrecking the place and insulting, manipulating and enslaving your hosts before they fight for and win their freedom, you shouldn’t expect them to name themselves after you or continually express their gratitude for your “charity.”
Buddha, on the other hand, seems a trustworthy teacher to me. He famously said, “don’t take anything I say on faith. Test it out with your own experience.” His last words were “be a lamp unto yourself, strive on diligently.” The Dalai Lama has said that if a Buddhist text or teaching doesn’t align with modern science and reason, it should be reformed or thrown out. Dogmatic mindsets do not appeal to me, and I am disturbed by religious arrogance and extremism of any stripe.
Buddhism offers a rich tradition, and actually helped me with my personal suffering through meditative practices and through a community of my Buddhist practitioner friends, many of whom had also been harmed by their previous religious traditions or American society. Buddhism and practices derived from Buddhism are well-suited to the modern era, through growing synergy with neuroscience and psychology. Buddhism helped me heal my mind and heart, and continues to bring me into deeper and warmer connection with others.
When the going got tough for Christianity, Christianity got going. First they got going on destroying the Roman empire, and then building their own empire in its place. When the going gets tough for Buddhists, they get to being. This is the essence of the Four Noble Truths. It’s not that going or doing is wrong, but we all need a lot more being to really be alive, and to know who we are.
Have you heard wisdom’s favorite song?
“Do be do be do…”
I think I’m just needling America to needlepoint to get to the be-there-point. Maybe all we need is a kind of quilting bee-in. They’re better options than being dug-in and done-in, socially, culturally, politically and religiously.
My practice of psychotherapy also sustains and enriches my mind, heart, creativity and relatedness. I’ve also found solace and resonance in other spiritual traditions that invoke an interdependent and non-hierarchical view of reality, such as Taoism and Indigenous beliefs, and I have found that all major world wisdom traditions offer some inspiration. More importantly, my humanism and my profession require me to cherish people of all faiths and those who don’t believe in any religious tradition at all. But I have seen firsthand how dogmatic religious beliefs shortcut the reasoning process and shut down growth and relatedness to life and other people.
As a humanist and psychiatrist, I also have to recognize how every religion, every philosophy, and indeed people as individuals can be prone to driving themselves off the cliff of humanity in pursuit of power or absolutism, thus avoiding relationship with people they don’t wish to understand. This failing is all too human, but requires deeply human remedies as well. Coexistence requires compassion and relating to others in the here and now, and not filtered through opinions about them, their lives, or whatever you imagine to be “the afterlife.” The COVID crisis makes plain that we must be fully grounded in reason, science and advancing the conditions for well-being.
Lord help us.
Sometimes I regret my foray into Christianity, or wish that I’d found Buddhism and psychology much earlier in my development. But it is what it is. America is a potent mix-up, and our human questions of identity, belonging and wellness influence spiritual and contemplative choice. We are born into faiths of our families and ancestors, and we incorporate whatever else we think will help us survive and grow. And sometimes we make mistakes.
The main mistake any of us can make is thinking that our religion is the “one, true religion.” That is plainly false on its face, and disrespects humanity and life. Buddhists have made this mistake too, most prominently in Sri Lanka and Myanmar. Any time religion gets associated with the State, or becomes conscripted to material and temporal ends, disaster ensues. Religious fundamentalism collides with secular reasoning and creates turmoil and division in diverse societies. Society depends on boundaries. We might be influenced by institutions such as churches, synagogues, and temples; but they should not control us.
To each their own. No person or faith over another.
Divide and conquer is a power law, prominent in the rise of both religion and empire, but it doesn’t make for civilization. Religions and empires founded on this law carry the seeds of their own destruction, and the death of reason and humanity in their wake.
We cannot allow ourselves to be broken against each other for the sake of any faith’s ego. We cannot afford to lose empathy for others for any reason, but particularly for differences in race or religion. But we exist in a country where some are quite willing to discard empathy for the sake of secular power.
As social psychologist Dacher Keltner says in The Power Paradox, enduring power comes from telling stories that unite. We are united as far as we are by our Constitutional story of equality and individual rights, including the freedom to worship or not worship as we choose. This November 3rd, our choice involves these foundational Constitutional questions. We will determine whether we might enter an era of intellectual and cultural growth, or usher in a new dark age.
Victoria Xiao, a young Chinese American Christian, wrote this in Sojourner:
“Social psychologist and Urbana speaker Dr. Christena Cleveland wrote in her book Disunity in Christ that Western culture and American Christianity have undoubtedly ‘crisscrossed to the point of being indistinguishable.’ Western culture is white-dominated and white-exalting and is as impacted by the church (doctrines) as it has tainted American Christianity.”
From my perspective, Christianity is not just tainted with racism – it has been wedded to the delusion of White Supremacy for centuries. It raises the question for me whether Christ’s own power strategy is a bait and switch, baiting us with love but yielding slavery, either to doctrine and dogma, his own personality, or the literal enslavement of our fellow human beings.
This is an extreme view; I would prefer to think that Christ is simply wrong to center himself as the only or primary teacher in our story, because our stories are interwoven and there are many great teachers. As 17th century Japanese poet Matsuo Basho said, “do not follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought.”
Christians today often like to point to the history of abolition as proof of their religion’s goodness, but that ignores current reality and an overwhelmingly racist history. Christianity is thus neither good nor bad; it is both good and bad, with far reaching cultural and personal consequences in each direction. We must assess its effects on us as individuals and as a society, as well as its effects on those who would lead our government. Our individual belief systems should not be imposed upon others with laws or a judgment on what’s “acceptable.” They should not create an atmosphere of silence and coercion because we are too afraid to speak up against their abuses. Our current moral distresses must be seen in human terms, not in terms of ideology and reifying our concepts of “God’s will.” We have to think, feel and struggle with the questions of modern life for ourselves.
King wrote of his disappointment with White Christians in his 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail.
I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership…When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows…
In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed…
In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.”