December 1, 2020 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
We need to talk about bad religion
Power is the most golden calf of all.
Bear in mind that when white evangelical Protestants (WEPs) talk about “religious liberty,” they are talking about much more than that. They are talking about political power—who controls it, who’s subject to it, how and why. This isn’t to separate good religion from bad politics. As I said Monday, these are not easily disentangled. This is to say, however, that bad politics often follows, and is subordinate to, bad religion.
For many liberals and leftists, the solution is hostility toward all religion. If we can push religion out of the public square, they say, we can minimize its influence on politics. The First Amendment’s establishment clause demands religion’s absence from public affairs. While this is principled, it’s also counter-productive. The more liberals and leftists push religion to the margins of politics, the more conservative religionists push back, arming themselves with the cudgel of “religious freedom.”
When white evangelical Protestants talk about “religious liberty,” they are talking about much more than that.
Because many liberals and leftists refuse to weigh the moral differences between good religion and bad religion (they are often so hostile toward it they don’t care enough to make such judgments), they don’t have an answer to claims of “religious freedom” other than returning to some kind of high-minded appeal to religious tolerance. That, of course, fails amid religionists bent on turning America into a Neo-Eden. A free republic cannot, and must not, tolerate the intolerant. Democracy is doomed if so.
The answer isn’t intolerance of religion. The answer is intolerance of bad religion, a belief system that drives political efforts to sabotage the republic itself. America, as President-Elect Joe Biden said last week, “is a covenant.” It is a community, a union, collective effort to recognize a non-negotiable, which is the moral assertion, not the fact, that all people are equal—that human beings are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” A good religion is compatible with republican virtue. A bad religion isn’t. It cannot tolerate equality. Indeed, it makes every effort to destroy it. It’s “God’s will.”
This isn’t to say extreme religions are necessarily bad ones. I come from a family of religious anarchists. Christians Gathered Unto the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ—“Plymouth Brethren” for short—are what polite people might call a cult. It isn’t. It’s a small, exclusive sect (in my case) of evangelical Protestantism whose central purpose was reliving worship as practiced by the early (Jewish) Christians. It opposed all forms of church hierarchy and power. The Bible is the sole source of authority. Salvation requires no mediator. “This world” is Satan’s. The Lord’s is the next. The “gospel hall” consisted mostly of small farmers or the self-employed. They eked out a living without jeopardizing their twice-born souls. Extreme as it is, it’s totally compatible with republican virtue. Why? All these people ever wanted was to be left the hell alone.
One does not really leave such things even after one has left. This is why, though I’m now a Unitarian Universalist, I think of myself as a “secular Christian.” And this is why I take a dim view of white evangelical Protestant leaders going to war with state governments trying to protect them, and everyone else, from dying from the covid. A quarter million are dead. Mandates demand equal sacrifice to achieve equal protection. But some WEP leaders are hostile toward mandates, because they are hostile toward equality itself, which is to say, they’re against republican virtue but for libertine vice.
From an extreme religious point of view, and the exclusive Plymouth Brethren are a superlative case in point, it does not matter that liquor stores and strip clubs are open while churches remain closed in some states. All that matters, when you really think about it, is being able to worship God freely, and no one is saying you can’t. WEP leaders, however, are making church closures sound like violations of their First Amendment rights. They are hyping “the problem” so much that one WEP leader has even reclassified his church as a “strip club” in order to skirt California’s covid mandates. (How deep into bad religion must you be for this to be a good idea?)
The Plymouth Brethren, for all their many faults, never made a fetish of buildings or anything in “this world,” which is Satan’s. (Wherever two or three Christians gathered “in his name,” there was the Lord; hence the sect’s very long formal name.) In saying they can’t worship without their buildings, WEP leaders are confessing to what would normally be a serious sin: idolatry. Of course, buildings aren’t the point. Power is, specifically dominance. That’s the Biggest and Most Golden of all the Golden Calves ever. Many liberals and leftists don’t speak in such terms. They should. The best way to defeat bad religion, even if you’re not religious, is by taking sides with a good one.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.