I had a friend one time tell me the most radicalized Christians in America were the Westboro Baptist Church. However, if you dissect their theology you’ll find that they aren’t far from the beaten path of Calvinism. Many times, their statements regarding God’s Judgement on America are echoed by many larger figures in mainstream evangelical Christianity such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and even Billy Grahams daughter.
Just this year, at the National Religious Liberties Conference, a conference attended by presidential candidates Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, and Bobby Jindal, Pastor Kevin Swanson proclaimed that homosexuals are worthy of death. That’s not hyperbole. Afterward, the candidates then (obviously) distanced themselves from Swanson. Now I genuinely wonder what Swanson’s reaction is to ISIS’ executions of gays is, is it joy or horror?
Getting back to the Westboro Baptist church, the WBC isn’t violent, they don’t try and incite violent revolutions to “take back our country”. According to their own website, “we don’t believe in physical violence of any kind, and the Scripture doesn’t support racism”. To make things even weirder, the founder, Fred Phelps was also a veteran supporter of the Civil Rights movement, reading that makes me feel as if I’m living in bizzaro world. But as I digress, the only reason the WBC is as popular as they are is due to media exposure, and they only have that because of their choice of locations to evangelize and the rhetoric they use. The WBC are extremely intelligent when it comes to the legal protection within the United States. People who have given in and assaulted them have paid out of the nose, many WBC members are also practicing lawyers.
As I stop my skin from crawling because I feel like I just wrote a defense of the WBC, the way their church interacts within the laws of the United States has made me ponder that relationship. Religions (or religious institutions) and the overarching authority of the country that it operates in. Before we go any further, I am simply ignoring any claims made by those religions that their God’s laws is above their countries. That isn’t this type of contemplation. After looking at different countries spanning all over the world, looking at varying religions or sects of those religions and how their membership within differing countries countries and how they’re subtly affected in both directions. Taking into account theological influence and difference that varies between a authoritarian country vs a far more libertarian one. As a result, I have a somewhat analogous hypothesis on that relationship.
Religion is Water
I believe that religions are like water, they fill a space inside a culture like water filling a plastic jug. Spreading through and filling all the little crevasses and spaces. Eventually pushing up against the legal barriers of the culture like the water pushing up against the walls of the plastic. Looking specifically at the United states culture, the jug is huge and there’s so much space, enough space for people to say some pretty absurd things. It is also very true that not many people who say those absurd things do them. Finding videos on YouTube of Christians in the US calling for gays to be stoned is easy, here’s another, but finding videos of those in practice in the US is hard. Because it’s illegal and outside of the jug (obviously). Even when a lesbian confronts a church about their sign that advocates stoning of gays and offers herself to be stoned, shes met with nothing but the “ol’ runaround”.
This makes me wonder why all these pastors calling for gays to be stoned don’t actually do it themselves. If they truly believe it, why do they let the US legal system impede their desire? I’m not trying to call them out and suggest that their faith is false and isn’t “producing works” that they themselves claim should be done, but it makes me think about the water inside of the jug.
The water is pushing up against the plastic, and in some ways is wanting to push out and escape the jug, but the plastic is pushing back. Sometimes the water swishes back and forth and deforms the jug in the slightest ways. How would things changed if murder was something inside of the jug? I would argue it is, but only if it’s justified, but I won’t bark up that tree. In the past, executions were considered normal for people who believed differently. They had the same scriptures we have and yet operated completely differently. Looking back at the United States, segregation and discrimination was perfectly fine and even religiously justified for a majority until the legal framework was altered, the jug closed in slightly in a way. I also understand that abolitionists and civil rights activists derived their stance from their faith. So it is sort of a give and take.
What happens when a religious movement grows and flows outside of a legal framework, when you pour the water into a jug that isn’t there? Perhaps in a power vacuum after a dictator is toppled, or when explorers discover a new continent, or even when differing factions fight for power.
The water goes everywhere, it’s not limited, the water moves wherever the small molecules desire and are willed by gravity.
What happens when the population of a country rebels and overthrows the monarchy that was propped up by another? The pressure builds more and more and eventually that jug bursts and religious theocracy is the spewing result. Personally, I believe that outside of a legal framework of a country, ANY religion in a cultural vacuum could become violently militant even if the main tenets of that same faith are violated. It makes me wonder, are there instances today where a faith will violate many of its core tenets (radicalization) because it’s legal and inside of the Jug? It’s happened in the past, but, are there instances of legal Christian radicalization in the United States in today’s world? Absolutely and I believe it’s far more common than people think.
The Money Changers
In the Synoptic Gospels as well as in the beginning of John, there are accounts of Jesus clearing the temple of the “Money Changers”. To save you a couple paragraphs of biblical exposition, I simplify the entire situation as those who extort the faith of others, specifically for monetary gain. We all know about them. Many of us might even know one personally, or even worse off had to sit under one. They’re as common as a Toyota Prius in California. They’re not monolithic, and they all don’t stand in a single organization or network. There is a common thread of charisma among them, and the same can be said is for any successful salesman.
John Oliver has a wonderful 20 minute expose on televangelists that is absolutely amazing, I urge you with every fiber of my being to watch it. However, what John Oliver isn’t as direct about is that this type of extortion isn’t limited only to televangelists. Now I wouldn’t consider every televangelist an extortionist either, but this type of financial predatory behavior limited to only some televangelists. I would argue that its widespread. I’ve sat in a number of churches since my childhood and have seen it multiple times. Many think it’s only limited to big congregations, but I’ve seen first hand a pastor of a small church of less than a hundred twist and coax donations out of people. I remember another instance of numerous welfare recipients lined up to throw their change in the offering plate right before hearing a sermon about how they may have friends in hell praying for them. I remember selling audio CDs after a preaching conference and a well known evangelist flippantly mention under his breath that he’s “gotta make some money” tonight. Doesn’t it make sense in terms of the water and the Jug? If there are financial legal loopholes that can be exploited, they will be.
It’s also not just financial, its emotional and mentally abusive in some cases, and I’m not even referring to the rejection of rights. I’m talking about personal abuse. I’ve heard stores and know people 20 years later are still experiencing life altering PTSD. Sometimes it completely ruins how you can even connect to another person for the rest of your life. I remember hearing pastors talk behind the scenes and completely slander some of their own members. There was this profound moment in my life when I heard that common wisdom. Those who defame others behind their backs to you, probably do the same behind your back to others. It felt like I put on a new pair of glasses and could finally see sharper than I ever have. I don’t want you to think that I’m lumping everyone who is a pastor into this bunch. I attend a wonderful church in San Francisco and my pastor is one of the most gracious, selfless, Christlike men I’ve ever met. I’ve sat under some great pastors, but I also sat under some awful ones.
Many of the profound, beautiful, and almost foundational economic aspects of Christianity are often ignored for other verses that could be quoted to increase donations. People’s faith is extremely personal, and when people put their hope and trust in someone who berates them for not giving what they think they should give, further even publically chastising them, humiliating them is nothing short of heinous. Monsters in suits with shark teeth smiles I say. Getting back to my previous post about radicalization and its definition, the derailment of a faith for the aspirations of a few. This and the constant beration of parishioners with eternal torment to terrorize and distress as a method of control? Well, If the boot fits.