Monday, October 22, 2012

The Narrow Church of Religion

I once had a conversation with a Christian friend about a church — the Universal Life Church — that would legally ordain anyone for a small fee. She asked me if the church was Christian, and I replied that I thought it was. She then asked if the church opposed abortion. To which I said, I doubt it.

“It can’t be a Christian church if it doesn’t make a priority of protecting the sanctity of life,” she said.

I’ve long been used to Christians of various stripes declaring that only people who believe exactly as they do (at least on political wedge issues) can count themselves as honest adherents of a religion 1 billion people claim. But there’s still something about it that gets me every time I hear it. Even when the questioning in question involves one of America’s fastest-decaying tropes, that Barack Obama is not a proper Christian.

First off, I don’t give the first damn what religion Obama is. I would be perfectly happy if he had no religion at all. I think it’s pathetic that he, and every other American politician, has to fall all over himself to prove he’s a churchgoing man. I know plenty of churchgoing people and plenty of amazingly moral people and the overlap is not identical. Whatever moral guidance Obama follows as a person, a family man and a leader, it seems to work. We should be content to leave it at that.

Still, I find it imperative to defend Christianity from many of its Christians. The arguments they make about who or who isn’t a good Christian — and of course, the accusers are always the good ones — relies on a provincialism that borders on ridiculous. Growing up in a predominantly Catholic area (and attending Catholic church on the rare occasion that my family bothered to go), my association of what church was gelled very early — big cathedral, bells, organs, priests, holy water, incense, communion, the rosary, etc. On some level I knew that there were other religions, but I guess I figured the differences were slight at best. The way the Catholics did church was church.

When I was eight years old, my parents got back together after years of separation. Never the most religious people, my parents nevertheless decided we’d try out some churches. So for several Sundays in the summer of 1988, we hopped between different churches in upscale neighborhoods I’d seen only fleetingly through the windows of my school bus. And each one was completely different — one featured a snooze-inducing sermon I remember only for a McDonald’s reference that briefly woke me up for half a second; another was a semicircle auditorium where a band played throughout the service. I’d later realize that these and other churches we attended in that span were all Protestant (mainly Baptist) churches. I remember asking my mom during the band services, “This is church?”

This phase didn’t last long, and we eventually reverted back to our normal routine of attending the Church of NFL Gameday. But the lesson I learned from these sojourns was that not everyone celebrates God in the same way. If Christians have such a wide spectrum of practice just among themselves, what else have I never considered about Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and everyone else? Even if those thoughts took a while to grasp, the seed still took root in my mind as early as that summer adventure.

I guess that’s why it’s so hard for me to accept that an adult, someone who has by definition spent decades living and learning, would be so ignorant about another’s beliefs. Saying Obama can’t be Christian because he doesn’t speak the language of “born again” is like me saying Americans who don’t celebrate Mardi Gras can’t party. (Maybe that’s a bad example. But you see my point, right?)

Everywhere I’ve ever lived was ground zero for one denomination or other, be it the Cajun Catholics, Assemblies of God or the Mormons. And in all of those places, someone said at some point, “I hope I’m doing the right thing so I don’t go to hell.” Every time, they were referring to some dogmatic practice of which I was only vaguely aware. And I always reply, “Well, if that’s all it takes to go hell, I’ll see you there. There’s better dancing there, anyway.” Sometimes they laugh; sometimes they don’t.

The point is, I think it’s stupid and hypocritically judgmental for Christians to insist President Obama isn’t a Christian, or otherwise isn’t the right kind of Christian. Those people need to step out of their comfy confines once in a while. Assuming that’s actually the issue, which it may not be. In that case, I’d have more respect if those people just admitted that they don’t like Obama’s policies. Or him, period.

It’s hard to claim the mantel of Jesus while not caring about the poor, coveting and lying.

1 comment:

GDad said...

It's the No True Scotsman argument. If I might swipe the text from RationalWiki...

"[A] Scotsman... sees a newspaper article about a series of sex crimes taking place in Brighton, and responds that 'no Scotsman would do such a thing'. When later confronted with evidence of another Scotsman doing even worse acts, his response is that 'no true Scotsman would do such a thing',"

I prefer it in Latin - nulla vera scotus.