(Content Warning: This post discusses the problem of the Christian religion and its practice in American society. The article is not intended to be persuasive or evangelical in any form or content because there are those deeply wounded by religion in America and are in recovery. I am among the recovering clergy myself. I tried to scrupulously avoid triggers, but this whole topic is a Claymore mine. Please read with caution.)
This is my first posting, but I am no newcomer to Daily Kos. I have lurked here since before Markos wrote Taking on the System. I never posted here because I believe my field of study, which includes theology and organizational leadership studies, was abstract and of little applicability to a website mostly dedicated to political activism. However, with the cancerous growth of religious fascism leading to the fracturing of social and political institutions, a diluvian deluge of crackpot religious ideas, deceptive conspiracy theories, lies and falsely reported statistics, and unrelenting malicious speech, perhaps I do have something pertinent to say from my studies.
My primary motivation to write now came from the DK community itself. A couple of our Kossacks wanted to know if there any theologians out there in the community who could explain why many of our perfectly sensible neighbors suddenly lost all perspective and adhered to the weird marriage of fascism and protestant fundamentalism that dreams of a dystopian theocracy disturbingly like The Handmaid’s Tale.
The answer is yes, there probably are other theologians out in the community other than me. The answer is also yes, theologians do know why this bifurcation took place. The problem is the complete answer is two thousand years voluminous and fills libraries. Think of a river with many currents. The best (more likely, worst) I can do is cherry-pick and conflate centuries of Judeo-Christian history and then select two or three major historical streams to keep this posting reasonable.
To begin, let us define our terms. Anselm of Canterbury defined theology as, “faith seeking understanding.” Theologians are academic scholars who study theology which support many disciplines. I would lose all you readers quickly if I tried to name them. Suffice it to say that exciting work goes forward in liberation studies, gender, race and class, cosmology, ethics, human freedom, and fundamental human identity. There are many more. These specializations ground themselves in critical thinking and analysis using sophisticated literary, textual, and historical tools and tests, all subject to peer review. Generally, the sub-specialties and theology itself are gathered under the umbrella term, Systematic Theology. The basic ministerial degree takes three years to complete.
The paragraph above brings me to the first river current I wanted to discuss with you. Such a Christianity that requires this preparation of its clergy and scholars is vastly different from the kind of religion we have been watching for the last few years. The leadership of that other movement often grounds itself in a person who, having an ecstatic religious experience that can resemble certain aspects of mental illness, therefore feels flooded with enthusiasm in their desire to preach. The usual outcome is to depart henceforth immediately and build a congregation of like-minded people with nary of even a careless thought of the damage they may cause in peoples’ lives. Such a figure feels called to preach, but not to prepare. When you consider the body of literature and resources the clergy is expected to know before they ever open their mouth in the pulpit and compare it to who is preaching in many conservative churches, we begin to see the scope of the problem. The sermons preached and the doctrines taught are pretty much as I assume you can imagine. We have been patiently enduring this character and their antics since well before the founding of the country.
The second air-raid-siren-red-flags-flying historical current that screams at me is the reappearance of Christian Dominionism. This is an old declared heretical movement we have seen before in history. This idea believes it is right and proper to take over a nation to establish a physical representation of their concept of the kingdom of God. The concept is completely incompatible with a proper interpretation of New Testament theology which teaches the kingdom of God is a kingdom of the heart. Besides, it doesn’t work in practice. Other groups tried this idea before and it has never worked. Even if such a dominion were possible, which I doubt very much, what would such a society look like, and would we recognize it? Would we even want to live in it, especially since a minority of religious fanatics would violently create the thing, thereby cancelling out the intentions of the founder of the faith who described the kingdom in entirely different terms?
So where did this Dominionism idea come from? My answer to that is what I call the Long Con. It is the third and last stream discussed in this post. Again, though, I must again caution that I am astonishingly conflating complex historical interactions in order keep this posting decently short and to make a point. But first, a little background is needed.
In the first century of the Christian era the fledgling Christian community sent out emissaries (missionaries overseen by the apostles) to establish cultic centers of worship in largely urban areas throughout the Roman Empire. Over the next few decades, a message emerged from the growing Christian movement that centered around human freedom. “… And you shall know the truth, and the truth will make you free,” said the community surrounding the teachings of the Beloved Disciple (contained in the New Testament book of John). The message communicated that even though you may be a slave in Rome, yet within your heart and in your own soul, you can be free.
This message was very counter-cultural in an authoritarian empire built on the backs of slaves (sound familiar?). The Roman Empire found it intolerable and took steps to quash the idea and the community that carried it. The problem was that the empire was collapsing within from structural corruption because the citizens and its leaders had no moral center to which they could appeal in a crisis.
It was here the Long Con began. It took a while, but the civil authorities realized that if they could not destroy the movement then they would simply co-opt it. This happened during the reign of Constantine, and this counter-cultural movement became the official religion of the Roman Empire. In short, it has never been the same since. The core of the Con was the change in theology. The bishops of the church (St. Augustine, in particular) subtly shifted the emphasis of the message from human freedom to the equally important doctrine of repentance and forgiveness. All that was present in the teachings; however, it was the elegant and subtle change in emphasis that allowed both the state and church authority decision-level control over the populace.
We have been living with the Long Con ever since, and we have never recovered the original counter-cultural message of the faith, which was never intended to be the official religion of any civil authority or state. If one buys into the Con, however, then Dominionism, with some mental gymnastics, may sound like common sense. If one does not buy into the Con but wants to remain faithful to the original message of the founder, then a person of “faith seeking understanding” struggles against the centuries-long inertia of misdirection and, quite frankly, propaganda to find their way.
So let me sum up. There are three historical currents described in this post: poorly trained clergy, an old Christian heresy, and the Long Con. Their interaction makes it appear the Christian faith has gone off the rails. The historical currents have played havoc with the freewheeling churches that were born in America, but the older, structured Christian faith that originated in Europe still contains the core of the faithful. It is still among us; it is just quieter and more deliberate.
Hopefully what has been described here makes a start in understanding why we are in this current religious predicament. I am uncomfortably aware of the density of this posting. I wish I could write it simply. It is just that this stuff is not simple and there is even more that I have not described. If many of you are still not satisfied or better yet want to make a deeper dive into these questions, then I recommend heading over to Mastodon and type in their search window, #theologidon. There are highly qualified people there who live and breathe this stuff and will be more than happy to point you in new directions and have certainly given me a great deal of hope.
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