Christianity on Trial

Vincent Carroll and David Shiflett

Christianity inhabits a strange space in American life. It is by far the predominant religion in the most religious country in the industrialized world, with more than 90 percent of its citizens professing belief in God and a large majority claiming allegiance to a Christian denomination or sect. Yet Christians are regularly targeted for ridicule and vilification by a significant portion of America's cultural elite, a situation all the more striking in view of the prevailing hypersensitivity toward other religious, ethnic and lifestyle groups. When a presidential aide in the Clinton administration sought to discredit an independent prosecutor, for example, he instinctively denounced the churchgoing attorney as a "religious fanatic"--a career-ending insult had it been directed at a devout Jew or Muslim. The fact that the aide kept his job while the White House refused to issue even a perfunctory apology illustrates the impunity that surrounds casual bigotry against Christians.

In isolation, such put-downs are relatively harmless. The problem is that similarly harsh judgments have become so commonplace and are asserted so aggressively that they threaten to distort Christians' own view of themselves and their past. Perhaps this has already happened. How else to explain the largely passive reception of a sound-bite version of history in which Christians' religious forebears are considered notable mainly for intolerance, superstition and oppression?

Even mainstream news stories, to the extent that they address Christian history at all, often dwell on conflict and controversy. For instance, the 900th anniversary of the Crusaders' conquest of Jerusalem in 1099 occasioned a spate of stories reflecting on Christian culpability in that blood-soaked adventure. The quincentenary of Columbus's first voyage to the New World provoked an even more damning torrent of articles and commentaries on Christian complicity in the demise of America's natives. Allegations against Pope Pius XII regarding his behavior during the Holocaust, no matter how vitriolic, qualify as major news stories more than half a century after World War II. Americans who have scarcely ever cracked a history book are likely to have heard a great deal in the mass media about the church's suppression of Galileo and the horrors of the Inquisition, but next to nothing about Christianity's role in ending infanticide and slavery.

Even the apparent good news of an agreement between Lutherans and Roman Catholics in 1999 to resolve their nearly five-hundred-year doctrinal dispute became, in more than one report, yet another opportunity to recapitulate in grim detail the body count of the Wars of Religion. Perhaps this should not be surprising, since interfaith conflict is probably the most common theme in news coverage of religion. According to a 1999 study by the Garrett-Medill Center for Religion and the News Media in Evanston, Illinois, such conflict "was the main news value" in half of the page-one stories in the four newspapers examined (New York Times, Chicago Tribune, USA Today and Chicago Sun-Times). Overall, conflict "was found in 2S percent of the stories about religion, spirituality, or values in daily newspapers, television news, and weekly news magazines."

The moral failings of the clergy, especially Catholic clergy, are also a staple of the media. In early 2000, for example, a widely reprinted series in the Kansas City Star asserted that priests were four times more likely to contract AIDS than the general population--a conclusion based on a paltry response to a mail survey that was a laughable parody of social science. Yet because the series vented against such fundamental church policies as priestly celibacy, its empirical defects were largely overlooked by the editors who selected it. Derogatory depictions of Catholic priests have become stereotypical in our media culture. In a 1998 article about a sexual predator among the Catholic clergy (to cite just one of many examples), the New York Times permitted the sole expert it quoted to assert that "there's a deep systemic problem in Catholic culture," without so much as raising an editorial eyebrow.

A recent study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs confirms the popularity of that kind of reporting. In a review of religion coverage in the major news magazines, network evening newscasts and the New York Times and Washington Post, researchers found that the most frequently discussed topic in the 1990s was sexual morality, while a remarkable one in fourteen stories concerned "crimes or other wrongdoing" involving churches or clergy. It is true that many news organizations have consciously increased their coverage of religion and spirituality in recent years. Some articles on Christianity's role in history have been complex and first-rate, such as U.S. News & World Report's cover story in January 2001 entitled "The Year One A.D." It conveyed not only the cultural distance between Roman society and our own, but also the timelessness of many ancient concerns, and it provided reasons why Christianity might prosper in such a world. But when a major story breaks the mold--for instance, when the New York Times reported on Professor John L. Heilbron's revelations about the medieval church's unappreciated support of astronomy--it often has a man-bites-dog tone of wonderment. What, forward-looking Christians?

In mainstream news these days, the word "Christian" most often appears in connection with politics. Because the "Religious Right" provides many of the shock troops for one side of today's "culture wars," it encounters sharply abusive rhetoric in return. Politics being what it is, some of this abuse is inevitable, and is relevant to this book only insofar as it veers into a wholesale condemnation of Christians or a large subset of them--and it often does. Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura's gibe that "organized religion is a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people" who "stick their noses in other people's business" was prompted (his office later tried to explain) by animosity toward the Religious Right in particular. The shower of insult directed in recent years at evangelical and fundamentalist Christians is typified by the Washington Post's sneer that they are usually "poor, uneducated and easily led." Such pronouncements apparently resonate with a large segment of the population: according to a study published in Public Opinion Quarterly in 1999, a remarkable 37 percent of highly educated white Americans hold "intensely antagonistic feelings" toward fundamentalists.

This book is not about the Religious Right and its agenda. Nor is it about the Religious Left, as represented by, say, the National Council of Churches. Christian ethical thinking draws no well-marked map for the great bulk of public policy questions--whatever some Christians, of both the Right and the Left, occasionally suggest. Christian opinion on such provocative issues as the teaching of evolution, prayer in school and the death penalty spans a wide spectrum of conviction. Let future historians assess the impact of Christians on contemporary politics; our purpose here is to rectify the common distortions of Christianity's role in history and tell the neglected story of its contributions, particularly where these have been most maligned.

For that reason, our discussion is necessarily both broad and selective. It covers much ground, but is not intended to be a condensed history of Christianity, or anything close to it. Rather, it focuses on the favorite topics of Christianity's fiercest critics. They say that Christians have spent the better part of two thousand years suppressing freedom, individual rights and democracy, while choking off science and most other forms of intellectual inquiry. They say that Christian intolerance has been a major cause of war and oppression, and Christian disdain for the natural world a primary force behind environmental degradation.

That such an indictment goes largely unchallenged is surprising, especially when its particulars are either plainly false or so stripped of context as to be purposefully misleading. We refute this sophistry not by whitewashing the past, but by reminding readers of the overlooked side of the ledger: the wide-ranging achievements and works of mercy that are rarely acknowledged in contemporary discussions of Christianity. We also take the provocative step of making comparisons, where appropriate, with other religions and cultures. Thus we argue that the world is better off in many ways for the rise of Christianity, without whose influence the past two millennia quite probably would have been crueler, poorer and more provincial, as well as less democratic, creative and informed--in a word, less civilized.

Anti-Christian bigotry relies on forgetfulness and loss of perspective. Its antidote is historical memory.

We expect there will be dissension even on our starting point: that Christianity is the target of a notable amount of contempt from cultural elites. Some will assert that quite the opposite is true. In the presidential campaign of 2000, after all, George W. Bush, when asked during a primary debate to name his favorite political philosopher, cited Jesus Christ; and Al Gore, not to be outdone, let it be known that when confronted with an important decision, he asks himself, "What would Jesus do?" Both Bush and Gore endorsed government aid for faith-based social-service programs. And Gore chose a Jewish running mate, Joseph Lieberman, who mentioned God no fewer than thirteen times in his very first campaign speech--to the satisfaction of a number of Christian commentators.

American politicians tend to use religious language even more generously when they find themselves immersed in scandal. At the Religious Leaders' Breakfast in September 1998, for example, President Clinton publicly confessed to sin and asked the American people to forgive him. This prompted Martin E. Marty of the University of Chicago Divinity School to ask, "In what other republic or industrialized nation would the chief executive or prime minister regard himself as a sort of priest who could convoke clergy and then turn himself into a penitent, turning the American people, as a body, into confessors?" The answer, he said, is "none."

Yet there is less here than meets the ear. The pious words of these politicians represent what scholars call"America's civic religion," a tradition involving "platitudes that reaffirm the religious base of American culture despite being largely void of theological significance," to quote Frederick Mark Gedicks. Moreover, as Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter dryly observes, "The platitudes of America's civil religion are expected and accepted--but they are only platitudes." Those politicians who venture beyond the most perfunctory religious expression will be warned that they are breaching the wall of separation between church and state. And even the kind of pious boilerplate that politicians are permitted on the campaign trail, and that journalists dutifully report, often draws indignation or derision in other circumstances.

Those who mount the attacks on Christianity today presumably see themselves as brave dissenters, manning the same ramparts as iconoclasts like H. L. Mencken, who kicked the shins of organized religion in an era when it wielded far more clout. (Mencken once quipped, "Wouldn't it be terrible if I quoted some reliable statistics which prove that more people are driven insane through religion than by drinking alcohol?") Yet the foes of Christianity today have far more comrades in arms than did Mencken, and the tone has changed.

When we speak of today's "anti-Christian bigotry," we are not referring to good-natured joking. Nor are we concerned when idiosyncratic scribblers draw bizarre religious comparisons, such as Christopher Knight of the Los Angeles Times describing the image of guerrilla Che Guevara as that of "an ever-youthful demigod. Chesucristo, superstar." Mr. Knight, after all, is an art critic, and is therefore not required to color inside the lines. What we are talking about is the outright mockery and disparagement of Christians and their heritage that appear in the mainstream news and entertainment media, in the arts and academia, far too often to be treated as eccentric outbursts--and that in the aggregate have decisively shaped the prevailing view of Christianity's past.

Why, for example, would the artistic community in New York City rally en masse to defend a play called Corpus Christi, which highlights a gay Jesus having sex with his apostles, without expressing a hint of sympathy for those offended by the play's content? Why would the New York Times, joining the boosters of Corpus Christi, denounce the alleged "bigotry, violence and contempt for artistic expression" of those who protested against the play, but have nothing to say about the playwright's own bigotry and contempt for Christian conviction? Corpus Christi may be the most controversial play in recent years, yet by no means the most vicious. The Cardinal Detoxes, for example, featured a Catholic cardinal who murders a woman and bribes a judge. The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told depicted the Virgin Mary as a lesbian. Burning Habits showcased lesbian nuns in scenes reminiscent of the most lurid anti-Catholic tracts of the nineteenth century.

The intention to shock and degrade has become depressingly commonplace. Consider a film titled Hell's Angel, sponsored a few years ago at the Baltimore Museum of Art in association with Johns Hopkins University, depicting Mother Teresa as an opportunistic "ghoul." It was written and narrated by Christopher Hitchens, whose book on Mother Teresa describes her as a "cunning and single-minded" fanatic who exploited the "simple and the humble." The rationale for the film was as spurious as its content: It was part of a series devoted to religious" extremism."

The situation is hardly better in the other arts. "In painting and sculpture," observes John Leo of U.S. News & World Report, "the bashing of Christian symbols is so mainstream that it's barely noticed." His litany of examples includes "satirical versions of the Last Supper" and a veritable parade of vile representations of the mother of Jesus: "Mary coming out of a vagina, Mary encased in a condom, Mary in pink panties with breasts partially exposed, an Annunciation scene with the Archangel Gabriel giving Mary a coat hanger for an abortion, Mary pierced with a phallic pipe. . . ." In such a toxic stream, the Brooklyn Museum of Art's notorious "Sensation" exhibit in 1999, featuring a portrait of Mary adorned with elephant dung, seems quite tame.

The critics' response to these assaults on religion has been predictably indulgent. Commenting on the "Sensation" exhibit, the New York Times opined that "cultural experimentation and transgression are not threats to civility but part of the texture and meaning of daily life." Early in 2001, the Times again leaped to the defense of the Brooklyn Museum, placidly dismissing public indignation over a photographic depiction of Jesus at the Last Supper as a nude black woman. When a gallery in Seattle featured obscene art involving Jesus and the pope, local art critics let it pass without objection.

A similarly tone-deaf approach to religious sensibilities can be found throughout the media. The Nation magazine sneeringly referred to Communion hosts as "crackers." National Public Radio calmly aired a musical satirist whose featured song mocked Catholic teachings. On the Tonight Show, Jay Leno presided over a skit in which actors dressed as the pope and four bishops twirled huge rosaries while singing verses that mocked Catholic beliefs about the Eucharist. People of deep religious conviction are depicted in the most unflattering light. Eric Siegel of the Boston Globe, for instance, declared that "When we do hear someone talking about the living presence of God, it's usually a fathead football player, a Gantryesque evangelist, or a reformed rapper or drug addict."

The influence of religion in politics is regarded as entirely detrimental. Columnist and TV commentator Bonnie Erbe was alarmed by a 1999 poll that found "46 percent of women say politicians should be guided by religious values, up from a much lower 32 percent six years earlier." Why was this frightening? "Women's equality under the law is the first thing to be tossed overboard when religion overtakes government." Time magazine's Lance Morrow foresees genuine equality arriving only "when the civilization pivots, at last, decisively--perhaps for the first time since the advent of Christian patriarchy two millenniums ago--toward Woman." When Ireland moved to ease its ban on divorce, CBS reporter Cinny Kennard welcomed this as a liberation from Christian repression. "It's been like an awakening," she exulted. "Ireland, long positioned on the world's stage as a church-dominated backwater, has reinvented itself as a new and energized Emerald Isle. A more open, a more tolerant place." In the same vein, syndicated columnist Robyn Blumner of the St. Petersburg Times insisted that "Only when we are unshackled from the institutions that have traditionally tried to control our lives--government and religion--are men and women free to follow their instincts for reason, inquiry and progress."

Prime-time television is a trove of antireligious sentiment. A report released in 1998 by the Parents' Television Council revealed that in the course of 1,800 hours of original prime-time programming, there were ten negative portrayals of religiously devout laypeople for every positive one, and nearly as many negative as positive portrayals of clergy. The genuinely faith-friendly series of recent years, such as Touched by an Angel and Promised Land, are certainly noteworthy--but partly for being so unusual.

"A change of fundamental importance has occurred in this country, and we have yet to come to grips with it," contends Stanley Kurtz of the Hudson Institute. "Religion itself--at least organized traditional religion--has become controversial in a way that it has never been throughout the whole of American history. With all their concern that no single religion be established by the state, the Founders never imagined a situation in which organized religion as such would be feared or repudiated by large numbers of citizens as a source of oppression."

What explains this drumbeat of accusation and derision? One possibility is that the cultural elite sees religious faith as a superstitious worldview with which it cannot respectfully coexist. There is certainly evidence to suggest that America's major opinion shapers value religion much less than the rest of the populace. A significant percentage of journalists, entertainers, artists and intellectuals still identify themselves as Christians, but this proportion is far lower than in the general public.

In a 1996 survey of newspaper journalists by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, just 57 percent described their religious affiliation as Protestant or Catholic. Another study, examining five metropolitan areas around the nation, found major differences between the religious practices of journalists and those of the citizens they cover. The most recent effort to survey all types of journalists (with a sample of 1,037) was conducted in 1992 by Professors David Weaver and Cleveland Wilhoit of Indiana University, who found that although 84 percent of the journalists had been brought up in a Christian faith, only 37.5 percent agreed with the proposition that "religion or religious beliefs" were "very important" to them. By contrast, 61 percent of the general public asked the identical question in a Gallup poll that year answered in the affirmative. And while religious affiliation among journalists apparently rose during the 1990s, according to a survey of the major media by the Center for Media and Public Affairs, it still remained well below that of the overall populace.

The contrast between Hollywood and the rest of the country is even more striking. A 1995 survey by the Center for Media and Public Affairs found that nearly a third of those in the television and movie industry professed no religious affiliation whatsoever, 43 percent said they never attended religious services, and fewer than one in four identified themselves as either Protestant or Catholic.

Politics undoubtedly also contributes to antireligious bigotry. It is no secret that professors and journalists--to say nothing of entertainers and artists--generally tilt toward the political Left. Indeed, the American Society of Newspaper Editors' own 1996 survey identified more than five times as many liberals as conservatives in the nation's larger newsrooms. Religious activism once was largely the province of liberalism, from the time of abolitionism through the 1960s. Since 1973, however, when the Supreme Court declared abortion a constitutional right, religious activism has instead been dominated by political conservatives. Thus the cultural elite tends to identify religious commitment with incorrect politics.

In effect, the stigmatizing of the activist Christian Right has provided an excuse for a generalized antireligious rhetoric, and even for demands that people motivated by faith withdraw from the public square. Still, the hostility is plainly selective, in that other major religions have not been subjected to the same degree of ridicule. A public mocking of Judaism or Islam, such as pro basketball player Charlie Ward's public slam against Jews, typically prompts a stern rebuke by opinion leaders dedicated to preserving civic amity and respect. And rightly so. But why is this not true for mockery of Christians? When a major league pitcher (John Rocker) who indulges in inflammatory ethnic and sexual stereotypes draws nearly universal disapproval and official punishment, why can Ted Turner, the owner of the team that employs the pitcher, mock the pope in one public appearance (John Paul II should "get with it--welcome to the twentieth century") and Christians in another ("losers"), and encounter barely a hint of censure?

Is it possible that Christians themselves essentially permit this? That they don't particularly mind when their beliefs are ridiculed? The historian Thomas Reeves argues that "Christianity in modern America. . . tends to be easy, upbeat, convenient, and compatible. . .. The faith has been overwhelmed by the culture, producing what is rightly called cultural Christianity."s He is no doubt correct, but only to a degree. There remain a good many Christians who take their faith very seriously. And there is, we suspect, a point at which most of them do in fact mind, very much, the untruthful trashing of their faith, no matter how it is explained. And they almost certainly have noticed a bitter irony: in attempting to marginalize the Christian faith, America's anti-Christian bigots are committing the very offense they most commonly attribute to Christians themselves--the sin of aggressive intolerance.

In discussing the role of Christianity in history, this book plays no favorites. Our definition of Christianity is broad, and our story concentrates on figures and eras that are relevant to our analysis. If Roman Catholic priests once were prominent defenders of Native American human rights, our story will linger over their part in that story. If evangelical Christians dominated the leadership of the antislavery movement in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, we will give them their due. If a sect like the Darbyites was unusually active in sheltering Jews in southern France during the Holocaust, we must not forget it.

We realize that irreconcilable differences separate many Christian denominations and sects; but that is a sign of their health. As Roger Finke and Rodney Stark point out in The Churching of America, 1776-1990, pluralism is "the natural condition of any unregulated religious economy." Yet there is risk in discussing the achievements of such a wide variety of Christians in a single book. Some readers may ask how a Roman Catholic can be expected to identify with the admirable legacy of Puritan covenant theology, given the anti-Papist violence of the English Civil War. Or how Protestants can appreciate the Dominican defense of indigenous peoples' rights, when that same order of priests helped man the institution that stamped out any chance of a Spanish Reformation.

At this late date, such historical resentments are blindingly self-destructive. The most potent hostility these days to every branch of Christianity emanates not from a rival limb of the faith, but from an aggressive secularism that seeks to confine all religion to a darkened sanctuary. This secularism applauded when the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, in 2000, told the state of Ohio to get rid of its motto, "With God, all things are possible"; when the National Park Service, in the same year, pledged to remove a war memorial in the shape of a cross that had stood in the Mojave Desert for more than half a century; and when successive class valedictorians at Oroville High School in California were barred from mentioning their faith in their commencement addresses. To the militant secularist, religion is a meddlesome, divisive enterprise (aren't its devotees, as Governor Ventura says, always sticking "their noses in other people's business"?), which should be strictly privatized--root, branch and leaf. Religion generally, and Christianity especially, must be neither seen nor heard, except as the butt of an amusing gibe.

This book does not stipulate or assume the truth of the Christian faith. It is written about Christians, but not necessarily for them. For that reason, the vast majority of the authorities cited are historians rather than theologians. If some are rather generously quoted, it is in part to demonstrate that we have not misrepresented their views.

The story of Christianity has sometimes been turbulent and tragic, blood-spattered and cruel, but that is far from the sum total of its legacy. It also boasts magnificent, redeeming achievements--shining moments when civilizing values have seized the upper hand. These too must be remembered.

The above was the Introduction to Christianity on Trial: Arguments Against Anti-Religious Bigotry, by Vincent Carroll and David Shiflett.

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