Top Five Toxic Religion Stories of 2014

At this time of year one can still imagine that somewhere up above, angelic hosts are still singing “Glory to God in the highest! And on earth, peace and goodwill to all.”

Regrettably, most of the earthbound ones who claim to heed heavenly voices still only seem to hear the “glory to God” part while remaining deaf to the rest. At least that is my contention in considering the ways in which religion fueled still more enmity and exclusion during this anno domini 2014. I will offer five examples of religion playing the devil’s part in earthly affairs.

You will see that I follow the good grey John Gray in seriously doubting that all we Western liberals need to do is wait long enough and these things will right themselves, that fear-based hatred and religious fanaticism will inevitably give way to rational thinking. That belief in enlightenment’s ineluctable reign bears its own religious stamp. It’s not magical thinking so much as it is premillennial thinking. And we know how reliably predictive other forms of premillennialism have been.

Without further ado, then, let us take our little tour of religious maleficence as a not-so-great year winds down.

1. This land is my land: the widening arc of 21st century religious warfare

Call it the Temple Mount or the Noble Sanctuary, it is by far the most contested bit of real estate in the world. The decades-long arrangement under which the site was administered by a special trust in Jordan is coming unglued under unrelenting pressure by ultra-orthodox Jews who want to see a Third Temple erected there. Leading Israeli politicians pander to these pressures, making their own provocative statements. Worse, these same politicians backed versions of a proposed nationality law—hugely controversial in Israel and among American Jews, including the ADL’s Abe Foxman—that appears to privilege religion over democracy and that would, among other things, codify the second-class status of non-Jewish Israelis—most notably, Arabs.

You can say, if you like, that this is about ethnicity, not religion, but without the strong religious claim that Jews have a divinely-bestowed right to all of Jerusalem and all of ancient “Judea and Samaria,” this move toward creating a full-on apartheid state would not be happening.

Not that militant Islam is without its own aggressions. So many, in fact, that it’s hard to keep track. In their pursuit of a new caliphate, the Islamic State butchers have already obliterated the hated Sykes-Picot line between Syria and Iraq. Thanks in part to what is widely viewed in the region as a hamfisted U.S. intervention, the Taliban are staging a fierce comeback in both Afghanistan and Northern Pakistan. The slaughter of children in Peshawar won’t be the end of it. In Northern Nigeria Boko Haram is determined to eliminate all non-Islamic schools and drive out the Christians. DIY jihadists commit random acts of violence everywhere from Ottawa to Sydney.

And are there Christians anywhere who still wage war on non-Christians? We don’t see it, but in the eyes of many, that would be us Americans with our thousands of armed “advisors” still bunkered down in Afghanistan and Iraq and with our bombs and drones striking from the sky anywhere we want them to strike. Not to mention the fact (as noted by Sarah Posner in these pages) that white American Christians are more approving of torture as an instrument of foreign policy than is any other segment of the U.S. population. This finding comes as no surprise to those targeted by our War on Terror.

The usual assertion that violence and aggression are, in fact, un-Islamic or alien to the true spirit of Judaism or Christianity just won’t hold up. You can call the aggressors “extremists” if you wish, but you cannot deny their religious devotion. You can argue, as Karen Armstrong argues in her new book, that violence is not an “inherent” part of religious faith, but I don’t believe you can really argue that the world’s most violent actors today aren’t religious.

2. A still-raw rift over government’s role that has deep religious roots

There’s no end of bloviation about divided government in the U.S., but I want to suggest that the deeper source of conflict is religious or at least religiously infused.

Competing religious visions about how life among Europeans in North America should be ordered go way back to the late 17th century, when the commonwealth vision expressed so clearly in John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity” was undercut by rising commercial fortunes among seafaring merchants. Puritan preachers in port cities like Salem and Newburyport began suggesting that unlimited private wealth and rising social inequality were just fine in God’s eyes.

Eventually, their wealth-friendly theology prevailed, and it remains the dominant American theology, including the important tenet of faith that enough wealth will trickle downward to ensure social comity and stability.

Fast forward to the 21st century and the debate is much the same. And it’s not that all Democrats hew to the commonwealth ideal. The most intense ideological conflict today isn’t between Democrats and Republicans but between Warren Democrats who want to resist wealth’s domination and Clintonistas who are quite comfortable with the way things are trending. The related religiously-rooted rift in national politics is between leaders who still pledge their allegiance to the old “redeemer nation” idea and those in both parties (e.g., Rand Paul) who see the claim of American exceptionalism to be both deluded and dangerous.

3. Two nations, one black and one white

It’s not just that Sunday morning at 11 remains the “most segregated hour” in the American week. It’s that black Americans and white Americans have profoundly different visions of what equal justice means and of the extent to which equal justice has been achieved.

All polls suggest that white Americans are satisfied with what we might call formal equal justice or “procedural” equality, whereas the vast majority of black Americans are deeply committed to substantive justice and economic equality. The difference reflects the different religious visions about what government should do, with African-Americans still attached overwhelmingly to the old commonwealth vision. But it goes much deeper, inasmuch as blacks both see and experience the brutal underside of the “redeemer nation” mythology. For centuries they have seen and experienced American trimphalism as a parallel triumph of white supremacy.

These competing visions come into sharpest focus during that segregated hour on Sunday. It oversimplifies the case, but not by much, to say that black Christians identify with those whom God delivers from the house of bondage, whereas white Christians are conflicted about whether to identify with the oppressed Israelites or with Pharoah and Pharoah’s enforcers. You needn’t take my word for it. You can ask Walter Brueggemann about the degree to which imperial religion has effectively colonized white American Christianity. Or you can ask any black Christian whether Dr. King was right to say that America “is in danger of becoming a ‘thing’ society,” and he or she will answer that, if anything, King was understating the case back in 1967.

All this was brought home to me earlier this year. I was in a black church in South Los Angeles, beta-testing a new criminal justice curriculum. Toward the end of the three-hour conversation an older woman confided that “we never did think of white people as Christians” when she was growing up. And why would she have? All she could see was cruelty and greed. Not her idea of Christian conduct.

4. Ritual purity in responses to Ebola and toward immigrants

While the rest of the world could hardly believe that major U.S. cities were mandating long quarantines for anyone returning from West Africa (thereby impeding medical relief efforts), most Americans were far more upset by the Obama Administration’s refusal to follow suit. Obama’s calls for “science, not fear” to prevail in regard to Ebola fell on mostly deaf ears in this country.

Deep fear of contamination from the outside has always been reinforced by religious notions of what is clean and unclean. “We” become pure and undefiled before God as long as we remain militant about enforcing boundaries between us righteous ones and those corrupted aliens. European anti-Judaism rests on this foundation. Fourteenth century Christian lamentations linking the Black Plague to alien contamination differ very little from late 20th century Christian pronouncements linking AIDS to homosexual degeneracy.

Now comes Ebola, and why are we surprised that a majority of Americans would rather let the African millions perish than let this alien contamination cross our boundaries?

Loathing of the immigrant hordes also expresses a kind of religious fastidiousness. For every U.S. religious leader who speaks up for humane immigration reform, there are ten who fret either privately or out loud about the dangers of letting “them” enter and/or stay here. And the publicly discussed dangers (to white political power, to cultural cohesiveness, to environmental sustainability) are but the tip of a vast impassable iceberg that is kept perpetually frozen by fear-based religious ideation.

5. Encroachments at the intersection of Church and State

The Hobby Lobby decision isn’t the end, folks. There’s more, much more, litigation being cooked up in the glowing ovens of the Becket Fund, the Alliance Defense Fund, and other well-furnished reactionary kitchens.

You can say (and if you do I will quickly concur) that the First Amendment has always been contested territory. The difference, I would say, is that in days past you would find many of the religious standing up for a strong secular civil state, whereas today the vast majority of the self-described faithful in this contest are among those demanding greater deference to religious “liberty.” On the other side, worried about the new encroachments, you will find precious few who say their worry is grounded in part in their robust religious faith. This spells more setbacks for secularism, in my view. At least until the encroachers go too far. But they are not stupid. They are not Taliban. Not quite.


Alas, dear reader, by now you must imagine that I relish painting a grim picture of religion’s role in contemporary affairs. I do not. And I remain acutely mindful of religion’s potential to heal deep wounds and to free people from every form of oppression. I merely want us to take the full measure of what we are up against. In my own Christian tradition we talk about doing actual battle with powers and principalities. Not to see toxic religion among the powers we must contend against means we will be missing the mark.

That’s what I think, anyway, but let me know if my take on things is too negative. As I write, lots of friends are celebrating the new pope’s role in helping to end 54 years of U.S. cruelty toward Cuba. Share your own examples of good religion peeping out here and there. I’d like to end the year with a dollop of good cheer on top of my plum pudding.


Note: An earlier version of this story mentioned Israel’s constitution, but the country does not, in fact, have a formal constitutional document. We regret the error.


  •' JamesMMartin says:

    #5 is the only one that really counts. Separation of church and state is the only thing that will preserve democracy and ensure that all religions are treated equally. Theocracy was forbidden by the founding fathers.

  •' MainTour says:

    Tomorrow is the 100th anniversary of the Christmas Day Truce. The Western Front – 1914 – hundreds of thousands of both British and German soldiers mutinied for the day and openly socialized and exchanged gifts with troops from the other side. It drove the generals furious as all orders were disobeyed. The theme of the mutiny – Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men. These soldiers didn’t understand the purpose of their war and why they were stuck in so much endless death, destruction and misery.

  •' James says:

    “Fourteenth century Christian lamentations linking the Black Plague to alien
    contamination differ very little from late 20th century Christian
    pronouncements linking AIDS to homosexual degeneracy.

    Now comes Ebola, and why are we surprised that a majority of Americans would
    rather let the African millions perish than let this alien contamination cross
    our boundaries?”

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but

    1) Isn’t the sole means by which the Black Plague (or any other pathogen) is transmitted to an uninfected population is by introducing alien elements which are carrying said pathogen?

    2) Weren’t homosexual activity and unscreened blood transfusions the primary means by which AIDS was spread in the U.S. in the late 1970s/early 1980s?

    3) Isn’t the idea that letting African millions perish and permitting Ebola cross our boundaries a patently false dichotomy? Why do we have to permit infected persons into the U.S. in order to assist those in Africa?

  •' Thomas Goodnow says:

    The “ritual uncleanness of Ebola victims” is more than a bit of a stretch. Aid workers who are Christian missionaries were there at the beginning of the epidemic, and are still there today (and those who flew back to the States for treatment are mostly either returned or planning on it). Add to that the fact that for many Liberians, at least, serving victims is seen as a Christian calling and it looks like even more of a stretch.

  •' Allah says:

    1) No.
    2) No.
    3) Nope. Because I want to live in a nation where the rules of decency prevail.

  •' Dan McClellan says:

    This author has a lot research to catch up on. Doing so might help overcome some of the rhetorical excesses and outright misrepresentations of the article. For instance, yes, 69% of Evangelicals approved of torture, but so did 40% of non-religious Americans. That’s a disturbingly high figure for people not burdened by the putative origin of our lust for violence. Where on earth did those 40% spontaneously generate their religious-like irrationality and hatred? Maybe they’re secretly religious after all! Or maybe nationalism is just an ideology that doesn’t need religion to take root, but can take advantage of it where it’s available.

    Also, insisting that you can’t argue that the world’s most violent actors are religious is grotesquely specious. Religious people make up about 90% of the world’s population, but even if we pretend that being religious means all your violence is motivated by religion (a laughable notion for anyone schooled in sociology or psychology), we still have many secular people in North Korea, China, and elsewhere committing unthinkable atrocities. No, Richard Dawkins doesn’t tweet about them dozens of times a day, but believe it or not, they are indeed there.

    Constructing this ideological bogeyman only helps to distract from the details of these issues and excuse our own Western improprieties (pay no attention to that 40% of non-religious Americans approving or torture behind that curtain). None of that helps us find a solution. How about RD finds people educated about religion and sociology? Certainly we can do better than, “You can poke all kinds of holes in my logic, but here’s a purely rhetorical jab that will have people who already agree with me nodding in agreement.”

  •' James says:

    Allah, If you’re going to answer rhetorical questions erroneously, please at least make a half-hearted attempt to substantiate the indefensible. Wait, let me guess…everything that “Allah” says is ipso facto correct.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    Thanks for painting a neat grim picture of religion’s role in contemporary affairs. We need more of that. Still, no matter how grim it looks, I think the overall trend is actually positive. If you are old enough to remember 50 years ago, we didn’t have these problems in this country. Christianity was comfortably established and probably beyond any questioning, except for the minor battles of Protestant vs. Catholic, and everyone against the cults like Mormonism. Anything like atheism was safely held south of 1%, and could be ignored. Then as Christianity started to gain political strength, the percent of non-believers started to expand, to perhaps 10 or 20%. Now there is a MAJOR problem because they can no longer be kept silent, and when you have a kind of open national discussion Christianity tends to look foolish when compered to non-belief. It is just the nature of reality. This must mean a Crusade, and so your grim picture is us working through that process. The one thing Christianity can’t abide is a growing presence of rationality, so unless non-belief can be pushed back below 5 or 2 percent, things will get better. We will make it happen.

  •' Blast_Dorrough777 says:

    U.S. Declaration of Independence proves that U.S. was founded on the true theology of science-based Deism in rejection of all dogmatic, fear-based man-contrived-religioncraft in its many evil forms. As revealed by the Declaration Deists Founders rose to dethrone evil King George wed to Corporations and demonic Christians known as treasonous Tories to assume their equitable station in life entitled to Humankind by the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” Written between May 11 and July 2, 1776 Four Letters On Interesting Subjects was Thomas Paine’s closing argument for Revolution after creating a revolution in the collective-mind of the Revolutionists via Common Sense. “As to Corporations themselves, they are without exception so many badges of kingly tyranny, and tend, like every other species of useless pomp, to the oppression and impoverishment of the place, without one single advantage arising from them. They keep up a perpetual spirit of distinction and faction, engross emoluments and advantages to themselves, which ought to be employed to better purposes, and generally get into quarrels and lawsuits with the other part of the inhabitants. They diminish the freedom of every place where they exist.” As to the torture issue, God-given reason tells us that true theology must be based on the Universal Word/Works of Nature’s God in the Creation itself since being the only “Word” ever from the Creator. Blind belief/faith in man’s opinions and tales in man-contrived texts about the Creator is not faith in God. Belief/faith in the man-contrived cruel-God of the Christian Bible and other similar “religious” texts makes cruel, evil people. Religioncrafters may have invented torture since making the most use of it. “Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, and imprisoned, yet we have not advanced one inch toward uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth.” Thomas Jefferson, Notes On the State of Virginia, Query XVII.

  •' Blast_Dorrough777 says:

    When the Constitutional Convention rejected the People’s demand for a Bill of Rights the People rose throughout the Colony against ratification of the Constitution. Their concern is seen in the first words of the First of Ten Amendments to the Constitution known as the Bill of Rights: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or free exercise thereof….” The Deist Founders strongly argued that religioncraft must be prohibited from having any influence or consideration in Government and Civil matters. Period. “The first settlers in this country were emigrants from England, of the English church, just at a point of time when it was flushed with complete victory over the religious of all other persuasions. Possessed, as they became, of the powers of making, administering, and executing the laws, they shewed equal intolerance in this country with their Presbyterian brethren, who had emigrated to the northern government. The poor Quakers were flying from persecution in England. They cast their eyes on these new countries as asylums of civil and religious freedom; but they found them free only for the reigning sect. Several acts of the Virginia assembly of 1659, 1662, and 1693, had made it penal in parents to refuse to have their children baptized; had prohibited the unlawful assembling of Quakers; had made it penal for any master of a vessel to bring a Quaker into the state; had ordered those already here, and such as should come thereafter, to be imprisoned till they should abjure the country; provided a milder punishment for their first and second return, but death for their third….Reason and experiment have been indulged and error has fled before them. It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself. Subject opinion to coercion: whom will you make your inquisitors? Fallible men; governed by bad passions, by private as well as public reasons. And why subject it to coercion? To produce uniformity. But is uniformity of opinion desirable? No more than of face and stature. Introduce the bed of Procrustes then, and as there is danger that the large men may beat the small, make us all of a size, by lopping the former and streetching the latter. Difference of opinion is advantageous in religion. The several sects perform the office of a Censor morum over each other. Is uniformity attainable: Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned, yet we have not advanced on inch toward uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? to make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support rouery and error all over the earth….But every state, says an inquisitor, has established some religion. No two, say I, have established the same. Is this a proof of the infallibility of establishments?” Thomas Jefferson, Notes On The State of Virginia, Query XVII. Today Jefferson’s question may be answered since Corporations wed to relgioncrafters rule the ballot-box, Congress, Supremes and rob the People of their natural right to an equitable station in life safeguarded by the Constitution under Article III “Law&Equity.” ” ‘Equity’ regards as done that which ought to be done.” The GOP Rightwingers are not satisfied with mere “free exercise” of their Christian “faith”; they want to force-feed it to all other citizens, mostly school kids, of our multi-faith society. No sects of the other U.S. Abrahamic faith make such mockery of our Constitution. Yes, “theocracy was forbidden by the founding fathers.”

  •' JamesMMartin says:

    B_D777, what an excellent analysis of the history faux historians like David Barton are trying to revise, e.g. by portraying Jefferson as a thorough-going Christian, in their vain attempts to destroy the separation clause. And while it is fortunate that the religious right is a relatively small segment of the population, they have their house organs (Fox) and their political allies, who have sold out to the Koch Kabal. It’s as if they read Seneca and took him to heart — for all the wrong reasons. I am impressed by your grasp of history and application of what you’ve learned from it to current events. Thanks.

  •' Blast_Dorrough777 says:

    “I have a view of the subject which ought to displease neither the rational Christian nor Deists, and would reconcile many to a character they have too hastily rejected. I do not know that it would reconcile the genus irritabile vatum who are all in arms against me. Their hostility is on too interesting ground to be softened. The delusion into which the X.Y.Z. plot shewed it possible to push the people; the successful experiment made under the prevalence of that delusion on the clause of the constitution, which, while it secured the freedom of the press, covered also the freedom of religion, had given to the clergy a very favorite hope of obtaining an establishment of a particular form of Christianity thro’ the U.S.; and as every sect believes its own form the true one, everyone perhaps hoped for his own, but especially the Episcopalians & Congregationalists. The returning good sense of our country threatens abortion to their hopes, & they believe that any portion of power confided to me, will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly; for I have sworn upon the altar of god, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. But this is all they have to fear from me: and enough, too, in their opinion.” Thomas Jefferson Letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush, Sept. 23, 1800

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