November 28, 2004

Take Christianity Back from the Right

To reclaim language, to take back its meaning from those who would distort it, is to reclaim power. Reclaim Christianity now.

I am a Christian, too
It's time to take religion back from the haters, killers and temple money-changers


There's a bit of schoolin' that God-fearing folks in Cobb County and the rest of the nation should pay heed to as they cheer the creationist team in a federal lawsuit heard last week.

The legal spat, over a warning plastered in Cobb schools' biology texts that evolution is merely a "theory" and not a "fact," has the world press in a tizzy now that evangelicals are perceived as political 900-pound gorillas (probably not a great metaphor when talking about evolution).

Thank God (so to speak) for Cobb County, always good for when scribes need a bit of bizarre to substitute for news.

Still, there is a "gol darn, I didn't know that!" lesson hidden in the Cobb evolution brouhaha, one that should be important to every Christian. It's a gem from the earlier "monkey" trial, the 1925 drama that starred teacher John Scopes, who challenged Tennessee's anti-evolution statute. The advocate for the religious side was William Jennings Bryan, one of the great men of principle in American history.

But, oh, heavens, Bryan was a died-in-the-wool liberal. He generally was described as a "populist," but in the parlance of the late 19th century, that meant liberal. Bryan volunteered in the Spanish-American War; that experience turned him into a fervent pacifist bitterly opposed to the nascent American imperialism. As Woodrow Wilson's secretary of state, he jawboned the 30 leading world powers to agree to a one-year cooling-off period before going to war -- no pre-emptive slaughter for Bryan.

Dubbed "the Great Commoner," he castigated the capitalists as enemies of common folk. Among his most ardent allies in a 1896 presidential bid was American socialist leader Eugene V. Debs.

In short, Bryan was a man who would have earned the scorn of Karl Rove, Rush Limbaugh and Trent Lott. If he was reincarnated and ran today for a U.S. Senate seat in Georgia, Saxby Chambliss would air commercials putting Bryan's mug alongside Saddam's and Osama's -- just as he did to Max Cleland.

But hold on a minute. Bryan also was a fundamentalist Christian. At the Scopes trial, he thundered, "I believe everything in the Bible should be accepted as it is given there." He was born again, he was an evangelical.

The nation, especially the South, bestowed great reverence on Bryan, who died a few months after the Scopes trial. Country and western balladeer Andrew Jenkins, a Georgia boy, sang these words in tribute: "Oh, who will go and end this fight, oh, who will be the man?/To face the learned and mighty foe, and for the Bible stand?"

Let's wind forward 79 years. Bob Jones III is president of the racist Bob Jones University in Greenville, a favorite haunt of George Bush. Jones, a storm trooper of the religious reich-wing vanguard that claims ownership of Bush, sternly admonished the president after the election, "You owe the liberals nothing. They despise you because they despise your Christ." Ah, I get it. Bush & Co. own Christ.

The letter also underscores the message hammered home so successfully by the GOP during the recent campaign: Liberals despise Christ.That's a lie.

The example of William Jennings Bryan -- and millions of others -- makes clear that ultra-conservatives don't have an exclusive claim on Christ. It's time for Christians to start giving witness to that fact.

I've warmed you up with a little literary napalm. But what I'm going to write next isn't easy. It's the sort of thing journalists aren't comfortable acknowledging. Here it goes ...

I testify that I am a Christian. I have been ever since I came forward at a Billy Graham revival when I was 8 years old. I later fell from grace and had a lot of dark years I'll have to account for on Judgment Day. My life did not turn around until, 14 years ago, I got down on my knees and prayed. That's something I do every day now. I prefer small churches to the show palaces; Christ said to pray in private. I've felt called to be a minister, but figure I'd get to do less preaching than with this gig.

I don't pay heed to the false prophets such as Pat Robertson and Tim LaHaye of the Left Behind books because Christ said to beware of charlatans claiming to know when He is coming again.

The "rapture" isn't in the Bible, so it's not in my theology. I find it hard to conceive of Jesus returning to save a few smug Pharisees such as Jerry Falwell while brutally slaying billions of my brothers and sisters. The heaven I believe in has ample room for all men and women of all faiths who seek God and try to live good lives.

In the Book of Matthew, Jesus said, "Not everyone who saith 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father ... ." He told us his Father's will was to be meek; to be peacemakers; to take care of the weak, the poor, the afflicted; to sheathe the sword.

I believe there is truth in every word of the Bible, but as Bryan said during the Scopes trial, "Some of the Bible is given illustratively." I also believe there is truth in other faiths' scriptures, and I study them, too.

All Americans are invested in the debate over "values." It's time for Christians to take back our religion from people who have commandeered it simply to squeeze political advantage.

I believe the Ten Commandments have more impact if they are carved on our hearts than if they are hung in government buildings. I believe our leaders have broken one of those commandments by bearing false witness in concocting lies out of whole cloth that led us into war. I believe that "elective" war is another word for murder, and war to grab other peoples' oil is coveting and theft -- more broken commandments.


Thanks to Craig for the pointer.