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Monday, September 25, 2006

Religion Gone Bad

I don't usually read a lot of books by Christian evangelicals, but I just happened to finish one such book by Mel White, actually, the Rev. Dr. Mel White's book Religion Gone Bad: The Hidden Dangers of the Christian Right. Now, if you generally think of Christian evangelicals as conservative fundamentalists (as I know I do), then you are in for a bit of a shock because Mel White is about as progressive and liberal as they come. He wasn't always so enlightened. He spent the majority of his life denying his homosexuality and using every Christian trick in the book to overcome it ("prayer, psychotherapy, exorcism, electric shock, marriage and family"). And he had access to the major players in the growing fundamentalist movement as he was a ghost writer for such evangelists as Billy Graham (who White actually does not consider a true Christian right fundamentalist because Graham apparently never spoke negatively about homosexuality, he just avoided the issue altogether), Pat Robertson, Jim Bakker and Jerry Falwell.

But in the early 90s, White finally accepted his homosexuality as "a gift from God" and came out in a sermon where he announced publicly for the first time "I am gay. I am proud. And God loves me without reservation." And since that time, along with his partner, he has run the GLBT activist group Soulforce ("soul force" is the term Gandhi used to describe his nonviolent liberation movement, I'll have more to say about Gandhi later), whose mission statement reads "The purpose of Soulforce is freedom for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people from religious and political oppression through the practice of relentless nonviolent resistance." And White is at the front lines of this battle. In 2003, he and his partner moved to a four-room cottage across the street from Falwell's church in Lynchburg, Virginia in order

"to be an eyewitness on the front lines of the war Jerry and his fundamentalist Christian friends are waging not just against gay and lesbian Americans but against women's rights, against the rights of Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, agnostic, and atheist Americans, against national and internation measures that would preserve and protect the environment, against sex education that includes safe-sex information, against stem-cell research, against affirmative action, against entitlement programs even if designed to help the poor, the homeless, and the retired".

He has been arrested several times while protesting outside the offices of Falwell and Robertson and also on the White House steps during a hunger protest over the "Defense of Marriage Act". Yes sir, Mel White is a true progressive liberal who puts his money (and body) where his mouth is and he now considers people who were once his role-models and friends to be his enemies (in fact, part one of his book is titled "My Friends, The Enemy"). And he does not hold back on his distaste for the fundamentalist religious right and their war on the GLBT community. He uses Laurence Britt's 14 Characteristics of Fascism to demonstrate how the Christian right is quickly becoming a fascist movement. He uses the post-WWII study The Authoritarian Personality to demonstrate how Falwell (and others as well) appeal to people who are susceptible to authoritarianism. And he compares the language used by fundamentalists to the Nazi propaganda film The Eternal Jew to demonstrate how the Christian right is attempting to demonize the GLBT community.

As a Secular Humanist (that's the best term I have found for my philosophy on life), I have a feeling that Mel White and I would agree on 99% of the important social and political issues facing us today. In his chapter on "Reclaiming Our Progressive Political Values", his big three values are:

We value the US Constitution as the bedrock of our democracy: therefore we will resist all efforts to put the Bible in its place.

We value our religious freedom: therefore we will resist all efforts to make this a "Christian nation".

We value the separation of church and state: therefore we will resist all efforts to bring down the "wall of separation".

This is definitely one Christian who understands the importance of the first amendment and that the "wall of separation" is something that all religious people should support because it ultimately protects everyone's right to religious freedom.

But of course, the one thing we don't see eye to eye on is God, which in itself is really no big deal because the arguments in support of equal rights for the GLBT community are not religious in nature. And the first half of the book (the "enemies" list and the history of the fundamentalist movement) has very little proselytizing at all. The second half of the book however is much heavier on God's role in the GLBT movement, which I guess is to be expected from a book written by an evangelical Christian. In fact, the God-talk was so heavy at one point, I remember asking myself if I thought I was going to make it to the end of the book. White does attempt to make us non-believers feel welcome in his Soulforce movement (and I have no doubt that we would be), but the second half of his book is clearly targetted to Christians (which is not necessarily a bad thing, since Christians do have a responsibility to rid their religion of bigotry). Unfortunately, White's evangelical Christian heritage shows itself just a little too much as he plays the Christian card of moral superiority while discussing Gandhi's influence on his own moral values:

There are many reasons that Gandhi saw faith in God as necessary and not just for the person involved in a nonviolent liberation movement. Gandhi saw faith as a powerful and positive force in our daily lives. His personal faith was hammered out of blood and tears when his nation was on fire, the arsonists were Anglican Christians, and faith in any God was rapidly giving way to faith in the weapons of violence and destruction. His call to "Reclaim faith" then seems appropriate for our call to reclaim faith today.
"We have become atheists for all practical purposes," Gandhi laments, "and therefore we believe that in the long run we must rely upon physical force for our protection".
"Without faith in God," Gandhi says, "man can have faith neither in himself nor in others.... The finite cannot be understood unless we know it is rooted in the Infinite."
Without faith in God, a personal value becomes "a lifeless thing and exists only while it is a paying proposition. So are all morals," he says. "If they are to live in us they must be considered and cultivated in their relation to God. We try to become good [keep our moral values] because we want to reach and realize God."
Without faith in God, our values are "likely to break down at the critical moment."
"God is a living Force," says Gandhi, "and our life is of that force. That Force resides in us, but is not the body. He who denies the existence of that great Force, denies to himself the use of that inexhaustible Power and thus remains impotent...like a rudderless ship which tossed about here and there perishes without making any headway."
Without faith in God "we won't have the courage to die without anger, without fear and without retaliation. Such courage comes from the belief that God sits in the hearts of all and that there should be no fear in the presence of God.".

I have great respect for Gandhi and what he did with his life, but unless I'm interpreting the above quotes incorrectly, according to Gandhi (and thus Mel White) non-believers not only are not as "good" as believers but can never be as "good" as believers. It is hard not to be offended by such rhetoric.

I have no doubt that I would like Mel White if I ever had the chance to meet him and that we could possibly become great friends over time. But apparently only if we never discussed religion. I'm sure there are other books out there that discuss the threat of the Christian right just as well as this book (such as Kingdom Coming, which I am currently third in line on the request list at my local library) but without the religious bias. But I'm glad that I read this book for several reasons. Mel White is a good writer and he has some very interesting stories about certain fundamentalists (such as a hidden homosexual relationship at a young age) since he had access to these people and their personal writings and such. He is an inspirational leader in the fight for equality for the GLBT community and you can't help but route for him as he relates his life story and work toward this goal (the story of how his father overcame the advice of church elders and openly supported White in a gay pride parade is very touching). His disgust for the Christian right rivals any non-believer and at times you may even forget that he goes by Reverend. And it is refreshing to read a progressive and liberal Christian viewpoint. Let's face it, religion ain't going anywhere anytime soon, so it is comforting to know that there are progressive Christian leaders out there (since they don't seem to get as much exposure in the media as the Christian right).

But at the same time, I am also reminded of the inherent prejudice built into religion, even for a very liberal Christian. And this is one reason why I will probably never be convinced that religion has a predominantly positive effect on society. Even when religion is used for very noble purposes, it still acts to divide people based on the "truth" of its claims. And as history has shown, when you believe you have the truth, you want people to know it, whether they want to or not.


Blogger vjack said...

Excellent review. I may have to check this one out if I think I can stomach the religiosity of it. when reading books like this, I always find myself thinking that it would simplify things so much and make for more effective arguments if they would just drop the religion.

Fri Sep 29, 12:49:00 PM 2006  
Anonymous Emanuel Goldstein said...

Of course, the denial of God and the adoption of atheism as the official position of various governments has not helped either.

Not too good a track record then, I think.

Fri Oct 20, 04:17:00 AM 2006  

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