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[politics|religion] The soft bigotry of church doctrine - Lakeshore
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Jay Lake
Date: 2012-08-01 05:57
Subject: [politics|religion] The soft bigotry of church doctrine
Security: Public
Tags:gay, politics, race, religion
One meme I've seen lately in political discussions both in the wider Internets and even here on my blog and in related discussion threads on my Facebook page is the notion that some conservatives opposed to gay marriage and equal rights have that they're not really bigots at all. They're just following church doctrine. They're nice people, they don't really have anything against their gay and lesbian friends. They're just being obedient to God's words. What Slacktivist Fred Clark calls "reluctant bigotry".

A corollary to these complaints is the bigot feeling unfairly treated for being called out on their bigotry. As R. Eric VanNewkirk says: if you don't want to be called a bigot, stop acting like one. I'm not about to hold back just because you say it's your religion. And nobody ought to.

The church doctrine defense is ridiculous on the face of it. Church doctrine is not immutable. It has in the past been profoundly immoral and bigoted. And it has changed. Whatever your opinion of God (and most readers here are probably all too familiar with my opinions on the topic), His word is demonstrably Protean, changing with the needs of each generation and culture. Otherwise, all His followers would look like Orthodox Jews and live like the Amish ETA: look and live like Samaritans. (Thanks to [info]fjm for the correction) If you eat shrimp or wear mixed fabrics or cut your hair or drive a motorized vehicle, you've already abandoned the literal and immutable Holy Writ in favor of the realities of modern life.

To put it somewhat more logically, if the precepts of the Bible were as immutable and unchanging as many modern American Christians claim to believe, there would only be one denomination of the Christian church, instead of tens of thousands.

We don't have to look very hard into American history to see where church doctrine has failed miserably. The most blatant and grotesque example is the biblical justifications for slavery. They are too numerous to bother to link to here, but were woven into the American national conversation from long before the founding of the Republic right through the Civil War. Doctrinal disputes over slavery are why the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, the Southern Baptist Convention, exists at all.

Were defenses of slavery through church doctrine morally acceptable, even at the time? Do they appear morally acceptable even to the most conservative of religious Americans today?

If you think so, then we don't have much to talk about now, because there's something deeply wrong with you.

If you think not, then why can anyone use church doctrine today as a defense for discrimination against gay and lesbian Americans? It's nothing more or less than the same bigotry that wrapped slavery in the Bible for centuries and more. Surely the Bible has verses condemning homosexuality. It also has verses condemning the eating of shrimp, and verses condoning many forms of slavery. We've proven time and again that the meaning of the Bible is reinterpreted to suit the tenor of the times. Someday fairly soon, we will look back on the current religious conservative position on homosexuality as every bit as wrong and immoral as the historical religious conservative position on slavery. Or interracial marriage. Or any number of other things church doctrine has been mistaken about over the years.

In other words, sometimes God is wrong. His word is reinterpreted in every generation, in every culture. Pretending now that church doctrine excuses the believer from doing the right thing is both disingenuous and dismissive of the history of belief.

To claim you oppose equal rights for gays and lesbians because it's God's will is a cop-out for your own moral decision making. There's certainly no compelling (or even trivial) social interest in this discrimination, and plentiful compelling social interest in righting these historic wrongs. Insofar as I can tell by observing who opposes full civil rights for my gay and lesbian friends with their words and their money, such opposition is rooted almost entirely in a religious conservative mindset. Come on, people, at least have the courage to own your bigotry instead of hiding behind the Bible.

And in truth, would you rather be on the right side of church doctrine, or on the right side of history? Especially when church doctrine will inevitably change with the times? Just as it has over and over again throughout history.

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W. Lotus
User: wlotus
Date: 2012-08-01 13:19 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I enjoy your intelligent discourse on this subject, especially since when I talk about these things I get far more emotional than I'd prefer.
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fjm
User: fjm
Date: 2012-08-01 13:45 (UTC)
Subject: When you need a pedant, I'll be there.
As both the Amish (17th century) and Orthodox Jews ( a visually varied group, I suspect you mean Hasids, in which case eighteenth century) are evangelical reform traditions, I don't think they are great choices here.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2012-08-01 13:47 (UTC)
Subject: Re: When you need a pedant, I'll be there.
Heh. Fair enough. We'd have to search pretty hard to find anyone living quite literally according to Biblical precepts I guess.
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fjm
User: fjm
Date: 2012-08-01 14:11 (UTC)
Subject: Re: When you need a pedant, I'll be there.
The Samaritans: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samaritans
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2012-08-01 14:38 (UTC)
Subject: Re: When you need a pedant, I'll be there.
Oooh!
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2012-08-01 14:43 (UTC)
Subject: Re: When you need a pedant, I'll be there.
And I have fixed the post accordingly, with a thank you shout out to you.
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nojay
User: nojay
Date: 2012-08-01 15:08 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
"And in truth, would you rather be on the right side of church doctrine, or on the right side of history?"

Galileo went with Church doctrine, in the end. Then again he had the example of Bruno to convince him that knuckling under was the wiser course. The current view of the Universal Catholic Church on Bruno's condemnation is that it was a "sad episode" and his Inquisitors only "had the desire to serve freedom and promote the common good".
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joycemocha: bleedingheart
User: joycemocha
Date: 2012-08-01 15:10 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:bleedingheart
Just because a person is a member of a church does not mean they abrogate the requirement to think. Unfortunately, too many people would prefer to march in lockstep with church leadership rather than think about church doctrine and exercise their own conscience. In those cases they're violating the spirit of belief and going against that very same doctrine they claim to uphold.

Then again, I'm a raging social justice liberal who believes that God calls us to help the sick, be just to the poor and struggling, and work cooperatively. Which means using the church to justify one's own bigotry goes against the intent of faith. In at least my particular corner of Christian belief, we're supposed to help make the world better for all participants, irregardless of income, sexual orientation, gender, and etc. Considering that Jesus ran around with what were considered the low-lifes of his era, using Christian belief to justify slavery and bigotry is an appalling distortion of his message.

Too many "Christians" are like the guy that DH and I sat by on our way back from Illinois this Sunday--sitting there reading the Bible without any particular rhyme or reason (that I could ascertain). He tried to set up a witnessing opportunity to the two of us but we pretty much shut him down by pulling out our New Yorker magazines, cuddling, and then me very visibly putting my Notre Dame de Montreal religious medal back on in full Catlick ceremony (kiss, crossing myself, then putting on) followed by ordering a Scotch (which I could tell rocked him back). DH later opined he was a minister, I told DH no, no minister would be packing as pristine a Bible (no notes in the book, no page flags, and definitely no particular order of reading) as that guy's Bible was. Faux-leather bound Bible, gold edge, clearly meant to be toted around and waved in people's faces. No dog-ears.

Anyone seriously into Bible study and preaching will have a beat up Bible that is underlined, notated (and may even have Greek/Hebrew notes), flagged and dog-eared. The pristine copy might be for public events such as funerals, weddings and such, but the working copy would be the one lugged around in situations such as a four hour plane flight for study. Nah, that guy was all about thumping his chest and showing off. And if he'd pushed, he'd have discovered he was in over his head.
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kvaadk
User: kvaadk
Date: 2012-08-01 15:40 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
A few years back my wife (the good looking one in the picture) bought me a Zondervan wide-margin Bible. Lots of room to write, lines spaced for easy underlining, and sixty blank pages for notes. It's a mess when you open it up, but from the outside it's leather w/gold leaf; looks much more ministerial than the one with the duct tape spine.
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joycemocha: bleedingheart
User: joycemocha
Date: 2012-08-01 16:39 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:bleedingheart
Nods. Exactly. Pristine Bible on the outside, but when it's open...trust me, this guy had it open and it was not a study Bible or even scribbled on, the lightweight paper pages as well.
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kvaadk
User: kvaadk
Date: 2012-08-01 15:21 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
What you're talking about is fundamentalism and legalism, not faith. People making statements like this do not represent all Christians any more than al Qaeda represents every Sunni, Sufi, and Shia. Christians believe God requires us to treat everyone with love - active, unselfish, forgiving, nonjudgmental, compassionate, supportive, accepting, unstinting love. The King James Bible uses the word charity to describe this sort of love. The one sin condemned more often than any other is judging others. This annoys people no end. They would rather have a set of rules, a scorecard, and label gun.

Most framers of the Constitution were Deists - they believed God set things in motion but other than that we are on our own. In his version of the Bible, Jefferson edited out Christianity, focusing on moral and ethical behavior towards others. He was ahead of his time scientifically in that he believed both Africans and Native Americans were as fully human as Europeans. The scientific certainty of the enslaved peoples' 'non-human' status was a cornerstone of America's uniquely race-based slavery.

My youngest turned 21 this month. It may shock you to learn that the rules she had to abide by and the ways in which I interacted with her sixteen years ago are substantially different than how we relate today. In the same way also, how God expects us to conduct ourselves and how he directs us has changed as we have changed. Where we were once as children who needed rules - rules that are horrific by today's standards, but on the lenient side of average for their time - we are now as adults who are expected to see clearly and act accordingly.

People and organizations who declare God hates folks who make them uncomfortable or claim a more exact interpretation of God's will or and cite laws that have been fulfilled and no longer obtain when they judge others are cutting-and-pasting God's word to suit - well, I was going to say their own fears, but that may only apply to the rank-and-file. It's my strong belief that among the leadership of these hate groups it's a calculated strategy to harness the fears (and hates and prejudices) of the uneducated to power their own agendas.

[Note: As you may or may not recall from my visits to the Oregon Coast, Jay, I am a lapsed atheist who became a minister. My theological philosophy is an amalgam of Lewis and Kierkegaard I call 'mere Christian existentialism'.]
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mcjulie
User: mcjulie
Date: 2012-08-01 15:51 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
This, so much this.

As a natural-born English Lit major who grew up in the evangelical church, I can tell you this with absolute confidence: nobody who attributes their doctrinal beliefs to "the Bible" read the text on their own, with an open mind, and came up with that stuff. It simply can't be done. Bits and pieces of meaning might seem obvious, but you absolutely cannot pull out the whole of any Christian doctrine simply by reading the text.

Take something like communion -- uncontroversial now, but a doctrinal sticking point once upon a time. The Passover scene is lovely and quite touching in many passion plays, but I can see absolutely nothing in the text to support the formalized Catholic sacrament. As far as I can tell, in a *plain text reading*, Jesus is telling people to break bread and drink wine with their friends in remembrance of him. Saying grace before a meal -- okay, you could get that out of the text. Transubstantiation? That came from somewhere, but it didn't come from a *plain text reading*.

So, (say the fundamentalists) that's true, the Catholics made stuff up, we're going back to the text. Except, no, they didn't. They still have communion as a formalized part of the service -- it's quite obvious that they just removed the mystical bits from the Catholic tradition, rather than going back to the text and rethinking the whole thing. In fact, many types of evangelical will try to claim that the wine wasn't really wine -- as in, it contained no or low alcohol. Way to be literal, guys!

Anyway, imagine all the arguments people have over the meaning of a major SF work, such as Lord of the Rings. The Bible is no plainer.

Upshot: there is no doctrine without tradition and there is no tradition without human authority. So when people blame God for their doctrine, what they really mean, is that some human authority told them God was a certain way, and they trust this human authority.

When I was still with the church, I eventually concluded that if the church and my own conscience were not in alignment, that I had to go with my conscience -- the thing that came straight from God, and not from fallible human authority. It can be hard to come to that place, though. If you were raised in the church, there's a lot of fear involved. All your life, you've been told that questioning this human authority could result in your eternal torment. You've been told that questioning this human authority is tantamount to questioning God himself. That's some powerful brainwashing, there.

So when I see bigoted behavior coming from evangelicals, I figure they fall into one of three categories:

1. Lost people afraid to trust their own consciences.

2. Deceived people who see the bigotry as something different than it is.

3. Evil people who revel in bigotry and delight in using church doctrine as a cover for their evil.

Categories 1 and 2 can still be saved, anyway.
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Amanda
User: cissa
Date: 2012-08-01 23:33 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
It's also relevant that culturally breaking bread and/or sharing wine imposed obligations on both hosts and guests.

I don't know that I've ever seen communion considered in that context.
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mcjulie
User: mcjulie
Date: 2012-08-02 14:24 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Yeah -- breaking bread together was already considered a sacred act.
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ambartil
User: ambartil
Date: 2012-08-01 17:04 (UTC)
Subject: Shrimp, etc.
I, too, am being pedantic -- probably quibbling, in fact. I pretty much agree with all your main points, just to be clear.

However: Christians are specifically not bound by Jewish dietary laws. The applicability of other Old Testament rules has been debated from the earliest beginnings of the religion right up to the present, and it's really annoying the way current fundamentalists cherry-pick the verses they like and ignore the rest, but Christians are allowed to "eat anything that seems wholesome to them" or words very much to that effect. It's from a vision Paul had, recorded in one of the early letters (If I turn up chapter & verse in the next hour or so, I'll insert it).

I should note that I haven't considered myself Christian for nearly 27 years, so this is of purely academic interest to me.


Edited at 2012-08-01 05:15 pm (UTC)
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2012-08-01 19:56 (UTC)
Subject: Re: Shrimp, etc.
The applicability of other Old Testament rules has been debated from the earliest beginnings of the religion

Which I completely understand. I'm familiar with Saul's vision. But this only further proves my point, that the Bible as the word of God is mutable and subject to change. One of the many intellectual and philosophical inconsistencies of Biblical inerrancies.
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User: (Anonymous)
Date: 2012-08-01 20:42 (UTC)
Subject: Re: Shrimp, etc.
In regards to the discussion regarding Leviticus, the old Testament prophets spoke of a new covenant and that's what came to be with Jesus' life, death and resurrection. As Christ followers, we are under the new covenant, and not the Mosaic law referred to in Leviticus. Romans 10:4 For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2012-08-01 21:20 (UTC)
Subject: Re: Shrimp, etc.
Then why are so many modern American Christians so obsessed with Leviticus 18:22 being the inviolable word and law of God, when they seem to have a dispensation to disregard rest of the book? What, besides sheer bigotry, makes that verse special out of all the ones around it?
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User: (Anonymous)
Date: 2012-08-01 21:51 (UTC)
Subject: Re: Shrimp, etc.
Probably because it's more work to have a nuanced discussion than to point to Leviticus 18:22.
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russ: quo vadis
User: goulo
Date: 2012-08-02 07:44 (UTC)
Subject: Re: Shrimp, etc.
Keyword:quo vadis
While that is true (that it's more work to have a nuanced discussion than to point to Leviticus 18:22), I don't think it answers the question why they make an exception out of that particular verse.

After all, it's also more work to have a nuanced discussion than to point to every other verse, yet more modern American Christians seem willing to have a "nuanced discussion" about why they don't need to follow the rule against eating shrimp, for example, than the rule against gay people.

So the answer seems obviously to be simply anti-gay attitudes looking for a biblical justification.
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mcjulie
User: mcjulie
Date: 2012-08-02 14:38 (UTC)
Subject: Re: Shrimp, etc.
I think it's simple: cultural context. Most modern American Christians, especially the older ones, grew up in a culture where being gay was a taboo -- seen as "disgusting" or "shameful" without that view necessarily being tied to any particular religion.

So, a line like line "man shall not lie with man! Abomination!" only registers in the first place because it resonates with already-absorbed cultural messages. Whereas verses about the evils of shellfish go right over their heads without registering.

Just more evidence that they're not really getting their ideas out of the text.
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Jay Lake: religion-belief_rev2
User: jaylake
Date: 2012-08-02 14:54 (UTC)
Subject: Re: Shrimp, etc.
Keyword:religion-belief_rev2
In other words, confirmation bias and validation of their bigotry. I guess I was looking for an honest theological justification for the pick-and-choose approach to Leviticus, given what the New Covenant did to overturn traditional Jewish law among Christians. I don't ever expect to find one, mind you.
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mcjulie
User: mcjulie
Date: 2012-08-02 16:03 (UTC)
Subject: Re: Shrimp, etc.
Confirmation bias, yes. But one thing to keep in mind is that the individual congregants probably didn't zero in on that verse on their own account. They weren't reading Leviticus front to back when that particular verse jumped out at them.

(If you do read Leviticus front to back, the many, many prohibitions against sleeping with close relatives and livestock seem much more significant and kind of hilarious. It comes out in so many highly specific permutations: don't sleep with your sister, don't sleep with the sheep, don't sleep with your sister's sheep, don't sleep with your mother, don't sleep with your mother's sheep, don't sleep with your mother's sister...)

They probably had that verse pointed out in a sermon, or, more likely, in a Sunday-school class, by a peer, by a book or a pamphlet or a newsletter, by a blog post or forwarded email or Chick tract, by direct mail from a right wing politician or action group, by a TV/radio preacher, or by a guest preacher at a rally or "crusade."

There's a whole evangelical subculture which is a little sideways from actual theology and doctrine. People pick up these memes without being able to say where or how they came by them. So if you ask, "where did you get that?" they'll say "it's in the Bible!" but that's a stock answer, it doesn't mean that's actually where they got it.

I was looking for an honest theological justification for the pick-and-choose approach

If you talk to somebody who's nerdy enough on the topic -- that is, somebody armed with all the talking points and references -- you might find a theological justification. But it won't be an honest one, any more than creationist "evidence" is honest science.
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