There is really nothing unique or new about the apparent belief of Evangelical Christians that they have a monopoly on morality. In the time of Jesus, the Pharisees, who were the religious fundamentalists of that time, thought that they had the market cornered on righteousness, and they frequently took issue with the teachings of Jesus whose liberal views often conflicted with the rigid doctrines of the Pharisees. When they saw the disciples of Jesus plucking grain on the Sabbath as they were walking through a field, a group of Pharisees challenged Jesus to explain why his disciples were violating the Sabbath (Matt. 12:1-2). On another occasion, some Pharisees demanded that Jesus explain to them why his disciples ate their meals without first washing their hands (Matt. 15:1-2). When Pharisees saw Jesus sitting and eating with publicans and sinners, they demanded that he explain his association with such people (Mark 2:15-16). When Pharisees caught a woman in a flagrant act of adultery, they brought her to Jesus to see if he would defend the strict provision in the law of Moses that required death by stoning for this offense (John 8:1-5). Jesus, a notable liberal of his time, who considered mercy and forgiveness to be more important than strict observance of religious rituals and ordinances (Matt. 12:7), always met these challenges with answers that exposed the hypocrisy of his Pharisaical accusers. For example, he said to the group that had brought the adulterous woman to him that those who were without sin should throw the first stone at her. He pointed out to those who were concerned about the disciples' eating without washing their hands that the accusers were hypocritically violating more important moral principles by refusing to provide for their needy parents on the grounds that the money that they had "given to God" didn't leave them with enough to care for their parents (Matt. 15:3-6). In other words, Jesus consistently pointed out to the moral elitists of his time that their morality wasn't nearly as rock solid as they apparently believed that it was.
At no time in human history has moral elitism been as dangerous as it is today. Muslim fundamentalists see western society and especially the United States as "the Great Satan," and they are so convinced that their moral system is the "right" one that they are willing to sacrifice themselves in suicide attacks in order to kill and terrorize those whom they think are agents of "the Great Satan." Radicals in other religions also engage in terrorism. Both Hindu and Sikh extremists in Indian engage in terrorist activities like bombings, suicide attacks, and hijacking and bombing of airplanes to try to force the majority to acquiesce to their conceptions of "God" and morality. In the United States, there are, of course, Muslim terrorist cells operating, but we are not without our own homegrown religious terrorists, such as white supremacist and Christian Identity groups, many of whom think that caucasians of Anglo-Saxon, Germanic, and Scandanavian origin are descendants of the lost tribes of Israel and are therefore the chosen people of God today. Although not as fanatically radical--at least not yet--as Muslim Jihadist groups, whose acts of terrorism are constantly in the news, our domestically grown radicals have at times dominated the news. The bombing of the Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City and the shoot-out at Ruby Ridge with the "Christian" Patriots in Randy Weaver's clan come immediately to mind. Anti-abortionists specialize in psychological terrorism but will sometimes engage in violence, as in the cases of Eric Rudolph's bombing of Centennial Park in Atlanta during the 1996 Olympics, his subsequent bombings of an abortion clinic and a lesbian bar six months later, and the assassinations of abortion providers and staff members by Michael Griffin, Paul Hill, John Salvi III, James Kopp, et al. Although these domestic terrorists had different goals, they shared a common characteristic: in complete disregard of what their religions teach about respecting human life, they were willing to kill those whom they saw as opponents of their religious and quasi-political views. In other words, they were driven by a belief that they were right and others wrong. Like their foreign counterparts, our domestic terrorists think that they have a monopoly on morality, and their morality is perverted enough to motivate them to kill in order to impose their "morality" on others. The fact that the Bible, which is presumably the foundation of their moral system, legislates against violence and killing doesn't seem to register with them.
As dangerous as these groups are, a more imminent danger to the freedom and liberty that our country presumably stands for comes not from overt extremists like Muslim terrorists and the homegrown groups mentioned above but from Evangelical Christians, who seem determined to impose by legislative means their perceptions of morality on the rest of the country. They pursue this goal to the detriment of some very basic Christian principles, which I will discuss below, but this is a curious thing about religious extremist groups. They will legalistically emphasize dogmatic rituals and customs in flagrant disregard of fundamental principles of goodness, love, and kindness on which their religions were founded. Islamic radicals,for example, recruit and train suicide bombers even though their holy book, the Qur'an, condemns killing oneself (Sura 4:29). Sikhism was founded on a belief in the equality of mankind and a belief in "magnanimity, altruism, compassion, fortitude and rectitude in a man to enable him to be the guardian of the divine creation," yet Sikh radicals have engaged in terrorism, such as the bombing of an Air India plane over the Atlantic in June 1985. Jesus preached blessings upon the meek, righteous, merciful, pure in heart, and peacemakers (Matt. 5:3-9) and taught his followers that they should love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them (Matt. 5:43), yet in the name of Jesus some of his radical followers today assassinate staff members and bomb abortion clinics. All terrorist acts like these are impossible to reconcile with the fundamental principles on which these religions were founded.
Our interest, of course, is in the principles of Christianity that evangelicals disregarded in order to support a presidential candidate who had given lip service to "moral values" that they considered important enough to justify their betrayal of "weightier matters" of their religion. Throughout the rest of this article, I will be borrowing this term, which Jesus used in condemnation of the Pharisees of his time, who legalistically emphasized relative minor precepts of their religion over those that Jesus said were "weightier matters of the law."
Matthew 23:23 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!
Any reasonable person who knows what the New Testament teaches about the obligations of Christians has no difficulty recognizing that fundamentalist evangelicals flagrantly disregarded the weightier matters of Christianity in order to vote for a candidate who they thought would accommodate their beliefs about less important matters like abortion, same-sex marriages, and prayers in school. These evangelicals will no doubt be horrified to hear me refer to these beliefs as "less important matters," but Jesus himself said in the passage quoted above that justice, mercy, and faith were "weightier matters of the law" than strict observance of the command to tithe, which the Pharisees were so legalistically observing that they included in their tithes even herbs like mint, dill, and cummin. I intend to show that the emphasis that evangelicals are placing on matters like abortion, same-sex marriages, and public prayers and displays of Christian symbols amounts to a pharasaical tithing of mint, dill, and cummin to the neglect of far weightier matters of Christianity.
We have already noticed above some passages where Jesus emphasized love, mercy, kindness, and such like over strict observance of ceremonial laws and customs, but we will be seeing similar texts as we go along. Doing good to one's neighbors and enemies and helping the poor are foundation principles of the religion that Jesus established, but before we look at these, let's first notice that no Christian who sincerely practices his religion can consider "the less important matters" mentioned above equal to such principles as love, mercy, justice, kindness, etc.
Abortion: I have already shown in "Abortion and the God of the Bible" and Does a Person Exist at the Moment of Conception?" that the "pro-birth" view that abortion at any stage of pregnancy constitutes the murder of a "person" and violates God's law has no scientific or biblical basis in fact, so I will refer readers to those articles if they are interested in examining the morality issues involved in the abortion controversy so that I can concentrate here on showing that sometimes Evangelicals will obsessively oppose abortion to the neglect of a weightier principle that requires Christians to care for the poor. Jesus put a great deal of emphasis on this principle. When a young man came to Jesus and asked what he needed to do to "have eternal life," Jesus told him to keep the commandments not to kill or commit adultery or steal or bear false witness and to honor his father and mother and to love his neighbor as himself. When the young man said that he had observed all of these things, Jesus then told him to sell all that he had and give it to the poor (Matt. 19:21). The writer of James said that the religion that was "pure and undefiled" was to "visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unspotted from the world" (James 1:27). Surely no one can read passages like these and deny that caring for the poor is a primary obligation of Christians.
I will say more later about obligations that the New Testament imposes on Christians to care for the poor, but first I must explain what this obligation has to do with the issue of abortion. I would never simplistically claim that there is only one reason why women obtain abortions, but surely even those in the pro-birth movement would agree that economics is at least one factor in this social problem. At least some women seek abortions for fear that they will not be economically able to care for more children. The federal poverty level for a family of four is $18,400, and 12 million children in the United States live in families whose incomes fall below this level. If we assume that the pro-birth movement has dissuaded at least some women in low-income families who were considering abortion as an option--and surely this is a safe assumption--there are at least some children now living in poverty because of pro-birth proponents. These children, then, are here now because of those who advocate the pro-birth view, but what are these advocates doing to see that these children whose births they are at least partly responsible for receive their basic needs? I certainly know that fundamentalist groups engage in charitable works, but if they were doing as much as the New Testament quotations cited above impose on them, there surely wouldn't be 12 million children living in poverty in a country that boasts of being a "Christian nation."
In "Does a Person Exist at the Moment of Conception?" I explained that I prefer the term pro-birth over pro-life, because the main concern of this movement seems to be the prevention of abortion in order to guarantee eventual birth, but after the birth has occurred, this group doesn't seem to care nearly as much about the quality of life that the child will have as they did about sparing no effort to guarantee his/her birth. This is indicated by their support of a political party that favors their pro-birth position but opposes programs that would reduce poverty and provide reasonable health care for low-income families. This paradox was pointed out in an article by Dr. Glen Harold Stassen, a Christian ethicist at Fuller Theological Seminary, who completed a study of abortion and found some disturbing trends. When George W. Bush took office in 2001, abortion rates had reached a 24-year low after a 17.1% decline in the 1990s. Stassen had expected to find a continuing decline in the abortion rate during Bush's administration but found instead that the rates had increased except in five states. His study discovered that there had been an overall increase of 52,000 abortions in the United states during 2002. He cited three reasons for this increase.
First, two thirds of women who abort say they cannot afford a child (Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life Web site). In the past three years, unemployment rates increased half again. Not since Hoover had there been a net loss of jobs during a presidency until the current administration. Average real incomes decreased, and for seven years the minimum wage has not been raised to match inflation. With less income, many prospective mothers fear another mouth to feed.
Second, half of all women who abort say they do not have a reliable mate (Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life). Men who are jobless usually do not marry. Only three of the 16 states had more marriages in 2002 than in 2001, and in those states abortion rates decreased. In the 16 states overall, there were 16,392 fewer marriages than the year before, and 7,869 more abortions. As male unemployment increases, marriages fall and abortion rises.
Third, women worry about health care for themselves and their children. Since 5.2 million more people have no health insurance now than before this presidency--with women of childbearing age overrepresented in those 5.2 million--abortion increases.
Abortion cannot be separated from economics, yet there were many Evangelicals during the 2004 election who voted for George Bush because of his anti-abortion position but gave no consideration at all to his economic policies, which offered little hope of economic or health-care improvements for the social classes responsible for the increases in abortion. This is an inconsistency that is hard to reconcile with New Testament teachings about the Christian's obligation to provide for the poor.
In concluding his article, Dr. Stassen also pointed out inconsistencies in the beliefs of Evangelicals who think that their pro-birth position imposes on them no further obligations toward children who may be born in poor families because of organized evangelical opposition to abortion.
What does this tell us? Economic policy and abortion are not separate issues; they form one moral imperative. Rhetoric is hollow, mere tinkling brass, without health care, health insurance, jobs, child care, and a living wage. Pro-life in deed, not merely in word, means we need policies that provide jobs and health insurance and support for prospective mothers.
When Evangelicals voted for a candidate who had presided over the largest job loss since the administration of Herbert Hoover, who offered practically nothing to those who have no health-care insurance, who opposed increasing the minimum wage, and who offered nothing by way of child-care programs for working mothers, did they really think that they were taking a "pro-life" stance just because their candidate had publicly stated an opposition to abortion? Dr. Stassen's study says that they weren't. His study indicates that they were actually voting for an increase in the abortion rate. This is why I use pro-birth in reference to them instead of pro-life, because facts indicate that their only real interest is in the birth of children and not in the quality of life that many of them will lead after being born.
Same-sex marriages: I am going to surprise at least some readers here and agree that the Bible condemns homosexuality, but so what? The Bible says a lot of things that Christians ignore. I just showed, for example, that the New Testament imposes on Christians a standard of concern for the poor that few professing Christians respect. The Bible also condoned slavery (Ex. 21:2-11), and it ordered the killing of disobedient children (Deut. 21:18-21). The fact that the states that formed the old southern confederacy seem to vote consistently against their best interests gives cause to suspect that at least some citizens of these states are still carrying grudges from the Civil-War period, but I doubt that anything close to a majority of them would favor legalizing slavery again, yet they often cite a book that permitted slavery as the reason for their attitudes about homosexuality and same-sex marriages. The Bible condemned homosexuality, and so they condemn it too. The Bible, however, commanded that homosexuals be killed.
Leviticus 20:13 If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.
Regrettably, there are some "Christians" in our society, especially those affiliated with the Christian Reconstruction movement, who would like to see this commandment and all other Old Testament laws that commanded death for those who committed adultery, cursed, disobeyed their parents, worshiped gods other than Yahweh, and so on, become a part of our civil laws, but fortunately only a minority of Evangelical Christians, at least for now, are this radical. However, many Evangelicals who aren't yet as extreme in their beliefs as the reconstructionists do favor discrimination against homosexuals. George W. Bush, who said in the 2000 campaign that he thought that same-sex marriage was an issue that states should decide, did a "flip flop" four years later and demagogically stirred up fundamentalist passions by proposing an amendment to the constitution that would "define" marriage as a union between a male and a female. This issue, which until that time was sometimes talked about but rarely acted upon, was quickly put onto the ballots of 30 some states for the apparent purpose of bringing Evangelicals to the polls in sufficient numbers to ensure the election of a "president" who had managed in his first four years in office to run up record deficits and job losses, start an unprovoked war that had killed over 1100 American soldiers and 100,000 Iraqis, alienate our allies, and destroy our reputation abroad. For some reason, Evangelicals apparently thought that it was more important to vote for a candidate who favored discrimination of some of our citizens than to vote against his otherwise abominable record.
The rush of Evangelicals to take a stand against same-sex marriages brings us back to the problem of hypocrisy in American Christianity, which is appallingly selective in its observance of biblical principles. Evangelicals went to the polls in apparent droves to express their objection to same-sex marriage. Their rationale, which George Bush expressed in first making his proposal to amend the constitution, was that such marriages threatened the institution of marriage. They piously present this defense of their position, but they completely ignore a much greater threat to marriage, which Jesus himself very clearly opposed.
Mark 10:11-12 Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.
I would venture to say that almost all churchgoers reading this will rub shoulders each Sunday with far more divorced people than homosexuals, yet they do not press their religious or political leaders to ban divorce, even though the Bible is very clear in stating that those who commit adultery cannot enter heaven.
Galatians 5:19 Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkennes, revelries, and the like, of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
This passage is just as clear as the ones that condemned homosexuality but goes a step further and flatly says that those who practice adultery will not inherit "the kingdom of God," yet Evangelicals will welcome into their midsts thousands and thousands of divorced members without any objections at all to their lifestyle, but will flock to the polls by the millions to vote for a candidate who had expressed opposition to same-sex marriages. I call this "smorgasbord Christianity," because those who practice it will selectively choose to heed some biblical commands while flagrantly ignoring others. They seem not to know that the New Testament strongly condemns that kind of selectivity.
James 2:8 If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," you do well; but if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. For He who said, "Do not commit adultery," also said, "Do not murder." Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty. For judment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumps over judgment.
Could we not apply this New Testament command to mean that those who condemn homosexuality but do not condemn adultery have become transgressors of their God's law? If not, why not? I hope readers will keep this question in mind while I consider the rationale of Evangelicals who oppose same-sex marriages.
Same-sex marriages will undermine family values, George Bush warned, but this brings us back to the point just made. What could be more destructive to the family than the many divorces that break families apart? A typical divorce will involve children, so when the divorce occurs, the families involved are torn apart. Since divorce so obviously harms families with children and since the prohibition of divorce presumably came from the very mouth of Jesus, why aren't religious leaders and Bush supporters speaking out about this danger to the family? Well, the answer to that is obvious. Divorce has become so commonplace in our society that churches would suffer substantial losses in memberships and take huge hits in their collection plates if church leaders should begin to ban divorce in their memberships. If Bush had seriously proposed a constitutional amendment to ban divorce, he would probably have lost the election in a landslide. Hence, the same Evangelicals who are so upset about same-sex marriages are flagrantly ignoring a threat to the family that Jesus clearly prohibited. Wouldn't the passage just quoted above from the book of James apply here? If not, why not?
This problem is much more complex than the fear of
declining contributions and membersips.
Many Evangelical Christians can't demand a religious and political ban
on divorce, because too
many of them have divorced in flagrant violation of the explicit
command of Jesus quoted above.
Even some of their preachers and ministers have divorced and remarried.
There are, in fact,
divorce in the United States. In the 2004 election, Evangelicals, who
are mainly centered in
Southeastern states, praised themselves for their "values," while
condeming the lack of values
in the "liberal" northeastern states. A judicial approval of same-sex
Massachusetts was probably their primary concern at that time, yet the
annual divorce rates
in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York were less than 3.0% in
1998, whereas they were more
than double that in Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama, and Oklahoma. Of the
North Carolina's 3.8% was the only one that was below the national
average of 4.2%. An
embarrassment for Evangelicals is that the annual divorce rates in
these southern states are
not just higher than the "liberal" regions of the North but that
Evangelicals in the so-called Bible-belt states paradoxically flaunt their "moral values" while doing little or nothing about divorce, which poses a far greater threat to the institution of marriage than same-sex unions. The Netherlands, for example, legalized same-sex marriages in 2001, yet only 3% of marriages since then have been between the same sexes. Why do evangelicals think that the legalization of same-sex marriages in the United States would bring about a higher percentage of such unions? There is no indication that it would, yet Evangelicals, who rave against same-sex unions, seem to shut their eyes to the danger that divorce poses to marriages in their states. If only three percent of marriages occur annually between individuals of the same sex but six to eight percent of heterosexual marriages end annually in divorce, just which poses a bigger threat to the institution of marriage, homosexuality or divorce?
Leaders of Southern Evangelical churches try to deny that "born-again Christians" are more likely to divorce than other belief groups. On the November 28, 2004, edition of Meet the Press, Tim Russert pointed out to Jerry Falwell that the state with the lowest divorce rate was Massachusetts and the ones with the highest rates were in the "so-called Bible Belt in the South." Falwell immediately tried to pin the blame for these high rates on those living in these states who were not "born-again Bible believing Christians." Mr. Falwell's spin on these statistics, however, is contrary to statistics compiled by George Barna of the Barna Research Group.
While it may be alarming to discover that born again Christians are more likely than others to experience a divorce, that pattern has been in place for quite some time. Even more disturbing, perhaps, is that when those individuals experience a divorce many of them feel their community of faith provides rejection rather than support and healing. But the research also raises questions regarding the effectiveness of how churches minister to families. The ultimate responsibility for a marriage belongs to the husband and wife, but the high incidence of divorce within the Christian community challenges the idea that churches provide truly practical and life-changing support for marriages.
Since George Barna is himself an Evangelical Christian, who has been on a mission to correct problems that he sees in these churches, it is unlikely that he would "cook" statistics to misrepresent moral conditions in a religious group that he is personally affiliated with. The article just linked to in Christianity Today depicted George Barna as a dedicated Evangelical Christian who is deeply distressed by deplorable moral conditions that he has uncovered in his religious research.
Barna's research is just another example of how facts often dispute commonly held beliefs. One such belief is that Christians are more moral than those who aren't, but discoverable facts about divorce, which the Bible condemns as immoral, contradict this. In "U. S. Divorce Rates: For Various Faith Groups, Age Groups, and Geographic Areas," George Barna reported that his research had discovered that the rate of divorce was the highest among "born-again Christians" and the lowest among agnostics and atheists. That rate was 21% of all agnostics and atheists as opposed to 27% of all "born-again Christians." The family that prays together stays together is a popular slogan, which is often seen on bumper stickers, in states heavily populated with Evangelical Christians, but the statistics on divorce published by the Barna Research Group indicate otherwise. The families that reject the concept of prayer are more likely to stay together than those that practice it. Reality often has a stubborn way of conflicting with popular beliefs.
Most Christians reading this probably won't believe these statistics, so I encourage them to check my sources and see for themselves that their religious group may not be as righteous as they thought. If I accomplish anything with this section of my article, I hope it will be an encouragement for Christians to engage in serious self-examinations by asking themselves which is worse, same-sex relationships that result from circumstances of birth that cause some people to be sexually attracted to members of the same sex or broken marriages that usually damage children emotionally and take the parties involved into relationships that the founder of the Christian religion said were adulterous?
I realize that some readers will contend that homosexuality is just a choice that some people make and not a biological compulsion that they have no control over. Although this issue has not yet been resolved with finality, the research conducted so far indicates that homosexuality is not a choice. I recall a black student in one of my freshman composition classes whose homosexuality was rather apparent by his mannerisms. When he learned that I didn't condemn him, he became a friend who visited my wife and me from time to time apparently to have sympathetic ears to listen to him express his frustrations with discrimination he was experiencing. I recall one of our conversations during which he said something like, "Mr. Till, I am black, so why would I voluntarily choose a way of life that would bring more scorn and hardships upon me?" I hope that the Evangelicals who flocked to the polls to vote for a candidate who had spoken against same-sex marriages will take the time to reflect on what my former student said. If homosexuality is just a choice, why would anyone voluntarily choose a lifestyle that would make him/her a victim of so much social scorn and abuse? If, on the other hand, homosexuality is a circumstance of birth that one has no more control over than gender, race, and nationality, where is the justice in a religion that condemns homosexuality as a "sin"?
In the name of everything that Jesus ever said, I urge Christians reading this to think seriously about Jesus's emphasis on loving one's neighbor and doing good even to one's enemies. When the Bible condemned homosexuality, was it expressing an objective moral principle, or was it just reflecting an attitude of the times? If the latter, then how moral is it to discriminate against those who in all probability cannot help being the way that they are? Regardless of what may be the scientific truth in this controversy, if Christians can ignore what Jesus said about the adultery that results when one divorces and remarries, surely they can also ignore what the Bible said about homosexuality.
A discussion of sexual morality among Christians would not be complete without mentioning the results of surveys reported in the December 21, 2004, edition of The Washington Post. A study of the sale and distribution of pornograpy had revealed that the highest percentage of sales and rentals had occurred in "the GOP heartland," which had proclaimed "moral values" to be of primary concern in the 2004 election. This article cited several examples in support of this finding, one of which was the popularity of Desperate Housewives, a TV show that features a housewife who is having an affair with her 17-year-old gardner. This show received high Nielsen ratings in "red-state" cities like Dallas-Fort Worth (first), Atlanta (first), and Kansas city (second). It ranked only fourth in New York and Chicago and third in Boston.
The article used Utah County, Utah, as another example that disputes the popular belief that religion and "moral values" go hand in hand. Eighty-six percent of the votes in this county were cast for George W. Bush, but in the prosecution of a video store that had rented movies like Jugsy and Sex Secrets of High-Priced Call Girls, which allegedly violated community standards of morality, some embarrassing statistics about local morality were brought to light. The defense attorney responded to the charge with subpoened records that showed a high level of community toleration of video rentals and sales that violated "community standards." Subscribers to Utah County Cable TV, for example, had ordered over 20,000 "explicit movies" during the past two years, and the Provo Marriott Hotel located just across the street from the courthouse had sold 3,448 pay-per-view adult movies during 1998. He further showed that even though only two percent of its inventory was adult movies, those movies had accounted for 20% of the rentals in another video store in a nearby town, and a store called "Dirty Jo Punsters" in yet another nearby town had been averaging $111,000 in annual sales of blow-up dolls and other sex toys. Terry M. Neal, the author of this article, pointed out many other specific examples of statistics, such as a higher rate of unwed pregnancies in so-called red states, that are inconsistent with the apparent belief of Evangelicals that claims of being "born-again Christians" are indications of high moral values. This article is well worth the time of those who put serious stock in the commonly held belief that there is a direct correlation between religious affiliation and morality.
Evangelicals who take the time to read this article may then want to give serious consideration to something else that Jesus said, which seems particularly applicable to the failure of many "born-again Christians" to live up to their own standard of moral values.
Matthew 23:1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 "The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; 3 therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus deplored the hypocrisy of those who preached religious duties but did not practice those duties themselves. Evangelicals who pride themselves on their "moral values" while condemning "liberals" who don't conform to the Evangelical standard of righteousness should give serious consideration to the possibility that they may actually be the ones whom Jesus would condemn if he were living today. As his chief apostle warned the Corinthian church, "Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall" (1 Cor. 10:12). Surely, a group that leads the country in divorce rates, unwed pregnancies, and consumption of pornography can't seriously believe that it has any room to lecture "liberals" about moral values, and especially not when research like that quoted above shows that the much despised "liberals" do not violate Evangelical moral standards as often as Evangelicals themselves do.
Public prayers and displays of religious symbols: Symbols are an important part of religion. Christians have the cross as their primary symbol, but Jews have the star of David, Hindus the om and the swastika, Shikhs the kirpan, and so on. Religious symbols have great emotional importance to religious adherents, and Christians are no different. They wear crosses around their necks, display religious pictures in their homes, and plaster their cars with bumperstickers that proclaim their love for Jesus and their beliefs in doctrines about prayer, a "rapture," the second coming of Jesus, heaven, hell, and so on, but Jesus openly expressed his disdain for those who publicly displayed their righteousness. Phylacteries were small leather pouches in which parchments inscribed with quotations from the Torah were placed. These phylacteries were fitted with leather straps so that they could be attached to the forehead or upper arms. In the time of Jesus, some Pharisees were wearing enlarged versions of phylacteries in order to call public attention to their piety, and this was a practice that Jesus condemned. I quoted above from Matthew 23, where Jesus rebuked Pharisees for saying but not doing, but he went on to condemn them also for their vain display of piety through enlarged phylacteries.
Matthew 23:2 The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; 3 therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.
Decorative fringes on robes were also used as a symbol of piety in the time of Jesus, and some Pharisees wore elaborate fringes on their robes to proclaim their righteousness when they were in public. As the text just quoted shows, Jesus also condemned this practice. Whenever I read this passage now, I think of the judge in Andalusia, Alabama, who wears a robe in court that has the ten commandments embroidered on it. The wearing of this robe is an obvious defiance of a supreme-court ruling that had upheld a lower court ruling that banned from another Alabama courthouse a monument on which the ten commandments had been inscribed. Such displays of personal piety are obviously inconsistent with Jesus's condemnation of public flauntings of righteousness. If one is a good person, he won't have to wave banners or symbols or display bumperstickers in order to have others recognize it, but many people, probably because of personal insecurity about their moral character, have become modern counterparts of Pharisees. They wear T-shirts that proclaim their love of Jesus and display various other slogans intended to identify them as Christians. One might think that they are personally defying Jesus by their ostentatious display of their Christian faith, but in all probability they are simply part of that large segment of Christianity that has accepted it without knowing much at all about what the founder of their religion taught.
The passage quoted above was not the only one in which Jesus deplored public displays of piety.
Matthew 6:1 Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing....
Jesus clearly taught that personal piety was not to be ostentatiously displayed in public, yet many Christians flagrantly ignore everything that Jesus said on this subject. We see people in restaurants who ceremoniously bow their heads and pray aloud before eating the food they ordered, as if prayers could not be said in silence, and in public demonstrations, like the group gatherings in recent demonstrations against court rulings in the Terri Schiavo case, they say loud prayers and wave banners and signs to proclaim their religiosity. They use public meetings to utter prayers that are actually sermonettes directed to the unchurched and in general completely disregard, either through ignorance or unconcern, what Jesus said about praying in public.
Matthew 6:5 And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 7 When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
Those who publicly flaunt their piety no doubt believe that they are simply proclaiming their faith and are thereby advancing the cause of Christ, but most "born-again Christians" spend very little time studying the Bible, so they apparently don't realize that the Christ whom they believe they are serving found such conduct reprehensible. After rebuking the Pharisees for wearing religious paraphernailia to call attention to their piety, Jesus condemned even more bluntly whatever success they may have had winning converts with their pretentious methods.
Matthew 23:15 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.
Human nature today seems to be pretty much the same as it was in the time of Jesus. The so-called born-again Christians seem determined to remake the country in their image, and it probably never occurs to them that if they ever succeeded in this goal all they would accomplish would be to increase the number of those whose lives displease the god they think they are serving. If fundamentalist Christians were really interested in furthering their religious cause, they would devote much more time to living the kind of lives that would promote the weightier matters of Christianity that are emphasized throughout the New Testament. By so letting their "light shine before men" (Matt. 5:16), they would probably have much more influence for good on the world than they are now obtaining through their reliance on political threats and intimidation.
The weightier matters of Christianity: Throughout the Bible, we find passages that emphasized inner rightousness over outward piety. The prophet Hosea said that Yahweh desired "goodness and not sacrifice" and "the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings" (Hosea 6:6), and as noted above, Jesus quoted this scripture to rebuke the Pharisees who condemned his disciples for plucking grain on the sabbath (Matt. 12:7). Yahweh, allegedly speaking through the prophet Amos, soundly denounced those who were offering sacrifices and burnt offerings while neglecting justice and righteousness.
Amos 5:21 I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. 23 Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. 24 But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. 25 Did you bring to me sacrifices and offerings the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? 26 You shall take up Sakkuth your king, and Kaiwan your star-god, your images, which you made for yourselves; 27 therefore I will take you into exile beyond Damascus, says Yahweh, whose name is the God of hosts.
In his defense before the Sanhedrin court, before he was stoned to death, Stephen quoted this text (Acts 7:42-43) to show how the Jews had wrongly emphasized outward obedience over the more important matters of the law.
The prophet Micah likewise taught that justice, kindness, and humility were more important to God than the outward observance of sacrificial laws.
Micah 6:6 "With what shall I come before Yahweh, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? 7 Will Yahweh be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?" 8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does Yahweh require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
There is no need to continue this, because the Bible emphasized in many places what was summarized by the psalmist who, after saying that Yahweh took no delight in sacrifices and no pleasure in burnt offerings, said that "the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit" and that he would not despise a "broken and contrite heart" (Ps. 51:15-17). Such texts as these clearly proclaim that the Judeo-Christian God is far more interested in inward righteousness than outward observance of religious laws, yet too many Christians apparently think that if they go to church regularly, support such things as public prayers and demonstrations to demand government support of their religion, and oppose abortion and same-sex marriages, they are model Christians. This attitude seems to account for why they flock to the polls to vote for political candidates who outwardly proclaim their support of public prayers and display of the ten commandments, opposition to same-sex marriages, and support of laws and constitutional amendments that would promote their religious beliefs, such as opposition to abortion and homosexuality, but it never occurs to them that they might well be the modern counterparts of those whom the prophets quoted above condemned for emphasizing outward observance of the law over inward righteousness. If the prophet Isaiah were alive today, would he make these people the subject of denunciations like the one that he pronounced on his own generation?
Isaiah 1:11 What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says Yahweh; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. 12 When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; 13 bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation--I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. 14 Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. 15 When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. 16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, 17 learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.
If the prophet Isaiah were alive today, perhaps he would speak in similar terms to the churchgoing, public praying, pro-birth, homophobic, "born-again" Christians who flaunt their religion.
What to me is the frequency of your church attendance? says the Lord God; I have had enough of your prayers and swaying forth in church with hands raised high; I do not delight in your hymns or the money that you put into collection plates. 12 When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Fill my pews no more; 13 bringing "free-will offerings is futile; your empty prayers are an abomination to me. Sunrise services on Easter and the calling of convocations on Christmas--I cannot endure the hypocrisy in your solemn assemblies. 14 Your revivals and televised assemblies in mega churches my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. 15 When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your lives are full of hypocrisy. 16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, 17 learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.
That Jesus and New Testament writers emphasized doing good, seeking justice, rescuing the oppressed, defending the orphan, and pleading for the widow is clearly evident to those who know what the Bible teaches. I have already noted above that the epistle of James said that pure and undefiled religion before "our God and Father" is to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unspotted from the world" (James 1:27), but how many who boast of being "born-again" Christians consider obedience to this principle as important as supporting public prayers and display of the ten commandments or opposing abortion and same-sex marriages? James also condemned those who mistreat and despise the poor (James 2:2-7), yet "born-again" Christians have supported en masse political candidates who show that they despise the poor by cutting programs that assist them and by giving tax breaks to the rich, which increase the burden on those less able to pay them.
Outward righteousness that neglects inward purity was soundly condemned throughout the Bible. The prophet Amos pronounced a woe upon those who were at ease in Zion and lay upon beds of ivory but were not "grieved for the affliction of Joseph" (Amos 6:1-6). If he were alive today, he might pronounce a woe on "born-again" Christians who are at ease in their padded church pews but apparently not grieved for the afflictions being borne by those whom their religion obligates them to help. Let's imagine that "democracy" had existed in the time of Jesus. If this generation of "born-again" Christians had lived in such a hypothetical society, they would have voted for the candidate on the party of the Pharisees, who advocated amending the constitution to ban leniency on women caught in acts of adultery and to require everyone to tithe even their mint, dill, and cummin, and would have radically opposed the "liberal" candidate who advocated laws that would provide more justice, mercy, and help for the poor.
For some reason, these people cannot see that they
damage their religion far more than
they help it.