Monday, July 16, 2007

Marking Territory

When I was visiting my family recently in Kentucky, I got into a rather stupid argument with my father over a posting of the Ten Commandments in someone's yard. Apparently, my former home area (I confess that I don't know if it's the Louisville area or the state of Kentucky that's having the controversy) is one of the areas dotted over the country where someone's trying to have the Ten Commandments taken out of public places. The argument wasn't about whether or not the Ten Commandments should be in public places, but rather on the simple reaction of suspicion I tend to have regarding people who make such displays in their yards.

I do not mean to suggest that people should not be allowed to make such displays in their yards. In fact, this is a right that I think ought to be protected. Nor do I think that the Ten Commandments need to be taken out of places such as courtrooms and government buildings, although I have to confess that I'm probably not especially interested in fighting to keep them there. Perhaps I should be.

But this is where the argument came from, and indeed why it was so stupid. My dad accepts the myth that the United States was built upon Christian values, including the Ten Commandments. It's a popular myth, not generally diminished by the fact that more of the founding fathers held deistic beliefs than held what are understood today as traditional Christian ones. Nevertheless, for my dad, to see someone try to take the Ten Commandments out of public places is to threaten the foundations of our society. For me, I tend to see the abuses perpetrated by otherwise well-meaning citizens in the name of upholding ill-defined "Christian values": sexism, racism, homophobia, etc., and I fear that this kind of evil may grow if myths of America as a "Christian nation" are allowed to continue unchecked.

But my dad simply doesn't see that stuff, nor is there really any reason why he should be expected to. For the most part, the people defending such public displays are good people. And if and when the evil behaviors I've described occur, they often occur without the perpetrators having previously comprehended having any stereotypical or incorrect beliefs about women, blacks, homosexuals, and so on. How many times have you heard someone say a hateful thing about a particular group of people, only to say immediately afterward "but I'm not a racist." Yes, they are, but they don't see it. That's the problem.

Slacktivist mentioned this entry from "The Mahablog" recently, which describes some of what I'm getting at. The blogger quotes an article by Bill McKibben where he says:
Only 40 percent of Americans can name more than four of the Ten Commandments, and a scant half can cite any of the four authors of the Gospels.... Three quarters of Americans believe the Bible teaches that “God helps those who help themselves.”... which was in fact uttered by Ben Franklin.... [N]ot only is Franklin's wisdom not biblical; it's counter-biblical. Few ideas could be further from the gospel message, with its radical summons to love of neighbor. On this essential matter, most Americans—most American Christians—are simply wrong, as if 75 percent of American scientists believed that Newton proved gravity causes apples to fly up. 
Asking Christians what Christ taught isn't a trick. When we say we are a Christian nation—and, overwhelmingly, we do—it means something. People who go to church absorb lessons there and make real decisions based on those lessons.... When George Bush says that Jesus Christ is his favorite philosopher, he may or may not be sincere, but he is reflecting the sincere beliefs of the vast majority of Americans.
And therein is the paradox. America is simultaneously the most professedly Christian of the developed nations and the least Christian in its behavior....

...Despite the Sixth Commandment, we are, of course, the most violent rich nation on earth, with a murder rate four or five times that of our European peers. We have prison populations greater by a factor of six or seven than other rich nations (which at least should give us plenty of opportunity for visiting the prisoners). Having been told to turn the other cheek, we're the only Western democracy left that executes its citizens, mostly in those states where Christianity is theoretically strongest. Despite Jesus' strong declarations against divorce, our marriages break up at a rate—just over half—that compares poorly with the European Union's average of about four in ten.... [C]ompare our success with, say, that of the godless Dutch, whose divorce rate is just over 37 percent. Teenage pregnancy? We're at the top of the charts. Personal self-discipline—like, say, keeping your weight under control? Buying on credit? Running government deficits? Do you need to ask?
If we're going to make such a strong claim to Christianity, why don't we act like it a bit more? And I mean in ways that count: how we live, how we treat each other. Not in how loudly we proclaim our faith at the top of our lungs, or post certain Christian doctrines and Scripture verses in our front lawn.

Oh, and now that we're back on topic about the Ten Commandments again, check out this bit from the Mahablog:
A perfect real-world example of [the difference between talking about Jesus and actual Christianity] is the way many Christians treat the Ten Commandments. You may remember the Georgia congressman who sponsored a bill providing that the Ten Commandments would be displayed in Congress and in federal courthouses. Then when he was interviewed by Stephen Colbert, he could name only four of the Commandments, barely. I assume this wasn’t just an act. 
... [I]n recent years I’ve seen several polls saying that about three out of four Americans think the Ten Commandments ought to be displayed in public buildings. However, according to Bill McKibben (quote above) only 40 percent of Americans can name more than four of them. 
The statistics suggest that more people “believe in” the Ten Commandments than actually know what the Ten Commandments say. And I don’t care what religious tradition you call your own; just “believing in” something that you don’t practice or understand or follow is crap. It’s not even religion. It’s an idea of religion, but not religion itself, except on a very primitive level. 
I think many Americans regard the Ten Commandments as something like a tribal totem. They want it placed in institutions of power, like schools and courthouses, as a symbol of their tribal dominance. Think of it as territorial marking.
If American Christians actually behaved like Christians, I don't think I'd have had any problem with seeing the Ten Commandments posted in that yard, and that whole stupid argument with my dad might have been avoided. But we definitely were talking about more than just the Ten Commandments themselves. For my dad, he was talking about our foundations as a nation believed to be built on faith. For myself, I was talking about (real or imagined) injustices perpetrated in the name of Christian faith. But we weren't really talking about the Ten Commandments: Commandments that we both actually agree upon. We were talking about the ideas they symbolize.

Like the Mahablog, I lament that people who profess Christianity in America are so utterly ignorant of what the Bible actually says, let alone what it means for how we should act. Frankly, if we'd stop trying to impose some not-even-accurate idea of Christianity on everybody else, and instead focused more on making sure that we follow Christ's teachings ourselves, I expect that we'd all be a lot better off.

But that doesn't mean that I was right, either. I was attributing a whole laundry list of evils to a group of Christians who may not even be guilty of them. I, too, need to focus more upon my own behavior, rather than getting into fights that may not be warranted.


  1. It seems to me to say that this was or wasnt a nation founded on Christian principles is too simplistic of an approach. i enojoyed the read. BTW i also went ot Montreat.

  2. Always good to hear from another Montreatian. I hope that it's clear that I agree with you in saying that our nation "was or wasn't... founded on Christian principles" is too simplistic. On one hand, I wanted to be fair to what I think my Dad's position honestly is, but on the other, I wanted to contrast it. If I sounded like I was going too far in the other direction (i.e. to say "the nation wasn't founded on Christian principles." I can see how my use of the word "myth" may sound like that), then I apologize. I think that are most certainly ways in which Christian principles influenced the very origins of our nation, and that those influences run deep, and should not be diminished. I was simply trying to make the point that I think some people take this too far, and argue too simplistically for the role of Christianity in the nation's origins.



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