The Name Has Become Stigmatized
One of the captains of my high school track team characterized himself as a “Christ-follower,” not a “Christian,” because he disdained the Christian label. He believed that the term “Christian” was divisive, that it had been tainted by un-Christlike actions of so-called Christians. He said that Christianity was no longer interested in following Christ. It was not concerned with treating others the way that Christ did. Instead it was interested in power and the expansion of its own empire. Christianity had become selfish. While he disdained the institution that bears Jesus’ name, I’ve never met anyone who acted more like Christ than my track captain did. I respected him for that, even though our ideologies weren’t in alignment.
When I meet someone for the first time and he or she goes out of their way to tell me that they’re a Christian, I get very nervous. The Christian label is similar to a political one in that sense; if someone brought up their political affiliation in introductory conversation, I would brace myself for what might come next. The reason that I get nervous is not because I’m scared of Jesus or that I don’t want people to be like Jesus. It’s because when some people categorize themselves as Christian, it is a label that, whether intentionally or not, divides the world into two categories: “us” and “them.”. The vast majority of Christians are more concerned with the identity and proliferation of their religion than emulating the religion’s central figure. They care more about having the “right” doctrines and interpretations of scripture than about actually behaving like Jesus. It’s like having a favorite band without understanding what they stand for and what their songs mean.
Affiliation with the Christian religion is a huge part of any Christian’s identity. A person’s identity constitutes the core of who they are and their sense of self. This is true for any member of any religion. To question or criticize the Christian faith and its practices is no different than questioning the identities of the individual believers. When a person’s identity is threatened, they will defend themselves, often viciously.
The Evolution of Faith
If my track captain’s hypothesis is correct, what is the cause? Why has Christianity become selfish (I believe it has always been selfish, but I’m trying to be objective here)? Why has the faith’s imperialistic lust for power and influence become more valuable than exemplifying Christian conduct (i.e. simply treating others like Christ would)? The prominent philosopher Daniel Dennett argued that religion should be studied scientifically, in the manner that biologists study life. Dennett believes that religions adapt and evolve in the same way that organisms do. Religions adapt to cultural shifts. They mutate and change in tandem with societal taboos and mores. They split into new species; since the Protestant Reformation, the body of Christ has splintered into hundreds of diverse denominations. Most importantly, like all life forms that avoid extinction, religions have developed defense mechanisms and reproductive methods to ensure their survival and the perpetuation of their species. The aim of religions, just like species, is to survive, thrive and increase in numbers. Scripture is clear: Christians should preach the good news to the world.
“Give praise to the Lord, proclaim His name; make known among the nations what He has done.
(Psalm 105:1, New International Version)
“In that day you will say: ‘Give praise to the Lord, proclaim His name; make known among the nations what He has done, and proclaim that His name is exalted”
(Isaiah 12:4, NIV)
“Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the people of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me. When I say to a wicked person, ‘You will surely die,’ and you do not warn them or speak out to dissuade them from their evil ways in order to save their life, that wicked person will die for their sin, and I will hold you accountable for their blood. But if you do warn the wicked person and they do not turn from their wickedness or from their evil ways, they will die for their sin; but you will have saved yourself”
(Ezekiel 3:17–19, NIV)
“‘My name will be great among the nations, from where the sun rises to where it sets. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to me, because my name will be great among the nations,’ says the Lord Almighty”
(Malachi 1:11, NIV)
“Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven”
(Matthew 5:15–16, NIV)
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age”
(Matthew 28:19–20, NIV).
“However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace”
(Acts 20:24, NIV).
These verses highlight the imperative that Christians are given to spread the word of the Lord. The concept of evolution provides an illustrative framework for understanding religious behavior. With it, we’re not just given a useful tool for analyzing the cause, we’re also provided with insight on how to unite people instead of divide them. Christianity is not the only religion with collective instincts of self-preservation and imperialism (they all have those), but since it’s the biggest, it’s a good one to start with.
Survival of the Fittest
The self-preservative and reproductive drives of Christianity are where the selfishness comes into play. That’s why my track captain chose the “Christ-follower” label. Unfortunately, there is absolutely no way to broach this subject without bringing politics into the fray. Politics is the gateway to power. The Evangelical Right has become a decider in American politics. Evangelists like Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson and others reshaped the American political landscape in the latter half of the twentieth century. Christian leaders speak directly to Presidents and they can hand candidates election wins if sufficient loyalty is sworn to them. Christians want the benefits that come with this power. Here are some examples of the benefits of Christian political power:
- At a May Religious Right Conference, Vice President Mike Pence proudly boosted of the Trump Administration’s intention to appeal the Johnson Amendment. This would increase the power of Christians to shape public policy and legislation.
- The Amendment prohibits non-profit entities, like churches, from endorsing or opposing any candidate for public office (or else they lose tax-exempt status).
- Overturning Roe v. Wade is a huge focus for American Christians. Republican controlled legislatures have been extremely effective in limiting women access to abortion clinics. This is done by legislation that makes it more difficult for centers to provide abortions (such as requiring physicians that have privileges at a local hospital) and by cutting funding to women’s health clinics, such as Planned Parenthood.
- School choice is another Christian benefit. The Secretary of Education is proposing school voucher programs, which would divert federal dollars away from public institutions to private charter or religious schools where certain subjects are censored. These subjects threaten certain fundamentalist Christian doctrines and include biology, English, anthropology and health.
The Price of Power
There is clearly a benefit to having political leverage. It is a means to achieving the aim of the Christian organism. It enables Christianity to survive, thrive and increase in numbers. What is the cost of keeping that power? What is the cost of ensuring the expansion of the faith in this manner?
The cost, often, involves adopting non-Christ like behaviors in order to grow the Christian empire. Lying, bribery, coercion, cover-ups, fraud, discrimination and the stoking of hatred are all adaptations Christianity has developed to survive, thrive and multiply. The Catholic Church’s child sex abuse scandal involved an international, coordinated cover-up of sex-offender priests in order to not damage the image of the church. Thousands of victims were abused. Many church leaders, including the Vice President of the United States, advocate the practice of Gay conversion therapy, a practice rejected by every recognized mainstream medical association due to high risks of suicide, depression, anxiety and homelessness. The President of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists stated that anyone who doesn’t believe in a literal six-day creation cannot call themselves Adventists and shouldn’t participate in Adventist education. When the Access Hollywood tape of Donald Trump bragging about episodes of sexual assault was discovered, many Christian leaders downplayed his comments as macho talk. All of these actions are done to protect the image and power of the church. But they protect it by abandoning the values the church is meant to teach.
Is it possible for the Christian species to survive and thrive without abandoning its values? Can it reproduce without force? I don’t believe that it should, but if it must, there’s a better way. Christians need to learn from my track captain. The focus must be on Christians living like Christ and not on crusading for Christian global domination. That could be the mechanism for reproducing the species.
Another Expansion Strategy
Sadly for rationality, the solution here is not for Christianity to abandon the call of evangelism in scripture. In order for the Christian species to survive, it has to have defense mechanisms and methods of reproduction. How can this be achieved without the consequences outlined above? The solution is for Christians to focus on their conduct with others. Am I serving others? Am I caring for the least of these? Am I honest in my treatment of others. Am I conducting myself like Jesus would. Those are the questions Christians should be asking themselves on a daily basis.
What if Christians evangelized through their behavior? What if their goal wasn’t religious imperialism, but servanthood? What if the priority was the practice of ethical behavior instead of the legislation of morality? What if, instead of berating the sinner for their sins, they showed them the love of Jesus? That sort of “walk the talk” strategy could be the most powerful evangelism tool imaginable. It was Jesus who said to the would-be stoners of the adulteress, “Let him who hath no sin cast the first stone.” The role of a Christian is not to act as a judge. The 1980s Moral Majority Christian lobbying group’s name served as a proclamation: conservative Christians had the moral truth and it was up to them to point out the sinners. This is not the role of Christians. The role of the Christian is to love others as Jesus did and conduct themselves as he did. That is the defense mechanism and the reproduction method: behavior modeled after Christ. Christianity would no longer be selfish, because its focus would be on acting like Christ.
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another”
(John 13:35, NIV)
While Christianity is still a malignant epidemic of epic proportions, this would be a big step in bringing it out of the dark ages.