I need to make a list of all the things that annoy me about the religions and cults I’ve been exposed to.
One is this exceedingly narrow definition of what it means to be a righteous person. This is infuriating, because in the eyes of the majority of the Christians around me there’s this fixed idea of goodness which only occasionally (and even then, seemingly on accident) intersects with what I consider goodness. Sexual purity is a big one: Slacktivist had a great post a few days ago about the arbitrary sexual ethic of Evangelicals:
“Married? (Yes or No)
If Yes: Sex good.
If No: Sex bad.”
Studies have conclusively shown that different groups of people emphasize different aspects of morality. In my experience, you’re a good Evangelical if you pray a lot, abstain from sex before marriage, try to convert other people to your beliefs, and are trying to “put God back into schools” (whatever that means). Or you could be “zealous,” which is a whole different breed but is generally considered superior. No one ever takes the trouble to define what it means to be zealous, but I think it means you get really emotional at concerts, confess your failings to all & sundry, and are constantly trying to defeat unbelievers in arguments.
This is irritating both because of what it assumes about goodness, and what it leaves out. What many Christians equate with “goodness,” all rational people equate with bigotry, intolerance, and superstition. On the other hand, because of the authoritarian mindset that is central to the appeal of fundamentalism, people who think for themselves, are intelligent, educated, and rational, who are willing to speak out against the oppression of minorities, are routinely marginalized and even considered bad people when in fact they’re actually being righteous.
This is completely backwards. When you say the word righteous to a Christian in this culture, they don’t automatically think of someone who advocates tolerance, for example, towards other religions (because those other religions are the Enemy). You picture someone who obsessively reads his or her Bible (but probably not much else), aspires to be a minister or foreign missionary, and attends at least two to three Christian worship events a week. This, interestingly enough, has become its own form of legalism. People who don’t do those things are, by definition, not good Christians. But actual virtues like boldness, compassion for the oppressed, empathy, kindness, tolerance, are not even identified with goodness in the Evangelical ethical framework. Do you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior? That is what makes someone a good person. (As Bruce Bawer has pointed out in Stealing Jesus, the Evangelical teaching that Satan is trying to deceive people into thinking they only have to be good to obtain salvation actually makes Satan into a force for virtue, and Jesus into someone who cares nothing about it). Some of those virtues, tolerance for example, are even considered signs that a person is not good. Where all rational people, again, consider tolerance a virtue, many Christians consider it a vice.
As I write this, my friend Gary Wallin has just posted on Facebook, “I have a dream that Christianity will one day be associated with deep thinking and humble, thoughtful discussions rather than ignorance and intolerance, shouting down their opponents.” I have that dream, too, and it’s encouraging that some people are beginning to wake up. Not all my fellow Evangelicals are in the dark, and not all of them are living lives of unrighteousness. I’m longing and fighting and praying for a day when Christians in America remember what goodness is. The Christian faith is not shallow. Rightly understood, it does not produce shallow people. I just wish I knew more people who believed and understood that.