The stereotypes are unmistakably familiar: the jaded, godless intellectual versus the illiterate but well-meaning Christian fundamentalist. They rarely cross paths directly, but when they do, the clash can be telling. Consider the Bibles for America encampment set up yesterday near cross campus–it prompted many of us to simply roll our eyes or just cross the street briskly. Some of the unluckier of us didn’t realize what was going on until we were abruptly issued our own copies of this curious “Recovery” Bible. I think I speak for many, if not most, of the community when I say the reason for the lack of pervasive religiosity at Yale is not due to a shortage of Bibles. And while it is generally not considered polite to air this sentiment publicly, I resent the presence of the Bibles for America Winnebago and I want it to leave–not because I am a jaded, godless intellectual, but because it represents a movement hostile to liberal education, social progress and to secular civil society.
Is civil society necessarily secular? Yes, it is. Among the more insidious practices of the Christian fundamentalist movement in America today is its attempt to convince ordinary Americans that this nation was built on a foundation of Christianity and that our problems as a society have arisen from our departure from that tradition. This dangerously colloquial understanding of American history starts to lead us down that slippery slope away from the separation of church and state. When that pillar of our society collapses, so too does representative democracy; a nation governed and fueled by the ideology of any supposedly revealed truth is a nation that validates and accepts only one variety of belief. Nations that engage in this activity, be they Iran, China or the Taliban’s Afghanistan, consolidate power among a very few and demand uniform thought among the rest.
I consider the teachings and examples of Christ important and keenly relevant in my everyday life, but I squirm at the idea of calling myself a Christian because I do not want to be identified with this particularly disagreeable movement. On a personal level, I find fundamentalist Christianity offensive because its theology is inflexible and hostile to diversity of opinion. It insists that one must be “saved” in order to avoid an eternal afterlife of hellfire. If one visits the Bibles for America website, he sees this need for salvation mentioned time and time again. But what does it mean to be saved in this construction? On the Bibles for America website, we are first met by a declaration from the second chapter of the first book of Timothy, “God desires all men to be saved and come to the full knowledge of the truth.” Conveniently enough, the website has an extensive detail of what exactly that the truth is. It is an unambiguous, God-issued set of beliefs. Beliefs that, as chance would have it, happen to coincide with a radically conservative set of political and social beliefs. To be saved, therefore, means to accept not only a prescribed vision of God but also a prescribed thinking about society and one’s place in it.
These are timeless criticisms of organized religion. What I’ve said in this column is perfectly familiar to all readers, regardless of their individual positions on this issue. If the conservative Christian movement wishes to find converts, it must understand that it cannot respond to its critics with reflexive rhetoric, the sort found in this “Recovery” Bible, but, rather that it must participate in legitimate intellectual discourse. To simply take the text of the Bible, clean up any troublesome ambiguities and offer manufactured notes directing the reader how to think is simply not enough. I am reminded of the words of Thomas Jefferson, “Question with boldness even the existence of God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfold fear.”
Jonathan Smith is a senior in Davenport College.