Freeing God of His Maggots

Excerpted from The Evangelical Phenomenon: What is it? How should the rest of us respond? - a panel discussion at Town Hall Seattle on November 16, 2006. These remarks were addressed to an audience of modernist Christians, non-theists, and Jews.

Sometime around 1986, after leading children to Jesus as a counselor at Child Evangelism Camp, after dialing to win souls during the "I Found It" Campaign, after attending the Wheaton College of Billy Graham fame, and after struggling for years to deal with the moral and rational contradictions in my fundamentalist Evangelical faith, I finally got mad at my God and said, "I'm not making excuses for you any more." I walked away, and didn't really look back.

But something is happening around us that is hard to ignore.

Like many others, I have spent much of my adult life honoring a "don't ask, don't tell" rule about religion. But for better or worse, the Religious Right has re-opened a public conversation about moral values and faith in America, even in Seattle. And because that conversation was started by Evangelicals and is largely dominated by Evangelical voices, much of the dialogue is about Evangelicalism itself. Over time I have come to feel a responsibility as an ex-Evangelical to push past my anxieties about conflict and to join that conversation.

Sometimes I talk with my brother, DF, who is still staunch in his beliefs. I don't have to tell you that in recent years our government has undertaken pre-emptive war and the systematic transfer of wealth away from the poor and middle class to the richest members of our society. These are moral matters, and one might hope that they could offer common ground among people who care deeply about morality. In fact, in many cases, they do. Evangelical Jim Wallis, Rabbi Michael Lerner, and humanist Paul Kurtz have found moral common ground here. But on these issues, DF's position is, essentially, "Bush says it, I believe it, and that settles it for me."

DF's a smart guy, and compassionate – a genuinely decent person. I not only love him, I like him. But as fundamentalists, we were taught to approach important questions in a certain way: to defer to hierarchy, to fend off doubt, to trust ideology more than data, to believe that the main thing you need to know about someone's character is whether he is born-again. I don't think that it's a matter of coincidence that DF takes this same approach to his civic responsibilities.

Fundamentalist thinking has profound implications.

A couple years ago, I sat down in Starbucks with an earnest young couple who hoped to win a convert, and they asked me (among other things), "What is the problem you have with the Bible?" And I said, "Well, for starters, there are those verses in Genesis and Joshua where God gives a bunch of land to his favorite blood line, despite the fact that it's already occupied by other herdsmen and subsistence farmers. And he doesn't just allow them--he actually commands them to kill every single man woman and child, even the livestock—except that in some battles they are allowed to keep the virgin girls for themselves."

And the husband, who spoke for the two, said, "You have to understand how evil those people were. They were engaged in human sacrifice, they were, killing children and laying their bodies on the altar of their god, Baal. They were the first abortionists, they had to be destroyed!"

And I said, "Every person? No baby was to innocent, no old person to helpless, no slave too indentured?"

And he said, "Yes. They were like a poison in the land. They would have seeped into the tribes of Israel and contaminated them, destroying their faith in God."

And I said, "But everyone? Can you imagine any village, any place in which every person is so evil that they deserve capital punishment? Every single person, no exceptions?

And, utterly exasperated, he said, "Yes. I feel that way sometimes about Fremont." (Note: Fremont a quirky, artsy suburb of Seattle that hosts a summer solstice parade with naked body-painted bicyclists, belly dancers, space-ship floats, peace activist carrying daisies, and the like.)

I sat there thinking, "Wow, I am in the presence of the human genocidal impulse. And not only am I witnessing it in this otherwise normal, moral person in front of me, I am feeling it in myself, because what he said is so terrifying to me that if I could push a button and make all people like him disappear right now, I would." I don't know if I was more horrified by what I saw in him or myself.

So, what is going on here?

Lots of psychological explanations come to mind. But it occurred to me recently that one piece of the answer has to do simply with our place in history. We are still caught in the Protestant Reformation. Let me tell you what I mean.

From the time of the Apostle Paul, --actually, even before -- Clear back to the Torah, the Prophets and the words of Jesus, part of what you see in Judaism and then Christianity is a struggle to separate tradition/orthodoxy/superstition from whatever transcendent truths may lie beneath. Paul chastises some of the early churches for superstitious rituals, Jesus challenges the way in which the Law has become a God unto itself, the writers of the Torah - in their own context - try to cleanse worship of earlier forms of idolatry.

The Protestant Reformation is another time when this sort of cleaning process took front and center. Even thought Martin Luther and Calvin had some horrible racist and sexist and violent ideas, in their own context, they genuinely were struggling to cleanse Christianity of what they perceived as accumulated superstitions: worshiping saints and relics, paying indulgences, the absolute authority of the papal hierarchy, the sanctification of feudal structures. The Reformation was a time of intense conflict. The reformers were fiery, and the establishment fought back, sometimes with theological arguments, sometimes with torture or executions.

Social psychology teaches us that in interpersonal systems, whether we are talking about a marriage or a whole society, people resist change. Even if, in the long run, change is for the better, it is threatening, and it means some things are lost. People who change get "change-back" messages.

Early in 20th Century – faced with findings in fields as diverse as linguistics, anthropology, psychiatry, physics, and biology, many Christian theologians said, we need to rethink our understanding of the Bible, Jesus, and the Christian faith. A new phase of Reformation was born. Until it went underground following the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925, the dialogue was intense and public. It played out not only churches but in the nation's newspapers.

Traditionalists fought back in defense of the fundamental doctrines that had dominated Christianity for almost 1500 years: one god in three persons, original sin and universal sin, the virgin birth, the unique divinity of Jesus, cleansing of sin through blood sacrifice, salvation through right belief, a literal resurrection, a literal heaven and hell. A series of pamphlets entitled "The Fundamentals" reiterated the absolute, unquestionable status of these tenets of orthodoxy. From the title of these pamphlets we get the word "fundamentalism."

At the beginning, people labeled themselves fundamentalists, proudly. Now fundamentalism a dirty word: We talk in negative terms about Islamic Fundamentalism or Free-Market Fundamentalism . . . Fundamentalism is associated with not only unquestioning and absolute adherence to an ideology but also harshness and even violence.

Consequently, I think, we don't recognize theological fundamentalism when it is soft and kind. Today very few Christians self identify as fundamentalists. The torch held aloft by those early self-proclaimed fundamentalists is carried by people who call themselves "Evangelical," "born again," or even simply "Christian" based on their belief that they speak for the one true form of the Christian faith.

Layered on top of this orthodox retrenchment, Evangelicalism as a movement has some characteristics that distinguish it from earlier forms of Christian orthodoxy.

An emphasis on the Great Commission - go into all the world and make disciples of every creature over the great commandment: love the lord your God with all your heart soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.
A particular view of the Bible as the literally perfect and complete revelation of God, essentially dictated by God to the writers - For some Evangelicals, but not all, this has moved several other threads in Christianity from the margins to the center of their faith.
End times Theology- The book of Revelation, with its apocalyptic visions, has become central to the beliefs of many Evangelicals who expect that Jesus will return soon, all true believers will be bodily removed from Earth, and human society will descend into a bloodbath. Tim LaHaye's series of Left Behind novels sold millions and helped to popularize this kind of theology.
Dominionism- In recent years, a subset of Evangelicals has been drawn to the notion that Christians have a responsibility to take hold of the reigns of power in this country and the world and to run our social institutions according to selected biblical principles.

These ideas are being advanced through ever more sophisticated thought modification or communications techniques that draw on the domain expertise of Madison Avenue, small countercultural cults, and Hollywood: High quality multi-media attract the curious and model the group way of thinking and living; belief communities foster dependence and divert charitable impulses toward institutional growth; young recruits receive intensive shepherding , beautiful websites communicate that outsiders exist for the purpose of becoming insiders; and a parallel information economy helps to maintain the orthodox view of reality.

In Africa we have people fighting archaic tribal feuds with 21th Century Weapons
In America, in my opinion, we have people defending archaic tribal doctrines with 21st Century technologies of persuasion.

So, what got me out of the closet as an ex-evangelical?

I think that two key characteristics make this movement dangerous.

One is the value it places on certitude. Our strongest ally in the quest for truth is doubt. Our scientific understandings must ever withstand new tests that have the power to prove them wrong. Our theological understandings are subject to dialogue in the recognition that they are provisional at best, limited by the filter of the human mind, and articulated with words that fail us when we try to describe something as simple as a flower or a fine meal.

Second, as Sam Harris points out, by applying this certitude to the notion of received truth, by embracing the Bible as the definitive moral guide, fundamentalism separates morality from real questions of suffering. Decent people get to the point that they are more worried about sex than war. They put more energy into fighting about public symbols than fighting starvation.

Most Evangelicals I know are genuinely loving people. But if we want to serve the well-being of those around us, it is not enough to be loving. We also have to be right about real world causes and effects. In the name of love, megachurch counselors tell women to submit to men who have broken their bones. In the name of love, parents shame and reject their children who were born gay. Outsiders think of these things as hateful, but many of them are motivate by real love in the hands of people whose moral priorities have been co-opted. Every day, cruelties are perpetrated by those who truly seek to serve the God of Love. A few of them are unspeakable enough to be newsworthy or historic. Jonestown parents gave their kids the Kool-Aide in the service of love, not hate. Conquistadors baptized native infants and then ran them through with swords not out of spite, but to insure them access to heaven.

The only protection we have against horrors such as these is humility, a level of intellectual rigor that forces us to ask those questions that might show us wrong, and real evolutionary dialogue with others who see the world differently than we do. The mindset that I embraced for over twenty years is dangerous because it takes away these safeguards. Absolute certainty about revealed truth dulls our moral instincts and leaves us vulnerable to some of the darkest of human impulses.


Political liberals and theological liberals have some tendency to honor tolerance above all other virtues. We forget that we are tolerant for a reason – because most of the time it serves the well being our fellow humans, the community that binds us together, and the natural order that sustains us. But our strengths and our weakness are always two sides of the same coin. Tolerance can also mean intellectual or moral sloppiness. It can mean that we fall into the habit of speaking hard truths so softly that they cannot be heard. Or not allowing ourselves to speak at all.

Victor Hugo once said:
It is not enough for us to prostrate ourselves under the tree which is Creation,
and to contemplate its tremendous branches filled with stars.
We have a duty to perform, to work upon the human soul,
to defend the mystery against the miracle,
to worship the incomprehensible while rejecting the absurd;
to accept, in the inexplicable, only what is necessary;
to dispel the superstitions that surround religion —
to rid God of His Maggots.

So I want to ask you a hard question. What is your role in ridding God of his maggots? What are your deepest hunches about what is real and what matters? What would it mean for you to join our public dialogue, to be the spokesperson for whatever insights life has given you –to do so knowing that we all are blind men struggling to understand an elephant, but also trusting that your fragments of insight about what is real and what is good are both a sacred responsibility and a gift to us all?

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and the author of The Dark Side: How Evangelical Teachings Corrupt Love and Truth

Pageviews this week: