Christian Oppression and American Religious Freedom

Today’s post picks up on yesterday’s summary of David Sehat, The Myth of American Religious Freedom.

I am a historian neither of American religious history nor of the American judicial and legal system. So most of my responses were tangentially related to the book: he stimulated a huge number of thoughts, but those mostly tied to my own interests in teaching the Bible and getting our theology properly storied.

Throughout Sehat’s book, the idea of a “moral establishment,” later resurrected in the “moral majority,” indicated the way in which Christians were seeing to make the United States faithfully Christian. Behind this is the core conviction that the Bible is the book by which God’s moral law is made known, and those who would be faithful to God must strive to enact the law of this law book.

Again and again as I read the book I was struck by how this misconception about the Bible drives Christian political engagement. There was no sense that the Bible is a diachronic narrative, with moral imperatives changing over time.

But more importantly, there was no sense that the defining moment of the story is the cross. A law without a story produced an ethics without the cross which led to power with no room for justice.

When the Bible is the transhistorical law of God (or witness to that law), the point of life on earth becomes enacting that law by whatsoever means necessary: women, stay at home and stop asking to be treated as human beings–you’re simply extensions of your husband; black people: stay enslaved and be thankful that God has brought you under the tutelage of those who have been gifted with the higher refinements of the Christian religion; laborers: be glad that those who are empowered with gifts of rule are ruling over you so as to give you work that lasts 15 hours a day, 7 days a week. Isn’t God good?

And in all this, the fact that the Christ in whose name such oppression was perpetuated refused to seize power by the sword, but attained his kingdom by self-giving love. In all this, Jesus’ rebuke of the sword, his rebuke of the disciples’ desires to rule by power and force, Paul’s mandate that we carry about in our bodies the dying of Jesus is all left to the side.

At the risk of sounding narcissistic, Sehat’s book convinced me that what I do is one of the most important jobs in the world. As a theologian and Bible professor, my job is to keep drawing people to read their Bibles well, to understand the story aright. And if you don’t think that’s important, look at how poor readings have reinforced narratives of power, domination, and oppression.

My contention is that the cruciform narrative of the Gospel, found throughout the New Testament itself, provides a sustained rebuke to the ways in which the conservative theological establishment has sought to coopt the power of the state to enforce the law of God. Jesus didn’t come to force people to obey, he came to rebuke the people who employed such tactics.

I left Sehat’s book wanting the “Myth of American Religious Freedom” to become the defining myth of our country–a myth that, precisely because of its mythic power, transforms the imaginations of the American people so that we will never again accept the idea that the “cause of Christ” is served by the state’s imposition of the Christian will on the lives of its diverse citizens.

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