Religion: How Would Jesus Vote?
“You can’t be both a Christian and a liberal.”
Thus did the Baptist minister counsel young Shelby Knox in the PBS
documentary, “The Education of Shelby Knox.”1
I disagree. If one takes the moral teachings of Jesus seriously, it seems
that if one is a Christian, one must also be a liberal – at least in the
sense that the ethics of Jesus is understood to be an integral part of
Christianity. Of course, one need not be a professed and practicing
Christian to accept the moral teachings of Jesus. Those teachings are
universal and found in all the great world religions.
The perplexing relationship between political ideology and Christian faith
can best be approached by separating Christian Ethics (concerning the
conduct of one’s life) from Christian Theology (concerning the nature of
God, the soul, immortality, heaven and hell, etc.). And, of course, there
are many Christian theologies, just as there are many sects of Christianity.
The religious right would have us believe that there is only one authentic
Christianity: theirs. And because moderate and liberal Christians
have, by and large, declined to dispute this claim in the mass media, the
dogmas of the religious right have captured the public attention by default.
Examine the recorded teachings of the Nazarene, as we will shortly, and it
will be difficult to deny that Jesus was a liberal. The religious right
avoids this embarrassment by focusing their attention on a particular
theology and a very limited and constrained view of morality.
Regarding theology, the liberal/progressive is tolerant and inclusive.
Progressivism is a moral and political ideology. On matters of theology, it
is silent. Thus, with equal facility, the Christian, the Moslem, the Jew,
the secular humanist and the agnostic can all be progressives. Which is why
progressives, both religious and secular, steadfastly oppose the
establishment of a state religion.
What would Jesus Do?
The disconnect between right-regressivism and Christian
ethics might be clearly seen if we simply follow the admonition of the
devout Christian and ask: “What would Jesus do?”
To find out, let’s go to the source: the four Gospels. This is what we will
Would Jesus launch a “pre-emptive” war?
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called
the children of God. (Matt. 5:9)
Our President is eager to take the “war on terrorism” to the
“evil-doers.” What would Jesus do?
Ye have heard that it hath it said, thou shalt love thy
neighbor, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, love your enemies,
bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you and pray for them
that despitefully use you and persecute you. (Matt. 5: 43-44)
While he was the Governor of Texas, George Bush signed 155
death warrants, and granted no pardons to condemned prisoners. What would
Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.
Rev. Jerry Falwell, steadfast proponent of “the right to
life,” also endorses capital punishment. What would Jesus do?
Ye have heard that it hath been said, an eye for an
eye, and a tooth for a tooth; but I say unto thee, that ye resist not
evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turned him the
other also. (Matt. 5:38-39)
What might Jesus say about school prayer?
And when thou prayest, thou shall not be as the
hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in
the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say
unto you, they have their reward. But when thou prayest, enter into thy
closet, and when thou has shut thy door, pray to thy Father which seeth in
secret . (Matt. 6.27)
And the separation of church and state?
Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are
Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s. (Matt. 22-21).
Did we remember to ask what Jesus had to say about war and
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called
the children of God. (Matt. 5:9)
Our glorious free market economy is driven by the profit
motive. What might Jesus say about the profit motive?
Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where
moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal. ...
For where you treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Matt. 6: 19,
No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love
the other; or else he will hold to the one and despise the other. Ye
cannot serve God and mammon. (Matt. 6:24)
Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in
the abundance of the things which he possesseth. (Luke 12:15).
With the help of a few well-placed friends, George Bush
parlayed a nominal investment in the Texas Rangers into a $20 million
fortune. When Dick Cheney left Halliburton, he was given a $34 million
“retirement package.” Under the present administration, the very wealthy
have become more so, while the vast majority of the population “below” has
become poorer.2 What would Jesus do
with these “winnings?”
If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast,
and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and
follow me. (Matt. 19:21)
Verily, I say unto you, that a rich man shall hardly enter into the
kingdom of heaven. ... It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a
needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. (Matt.
George Bush has denied access to his gubernatorial papers
and his father’s presidential papers (in both cases, public documents). Dick
Cheney refuses to disclose the contents and the persons involved in
consultations regarding energy policy. What might Jesus say about this?
There is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; neither hid, that
shall not be known.
Therefore whatsoever ye have spoken in darkness shall
be heard in the light; and that which ye have spoken in the ear in closets
shall be proclaimed upon the housetops. (Luke 12:2-3)
What might Jesus do about poverty and welfare assistance?
I was hungred and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and
ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in. Naked and ye
clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came
unto me.... Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of
the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. (Matt. 25:35-40).
Forty million American children live below the poverty
level. What might Jesus say about this?
Whoso shall offend one of these little ones which
believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about
his neck, and that he were drowned int the depth of the sea. (Matt. 18:6)
Furthermore, it is estimated that as a result of the
economic sanctions, a half a million Iraqi children have died.
Take heed that ye despise not one of these little
ones...” (Matt. 18:10).
Rev. Falwell, Rev. Robertson and numerous “televangelists”
claim to speak for Jesus, as they successfully solicit millions in
donations. George Bush believes that he was chosen by God. What might Jesus
Not everyone who sayeth unto me, Lord, Lord, shall
enter into the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 7:21).
For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew
great signs and wonders; inasmuch that, if it were possible, they shall
deceive the very elect. (Matt. 24:24).
Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but
inwardly they are ravening wolves. (Matt. 7:15)
There appears to be something of a “disconnect” between the
teachings of Jesus Christ (who, George Bush tells us, “changed my life”),
and the behavior and policies of many self-confessed “Christians.” I believe
that the word that describes such inconsistency might be “hypocrisy.” Jesus
had a great deal to say about hypocrites.
Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites... This
people honoureth me with their lips but their heart is far from me. (Mark
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye devour widows’
houses, and for a pretence make long prayer; therefore ye shall receive
thy greater damnation. (Matt. 23:14)
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye
pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier
matters of the law, judgment, mercy and faith, these ought ye to have
done, and not to leave the other undone. Ye blind guides, which strain at
a gnat, and swallow a camel.
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites for ye make clean the
outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of
extortion and excess....
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites ... ye also outwardly
appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and
iniquity. (Matt. 23: 23-28).
And one last time, just in case you forgot: Blessed are the peacemakers:
for they shall be called the children of God. (Matt. 5:9)
Finally, the troubled Christian today might reply: “I do
love Jesus, but really, ‘love my enemies?’ ‘Sell all that I have?’ Isn’t
that asking too much?” To this, Jesus would reply:
If ye love me, keep my commandments. (John 14:15)
As I read the four gospels, front to back, these are some of
the passages that seemed especially relevant to our times and responsive to
the question “What would Jesus do?” Alas, try as I might, I could find no
guidance therein regarding abortion, homosexuality, pornography, gun control
or the capital gains tax.
When faced with such hypocrisy as we seem to find amongst prominent
“Christians” today, what did Jesus do?
Jesus wept. (John 11:35).
Suckers for Jesus
The Republican party, once the home of liberals,
conservationists, internationalists, and moderate Christians, is now
dominated by an improbable alliance of libertarians, free market
absolutists, greedy plutocrats, and Christian fundamentalists (as described
in our first Chapter). The first three, "the secular right," clearly gain a
great deal from their alliance. But how have some fundamentalist Christians,
"the religious right," been persuaded to cast their lot with the Republican
How does one convince millions of devout Christians to accept a secular
political-economic philosophy developed and articulated, in large part, by
atheists? How does one, in addition, enable this same multitude of
Christians to disregard how their political “allies” are taking cash out of
their pockets and redistributing it “upward” from the middle class and the
poor to the already wealthy, at the cost, in addition, of impoverishing
essential social services, aid to the poor, and placing a crushing debt upon
future generations? And finally, how are these Christians persuaded that the
moral teachings of Jesus of Nazareth are somehow consistent with aggressive
foreign wars, the increased enrichment of the wealthy, the denial of relief
to the poor, comfort to the afflicted, education for the young, and
employment for the jobless.?
No small accomplishment. But the political geniuses of the Radical Right who
have captured the Republican party, have brought it off. They had to. For
without the inclusion of the Religious Right in their coalition, they would
lack the “foot soldiers” – the votes – that are essential to their political
Together the "secular right" plus the religious right constitute a
formidable political force. The plutocrats supply the money, the
libertarians and free marketeers articulate the political dogma, and the
fundamentalists provide the votes. (Kevin Phillips writes that “according to
national polls in 2000, evangelicals and fundamentalists cast fully 40
percent of Bush’s vote, and his 84 percent support among committed
evangelicals was higher than any previous Republican nominee).3
Without those votes, the political clout of the
right-wing regressives would collapse, and the right would be appropriately
relegated the fringes of the body politic.
This is a very agreeable arrangement for “the secular Right” -- the
libertarians, the free-marketeers, and the plutocrats, who have little to
dispute amongst themselves. But the alliance of the secular right with the
religious right is a marriage of convenience – convenient for the secular
right, which prefers to keep its pious “partners” barefoot, ignorant and
pregnant. “Barefoot” in the sense of impoverished, “ignorant” of how they
are being exploited, and “pregnant” in the sense being productive of votes.
For close inspection reveals that the secular and religious right have
little in common, and because this is so the secularists are anxious that
the religious right refrain from such “close inspection.”
Consider the contrasts:
Many of the most prominent promoters of libertarianism during the past forty
years have been avowed atheists; among them Ayn Rand, Nathaniel Brandon,
John Hospers and Robert Nozick. Yet this appears not to bother the
In addition, libertarians share with many liberals a determined opposition
to government interference in the private lives of individuals. Accordingly,
the libertarians endorse the legalization of marijuana, pornography and
prostitution, and they oppose anti-drug laws, restrictions on abortion and
discrimination against homosexuals. Strange, isn’t it, that the
fundamentalists appear not to notice this agenda of their libertarian
Furthermore, the secularists are, of course, generally well-educated and
scientifically sophisticated, and thus they accept evolution and reject
biblical literalism. They may, however, occasionally pretend otherwise in
order to mollify the fundamentalists.
Next, there is the issue of economic justice. It is a safe bet that the
socio-economic-educational status of the average fundamentalist is markedly
below that of average American citizens. This means that many fundamentalist
families are one paycheck or one serious family illness away from financial
disaster. Can they not appreciate that their wealthy “allies” on the Right
are not “their brothers’ keepers”? Under the right-wing economic policies,
the rich get richer while the middle class and the poor hold their ground if
they are lucky, and lose ground if they are not. And there is the
ever-growing threat of unemployment. For the vast majority of our fellow
citizens, the pittance of Bush’s federal tax refunds are more than offset by
the necessary increases in state and local taxes and in the loss of
government services – fire and police protection, health care, public
schooling, financial aid for higher education.
We all know the sorry economic conditions brought on by right-wing policies.
Why then do the victims, who happen to adhere to “the old-time religion,”
meekly support their oppressors? And why does Jesus’ admonition to the rich
man – “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the
poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.”
(Matt. 19:21) – not apply to their political leaders, or, for that matter,
their “spiritual leaders”?
The most jarring disconnect, however, is between the morality of
secular-right policies and behavior on the one hand, and the clear message
of the ethics of Jesus on the other hand. For those who need reminding, read
once more The Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount: (Matt. 5)
Fundamentalists like to ask: “What would Jesus do?” Good question! So let’s
Would Jesus launch a “war of choice” against a
Would Jesus cut back on school lunches for poor children?
Would Jesus decline to comfort “those who mourn” as the soldiers’ caskets
arrive at Dover Air Force Base?
Would Jesus sign 155 death warrants, giving the clemency appeals only a
George Bush wants to tell the world that he’s been “born
again.” But “born again” to what? To pacifism, humility, compassion, mercy,
forgiveness, frugality? The Bible teaches that “By their fruits shall ye
know them.” (Matt: 7:20) It seems that Mr. Bush has not learned very much
from his “favorite philosopher.”
Why, then, do religious fundamentalists follow, and vote for, wealthy and
powerful individuals who openly violate the basic moral teachings of their
“Lord and Savior”? True, there are bloody and brutal chapters in the Bible,
and the millennial (“rapture”) fundamentalists often preach as if the Book
of Revelation were the only book in the Bible. But the fundamentalists also
believe that the recorded words of Jesus in the Gospels are the words of God
Himself. And the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount that contains it,
are the central foundation of Christian ethics. What fundamentalist
Christian would deny that Jesus said, and meant, “Blessed are the
Peacemakers?” If they believe this, then if they would "do what Jesus would
do," they must come to terms with its full implications.
Given these clear and unyielding foundations of Christian morality, how has
the secular right managed to seduce the fundamentalists so completely?
Surely this must stand as one of the most amazing accomplishments in the
history of marketing!
The tacticians of the Right began, as all good salesmen begin, by
identifying the “hot buttons” of "the mark” (customer), and proceeding to
push those buttons.
Fundamentalists crave strong and charismatic leadership. So such leaders
were sought out, and then lavishly funded, enabling them to establish
colleges, publishing houses and broadcasting networks. Hence the spectacular
growth of such subsidiaries of “Jesus, Inc.” as Jerry Falwell’s Liberty
University, Pat Robertson’s Regent University, and, before they were busted,
Jim and Tammy Bakker’s “PTL Club” (“Pass the Loot”).
Fundamentalists are most comfortable with a Manichean world view – a concept
of the world as a battleground between unalloyed good (us) and evil (them).
(“You are either with us or against us.” GWB). For several decades,
Communism fit the bill supremely well. But with the fall of communism, new
evils had to be identified, and so they were: Islam abroad, and Liberalism
The demonization of Liberalism is a text-book example of “branding” – piling
emotions and attitudes onto a label. Until recently, “liberalism” was a
honorific term, as indicated by its dictionary definition: “favoring reform
or progress ... specifically favoring political reform tending toward
democracy and personal freedom for the individual.” (Websters Unabridged,
2nd ed.) And, in fact, when a cross-section of the American public is asked
about such liberal advancements as the minimum wage, social security,
Medicare, racial integration, environmental protection, etc., a large
majority approves. But the word “liberal” itself has been so besmirched by
the Right that in self-identification polls, “liberal” generally comes in a
poor third to “conservative” and “moderate.”
The Right has, in effect, established a separate and distinct definition of
“liberal,” so that it is effectively equated with “libertinism” – sex, drugs
and rock ‘n roll. In addition, the Right’s use of “liberal” connotes the
stifling of religion, welfare cheating, profligate government spending (as
in “tax-and-spend-liberals”) and even, in the hands of such unprincipled
ranters as Ann Coulter, treason.
In short, this redefined “liberalism” serves well as an embodiment of “evil”
to the religious right. And when this sense of “liberalism” is associated,
through constant repetitions, with the Democratic Party – well, you know the
Finally, the tacticians of the Right have learned that fundamentalists are
typically much more sensitive to personal immorality (“sin”) than they are
to social immorality (injustice). Thus when, for example, George Bush speaks
to the religious right, his themes are “right to life” (anti-abortion),
opposition to gay marriage, but rarely economic injustice, ethnic
discrimination or civil liberties. Recall that on the contrary, secular
libertarians are very tolerant about private personal conduct, provided that
it is “victimless.” But the libertarians also take care not to make a point
of this in the company of their allies of the religious right.
It follows from the preceding account that if the Democrats are looking for
a “wedge” that might disable the political clout of the regressives, then
here it is. The Fundamentalist Christians have been “had” – suckered – by
the libertarians and oligarchs. Thus the fundamentalists have worked
diligently and faithfully toward their own disadvantage and undoing.
If the rank and file of fundamentalist Christians in the “religious right”
can somehow be shown that they are being used to further the interests not
of themselves but of their oppressors, and that by so doing they are
violating the central moral precepts of their “Lord and Savior,” then the
political power of the radical right will collapse. (Assuming that our
public offices continue to be founded on the consent of the governed,
through free and open elections. If not, then all bets are off).
Accordingly, Christian conservatives should be prime recruitment targets of
progressive political movements.
How might the fundamentalists, the “foot soldiers of the radical right,” be
persuaded to abandon their service in behalf of their exploiters on the
First of all, moderate and liberal religious leaders must shed their
reluctance to involve themselves in politics. Normally, such reluctance is
justified, for it is responsive to our tradition of the separation of church
and state. But these are not normal times, for there is no such reluctance
on the part of the religious right to throw themselves into the midst of our
politics. Thus, when the field of political contention and debate is
abandoned by one side, the other side prevails, and much of the public comes
to believe that the fundamentalists must be right because no religious
leaders see fit to disagree.
And so, it is past time for liberal and progressive religious leaders to
speak out – and to act out, by participation in peace protests, by personal
involvement with and assistance to the poor, and with active support of
progressive candidates and participation in the political process. In
particular, liberal evangelicals should, like Jimmy Carter, take the lead in
“preaching” and demonstrating by example, the Christian virtues of
compassion, charity, humility and passivism.
The hypocrisy and venality of prominent leaders of the religious right must
be exposed. The fall of Jimmy Swaggert and the Bakkers threw cold water on
the over-heated fanaticism of their followers. It is past time to expose Pat
Robertson’s investments in African diamond mines and his dealings with
African despots like Liberia’s Charles Taylor.4
Finally, constant attention and exposure must be given to the unchristian
behavior of the plutocrats, and the unchristian implications of their
policies. Cruelty, callousness, greed and aggressive warfare are not
What a Friend we Have in Jesus
Face it: progressive Americans are in a desperate struggle
with religious-right fundamentalists. Moderate Christians and Republicans
should join this struggle, for the survival of our democracy is at stake.
Certain of their possession of "eternal truths," these fundamentalists have
no use for compromise or accommodation with non-believing (ergo, eternally
damned) fellow citizens. They can not be persuaded by science or reason.
What they believe to be The Word of God trumps the will of the American
majority, established law, and the Constitution of the United States. In
short, they have no use for democracy.
There is only one voice that might speak to the fundamentalists and persuade
them to re-evaluate their ethical norms, their moral behavior, and their
political agenda. That is the voice of Jesus of Nazareth.
Read the presumed words of Jesus in the Gospels, and you will find that the
Jesus depicted there was a liberal, in the original sense of that now-abused
If we quote his words and cite his teachings (with special attention to the
Sermon on the Mount -- Matthew Ch. 5-7), over and over, we just might get
through to some of our fundamentalist compatriots. Not their leaders,
Falwell, Robertson, Dobson, et al, for they are beyond redemption. But
without their supporters ("disciples" ) they are nothing. Many, perhaps
most, of these supporters are good, decent, people who have been seduced by
the modern-day "scribes and Pharisees." Reintroduce these good Christians to
the ethical teachings of their Lord and Savior, and enough may come to their
senses to disarm the threat of the religious right to our republic.
Yes, yes, I can hear the secular progressive's rebuttal, even as I put forth
this proposal: "That's all we need -- still more Bible-thumping, playing in
the fundies' ball park according to their ground rules. This is a tactic
that is bound to fail."
Not so. I am not proposing a "battle of the Bibles," for which only
competing factions within Christianity are qualified to engage. The contest
is open to all -- Christians, Jews, Moslems, and adherents of no organized
religion. I identify myself in that final category -- as a secularist who is
nonetheless fully entitled to confront the fundamentalists with the moral
teachings of Jesus.
While most Americans, including, I daresay, most professed Christians,
believe that the Bible contains myths, errors, and morally unacceptable
rules of conduct, the essential point is that the fundamentalists believe
the Bible, from start to finish, to be the inerrant Word of God. And that
conviction is the gentle trap that their Bible has set for them. They can,
and no doubt will, emphatically reject any scientific, empirical, rational
and historical arguments. But they can't ignore or dismiss what they
proclaim to be the authentic words of their Lord and Savior.
Read the Gospels carefully and critically, and you will discover that the
religious-right fundamentalists are not, strictly speaking, "Christians" --
at least not in the moral sense. Contrary to the teachings of Jesus as
presented in the Gospels, they endorse warfare, they condone and seek the
acquisition of great wealth, they are merciless, they are unforgiving, they
are not compassionate.
To be sure, fundamentalist preachers are skilled in "verse-picking" in
support of some of their outrageous doctrines. Even so, they would be
hard-pressed to find in the gospels, any condoning of warfare and personal
wealth, or any excuse for hypocrisy. For example, while Jerry Falwell's
article, “God is Pro-War”5
cites the Old Testament and the Book of Revelation, there is not a word in
that piece attributed to Jesus in the Gospels in support of this blasphemy.
Their doctrine of "The Rapture," popularized by the "Left Behind" novels and
the religious-right broadcasters of the "Teleban" is found nowhere in their
"inerrant" Bible, but is instead an invention of mid-nineteenth-century
While they post a "rapture index" on the internet, predicting the time of
Christ's second coming, they conveniently forget that Jesus said, "But of
that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in
heaven, neither the Son, but the Father." (Mark 13:32)
Most importantly, right-wing fundamentalism is not "Christianity," it is one
of many versions of Christianity -- and a minority faction at that. To put
it bluntly, it is more a cult than a religion.
And many of the precepts of this cult appear to reflective individuals,
including most Christians, to be morally repugnant. For example, the
theocrats would have us believe that the scoundrel, who in his deathbed
confesses that Jesus is his personal Lord and Savior, has earned himself a
ticket to paradise, while a courageous, just and virtuous unbeliever must
burn in Hell for eternity -- that even at this very moment, the souls of
Socrates, Gautama Buddha, Muhammad, Thomas Jefferson, Mohandas Gandhi, and
Andrei Sakharov are roasting in Hell. In short, the fundamentalists expect
us to believe that "God so loved the World" and the billions of souls that
have dwelt and will dwell within, that He has chosen to damn to eternal
torment the 99-plus percent of humanity who do not agree with Jerry Falwell.
Anyone who can believe that this is to be the fate of virtually all of
humanity is likely to feel that the lives of non-believers -- e.g., the
Iraqi Moslems -- are of little value. Accordingly, the fundamentalists have
little compunction about promoting and supporting warfare against the
unbelievers, including their women and children. And, certain in their
possession of "eternal truths," the theocrats have no use for compromise or
accommodation with non-believing (ergo damned) fellow citizens.
These were not the teachings of the Nazarene "Prince of Peace." Instead, he
told us to "love one another." He repeated The Golden Rule (in fact, taught
by all the great world religions), "Do unto others as you would have them do
unto you." He instructed the rich young man to sell all he had and give to
the poor. He told the parable of The Good Samaritan. And he summarized his
moral message in a few, simple rules:
Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they
shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called sons of God.
Nowhere in the Sermon on the Mount, or in the Gospels for
that matter, do we find these precepts followed by the words: "Except
Finally, Jesus directed his greatest condemnation to the hypocrites:
Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites... This
people honoureth me with their lips but their heart is far from me. (Mark
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye devour widows'
houses, and for a pretence make long prayer; therefore ye shall receive
thy greater damnation. (Matt. 23:14)
The fundamentalists ask: "What would Jesus Do?" The plain
and simple answers are provided in the Gospels, and most notably in the
Sermon on the Mount. (Matthew 5-7). Nonetheless, having been supplied their
answers, they then choose to disregard these teachings of their "Master" as
they proceed to wage war, seek to acquire enormous wealth, exploit the poor,
ignore the misery that they cause. All the while they proclaim that they are
the only authentic Christians, and that they are in exclusive possession of
God's eternal truths.
Herein lies the potential downfall of the theocrats and an opportunity for
their adversaries -- moderate republicans, secular libertarians,
progressives and, to be sure, the majority of Christians -- together a solid
majority of American citizens. In your confrontation with the
fundamentalists, forget about science, reason and empirical evidence, for
they will count for nothing. Don't bother sharing your innermost moral
feelings and convictions; the fundamentalists are not interested, for they
are convinced that you preach "false doctrine" and are damned in the eyes of
Instead, confront them with the received teachings of Jesus. Regardless of
whether you are a liberal Christian, a Jew, a Moslem, an agnostic or an
atheist, these words are your strongest weapon. Like myself, you may not
believe that these are actual words of Jesus contained in inerrant Holy
Scripture. But the fundamentalists do believe that these are the authentic
commandments of the Lord God Almighty. So they are "stuck" with them.
Persistently confront the fundamentalists with the teachings of Jesus. Josef
Goebbels famously spoke of "the big lie" which, when repeated endlessly,
eventually is believed to be true. Even more powerful is "the big truth"
which likewise must be repeated over and over until it finally begins to
So when you are approached by fundamentalists, eager to save your immortal
soul and to "sell" you their political agenda, stand your ground and cite
what they believe to be the authentic words of their Savior. At the very
least, they will shut up, walk away, and leave you at peace. And who knows,
they just might, at long last, pause, reflect, and begin to take those words
In Appreciation of Islam – A Plea for Tolerance
In my mind there is absolutely no justification and no
way of rationalizing what happened on September 11. I am convinced
that Islam does not shape the perpetrators' values and their beliefs.
Islam is a religion of peace and I pray that good Muslims will rescue
Islam from the clutches of those who use it for their political
purposes. Until Americans revisit their foreign policy practices and
good Muslims challenge distorted interpretations of Islam
consistently, we may not come out of the circle of terror and
Prof. Muqtedar Khan
George Bush tells us and the world that Islam is a peaceful religion. Al
Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden disagree, as they call upon all Moslems to join
them in a "Jihad" – a holy war against the infidel Americans.
Is Islam a religion of peace, or of war? It is both.
Consider the following passages from the Holy Quran:
Kill the disbelievers wherever we find them (2:191)
Fight and slay the pagans, seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for
them in every stratagem. (9:5)
Slay or crucify or cut the hands and feet of the unbelievers, that they be
expelled from the land with disgrace and that they shall have a great
punishment in the world hereafter. (5:34)
And the Lord our God delivered him before us... and we took all his cities
at that time and utterly destroyed the men, and the women, and the little
ones, of every city, we left none to remain.
Of the cities of these people, which the Lord thy God give the for an
inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth.
OK, I lied: the last two verses are from the Holy Bible
(Deuteronomy 2:33-4 and 20:16). I'll return to that point shortly.
However, elsewhere in the Quran, there is a contrasting message. "Even if
you stretch out your hand against me to kill me, I shall not stretch out my
hand against you to kill you," and "if anyone murders an innocent person, it
will be as if he has murdered tho whole of humanity."
There are comparable contrasts in the Bible (which, after all, is not really
a "book" – it is a library of books written over several hundreds of years).
In addition to the genocidal slaughters of Deuteronomy listed above, there
is the destruction of Jericho and this little encounter with the Midianites:
Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and
kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women
children, that have not known a man by lying with them, keep alive for
yourselves. (Numbers, 31:17-18)
Compare this with the gentle ethics of Micah, the Sermon on
the Mount ("blessed are the peacemakers...") and the parable of the Good
Several years ago, I participated on a panel on WNBC in New York. When I
read that passage from Numbers, a fundamentalist Christian preacher
responded, "you have to understand that the Midianites were a very wicked
tribe, deserving annihilation. ("Including all those children?" I asked).
The Reform Rabbi at the table had a very different take on it: "when we
consider the context of the entire scripture, we ‘interpret out' such
passages as these." ("Interpret out" – what an elegant euphemism!)
Scriptural literalism can be a heavy moral burden to bear!
Secularists such as myself have an entirely different interpretation of
"holy books" such as the Quran and the Bible. We regard these scriptures,
not as the immutable Word of God Almighty, but rather as evidence of the
historical evolution of tribal mores. As such, these chronicles convey an
inspiring message of moral advancement. Early on in these books, we read of
the murder and mayhem committed by conquering nomadic tribes – atrocities
justified by the impious claim that the Lord sanctioned such behavior. Then,
through time, an ethic of toleration, peace and love emerges as the circle
of interdependence extends beyond "our tribe," and as a common humanity and
nobility is recognized and acknowledged in "the other" – even in the person
of the despised Samaritan. (We encounter very few "Samaritans" nowadays. But
who can doubt that if Jesus were to preach today to the Israelis, he would
relate the parable of "the Good Arab," and to the Palestinians he would
speak of "the Good Jew").
The orthodox believe that their scriptures provide moral instruction. But is
it not even more likely that these cryptic and ambiguous ancient texts offer
justification for moral sentiments acquired independently? Torquemada, Jerry
Fallwell and Martin Luther King all read the same Bible, but take note of
different portions thereof. Today, anyone who took it upon himself to follow
the Biblical instructions to kill witches and to stone to death disobedient
children, would quite correctly be tried and convicted of murder. So
instead, we have come to "interpret out" the ethnocentric savagery and
archaic folkways of the scriptures, and to focus instead on the civic and
moral virtues of justice, toleration, respect and love.
So we return to our original question: Is Islam a religion of peace or of
war? The question assumes a significant misconception; namely, that Islam is
a unified and singular religion. On the contrary, like Christianity, Islam
is a family of religions united by a common historical focus and origin.
Among this family of contending sects are, on the one hand, peaceful,
tolerant and universalistic creeds , and on the other hand, and militant,
fanatical and exclusionist sects. It is this latter branch which bears the
poisonous fruit of Osama Bin Laden and his Jihad.
To assess the dominant moral legacy of Islam, or of any other great
religion, we are best advised to look, not to the scriptures, but to
history. And by this measure, Islam comes off somewhat better than
Christianity. In the first place, Islam is inclusive: to the Moslems, Moses
and Jesus are revered as prophets. Christians and Jews do not accord the
same honor to Mohammed. Because Islam recognizes and accepts Judaism and
Christianity as "religions of the book," Christians and Jews have, for the
most part, been accepted in Islamic countries. For example, when the Moslems
came to Egypt, they encountered the Coptic Christians, a sect as ancient as
Roman Catholicism. The Copts have survived and flourished there ever since,
amidst the Moslem majority. And when Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the
Jews from Spain, they found refuge among the Moslems.
To be sure history, like scripture, is equivocal. Following the death of
Mohammed, Islam spread rapidly, by preaching, by commerce, and by the sword.
And its advancement into Western Europe was halted by force of arms in
France at the battle of Tours in 732. On the other hand, much of Islamic
militancy has been defensive, most notably when the Christians invaded their
lands and slaughtered their people during the Crusades, and again when they
were thrown off their ancestral lands following the establishment of the
State of Israel.
Is Islam "a peaceful religion"? It can be, if the Moslems so choose – as
most of them have. And our behavior in "The West" is, of course, a crucial
ingredient of their choice. There are abundant scriptural, cultural and
historical resources in all the "Abrahamic religions" (Christianity, Judaism
and Islam) to support a peaceful, tolerant, and mutually respectful
accommodation. But there are also darker strains and precedents which, along
with contemporary injustices, feed the rage, cruelty and fanaticism of Al
Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden. These fanatics are dangerous. But so too are the
orthodox Jewish settlers on Palestinian land, the "end-of-times" evangelical
Christians, and bigots who refer to the faith of over one billion of our
fellow humans as a "gutter religion."
Consider the legacy of this so-called "gutter religion."
When my European ancestors were groveling in the ignorance and superstition
of the Dark Ages, the Arabic scholars of Baghdad, Damascus and Cordoba were
translating and preserving the philosophy and literature of the ancient
Greeks and Romans. They developed the number system and invented algebra,
which were to become the foundation of our mathematics and physical
sciences. Their universities advanced the sciences of medicine and biology,
and they built architectural masterpieces that stand today: the Alhambra
palace in Granada, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, the shrine of the
Kaaba at Mecca.
As a philosophical secularist, I am equally outside of Judaism, traditional
Christianity and Islam, yet I find much to admire in each of these great
world religions. There are resources in each for accommodation and mutual
respect -- as the Moslems have shown us in the past. There is also a
potential for a "clash of civilizations." The choice is ours.
There is much to admire in the culture and history of Islamic civilization,
and in the teachings of the Islamic faith. In our midst and throughout the
world there are millions of intelligent, virtuous and admirable Moslems. I
am convinced that a majority of Moslems today abhor and reject the
fanaticism of Al Qaeda, and furthermore are eager to strive with us to
achieve a just and peaceful world order.
But that desirable result can only come about through our combined and
mutually respectful cooperation. We are united with our enlightened Islamic
brethren in a struggle against common adversaries: injustice, and the blind
hatred and terror that issue from fanaticism. And the scourge of fanaticism
neither defines, nor is it confined to, any of the great world religions.
The urgent question before is now, is whether we can emulate the tolerance
and accommodation of Saladin toward "the religions of the book," following
his triumph over the Crusaders.
One Nation Under God, Divisible.
"Who are you to disagree with God Almighty, the Creator of
That daunting rebuke was thrown at me some thirty-five years ago by an
evangelical minister, as we argued on "the Long John Nebel" radio talk show,
in New York City. It was neither the first nor the last time that I was so
challenged. No doubt, most of us have heard such a rebuke, and more than a
few of us have spoken it.
I believe that the point at issue was the doctrine of salvation through
acceptance of Jesus Christ as one's personal savior. It could just as well
have been the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy or creationism.
My reply, as I recall, was "it would never occur to me to disagree with God
Almighty, were I assured that I was hearing the voice of God Himself. But
all that I am hearing at this table, Reverend, is your voice. And as we both
know, there is no shortage of individuals who totally disagree with you, and
claim that they, not you, are preaching God's eternal truths."
History provides an unending chronicle of ruthless suppression of "your
error" in behalf of "God's truth" (the latter in exclusive possession of "me
and my faction"). "My way" (i.e. God's way) "or no way!" We see this today
in Northern Ireland, Kosovo, Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan under the
Taliban, and Saudi Arabia..
And now we see it in the United States.
The harbingers are abundant and clear. For example, in the abortion
controversy, the "pro-choice" position (which has never advocated mandatory
abortions) is opposed by "pro-life" advocates (who insists upon forcing
women to continue pregnancies they wish to terminate). Conservative
Christians have repeatedly attempted to prevent the teaching of evolution in
the public schools, while it never occurs to the scientist to forbid the
teaching of creationism in the churches. (Scientists have, however,
successfully resisted the attempt to introduce creationism into the public
schools as a "science," which virtually all scientists and the Courts agree
it is not). Finally, the Lord's wrath, we are told, will be loosed upon our
country if we do not restore prayer in the public schools, thus requiring,
once again, that some children hear or even utter prayers to a Deity that
they and their parents do not recognize.
About sports, musical and artistic tastes, and even politics, individuals
can amicably "agree to disagree." After all, the other fellow is a human
being like ourselves, and equal before the law, and who's to say, he may
just know something that we don't.
But when it comes to matters of religion, the other fellow, we are told, is
not simply disagreeing with "us," he is at odds with the Lord God Almighty
Himself, and his soul is in danger of hellfire. And that sort of "error" has
Few pause to consider that "the other fellow" just might have a mirror-image
view of things, whereby he is confident that he holds that ticket to
Paradise, while the rest of us are unwitting minions of Satan.
And it is just this kind of bifurcation of humanity into two groups – the
"enlightened elect" ("our" group, of course), and all those others – that
sanctions wars and ethnic conflicts and which, if we are not all duly
cautious, might turn this blessed nation into an Ulster, a Kosovo, or a West
A belief that the Lord God favors our religious community above all others,
can lead to some truly bizarre, and, I suggest, morally outrageous, beliefs
and behavior. Examples are abundant in history, literature, and even the
current news reports. However, I prefer to state a case from my own
I was raised in an authoritarian-exclusive Christian religion (never mind
which). One of the practices of this group was a regular recitation of
"faith-promoting stories" of God's personal blessings upon the "True
Believers." One day, when I was in my early teens, a very intelligent,
well-educated corporate attorney, a man of absolute and uncompromising
faith, told us of the time that he was scheduled to present a report to his
company. On the night before the presentation, as he was hard at work on the
report, and with about a half-hour of work remaining he ran into a "wall" of
fatigue. Desperate, he fell to his knees and prayed the Lord God to help
him. He reported that a great peace fell over him, and that he was led to
understand that if he retired immediately, he would awake refreshed in the
morning with the energy and presence of mind to complete the assignment. So
great was his faith, along with his wish not to disturb his wife, that he
didn't set the alarm clock, and sure enough, he awoke early and completed
the report "as promised."
Everyone in the congregation was duly impressed and their faith validated by
And then, I began to reflect on it. By back-dating to the approximate time
of this divine intervention, I figured that it was contemporaneous with the
time that millions of European Jews were being led into the Nazi gas
chambers – a time when mothers and fathers were praying to the Lord of
Israel to spare, if not themselves, then their children.
Tragically, as we all know, these prayers were unanswered. Even so, I was
asked to believe that at that same time the Almighty Creator of the Universe
saw fit to deliver, like a night clerk at a motel, a wake-up call to our
worthy friend, for the greater good of his employer.
This was not the message that the Lord gave to Job "out of the whirlwind."
Due, in part, to such "faith-promoting stories" as this, my childhood faith
soon began to unravel, and I eventually went off to college to become a
I submit that such tales are not atypical of "true believers" of exclusive
religious organizations. For example, Pat Robertson claims that the power of
prayer altered the path of a hurricane that was headed toward his home and
college. He did not explain why the individuals victimized by this holy
diversion, deserved their suffering and losses. Similarly, Jerry Falwell
proposed and Pat Robertson agreed that the 9-11 attacks were manifestations
of God's displeasure at the United States for its tolerance of the
abominable gays, abortionists and the ACLU. And yet, most of those in the
twin towers that fateful morning were not gay, were not patrons of
abortionists, and were not card-carrying members of the ACLU. Neither were
their bereaved families. Falwell has not told us why these individuals were
deserving objects of the Wrath of God.
The mind-sets of a Falwell or a Robertson are not dissimilar from those who
are capable of flying an airplane and all its innocent passengers into
building filled with equally innocent people.
Finding no lesson from the history of religious conflict nor guidance in
Constitutional law and precedence, the Bush II administration now proposes
that federal funds be directed to "faith-based" (read religious) agencies
(read churches). No state "establishment of religion" involved, they tell
us. We are dubious. No doubt, more applications for government largesse will
be received than can be granted. How will the Nation of Islam and the Church
of Scientology fare in competition with the Southern Baptists? The moment a
choice is made (by a government agency, of course) religious "recognition"
and preference will be manifest. And so, under this "Big Government" system,
the needy faithful will be cared for, provided they associate with an
"approved" "faith-based agency" (i.e., church). Those in need who are
atheists, agnostics, "cultists," or simply believers who choose to march to
the sound of their own drummer, must move to the back of the queue.
Whereupon protests will result, and the nation will be religiously divided.
Far better that we follow the good advice of those who wrote and ratified
the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment
of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
The way out of civil and international strife is as simple as it is
unlikely. It consists of the acceptance by a "critical mass" of the public
and its leaders of just two elements:
Acknowledge that someone, somewhere, has a contrary
religious or philosophical belief, which he or she embraces with a fervor
and certainty equal to, or possibly even greater than, your own. (In fact,
such individuals number in the billions, and they are everywhere).
And then entertain a possibility, however remote to your
credulity, that this other individual just might be right and you wrong –
or even that all of us frail mortals are mistaken in at least some small
degree about our fundamental religious convictions.
That much accomplished, then we can proceed with our lives,
firm in our convictions, but tolerant of others and willing in principle to
alter our beliefs in the face of superior evidence and argument.
An enduring facet of Judeo-Christian morality calls this "humility," and
regards it a virtue.
Philosophers of science call this falliblism.7
It is a firm foundation both for scientific investigation and for civil
peace. And it should suffice for enlightened religious faith.
After all, "what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to
love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8)
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. “The Education
of Shelby Knox,” a documentary by Marion Lipshutz and Rose Rosenblat, PBS
“Point of View,” June 21, 2005.
2. Holly Sklar:
Between Rich and Rest of us, Common Dreams, October 3, 2005
3. Kevin Phillips:
"All Eyes on Dixie,"
The American Prospect, February 1,
4. Chuck Fager:
"Mining Controversy: Robertson Takes
Flak for Gold-Mining Venture" Christianity Today, ??,
5. Jerry Falwell:
God is Pro-War,
WorldNetDaily, January 31, 2004
6. Bill Moyers:
"Welcome to Doomsday,"
The New York Review of Books, March 24,
2005. George Monbiot:
the Apocalypse," The Guardian, April 21, 2004. Gene
Apocalypse Will be Televised," Harpers, March 11, 2005
7. See Chapter 15.