Saturday, November 29, 2008

Pigeonholing Christians

Throughout 1997 and into 1998, I carpooled with a buddy of mine who was student teaching with me. We spent many, many hours stuck in traffic on the 520 bridge, and with nothing to do but talk, we became pretty good buddies. But then, one day, I said something that really, really shocked and may actually have disgusted her a little. The following sentence will probably shock and horrify you, but I said it, and I will live with the consequences of what I said. Here's what I said:

"I think I'm going to go to the memorial Mass for Mother Teresa tonight."

You'd think I'd advocated baby-beating. Her entire face fell, and she essentially told me that she couldn't believe I would do that when religion had done so much bad in the world. I suggested that perhaps Mother Teresa's religious beliefs had done more good than harm, and that it seemed like a small sacrifice to give up an hour of my time in thanksgiving for her life. But she was adamant. She continued to insist that if she'd not wasted her efforts on religious beliefs, Mother Teresa could have accomplished so much more.

I don't remember how exactly the conversation turned from there, but I do remember it led to the following exchange:

ME: So what you're saying is that, if I were a little more intelligent, I wouldn't believe in God.
HER: Yes. That's what I'm saying.

I became incredibly pissed off, of course. This woman (who remained my friend, by the way), actually thought that religious belief was a sign of unintelligence. (She declined my effort to declare AP or SAT scores or to play a round of Jeopardy!.)

How is it that a human being who brags about her own tolerance could be guilty of such bald-faced bigotry?

This has crossed my mind again lately with the election and with Bill Maher's movie.

I never got around to writing this back when Religulous came out. I didn't see it because I knew it would just piss me off. But hen I saw Maher on Jon Stewart back on September 30, well, I was actually pleasantly surprised. He came so close to hitting on the head my pet peeves about religious fundamentalism and certainty. He said the following:

I'm not an atheist because I find atheism to be a mirror of the certainty of religion, and I don't like certainty.


Good. This shows a higher level of understanding than my friend did. Why are fundamentalist atheists let off the hook for their own arrogance while fundamentalist Christians (rightly) get so much grief for theirs?

But he then blows it by letting his own stereotypes about Christians trip him up when he says the following:

"I don't know if Barack Obama is a very religious person. He, of course, has to say he is, because he's running for President in the United Stupid of America. But I hope he's lying. I don't have a problem with fake piety."

Barack Obama is a very religious person. Anybody who consistently goes to church for 20 years meets my definition of "very religious," and, I believe, any reasonable person's definition of same.

The interview with Maher ended before he could really address what it would mean if Barack Obama is a "real" Christian (and, for that matter, why Maher gets to be the one to decide). But I've been on the business end of this often enough that I feel safe saying that Maher likely believes that Obama is not a "real" Christian only because Barack Obama is not a fundamentalist.

I'm not sure which pisses me off more; the fact that fundamentalists have hijacked Jesus' message to the point that I'm not considered a "real" believer, or the fact that my liberal friends buy into the stereotype just as much as the fundamentalists do. I've been told that, to be a "real" Christian, I cannot be supportive of gays and their right to marry, for instance. Jerry Falwell didn't say this to me (although he could have). It was two separate liberal loved ones, both of whom are nonbelievers. That's right...nonbelievers telling me that I'm not Christian enough because I don't act like a butthole.

Maher is guilty of playing the "real Christian" vs. "not real Christian" game, and given how close he was to slaying the true enemy--false certainty about something unproveable--I'm terribly disappointed he slipped back into the kind of stereotyping that's bad for everybody. It's every bit as offensive as Sarah Palin defining "real" America, and you all know how I feel about that.

I don't think anybody gets to say what a "real" Christian is, any more than someone gets to say "oh, you're not a real American," "you're not really Black" or "oh, you're not a true gay." But it happens all the time, with both Christians and non-Christians doing it. It's an area where the really Christian and utterly non-religious are indistinguishable. When I can't tell my agonostic and atheist liberal friends apart from Pat Robertson on matters of religion, it's not only deliciously ironic, it's sad. And while it makes me mad when fundamentalist Christians act this way, it makes me more upset when "tolerant" liberals use the exact same sentences. They should know better.

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