Last week, Vice President Mike Pence delivered the commencement address at Liberty University, an institution of higher education that glories in a narrow, fundamentalist reading of the Bible. As an adherent of that cramped view, Pence delivered the speech he was expected to give. He told the graduates that they would be persecuted for their beliefs.
For decades now, ultraconservative Christians, led by their dishonest preachers, have insisted on pretending that they suffer the sort of mistreatment commonly experienced by religious minorities in such places as China, Indonesia and Iran. It is a delusion that fuels their resentment of those who believe in religious pluralism, and it is a dangerous message from the vice president of the United States.
Those spurious claims of victimhood helped drive President Donald J. Trump, a morally bankrupt man beloved by fundamentalist Christians, to issue new rules for health care workers — rules that he claims will protect the “religious freedom” of those who oppose abortion, sterilization and other medical procedures on religious grounds. In fact, the new rules simply encourage discrimination, giving cover to medical providers who refuse to treat gay or transgender patients, for example.
Pence and his fellow believers don’t accept the U.S. Constitution’s clear separation of church and state. They want a theocracy, in which all citizens are forced to accept the moral code of fundamentalist Christians. It is shameful, un-democratic and antithetical to the values of the Founding Fathers.
As a member of the Christian left (like South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg), I am dismayed that the loud, obnoxious, mean-spirited and bigoted views of the fundamentalists have come to represent Christianity. They have completely distorted the teachings of Jesus Christ, turning his message of love, compassion and generosity upside down. In the recorded gospels, he never once mentioned homosexuality. But he frequently spoke about the need to assist the poor, the stranger, the marginalized.
Fundamentalist Christians’ emphasis on protecting the fetus is merely one example of their gross distortion of Christianity. While my home state of Alabama has just adopted a law that will force a 12-year-old incest victim to bear the progeny of her familial rape — hardly an example of the compassion explicit in Christ’s teachings — it gives a sharp stick-in-the-eye to children once they emerge from the womb. In national rankings, Alabama comes in 44th (sixth from the bottom) in child mortality. It ranks 49th in infant mortality, and 26 percent of its children live in poverty.
The simple fact is that Christian fundamentalism, at least as practiced in this country, is little more than white nationalism using the Bible as cover. Remember that Jerry Falwell Sr., founder of Liberty University, began his political activism in anger over the federal government’s opposition to blatant racism. In 1978, the Internal Revenue Service stripped tax-exempt status from the South’s “seg” academies, all-white private schools that were founded to resist Brown v Board of Education. The IRS ruling spurred Falwell and his allies to enter a marriage of convenience with the Republican Party.
The bigotry that infuses fundamentalist Christianity helps explain why so many adherents rallied to a lying, corrupt adulterer like Trump. He entered the political stage as birther-in-chief, gleefully espousing the lie that President Barack Obama was illegitimate. Trump followed up with racist diatribes against Muslims and Mexicans, while describing black urban neighborhoods as crime-infested wastelands.
In fact, the only Christians who face real danger in the United States are those who happen to be black. Just ask the survivors of the June 2015 mass shooting at the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Self-proclaimed white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine church members at prayer.
The worshippers who most regularly face threats in the United States are members of real religious minority groups — Muslims and Jews. Emboldened by the bigotry regularly espoused by the hater-in-chief, white supremacists have stepped up their violent attacks, according to organizations that monitor hate crimes. The massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue last year, in which 11 worshippers were killed, was the deadliest attack on Jews ever on American soil.
But if you expect to hear more denunciations of that sort of savagery from the pulpits of fundamentalist churches, you’ll be disappointed. They reserve their sympathy for themselves. Theirs is not a Christianity that I recognize.
IMAGE: Vice President Mike Pence swears in Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, joined by her husband Dick DeVos, at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House.