Let’s do a quick thought experiment.
You’re reuniting with an old friend, perhaps at your favorite pub. When the conversation tilts toward politics, you notice something strange. While you both lean to the left, you notice your friend talking about the Democratic Party in an overly reverential way. They talk about how being a Democrat has changed their life, and how the platform has made America such a great country. You grow uneasy. When your friend suggests that the party’s core principles are essentially without error, you can no longer help yourself.
“What about slavery?” you ask.
“What?” your friend says.
“Well, you know, I’m a Democrat myself, but…the party has done a few bad things. Like support slavery.”
Your friend’s jaw drops. “No, those Democrats who supported slavery…they weren’t real Democrats.”
“Real Democrats?” you ask.
Your friend pulls a phone from their pocket. “Let me show you something.” Their screen displays the website for the DNC. Reading from the platform, they quote a few lines about how the party values justice and equality. “Those so-called Democrats of which you speak were actually going against what the party is all about.”
You point out that, regardless of what the platform says now, and regardless of what the majority of Democrats currently believe, the party did in fact support slavery for many years. Your friend points to all the Democrats who sought to end slavery, claiming that this select (and noticeably small) group—not the party leadership, not the actual majority of voters—represents true Democratic values.
Flustered, you mention other bad policies. Jim Crow. Opposition to women’s suffrage. Terrible treatment of indigenous people. In every case, your friend splits hairs over what the platform actually said, what it actually meant, and how it was actually implemented. Now at the end of your rope, you hit your friend with a question that surely will break them loose.
“Has the party ever been wrong about anything?” you ask.
They mention the slaveholders again, but then they backtrack, claiming that the slaveholders hijacked the party for their own ends. So that’s a dead end. Determined to frame the question so as to avoid any equivocation, you say, “How about this: is there a single authentic Democratic policy that we can reasonably describe as wrong?”
But instead of clarifying the conversation, this derails it. From them on, your friend teases apart the meaning. Of every. Single. Word. What do we mean by authentic? What do we mean by policy? When you push for a yes or no, they scold you for oversimplifying such a complex topic. You try to get them to look at their stance from the outside. “Surely you can say that the Republicans have gotten a few things wrong,” you say. “Why not the Democrats?” But no, this doesn’t work either. They accuse you of comparing apples to oranges.
Before you know it, the bartender announces last call, and you are no closer to an answer than you were several drinks ago.
If you’re reading this publication, you no doubt noticed how this hypothetical conversation maps onto modern discussions about religious devotion, belief, practice, and identity. Conversations about the good things and the bad things about a religion often devolve into debates about gatekeeping. I’ll be blunt: I find this evasiveness to be more than merely annoying. In recent years, it has become part of the gaslighting, fake news culture that has been so corrosive in American society. We’ve seen it in the whitewashing of the January 6 insurrection, and it’s a safe bet that the incoming twentieth-anniversary retrospectives of 9/11 will seek to absolve the good Christians who cheered on the worst moments of the War on Terror. How many problems in this world could be solved, how many barriers could be bridged, if people in positions of power could say simply, humbly: “We were wrong.”
Not, “Sorry you feel that way.” Not, “That’s not who we are.” Not, “We need to move forward.” Not, “You need to study this more and then you’ll understand.” None of that. Just a simple, “We got this one wrong.” I vote Democrat, and I can say without hesitation that Democrats—true Democrats—were morally wrong about slavery, and their stance reflected the true values of the Democratic party (at the time). See how easy that is?
For American Christians, this No True Scotsman kind of thinking reached its zenith in the last few years, thanks in large part to their overwhelming support of Donald Trump, as well as the escalating scandals that have cropped up in various denominations. On one end of the political spectrum, right-leaning Christians claim that their religion has always stood against injustice, including racism and abuse, thereby invalidating any accusations to the contrary. On the other end of the spectrum, the minority of Christians who did not vote for Trump have labeled right wingers as fake Christians—along with anyone else in the church who abused their power. So, problem solved. Nothing to see here.
I have some sympathy on this point. Liberal Christians especially must feel that they are tasked with reforming something that they believe could be a force for good in the world. I can only guess at their motivations, but perhaps they believe that compromising on the perceived purity of their religion would invite more criticism, lead to more division, and empower the fascist nutjobs who have wrecked Christianity’s reputation.
Not surprisingly, some of the most vocal critics of this wishy-washy stance are people who have left Christianity. Chrissy Stroop, inventor of the hashtag #EmptyThePews, immediately comes to mind, along with Blake Chastain, who coined the term #Exvangelical, and Bradley Onishi, a professor of religious studies. In the coming years, there will be more former Christians who create a wider platform for themselves.
But there is a growing number of dissenters among Christians as well, many of whom have declared themselves to be “deconstructing” the core elements of their faith. These critics include, among many others, Jemar Tisby, author of The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism, Kristen Kobes du Mez (Jesus and John Wayne), and Anthea Butler (White Evangelical Racism). For them, Trump and other scandals related to race, gender, and social justice represent more of a feature than a bug. Worse than that, these problems are the end result of the authoritarianism, tribalism, patriarchy, supremacism, materialism, proselytization, and magical thinking that are as authentically Christian as loving your neighbor and going to church. Acknowledging that there are both good things and bad things about Christianity is a common-sense statement—like admitting there are good things and bad things about, say, a political party, or a social movement. Or literally anything. This should not be controversial. And the burden of pointing this out should not fall to apostates alone.
Thankfully, more and more Christians recognize that the only way forward is to concede that there are systemic problems with the theology, not merely a few bad apples spoiling the bunch. Admitting as much is often the first step in fixing something that’s broken. After all, isn’t this the same discourse we’re having about how the United States can move beyond its racist past? In both cases, the biggest obstacles to change are the people who insist that these problems do not and cannot represent the entire system.
And yet Christian leaders, from Sunday school teachers to pastors to academics, have hitched their wagons to the idea that there is a pure, true version of Christianity that can only be right and can never be wrong. Sure, their religion can be misunderstood and misapplied. Their sacred scriptures can be mistranslated and misused. Their institutions can be misled and mistaken. But never once can they ever say that true Christianity got something wrong. Never once can they blame true Christianity for a single bad thing that has ever happened.
Here, then, is the question that I encourage people to ask when they find themselves in the kind of discussion I described above:
[Clears throat] Is there a single authentic doctrine or teaching in your religion that is either factually incorrect or morally wrong?
Or, put more simply: Is your religion ever wrong about anything?
From there, you may have to quibble over some meanings. In its simplest form, “authentic” would mean that the founders of the religion would support it, or agree with it. And so, to give some examples, if a religion’s authentic doctrine is that the earth is flat, this would be factually incorrect. If a religion’s authentic teaching is that you should sacrifice every other daughter you have on an altar, that would be morally wrong (in my humble opinion, anyway).
Notice that this is a yes-or-no question that could simplify things, or lead to more elaboration, as good yes-or-no questions should. And here is the polite challenge I would offer to Christians: please, for the love of all gods, give a yes or no. If your answer is yes, then I applaud your willingness to critique your own beliefs. If your answer is no, I respect your candor even as I disagree with you, and I appreciate your ability to state your position clearly and own it. If nothing else, it is good to know who actually thinks this way.
But for those who can give neither a yes nor a no, for those who complain that this is too binary, too much of a gotcha question, I have neither applause nor respect. Dialogue requires a baseline of honesty, which includes admitting you’ve been wrong once in a while. In contrast, many Christians have opted for a perpetual siege mentality.
Some of the more sophisticated readers might be thinking, much like the hypothetical friend at the pub, that this question amounts to a cheap shot, intended to provoke an emotional response rather than stimulate a real conversation. A religion, they are sure to remind me, is far too complicated for such a simple yes or no. But is it though? For what it might be worth, I have no problem acknowledging that the world’s major religions have been right more often than they’ve been wrong. The world is a better place because of them, as these religions have helped us to build communities, formulate laws, and motivate people to do the right thing. But if you want credit for the good things—and I know you do—then you cannot deflect blame for any of the bad things. You are in no position to dismiss my question as unfair, Kellyanne Conway-style.
“But why?” I can still hear you pleading. “Why is it so important to get people to admit that their religion is wrong sometimes? What difference would that make?” With that question, you’re basically asking, “Why is it important for people to be honest?” I wouldn’t even know how to answer such a question.
It’s true that this polarized country could use more dialogue. But in the age of alternative facts, we sometimes have to make the hard choice to disengage from mealy-mouthed, insincere tactics, which serve only to empower the empowered, and to further confuse the confused.
For our own sanity, we should normalize calling out behavior that we would not tolerate in any other context. We should have high expectations for the people who claim to speak for these groups, and who claim to speak for the gods. Why on Earth would we lower our expectations for them? If they push the brutal truth farther and farther away, then they should forfeit their spot at the grown-up table. Or the pub.
So, I’ll ask it again. Is your religion ever wrong about anything? Yes or no. Answer it, and take responsibility for your answer. Or slide further into irrelevance as the rest of us try to fix the problems around you, and without you. Choose wisely.