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Christians and “Civility”

There has been a great deal of talk here about “civility” lately, much of it justified.  I’m the first one to confess that I can be pretty snarky when provoked, and I’ll gladly admit that I have a certain small talent for provoking others.

But exactly what do we mean when we talk about “civility”?  Which is to ask, where does disagreement, even vigorous disagreement, become “uncivil”?  I’d be the first one to argue, for instance, that claiming that Ann Coulter “looks like a man” is frivolous, insulting and, for that matter, beside the point.   (If your biggest criticism of Coulter is that she “looks like a man,” you’re implicitly giving her a pass on all the detestable things she’s said and written.  If she looked like Grace Kelly, would everything else about her be okay?)  But is it being uncivil to her?  That strikes me as arguable, at best.  She isn’t even here.

But leaving aside the question of whether it’s possible to be “uncivil” to someone who isn’t even part of the conversation, there is another strain of argument we hear all the time: that disagreeing with Christians, criticizing or even examining their beliefs and finding them wanting, is in some way inherently “uncivil.”

I contend that it isn’t, for a lot of reasons.First of all, to get the obvious out of the way, there is the long, bloody record of Christian history vis-à-vis gay people.  The Christian church, in its various manifestations, has been actively persecuting us for as long as it’s been in a position to do so.  The first legal code in the Western world to criminalize gayness was the Theodosian Code in the 4th century (it called for imprisonment and torture)-which was composed by a panel of Christian bishops.  The first law code to call for the death penalty for gays was the 6th century’s Justinian Code-which was likewise the handiwork of bishops.  And the persecutions continue to this day.  In parts of Africa, the Christian church still imposes severe penalties for what the Church of England used to call “the abominable crime of buggery,” and much of the Christian world still enforces sodomy laws.  And I hardly have to detail all the Christian villainy we’ve faced in this country.  The word sodomy itself has its roots in the Christian holy book.  

Whether people want to admit it or not, the way Fred Phelps and Benedict XVI talk about us is consistent with the way we’ve been treated by the Christian church for 2,000 years.  Anything pro-LGBT in Christianity is a recent  development.  I know there are people who are willing to give Christianity a pass on that.  Many more of us are not.

It will be argued that “not all Christians are like that” and that “you shouldn’t paint Christians with a broad brush.”  Well, I can’t remember ever seeing a comment here (or anywhere else, for that matter) to the effect that every single Christian everywhere is a bad person.  We are all perfectly aware that there are “affirming” and “accepting” congregations and a great many fine individual Christians.  Comments tend to be about the Christian church at the institutional level and its supporters.

I’ve pointed out before that of the 30-odd state constitutional amendments banning gay marriage, and the scores of anti-gay ballot initiatives and referenda across the country, every single one of them has been initiated or actively promoted by a Christian group.  In contrast, I’m not aware of even one pro-gay measure that has come out of a Christian group.  Not one.  

Moreover, the “affirming” churches never seem to speak out against the language and behavior of the actively hateful ones.  It’s all very well for churches to claim to be “affirming,” but that affirmation never seems to translate into action.  The old phrase “all aid short of help” comes to mind.

I also have to point out that there are no known “ex-gay” groups that are not either sponsored by Christian churches or do not have active ties to them.  And of the anti-gay groups that combined to form the “Freedom Foundation” earlier this week,  at least 14 of the 24 are identifiably Christian, while a good many more have strong ties to the Christian right.  

I’ve debated any number of homophobes over the years, both on and off the air, and I can honestly say that there wasn’t even one of them who at some point didn’t try to justify his position by citing the Bible or the church’s teaching.  And of course there is no way of calculating the amount of damage being done to us by Obama’s five anti-gay “spiritual advisers.”

But let’s leave aside for a moment Christianity’s virulently anti LGBT past and present.  There is a long, long philosophic position of unbelief, dating back to the pre-Christian era.  I’ve always loved this, from the Greek philosopher Epicurus: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”  Cicero famously declared, “The gods are forces and ideas made poetry for our instruction.” But despite their skepticism about established religion, no one presumed to accuse them of “incivility”.  

That refusal to take anything about religion at face value has been more common than not among great thinkers.  From Aristotle (“Men create gods after their own image, not only with regard to their form, but with regard to their mode of life”) to Sir Francis Bacon (“Atheism leads a man to sense”) to Voltaire (“Atheism is the voice of a few intelligent people”) to Marx (“The first requisite of the happiness of the people is the abolition of religion”), atheism has been the rule rather than the exception.  Were all those philosophers being “uncivil” by voicing their philosophies?

Even figures as unlikely as Charlie Chaplin voiced their disbelief and the reasons for it (“I am an atheist on the ground of common sense”).  To argue that people who put forth their own unbelief are being uncivil is missing the point entirely and, quite frankly, it strikes me as a rather desperate argument.  

And of course the tradition of criticizing Christianity, specifically, on various grounds is equally long and equally rich.  Thomas Jefferson:  “The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva from the brain of Jupiter.”  There is this, from Nietzsche:  “Christianity makes suffering contagious.”  And also this Nietzschean dictum: “The Christian resolution to find the world ugly and bad has made the world ugly and bad.”  Even Christian leaders have, perhaps unintentionally, called their religion into question.  Pope Leo X: “It has served us well, this myth of Christ.”

(One complaint we frequently hear is about the use of the phrase “fairy tales” to describe the Bible.  But if I were to express a belief that, say, the sun is really a flaming chariot driven across the sky each day by Apollo, would anyone hesitate to tell me I believe in a fairy tale?  Fair’s fair.)

It would be possible to cite scores more of such quotes, but why go on?  The simple fact is that unbelief in general and severe skepticism about Christianity in particular constitute a long intellectual/philosophic tradition.  Whether you agree with it or not, it is at least as valid as any other world view, and the proposition that expressing it inherently constitutes some sort of calculated insult to believers is petulant, passive-aggressive nonsense.  To put it another way, I ask, along with Martin Luther, “Why should my freedom be taken away from me by someone else’s superstition and ignorance?”

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