Part 1: The Weaponization of Religion
Even as we debate life-altering constitutional law, we still can’t bring ourselves to confront the root cause of the irreconcilable differences that divide us.
We’ve allowed religious beliefs to be given the same credibility and weight as evidence-based facts in decisions made at the state level and all the way up to the Supreme Court.
Decisions have been rendered on abortion, LGBTQ rights, and many other issues that endanger millions of lives because evidence has been rejected in favor of traditional Christian doctrine. In this, we are no different than the theocracies based on Sharia law that we condemn as barbaric.
If democracy is what we want, the only path forward is by acknowledging that religious beliefs cannot be misrepresented as facts.
Democracy will fail unless we acknowledge: faith is not fact.
When I first started writing this, I kept questioning myself. It felt surreal that I even needed to speak out on this topic.
How could we have progressed this far as a nation, as a species, and yet still be subjected to religious persecution?
How could we have allowed so many aspects of our daily lives be controlled by those who claim moral superiority based on speculation?
The very definition of life, the right to marry, the right to use contraceptives, women’s right to bodily autonomy, gender identity norms, sexuality norms, and even permission to die – all dictated by religious doctrine that we somehow accept as incontrovertible. Doctrine that has been codified into law.
Religious beliefs cannot be proven by any objective methods we use today. We may not be able to disprove those beliefs and that’s not my intent. But likewise, we must acknowledge that beliefs in the supernatural cannot be proven.
I appreciate the significant role religion plays in many peoples’ lives. A church congregation can be a powerful source of support and inspiration for the community.
To me, church should be the one place where we could be our authentic, best selves. A place to come together as one people, regardless of our differences, and become greater than the sum of our parts. A place free of judgement that embraces every human being as they are.
I was raised Catholic, but through the years attended churches from different denominations. Ones that prioritized inclusivity, fellowship, and service to others. Some churches like the First Congregational church in Ann Arbor and St. James Episcopal church in Dexter epitomize all that is good and pure about religion.
There are aspects of all religions that encourage us to love one another. To care about one another, whatever the color of our skin, gender identity or sexual orientation. To live authentically in peace and allow others to do the same.
It’s human nature to speculate about the origins of our universe, our role in it and what happens, if anything, after we die. I suppose it’s also human nature to want certainty about something so, permanent. But certainty is the one thing we don’t have.
People may hold deeply held beliefs built on doctrine that they assume to be factual, and consider it their truth, which is of course a subjective truth. Objective truths require facts, which in turn rely on evidence from hypotheses that can be tested through measurements and observations that are repeatable and can be verified independently. We call this the scientific method.
It can be discomforting and sometimes terrifying when something you thought was a certainty is suddenly shown to be uncertain or even false. Science and the scientific method acknowledge and embrace uncertainty rather than flee from it. This is perhaps one of the reasons radical conservatives can convince religious believers that the scientific method is their enemy, despite it being indispensable in every other aspect of modern life.
Perhaps the scientific method could be better understood if we recognized it as a tool, an invention. Like any tool or invention, it isn’t intrinsically good or bad. The scientific method has allowed humans to better understand our world and open our curious minds to even greater discoveries. What makes it such a powerful tool is that it allows us to better distinguish between belief and fact.
Using the scientific method, religious beliefs are the hypotheses. Just like with any other hypotheses, to determine if religious beliefs are objectively true requires that they are testable, repeatable, and independently verifiable. Since we can’t even conceive of any earthly way to test religious beliefs, no one can claim they are objectively true.
Acknowledging that faith is not fact simply recognizes that no one can substantiate the fundamental tenets of any religious doctrine or supernatural belief.
The scientific method is among humanity’s crowning achievements because it helps us move beyond mere speculation about the many mysteries in our world. It enables us to expand our understanding through objective truths and to challenge assumptions that have wrongly and cruelly caused so much human suffering.
Unfortunately, many religions still misrepresent their doctrine as absolute and indisputable, with no distinction made between subjective and objective truth. This misrepresentation is as old as Christianity itself and is what ultimately gave birth to the most powerful, unjust, and deadly form of tyranny the world has ever seen – white Christian nationalism.
For millennia, the church, autocratic empires, and whiteness formed an unholy trinity that controlled every aspect of life where Christianity ruled. From birth to marriage, reproduction to death – and everything in between. The rules of law were said to originate directly from God, and as such were incontestable and absolute – but of course interpreted and changed as the men in power saw fit.
This unholy trinity rationalized imperialist expansion and conquest resulting in genocide, enslavement, and oppression of indigenous people and non-believers, all in the name of saving souls for Christ.
It certainly has been convenient for men that Christian doctrine gave them dominion over women in every aspect of life. The subjugation of women permeates Christian doctrine and men have taken advantage of that to deny women’s rights for nearly two millennia.
It’s been only a little over 100 years since women were granted the right to vote and hold public office. Women had no representation in government, no rights to property, no say in family decisions and not even a right to their own children — women did not exist as a separate legal entity after they were married.
The reason for this? God’s punishment of Eve. Aside from claims that women did not posess the intellect and were prone to hysteria, suffrage opponents interpreted the Bible to justify why women must remain subservient to men.
This misrepresentation of faith as fact is a lie by any other name.
Radical conservative legislators exploit this lie to their great advantage today, recognizing the power that comes with controlling the religious narrative.
Statements like this one from Rep. Marjory Taylor-Greene demonstrate how baseless religious beliefs are being used to dehumanize, discriminate against, and persecute the LGBTQ community. In her speech to denounce the Equality Act on the House floor, Greene crosses the line between church and state and unabashedly declares that her opposition to LGBTQ equality is based on her belief that it will destroy God’s creation:
“God created us male and female. In his image, he created us. The Equality Act that we are to vote on this week destroys God’s creation. It also completely annihilates women’s rights and religious freedoms.”
How did we get to this point? Believers who are taught from a young age to ignore any message that varies from their religious worldview are both victims and collaborators in the Christian nationalist movement.
Fear is a potent motivator when the cost of disobeying is not only punishment by man, but eternal damnation by God. The concept of faith, which can be such a powerful force for good, is by its very nature susceptible to the most egregious abuse and manipulation.
Through the centuries, religious exploitation proved such an effective way to exert power and control over a populace that it became the ultimate weapon of man.
Radical conservative leaders today seem to have perfected the weaponization of religion.
Considering the blatant lies and misinformation being spread with impunity, it is no wonder many Christians reject facts and rationalize acts of violence. Several Christian denominations reinforce these perverse messages and indoctrinate generations of young people with a dangerous and corrupt mindset. A mindset that God sanctions even the most vicious actions against those who have been labeled evil.
But Christian nationalism is a political movement, not simply a religious or cultural one. It is a sophisticated, well-funded political machine that weaponizes religion to secure votes. Middle-of-the-road conservatives must either embrace the movement or face political extinction.
As the executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC), Amanda Tylor warns us not only about the threat of Christian nationalism to democracy, but the threat to Christianity itself:
“Christian nationalism is a political ideology and cultural framework that seeks to merge American and Christian identities. It heavily relies upon a mythological founding of the United States as a “Christian nation,” singled out for God’s special favor. It is not a religion, but it intersects with Christianity in its use of Christian symbols and language.”
“The ‘Christian’ in Christian nationalism is more about identity than religion and carries with it assumptions about nativism, white supremacy, authoritarianism, patriarchy, and militarism.”
Many people do not question their Christian beliefs because they are intertwined with a long familial history, strong cultural traditions, and a mistaken belief that to truly be American you must be Christian. There is a genuine fear of challenging these traditions, and given Christianity’s history, a well justified fear.
It is under this backdrop of fear that we have individually and collectively failed to address religion’s big lie.
Our failure is evident by both the unchecked rise of Christian nationalism and the deafening silence when it comes to speaking out against those who exploit religion. There is no doubt it will be a painful process. But as with most painful tasks we avoid, there is a time of reckoning. For me, that time of reckoning is now.
Part 2: The Reckoning
Ten years ago my young transgender son gave me the chance to see the world through his eyes. Ironically, it began on Easter Sunday as we were struggling to get the kids dressed and out the door. It was our first introduction to gender dysphoria and a foreshadowing of things to come.
I began to see the harsh realities for transgender and non-binary kids and all those pushed to the margins of life. Each of my kids seem determined to open my eyes wider to the realities of this world.
My son was distraught before socially transitioning but has thrived in the ten years since we affirmed his gender identity. We were fortunate to have medical professionals who were able to diagnose his gender dysphoria and provide the proper health care as he got older. That’s about to change.
Today, states are passing legislation that persecutes parents like me and medical professionals who support trans kids’ transition and life-affirming health care.
What exactly is my crime? I give my 14-year-old transgender son weekly testosterone shots for gender dysphoria, recommended by expert medical professionals.
I’m as guilty as sin, at least according to Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey who signed the bill into law because, “If the Good Lord made you a boy, you are a boy, and if he made you a girl, you are a girl.”
I must admit, the prospect of going to prison isn’t something I’ve had to seriously consider before, but it is nothing compared to what will happen to trans kids under this law. My son and thousands of children like him will be denied life affirming healthcare and taken away from their families.
Make no mistake, kids will die because of this legislation.
Christian nationalism is the embodiment of gas-lighting on a scale we haven’t seen since Nazi Germany. In a classic case of psychological projection, branding and messaging by Christian nationalists would have us believe that they are the ones being oppressed. Phrases like Pro Life and Religious Freedom belie the fact that Christian nationalists are the ones endangering lives and denying freedom to anyone viewed as a threat.
It appears that the Catholic Church and several protestant denominations embrace the Big Lie theory as their modus operandi. In this case, repeating the big lie that Christian doctrine is unquestionably fact has effectively indoctrinated people into assuming there must be evidence.
It is for this reason we must address the root cause, the mother of all lies. Christian nationalism is an ideology built wholly upon deception and manipulation. It was conceived by white Christian men with deeply ingrained anti-Semitic and Islamophobic worldviews. They recognized the potential of advancing their own version of biblical concepts to stem the growing opposition to their medieval Christian practices.
Today, Christian nationalists vilify feminists, BIPOC, and LGBTQ communities as enemies of God. Those groups are cast as the greatest threats to Christian nationalism.
They’re right, by the way — we are Christian nationalism’s greatest threat.
But we are not a threat to any religion, provided those who practice it or defend it do not claim it is objective truth. And provided religion is not misrepresented and exploited by equating it to scientifically obtained facts.
As evolutionary biologist Dr. Jerry A. Coyne explains in his book Faith vs. Fact, many people continue to rationalize that their faith has some scientific basis and conflate the two. Coyne meticulously shows how faith and science are inherently incompatible, conflicting in methodology, outcomes, and philosophy. What is certain is that no one can claim to be certain.
In his book, Jesus and the Hidden Contradictions of the Gospels, biblical scholar Bart Ehrman describes not only the contradictions of the gospels but the fact that they were authored anonymously and were not even eyewitness testimonies. The lack of evidence as to who even wrote the four New Testament gospels and why some gospels were simply disregarded by the church underscores the uncertainty surrounding doctrine and the influence of men.
When my child’s life is on the line, I will take any amount of evidence over a strongly held belief in the supernatural.
The fact that I have hard evidence as well as living testimony from everyone who has been involved in my child’s care outweighs a belief that my child is an abomination in the eyes of God.
No one has the right to declare that deviations from binary gender norms or sexuality norms is a sin and a crime. I don’t care if someone is born with that inclination or chooses that inclination at some point in their lives – no one has the right to condemn them.
I would like to believe that if we all embraced this simple fact, it would ultimately unite us more than divide us. The difficult challenges of our time could be debated on the merits of the evidence at hand rather than strongly held beliefs.
But we are running out of time.
Part 3: All Hail Christian Nationalism
The separation of church and state is widely recognized as a fundamental pillar of our democracy, though in practice it has clearly fallen through the constitutional cracks. Today it is under relentless assault from radical conservatives who openly defy it, as witnessed by Rep. Lauren Boebert’s proclamation that, “The church is supposed to direct the government. The government is not supposed to direct the church. That is not how our founding fathers intended it.”
Another outcome of the recent Supreme Court rulings is that states are being given greater latitude in dictating human and civil rights. Many red states have already been passing legislation that restricts voting and disproportionately affects people of color, bans abortion, and denies civil and human rights to the LGBTQ community.
The danger of allowing religious beliefs to be accepted as objective truth is painfully illustrated in anti-trans legislation. For years, experts and professionals have debunked every argument made by anti-trans conservatives. We have provided overwhelming evidence, facts proven by testing and validating hypotheses. We have presented peer-reviewed longitudinal studies, documented assessments and testimony from every credible medical and mental health organization.
As you might expect, we have been unsuccessful in stopping anti-trans legislation with this approach. Our nation’s history is replete with similar unsuccessful challenges to injustices inflicted by those interpreting our constitution through the lens of Christianity.
As if to prove this very point, Justice Alito referenced and promoted the views and morals from 17th and 13th century practices steeped in Christian precepts in his Roe v. Wade draft opinion.
In his majority opinion, Justice Alito attacks Roe v. Wade’s constitutional legitimacy and leaves no doubt that he interprets the constitution using centuries-old prevailing attitudes with roots to early Christian doctrine.
Considering Justice Thomas’ forewarning that all past rulings will be viewed from this lens and in light of the recent Dobbs ruling, you don’t need a law degree to see that these rulings will have widespread and dire implications. I’m not convinced we’ve ever honored the separation of church and state to begin with, but any hope of resuscitation ended with this Supreme Court.
As bad as it seems now, it’s about to get much worse.
Radical conservatives already frame the major crises in our country as a modern-day crusade: Women’s reproductive rights and right to bodily autonomy, insurrection fueled by Trump’s big lie of election fraud, LGBTQ equality and the attacks on trans kids, Jim Crow 2.0 voting rights restrictions, climate crisis, vaccines and masks, and of course, gun control.
Abortion and trans kids have seemingly been the holy grail for uniting the conservative voting base, from members of established Christian denominations and moderates to white supremacists and Neo-Nazis.
By framing the hot button issues as a choice between God and evil, radical conservatives prey on the emotions of voters who were told to place faith above all else and who respond to any notion that challenges their faith with fear and loathing.
The ramifications are chilling. When you consider that the bulk of the Republican Party still supports Trump’s disproven claims about a stolen election, all the ingredients are there for another seditious attempt to overthrow a duly elected president.
As it is, we probably came within a security team’s resolve of becoming an autocratic Christian nationalist theocracy on January 6th.
If armed insurrection and murder are not enough to move us to action, what will it take?
As Katherine Stewart reveals in her in-depth investigation of the Christian nationalist movement, the assault on individual liberties will not stop with the overturning of Roe v. Wade. What many view as disparate attacks on individual liberties are instead part of a coordinated effort to dismantle representative democracy.
The limits on religion outlined in the First Amendment speak to the importance of not allowing speculation to be used in governance of our country. It is a testament to how strongly our founders wanted to ensure our government was not influenced by any form of religious speculation — in spite of the overwhelming control exerted by the church at that time. Checks and balances were put into place to ensure decisions would hold up to objective scrutiny and validation.
Why do Christian nationalists want to dismantle our democracy?
The Christian nationalist movement recognized that democracy will, by its very nature, impede their mission of establishing an unchallengeable theocratic rule of government based on their distorted interpretation of Christian doctrine. For them to achieve complete and lasting control, democracy as we know it must end.
It is remarkable that our founders had the insight to model our form of democracy on the scientific method and to constitutionalize as many impediments to religious influence as they did. Unfortunately, the weaponization of Christianity was too powerful to overcome in any real sense. In particular, the power of white Christian influence continued the practices of genocide and slavery against black, indigenous, and people of color, as well as subjugation of women. It is an on-going battle.
Today we are paying the price for not addressing the root of the problem sooner. Christian nationalist legislators and judges at every level of government have already opened the gate to theocracy by ruling in favor of those who dehumanize and discriminate in the name of religious freedom. Any opposition can be silenced or eliminated simply by labeling them as enemies of God and criminalizing any form of dissent.
Look no further than the war on public education to see how brutally effective this strategy has already become. Radical conservatives seek not to improve public education, but to destroy it altogether and replace it with white Christian nationalist indoctrination. One in which every subject is whitewashed of content that challenges Christian ideology or exposes the clear and present danger of white supremacy.
Recent Supreme Court rulings allow public funds to be used in support of religious-based education and permitted school prayer in public schools. There are hundreds of pieces of legislation being pushed through state houses that effectively deny the existence of LGBTQ students and criminalize mention of their existence by educators and ban any school materials that affirm their humanity. None more destructive than the legislation Florida Gov. DeSantis recently signed into law — a law Rep. Marjory Taylor-Greene is working to replicate and introduce at the federal level.
In Florida, many subjects are being whitewashed to eliminate diverse viewpoints and any hint of social and emotional learning, social justice, culturally responsive teaching, and anything resembling Critical Race Theory – essentially any content that gives an accurate view of American life, past or present.
If we do not take immediate action, the only America future generations will know is what Christian nationalists tell them.
There is no doubt that power and control are the driving forces behind Christian nationalism. The only question now is, “How do we stop it?”
Part 4: Take Away Christian Nationalism’s Greatest Weapon: Religion
When my son was in second grade, he said he wanted to be like Martin, the one with the dream, and make this world a better place.
I hope we embrace Dr. King’s vision of building the beloved community in a world house where we all learn to live with each other in peace. That is still the dream, though it is not at all clear we will realize it unless we re-commit ourselves.
If we’ve learned anything from the African American Freedom Movement, it’s that it will take education, non-violent protest, and civil disobedience. It will take everyone who has been shoved to the margins and every ally to bend that arc of the moral universe toward justice.
But time is not on our side. Our democracy has already been subverted. The next two election cycles will determine the fate of our nation and will be felt the world over.
Everything we do now is worth orders of magnitude more than anything we do even a year or two from now. If the far-right controls all three branches of government in 2024, we will become an autocratic, white Christian nationalist theocracy. The battles for civil and human rights may become literal.
The first step is also the one that demands the most courage.
Every voice must be raised in declaring that faith is not fact and religion is not objective truth.
There is no singular solution to overcoming such deeply entrenched tyranny.
But we can take inspiration from the indigenous peoples who fought against genocide, forced conversion to Christianity and the kidnapping and abuse of their children. We can learn from the women’s suffrage and African American Freedom movements. We can find strength from 21-year-old Sophie Scholl and a small group of university students who started the White Rose movement to voice their defiance against the Nazi war machine.
To have any chance of saving our democracy, it will take people of every age and every walk of life raising their voices to oppose conservatives who exploit religion for power and control. It will take people of faith to challenge their own church hierarchies if doctrine is misrepresented as fact.
It will take all those who have been dehumanized and oppressed to unite and vote as one against Christian nationalists — black, indigenous and people of color, those identifying as LGBTQ and all those committed to fighting injustice wherever it lives. It will take allies stepping up and using their platforms and privilege to educate people on why faith is not fact and how our democracy will not survive if we do not constitutionalize this fact.
I’m all too aware that the backlash will be harsh. It is this fear of retribution that has silenced opposition to the church for centuries. But unless there is a groundswell of support to bend it, that moral arc will continue to point straight toward injustice.
We can do this.
We can start the largest grassroots campaign ever seen in our country and a corresponding voting surge to effect constitutional change. We can elect leaders who will pass legislation to ensure religion can no longer be weaponized. We can overturn all past rulings and legislation that have been prejudiced by religious beliefs. In fact, after Roe v. Wade was overturned with a stroke of Alito’s pen, I realized that this part of the process may be the easiest of all.
We can ensure every church makes it known that their religious doctrine should in no way be construed as fact and we can end the indoctrination of future generations.
Perhaps churches can then focus their time and resources on the most important and universal moral imperatives, like social justice.
I also advocate for teaching about religion in our K-12 public schools. Finally something we can agree on. We can start by explaining the difference between faith and fact, between firmly held beliefs and evidence, between hope and proof, between supernatural speculation and science. It supports critical thinking and helps kids better understand the world in which they live. After all, we wouldn’t want our young people indoctrinated with the Christian nationalist distortion of religion.
Take a moment to imagine.
Imagine we have successfully changed hearts and minds, and many churches understand that this is not a condemnation of their beliefs, but rather an accountability for those who misrepresent faith as fact and exploit religion for power.
Imagine people of faith who once demonized the trans community and their allies as child abusers, pedophiles, and groomers, now marching side by side with us as we strive for justice and equality for all LGBTQ people.
Imagine people once radicalized by white supremacists and neo-Nazis finding new meaning and purpose in defending the most vulnerable among us with the same strength and passion they once used to destroy us.
Imagine honoring the true intention of our constitution, that it be a living document and should evolve as we learn — based on facts and not religious beliefs.