Is There a Better Way for the Left to Talk About American Christianity?
Marie Mutsuki Mockett on the Intersection of Justice and Faith
“This is the anthropologists’ answer to the question, why are people almost always, almost everywhere, religious. Another answer, favored by those who claim to be defenders of science, is that religion formed around the desire to explain what prescientific humankind could not account for. Again, this notion does not bear scrutiny. The literatures of antiquity are clearly about other business.”
–Marilynne Robinson, from When I Was a Child I Read Books
English is my third language. I learned it after Japanese and German once I started nursery school in California, and I still remember the physical discomfort of being unable to tell the adults who offered me milk that I had an allergy; I understood them, but they could not understand me. With time, each language I acquired clarified my world and had the effect of clarifying me; I became a person who could participate in a story.
The first two books I wrote required Japanese—a lot of it—and the effort stretched my mental capabilities. Whatever I did next, I wanted to stick to English, the language with which I am now most comfortable. Starting in 2016, I lived in a trailer beside a harvesting crew, and followed them as they worked the fields, and went to church every Sunday. Never mind that I did not grow up going to church and that I am not a Christian; at least everything would be in English.
At one of the first services I attended, the pastor spoke of the need for “restoration,” a curious turn of phrase, I thought, considering that the building had been freshly painted chocolate brown and the pews were filled with multigenerational families. The way the pastor had leaned into the term—restoration—implied a concept that was fraught in this environment.
On the road, I became close to a 23-year-old harvester named Juston, and I asked him what was meant by “restoration.”
“There are certain key phrases,” he said, “that mean things to us, but won’t mean anything to you. ‘Restoration’ is one of them.”
A few weeks later, when we attended a mega church in Oklahoma City, the language was much more accessible. Pastor Craig wanted me to know that he understood I might be in pain, and that there was a way out of the hurt. I left that church a little teary, though I acknowledge it probably helped that he had a killer band and a great sound system.
“That’s called a seeker sermon,” Juston told me. “It was specifically designed for someone like you.”
Maybe this was the moment when I decided, consciously, to at least in part treat the world of Christian America as a foreign country with a foreign language. I could enter into it, as I had Californian English, and try to learn the movements, the nuances, the in-group cues.
I also had to acknowledge that a pre-programmed soundtrack had played in my head each time I had engaged in conversation with someone about God or church. It didn’t matter if I was talking to an atheist, recovering Catholic, or Jew; a disembodied voice told me that science was the real deal and taking religion seriously bordered on superstition. “Religion,” said the voice, “is stupid.” God, by association, is stupid too.
The loudest exponent of the “religion is stupid” earworm is probably the evolutionary scientist Richard Dawkins, whom I had read obsessively at one point in my twenties and thirties. In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins writes, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” Milder variations of this mindset run through mainstream, popular culture. I’m thinking of a New Yorker cartoon in which Noah and his wife stand in the open doorway to the ark, now resting on dry land thickly carpeted with skulls and bones. “No, you were right—this is much better than how it was before,” Noah yells, as two donkeys peer over his shoulder and a rainbow floats in the upper left corner.
In Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad, his heroine, Cora, says “Poems were too close to prayer, rousing regrettable passions. Waiting for God to rescue you when it was up to you. Poetry and prayer put ideas in people’s heads that got them killed, distracting them from the ruthless mechanism of the world.” Religion, so important on the actual Underground Railroad, plays almost no part in this story; it is a kind of liberal-educated person’s fantasy of what abolition could have been.
Visualize the indulgent way adults regard three-year-olds peering up the chimney on Christmas Eve: that’s the other way I’ve seen my peers refer to God and to religion. God is like some kind of therapy pet, a defanged harmless thing that doesn’t kill its own children but that makes everything from work stress to derailed travel plans bearable without inspiring any of the awe that might prompt the building of a cathedral. God is also rarely called to as “God.”I’ve come to believe that “Religion is stupid” is an inherently hazardous way to think.
In her book Help, Thanks, Wow, Anne Lamott refers to God as “the Good” in case the name God is “too triggering.” Variations of this cute, and almost ingratiating tone appear in uplifting social media memes, or in the watered down religious paraphernalia of the belief system known as “New Age,” both of which feature flowers and balloons accompanied by terms like “inner light” and “goodness,” but never God, and drawn in a font resembling a childish scrawl.
Something about both these viewpoints has never sat quite right with me. I’m old enough to remember when “Made in Japan” elicited titters. The experience of watching “Made in Japan” go from meaning “cheap” to meaning “cool” has bordered on a kind of gaslighting for me. Things are not always what they seem and people can switch sides quickly. A part of me found the “God is stupid” or “God isn’t really God but is cute” narrative to similarly be too easy and glib.
As adults, when we pick up a language class from Babbel, do we automatically weaken ourselves? I know from childhood that some part of me has remained consistent each time I learned a new language. Why would Christianity be any different?
I’ve come to believe that “Religion is stupid” is an inherently hazardous way to think. The most obvious reason why it is dangerous is that Donald Trump is our president, and that he feels free to sprinkle Evangelical code words into his Tweets that tell his base he is speaking to them. It doesn’t matter if, in using these code words, he sounds like the evangelical equivalent to a first semester French student trying to ask about the hour of the day, but inadvertently commenting about the weather. At least, it seems, he is trying. Meanwhile, we, the liberal and educated, are left with “God is stupid” or “God is cute.”
There are other problems with both of these scripted ways of talking about God. First, they depend on the assumption that religion is solely an outmoded and superstitious way of thinking that we, the modern and educated, have outgrown. Second, both stances have the effect of making us blind to certain realities about our actual history. And third, they block secular people from connecting in any deeper way with Christians—a dangerous proposition for a politician, or anyone hoping to have conversations across our fractured country.
Frances Fitzgerald, in her in her award-winning book, The Evangelicals, writes that the “black church did not impact the white church until the mid-20th century when the Civil Rights movement began in earnest.” Fitzgerald is primarily concerned with the history of the Evangelicals as a voting block in the United States; for a long time, this was also my general interest in and grasp of how religion, race and history intersected in America. But this view doesn’t capture the complex manner in which white evangelical Christianity developed—and remains—in the United States, nor does it address the experience of Christianity.When we reduce Christianity to either “stupid” or “triggering,” we aid those who have hijacked this religion and warped it into a form of cruelty.
Albert Raboteau, in his classic book Slave Religion, is one scholar who has carefully traced the interplay between the white churches of the colonies, and the establishment of the black church in America. Once enslaved and free men and women understood that true Christianity involved tolerance and love, the Christianity of the slaveholders was revealed as hypocritical. Colonial theologians had distorted the essential meaning of the golden rule in order to justify not only the practice of slavery in the colonies clear back to the 17th century, but also the segregated black church, which became so popular after the Civil War ended in 1863. In intellectual circles, this drama tends to be flattened, or sometimes dismissed, since considering Christianity seriously runs the risk of making one seem “stupid.” But in fact, the argument could be made that the black church was and is doing extraordinary work in restoring church in America to what church is supposed to be.
The great writer and activist Frederick Douglass—who escaped enslavement and traversed the actual Underground Railroad—said of Christianity: “I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.” This is in pretty stark contrast to the viewpoint of a figure like Ta-Nehisi Coates, an unabashed atheist, whose own views are closer to Cora’s in the fictional Underground Railroad. “I don’t believe the arc of the universe bends towards justice. I don’t even believe in an arc. I believe in chaos. I believe powerful people who think they can make Utopia out of chaos should be watched closely. I don’t know that it all ends badly. But I think it probably does.”
The difference between Douglass and Coates might be explained by some as the difference between a “believer” and a “nonbeliever”; certainly this is how I would once have simplified the distinction between these two men. But I now think that these two labels are misleading. I don’t think the difference between these two men is primarily about belief or the decades separating them, but about what Christianity is.
When you learn another language, and travel to another country, it is possible that you will be introduced to a new perspective you have not previously considered. On the road with the harvesters, this is what happened to me. I had for so long accepted, without thinking, that Christianity was an outmoded way of explaining how the world worked and that while this might be fine for the Amish and their devotion to the horse and buggy, no forward-thinking person could really think seriously about God. This has changed. While I did not become a Christian, I did begin to ask: what is Christianity?
Juston, my guide into evangelical America, would sometimes speak of “materialism”—the idea that we are no more than atoms and that our notions of fairness and love are accidents of brain chemistry absent of any meaning. Coates’s position reflects the current extreme end of the “God is stupid” narrative. If there is no meaning—if we are all simply physical bodies in possession of that strange thing called consciousness—then why be good, and good to each other? But for Juston and his likeminded friends, the path to undoing the injustice of slavery and the racialization of the United States lies in Christianity and depends on an understanding of what Christianity actually is. The role of Martin Luther King, Jr., a pastor, is often a source of discomfort for secular intellectuals who want to believe the Civil Rights movement could have happened without the language of Christ and God. (See Yale scholar Martin Hägglund’s This Life as a recent example.) But many historians argue that Christianity was necessary to push the Civil Rights agenda as far as it has come.
The idea that Christianity was the best humans could do before science showed up, is a fairly new way to think about religion. While hard-core fundamentalists are responsible for this interpretation of the gospel, intellectuals have not helped matters by enforcing this position. Not everyone holds this viewpoint, however. Marilynne Robinson writes: “I suppose it was in the 18th century of our era that the notion became solidly fixed in the Western mind that all this narrative was an attempt at explaining what science would one day explain truly and finally.” What if, in fact, Christianity is about something else entirely?
What do we on the left mean when we say we value intelligence and truth? When we reduce Christianity to either “stupid” or “triggering,” we aid those who have hijacked this religion and warped it into a form of cruelty. It ought to be possible to talk about Christianity—as a non Christian—using the words and phrases that have meaning within the world of religion and which restore Christianity to its essential message: care for the poor, the sick and a reconciliation with each other. Anyone can speak this language. Communication between the secular world and the religious world should not be in the hands of Donald Trump; it should be in the hands of people who stand for what is true.
Marie Mutsuki Mockett is the author of AMERICAN HARVEST: God, Country, and Farming in the Heartland, published by Graywolf Press in April 2020.