Stealing Jesus:

How Fundamentalism

Bruce Bawer considers himself a Christian, but many Americans would not accept that description of him. That’s because he’s an Episcopalian and gay, and they’re fundamentalists.

Bawer’s useful, if somewhat stodgy, Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity is both a history of and a reproach to the religious movement that insists that it maintains the “historical” values of Christianity. As the author shows, fundamentalism is about as venerable as the automobile, having been invented in the early 20th century in response to Darwin’s study of evolution and the New Criticism, the academic study of the historical authenticity of the Bible. The first great skirmish of the fundamentalism wars was the 1925 trial of John T. Scopes for daring to teach evolution in a Tennessee school.

The fundamentalists won that one in court but lost it in the newspapers. According to Bawer, they withdrew in embarrassment and didn’t really rediscover their political muscle until the 1970s, when the administration of Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter tried to tax “Christian academies” that were set up principally to preserve racial segregation. Of course, segregation (and, before it, slavery) had long been a foundation of Southern fundamentalism, justified by one of the many autocratic epistles attributed to (but probably not written by) St. Paul.

Paul is among Stealing Jesus’ villains, as he is in most nonfundamentalist accounts of Christianity’s development. Bawer also briefly discusses St. Augustine and some of the more bloody-minded pillars of American Protestantism. He focuses mostly, however, on two 20th-century books, The Scofield Reference Bible and The Late Great Planet Earth. The former, published in 1909, is the principal origin of the American notion of Christianity as a bad horror movie and is derived mostly from the cryptic, violent, and just plain goofy Book of Revelation. The latter, which translated Scofield’s notions into ’70s hipspeak, was published just a few years before the Carter administration sparked a Southern rebellion. Such contemporary “religious right” leaders as Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed are rooted in that movement.

Fundamentalists claim to believe in Biblical “inerrancy,” which means that everything in that much-revised book is literally true. Like most liberal Christians, Bawer doesn’t agree. As he points out, all Christians pick and choose. Bawer prefers the gospels, which contain Jesus’ teachings in their least modified form and are the basis for what Bawer calls a “Church of Love.” Fundamentalists (or the “Church of Law”) pay little notice to Jesus’ words, preferring the sterner communiques of Paul and the whacked-out visions of Revelation. They also treasure Leviticus, with its injunction against homosexuality, yet ignore the same book’s dietary laws and strict instructions on such subjects as menstruation and animal sacrifice.

Bawer thinks he has the best possible precedent for challenging the laws set down in what Christians call the Old Testament: Jesus himself, who repeatedly told his followers that loving one another took precedence over strict adherence to Jewish law. The book’s central example is the story of the Good Samaritan, in which a man is beaten and left for dead by the side of a road. Two Jewish religious leaders pass by and refuse to help; it’s a Samaritan who eventually assists the man.

Many Christians have been taught that the Jews hated the Samaritans (although usually without a discussion of the theological source of their enmity). What is less often mentioned is that the Jews would not help the man because they thought he might be dead, and for them to touch a corpse would have been a violation of religious law. So this is a story not only about loving your enemies but also about elevating that love above the law. For a liberal gay Christian like Bawer, it’s the ideal parable.

American Christian fundamentalists treasure the law—their version of it, which is only partially derived from the Bible—above love. As Bawer discusses, they see their faith as a transaction: In exchange for accepting Jesus as their “personal savior,” believers go to heaven—and everyone else goes to a hell that fundamentalists imagine with prodigious enthusiasm. It’s as simple as that. As the author notes, this sign-on-the-dotted-line religion turns believers into children, unable to pose a single question to their pastors without being accused of being under the influence of Satan. Or, given the growing influence of Christian TV and shopping-mall-styled “megachurches,” into passive consumers, buying salvation off the rack.

Bawer then turns to how America’s increasingly gutless media covers fundamentalism. The section on portrayals of Christianity in movies seems superfluous, except for a defense of the gay-themed Priest against Roger Ebert’s pandering pan. The discussion of TV, however, does make one interesting point: that the secular-humanist Donahue was driven out of the marketplace by more lurid shows that draw on the fundamentalist practice of “testifying” to one’s sins.

More provocative is the author’s treatment of the mainstream media’s failure to report candidly on the activities and beliefs of various sects, from the Mormons (now rich enough to be “mainstream”) to the Heaven’s Gate cult. Commentators were quick to distinguish Marshall Applewhite’s followers from adherents of “real” religion—as they were with Jim Jones’ years before—but Bawer notes that Applewhite drew on two standard ingredients of American fundamentalism: fear of sexuality (especially gay sexuality) and the prophecies of the Book of Revelation.

In researching the religious controversies of the early 20th century, Bawer discovered that American newspapers once covered religious controversies with an enthusiasm and enterprise that have since vanished. Today, newspapers often print the assertions of large religious groups without question. Take, for example, fundamentalists’ attempt to portray Halloween as a “satanic” holiday derived from the festival of Samhain, whom religious-right pamphleteers identify as the Celtic god of the dead. In fact, Samhain is the name of the Celtic harvest festival, not of any god, and there’s little evidence that the Celts even worshiped a god of the dead. Yet this fundamentalist disinformation has been widely published in the nonfundamentalist press.

That’s my example of the media’s failure to regard fundamentalism with sufficient skepticism, not Bawer’s. Indeed, the sober, well-meaning Stealing Jesus is short on examples of fundamentalist foolishness. He’s more likely to quote such liberal theologians as Hans Kung, Paul Tillich, and Reinhold Niebuhr than to make fun of his theological adversaries. Bawer’s idea of a fierce jibe is this comment on Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker: “The Bakkers, unlike most of their legalistic brethren, engaged in relatively little hate rhetoric; this seems, however, to have been a function not of principle but of a total aversion to anything remotely conceptual.”

The author calls his adversaries “legalistic Christians,” but his own prose could be termed legalistic. Here’s one of his stuffier sentences: “Though complex intellectual arguments by nonlegalists often backfire because legalists tend to respond by bristling at perceived condescension and by retreating defensively from confusing ambiguities into simplistic putative certainties, appeals that address them with an implicit assumption of their basic fairness, good humor, and good sense, and that frame the issues at hand in clear language that doesn’t seem to pose a threat to their highest values and hopes, are not automatically doomed to fall on deaf ears.” This is the sort of clear language that makes me respond by yawning. Or picking up Voltaire, Nietzsche, or Marx, who felt no need to be polite to religious zealots and charlatans.

Despite his genteel approach, Bawer can’t help seeming a bit of a snob, especially since he frequently attributes fundamentalism’s appeal to a lack of education among working-class Americans. He’s right, of course, that the preposterous assertions of religious-right leaders are rarely acknowledged because educated people pay them so little attention. He notes that one of Robertson’s books went through multiple printings without anyone noticing that the author had identified Voltaire as the pen name of “Henri Beyle.” (In fact, Marie-Henri Beyle was the real name of Stendhal.)

Such passages suggest that the battle is not between loving Christians and legalistic Christians but between smart ones and dumb ones. That doesn’t answer one question, however: If Bawer’s so smart, why is he a Christian? (As opposed to, say, a secular humanist who admires the moral teachings of a nondivine Jesus.) And, given that religion is ultimately a matter of faith even for liberal intellectuals, what if the fundamentalists are right? That would be the ultimate nasty joke of a God, who, if you believe the Old Testament and Revelation, is more than a little malicious.

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