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The source of Christianity’s conflicted nature goes farther back than you might think

The source of Christianity’s conflicted nature goes farther back than you might think

Flag Waiver: Painting illustration by the author Christopher Cudworth

The irony of the obvious

Some secrets in this world seem destined to remain hidden. Others exist out in the open, relying on the irony of the obvious to obscure their existence. Unfortunately, neither of these is an honest approach to the pursuit of truth.

The open secret of the Christian tradition is that early in its history, the simple faith that began with disciples spreading the word two-by-two transformed into the one thing Jesus most despised, an institution wielding scriptural legalism to gain political status and economic power. That great sin flourished despite many efforts over the centuries to free Christianity from the grip of corrupt traditions. Even the tremendous changes wrought by the Reformation did not rid the Christian religion of the toxic and dishonest influence of legalism. Instead, the Protestant tradition developed its own brand of legalism around the concepts of biblical inerrancy and infallibility. These in turn are anchored in scriptural literalism. These tactics fuel an inherently legalistic tradition called apologetics, which constitutes a wall of ideology specifically designed to defend the narrow worldview it protects. 

The first point of contention we need to consider is that Jesus effectively debunked the practice of apologetics and its ardent claim to scriptural authority long ago. His teaching methods differed greatly from people chained to scripture as the source of absolute, literal truth. He shared spiritual lessons in a much simpler fashion than the legalistic religious authorities he criticized for demanding that everyone behave according to their version of the letter of the law. Instead, Jesus taught using parables based on events from everyday life and the world around us.

That was an honest-to-goodness approach to encouraging people to think about God in new ways. He invited people to engage with God (if you believe, and not all do) through a mind open to connecting human lives, creation, and the spirit within us. There’s nothing complicated about that, nor does it require any kind of apologetic hairsplitting to explain it. The lessons taught by Jesus had far fewer rules than the controlling traditions favored by religious authorities whose strict control over scriptural interpretation granted them power and position in life. Instead, Jesus preached that the meek should inherit the Earth. That meant the religiously powerful were not automatically imbued with a right to rule. 

Corrective actions necessary

Yet we still see those instincts at work today. Getting Christianity back on the right path today is a difficult task because many believers refuse to admit that the Christian religion has ever been wrong or done anything to mislead people. That is why it is so hard to help people comprehend that religion is capable of causing real suffering in this world. The track record does not lie. Christianity has been used to block civil rights, brand love between two people sinful, and denigrate useful science based on a biblically literal interpretation of scripture. And that’s just the start of the list. 

None of that negative behavior serves God (or anyone else) in any useful way. Yet, these are some of the highest priorities among legalistic Christians determined to “win” what they term a Culture War. We have a right to ask: What kind of worldview works so hard to deny obvious material truths and block equal rights to people deserving of them?

The answer is that Christian legalism needs to aggressively protect its worldview because it does not necessarily stand for truth. Even its own tradition is rife with conflict and disagreement over what the real purpose of religion. That is why scriptural legalists so aggressively defend their biblical views from any sort of objective analysis or criticism, lest any errors or contradictions be exposed. 

The central tactic is for Christian apologetics to claim that “scripture can only be tested with other scripture.”1 That’s better known as a tautology, “a statement that is true by necessity or by virtue of its logical form.” Yet any religion dependent on strongly defensive tactics is inherently susceptible to an “ends justify the means” psychology to protect its doctrine and authority. It’s not hard to find evidence of this approach in recent headlines covering the relationship between religion and politics in the news. 

Present day problems

    A 2019 Los Angeles Times story titled “Evangelicals Stand Firm with Trump” shares a revealing quote about defending religious support for Donald Trump. “God always chose people that had flaws,” said Bob Love, a Newport Beach real estate developer. “I feel people are people — nobody’s perfect.” That apologetic missive could apply to a long line of ostensibly Christian politicians eager to exchange policy promises for voter support. That is the type of self-fulfilling prophecy that covers all kinds of sins. It also reveals the lengths to which Christian apologetics will go to avoid accountability for corruption and hypocrisy in their cultural relationships. 

     It’s easy to excuse morally conflicted behavior by making the claim that people exhibiting lousy behavior are still “doing God’s work.” That’s the “end justifies the means” approach, and it aids all sorts of quid pro quo alliances between religion and politics. That’s exactly the pattern of morally twisted, politically-motivated religion Jesus intended to depose. 

   And yet, that tradition persists to this day because so many people care more about personal power and claiming self-righteousness than carrying out the ‘meek and honest work’ of God on Earth. That means we have a right to ask, “Who gets to make the claim that they’re doing ‘God’s work?” Too often in human history, it is religious authoritarians making such claims, and when combined with authoritarian political ideology it adds up to religio-fascism. That’s the problem we’re facing in America today. The solution is confronting the corrupt theology at the core of such claims because even Jesus certainly wouldn’t agree with what’s going on in America or the world today. 

This article contains selected excerpts from a newly published book by Christopher Cudworth titled Honest-to-Goodness: Why Christianity Needs a Reality Check and How to Make It Happen. It is available on*

Sources for the articles cited and terms used are available in the book’s bibliography.  



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