"If I cannot smoke cigars in Heaven, I shall not go." - Mark Twain

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Tennessee Mosque Burnings: Christian Extremism versus the Gospel of Niceness (Part 1)

I’m traveling in Tennessee this week, and in my time here I have been overwhelmed by a couple of issues in the media.  The first has been this article, “Author:  More Teens Becoming ‘Fake’ Christians,” published by CNN.com, about a Methodist minister, Kenda Creasy Dean, who has written a book entitled, Almost Christian.  In it she argues that young people today have adopted a “mutant” or “imposter” Christianity.  According to Dean, teens are “inarticulate about their faith” and many seem to believe little more than that God wants them to “feel good and do good.”  Espousing a simplistic “gospel of niceness,” they believe that “faith is simply doing good and not ruffling feathers.”

Dean believes teen faith is “spineless”:  “The Christian call to take risks, witness and sacrifice for others is muted.”  I assume Dean believes the teens aren’t spending enough time "witnessing," or proselytizing to strangers in public places as I was taught to do as an adolescent by my own (Methodist) church leaders.  We would walk up to people in a mall or on a beach, tap them on the shoulder, and ask them if they knew Jesus.  If they said, “yes,” we didn’t bother them anymore.  If they said, “no,” then we were supposed to talk them into accepting Christ.  Often I was too shy to push too hard, and I guess this is what Dean means by calling teen faith “spineless.”  But I just didn’t want to annoy people.  Maybe that’s what Dean means by saying that young people want to avoid “ruffling feathers” -- yet this also seems like simple politeness.  Even back when I was a born-again Christian, my Southern upbringing wouldn’t allow me to obnoxiously harass strangers while they were trying to do their shopping.

What really put me into a huff when I read this article were the words “mutant” and “imposter” to describe the faith of these young people who were not actively bothering anybody.  In response, I posted these comments to the CNN article’s comments thread:

“As a teen, I was one of those kids passionate and articulate about Christianity. Then I read the Bible all the way through for the first time and found it to be filled with hatred against women and gay people. And what is wrong with a "gospel of niceness"?  It's so much better than what the Bible has to offer, which is a gospel that tells us to ABANDON our family members who don't believe in the Christian god. I grew up watching conservative, born-again Christians do just that.  And what on earth is a "mutant" Christianity? Catholics think Protestants developed a "mutant" Christianity and Protestants think Mormons developed a "mutant" Christianity. What right do these people have to tell others what kind of Christianity is THE authentic one? If that lady eats shrimp, then I say she is the one who has adopted a mutant Christianity. See http://www.godhatesshrimp.com to see just how far you have strayed from God's laws, you Red Lobster loving heathens!”

As you can see, as a former born-again Christian, when I get my own feathers ruffled I have a tendency to threaten people with hell, even though as an atheist, I no longer believe in it. 

Yet aside from my tongue-in-cheek argument about the abomination of shrimp-eating, what strikes me now is the fact that there are a whole lot of Christians who would say that if Kendra Dean, a woman, dares to be a preacher, then she is breaking Biblical laws that prohibit women from teaching men.  She herself is a kind of “mutant” (in this case, read: liberal) Christian, according to the more conservative Christians, like those of the Church of Christ, who do not allow women to speak in church in the presence of men and who can recite numerous Bible verses to back up their position.

So it seems everyone’s living in a glass house when it comes to the “real-or-fake” religion game, and for an atheist, watching Christians fight over whose interpretation of the Bible is “real” and whose is “fake” is like being on one of those Lost fanpages where diehards engage in endless comments thread arguments over what the hell happened in the final episode.  And you’re an outsider looking in and you just want to scream, “Who cares!  This plot got so convoluted so long ago that it hasn’t made any sense since the first season (or in Christianity’s case, the first century) anyway!  And even then it didn’t make a whole lotta sense!”

On a more serious note, the other issue saturating the Tennessee news this week shows us how this business of determining who is a “real” and who is a “fake” Christian can lend itself to more dangerous rhetoric, such as the attempt to determine which non-Christian faiths are to be considered “real” religions and which are to be considered “fake.”  Consider the recent comment by Tennessee Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey, who questioned whether the state should classify Islam as a “real” religion (in which case it would be  afforded the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom) or as a cult (in which case it would not be afforded Constitutional protection):

Ramsey’s sentiments are shared by many other Tennesseans, some of whom even won themselves a spot on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show by protesting against a mosque under construction in Murfreesboro, Tennessee:

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But this story got worse.  A few days after this segment aired, someone actually torched the mosque construction site in Murfreesboro. 

On Friday the feds confirmed that it was arson.  Ok, one might say, this is just all in response to the Muslim community center being built two blocks from Ground Zero.  Soon enough it will pass.  But here’s the interesting part.  During the news conference at the site, a Rutherford County school bus passed by, and from the bus window, a student yelled, “White Pride!” at those gathered at the mosque site.  (Apparently this kid has never watched Dave Chappelle or he would know that the proper phrase is “White Power!”  -- but maybe this new phrase is a trend among the up and coming KKK tween set.  I don’t know.)

Now, there are people who would argue that the mosque attacks in the U.S. are not about race, but I think the kid on the bus yelling “White Pride!” at mosque congregants serves as a reminder that here in the South, even the schoolchildren know what this shit’s about.

I mean, down here, we have a long history of burning down the churches, businesses, and homes of minorities.  There are still plenty of “good ol’ boys” who want to, as the Tea Partiers say, “restore America” -- to about 1963.

And this is not nearly the first time a mosque has been targeted in Tennessee.  In 2008 another mosque was burned, this time in Columbia.  In addition, the walls of the mosque were defaced with swastikas and the words, “White Power.”  (Obviously, these racists were more seasoned.)

The arsonists were three men who described themselves as members of the Christian Identity Movement, a Christian extremist organization that claims (like the Christianity of the Nazis) that white Europeans are God’s chosen people.  One of the arsonists told authorities that “What goes on in that building is illegal according to the Bible” and that within his Christian organization, “stripes or promotions are earned for committing acts of violence against ‘enemies.’”  It seems to me that what we have here is a sort of Christian al Qaeda that, like the KKK (a fiercely Protestant organization) or the Nazis themselves, will rarely be mistaken for representing the majority of Christians.

But like the KKK and the Nazis, the Christian Identity Movement shows the deep connection between Christian extremism, white supremacy movements, and domestic terrorism.

Now, I imagine that Kendra Dean along with most Christians will argue that a white supremacist, terrorist Christianity is not a “real” Christianity.  It is fake, mutant, imposter.  But what would happen in a world where Christians felt constantly put upon to remind everyone that “not all Christians are violent” just because of the Christian extremist violence of the Christian Identity Movement?  I wonder if maybe then more people would realize that it’s not Christians-against-Muslims or Muslims-against-Christians.  It’s sane, nonviolent people against the crazies – of all religions and creeds.

And maybe more people would realize that this so-called “gospel of niceness” might be something much more profound than Kendra Dean seems to recognize.  Dean says she wants a faith that can take risks, that avoids being “spineless” -- but a kid yelling hate speech out the window to a group of people that included the county sheriff is certainly not spineless.  It is in itself a kind of risk-taking behavior.  Burning down a mosque because what goes on inside is “illegal according the the Bible” is certainly one way of answering “the Christian call to take risks.”  But that’s the thing about a hardcore religious belief.  In a world where you know you are right about everything, you don’t feel like it’s wrong to “witness” to strangers while they’re trying to do their shopping.  And maybe there are other things -- meaner, crueler things -- that you don’t feel like it’s wrong to do.

Perhaps from this point of view a “gospel of niceness” begins to look more like something to be embraced and celebrated rather than something to be reproached.  After all, a “gospel of niceness” can be shared by Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and even those godless atheist heathens like me, and frankly, it might be the only thing that keeps this country from being completely, totally fucked.


  1. Liked.

    I'm upset that the mosque burning isn't a bigger news item - I picked it up from the BBC, and I live in fucking Missouri.

  2. Betty: great article, I've retweeted and posted an excerpt at LGF.

  3. Wow! That is such a crock of shit! Stop reading satanic verses... Show me one verse that say we as Muslims believe non Muslims are najis. Such bloody LIARS!!!!! We cleanse the najis before we pray by doing something called wudu. It's purification before prayer. Stop lying!

  4. If "they" can hijack ethics, morals, basic descent behavior, then we can hijack the word hell.


  5. Wow, what a great post. Well written, well balanced arguments.

    As for Trencherbone, simply put, you are an Idiot.

  6. Is this an atheist blog, or an anti-Christian blog? I say we cheer whenever some house of "worship" gets stopped. Fake is fake, when white people practice it, brown people or polka dotted people. Why should Muslims get a free pass?