“Look at the tyranny of party-- at what is called party allegiance, party loyalty-- a snare invented by designing men for selfish purposes-- and which turns voters into chattels, slaves, rabbits; and all the while, their masters, and they themselves are shouting rubbish about liberty, independence, freedom of opinion, freedom of speech, honestly unconscious of the fantastic contradiction; and forgetting or ignoring that their fathers and the churches shouted the same blasphemies a generation earlier when they were closing their doors against the hunted slave, beating his handful of humane defenders with Bible-texts and billies, and pocketing the insults and licking the shoes of his Southern master.”― Mark Twain, Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1: The Complete and Authoritative Edition
We were in Missouri, so the experience ought not have been completely unexpected. I kept my distaste to myself, though, and walked past as if I did not see the small group and their ugly poster boards. I wondered why they were able to take up positions at an Interstate rest stop and offend some, if not the majority, of the travelers. I wanted to ask them who in the hell they thought they were and what made them think they had the right to interrupt my westward run down the highway on a bright sunny Sunday.
But I didn’t.
You’ve seen these people before at various locales. Sometimes they put up their signs and hand out pamphlets in city parks or on downtown sidewalks. They display photos of aborted fetuses and want to shock viewers into reducing women’s rights to control their own bodies. They are, invariably, church folks handing out literature, riddled with inaccuracies, and offering opinions of what their Jesus might think of abortion. In several cases, the color pictures of the aborted fetuses had been altered to make the unborn and undeveloped baby look like it was in shock and had been mutilated alive.
This is just one small example of how the religious, particularly evangelical Christians, are trying to force themselves into the lives of Americans and their institutions of government and daily life. When I was a boy in elementary school, we began each day with the “Lord’s Prayer” and the “Pledge of Allegiance” to the flag of the United States. Both, regardless of how you felt about Christianity or your country, were forms of indoctrination, and indoctrination doesn’t stick. People forced to believe, do not believe, and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance cannot create patriots. Building a more perfect union that provides equal opportunity will make patriots. Ordering children to say the Lord’s Prayer does not grow Christian adults, either. Even a toddler can be fearful of judgment. Why try to scare them into believing?
The law is settled on the matter of keeping religion out of public schools. Several Supreme Court rulings through the years have found that allowing the practice of religion, and especially prayer, in a publicly-funded educational institution is a violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The court has also banned organized Bible readings for religious instruction and even prohibits school sponsored prayers at high school football games. In Texas, of course, we don’t care what the law says; our schools teach the Bible. While it is supposed to taught in a secular fashion to explain its impact on history, the Texas Freedom Network has found numerous cases where it is nothing more than religious instruction paid for by public tax dollars.
The examples are egregious. A course in Klein ISD tells students that “The Bible is united in content” and lacks contradictions because it is “written under God’s direction and inspiration.” In a classroom at Prosper ISD, a course informs young learners that they might be living in the last days of history, and out in Ector County, where dinosaurs died to make oil for us all, if you are a student you will be shown a slide show titled, “Moses and the Red Sea Crossing: Truth or Fiction?” The answer is provided by the school district with an audacious claim: “Sad to say mainstream anti-God media do not portray these true facts in the light of faith. But prefer to sceptically [sic] doubt such archaeological proofs of the veracity & historicity of the Biblical account, one of the most accurate history books in the world."
You will not be surprised, therefore, to learn that a famous poll about a decade ago revealed that 59 percent of Texans, either “don’t know,” or believe dinosaurs and humans walked the Earth during the same time periods. Spring roundup on the ranch must have been a hell of a thing to watch, eh? Only 35% believed that humans evolved from other species, 51 percent, a gottdamn majority of this state, does not think evolution is real, and the remaining 15 percent say they don’t know what they think. I believe we are living in an intellectual backwater and things would’ve been just fine if Eve didn’t take a bite out of the frickin’ apple.
What we do believe in is ‘Merica, and Texans are probably clapping, if they pay attention to the government, for a double Pledge of Allegiance now required in certain parts and committees of the U.S. House of Representatives. Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Republican from Florida, introduced a bill in the House to require a recitation of the pledge prior to the beginning of hearings of committees. Even though the pledge is already spoken by members when they meet in chambers, Gaetz suggested doing so in committee might inspire his colleagues. It did prompt a Democratic member to offer an amendment that stipulated “no person who supported an insurrection against the United States in any way” should be invited to read the pledge before the committee. The amendment failed and Gaetz’ measure passed the Republican controlled committee, which means representatives will now say the pledge twice a day, proving how patriotic they are, until their party’s candidate loses a presidential election, and they try to overturn the results.
Force feeding patriotism and religion is a fine recipe for institutional destruction. The church has become a perfect example. Evangelism has not increased involvement in religion. In fact, a new survey from Pew indicates that there is a rapid decline in participation in Christianity in the U.S. and the number of people who are considered “nones,” without religion, is dramatically rising. In less than 50 years, Pew believes trends will turn Christianity into a minority religion in this country. Scholars suggest that societies tend to become secular as they develop, and, when basic needs for populations are met, religion is less important.
I think there are two other extant causes that are chasing people away from religion. Both are prominent in American thought and culture. The first has much to do with politics. The religious right seemed to overpower Christianity in the ‘90s and weaponize the Bible and interpret its language in a manner that forced choices. If you believed a woman had a right to choose, how could you be a Christian? You certainly couldn’t vote Democrat and be a Christian. These edicts, unspoken and inferred, were distasteful enough for people already on the perimeter of religious beliefs that it became a simple choice to back away from participation in church. We all had friends who were gay or someone who had to end a problem pregnancy and we had a hard time seeing them cast into the fires of hell.
The other problem for religion, which is driving a disconnect from almost all Christian denominations, is the behavior of religious leadership. There cannot be anything more challenging than convincing sinners they can find the truth in your dogma when your church has practically institutionalized pedophilia, and even protected the most resolute criminals within its walls. The number of lives ruined by priests in the modern Catholic church might even transcend the total alleged to have been “saved.” The international story of child abuse is widely known and hardly worth rehashing here, except for one dark example, Cardinal George Pell of Australia.
Pell, who was imprisoned for more than 400 days after being convicted of molesting two altar boys, held the highest position in the Australian Catholic diocese and later rose to Rome to serve closely with the Pope. Australian journalist Tess Lawrence, who described Pell as the “devil incarnate,” has spent years writing about Pell’s transgressions even as he climbed the Catholic church’s hierarchy. After his recent death, she delivered what she called her “obitchuary,” and quoted one of Pell’s victims.
“I can’t feel any sympathy,” the man told Lawrence. “I’m just thinking of my schoolmates who killed themselves (because they were sexually abused by Catholic clergy), or who died from an overdose, who died a little bit, day by day.
“As far as I’m concerned it was murder. Murder by degree. Murder by stealth, a slow death, a painful death. The dicks those bastards raped my mates with, me, might as well have been a knife. Those dicks are a murder weapon.
“I’m lucky that I’m still standing, even if it is just standing at times. But I can’t promise what I might do to myself tomorrow because of those cunts and people like Pell who protected them.”
Pell was frequently investigated on allegations of abuse, which he consistently denied even after being convicted and sent to solitary confinement. Though his case was overturned on appeal, there were several public charges he was a frequent practitioner of sexual abuse of boys, and there were multiple investigations. Lawrence and the victims she interviewed claimed Pell not only practiced pedophilia but protected fellow priests in the Australian diocese who were fellow participants.
The Catholic church in the states is no less guilty of the sins they have denied, until proved in a court of law. Untold billions have been paid out in settlements to sexual abuse victims of the Catholic church. Of course, in America, Catholics must share headlines with the protestants, and stories like the one of Jerry Falwell, Jr. and his wife Becky, who had an awkward threesome sexual arrangement with a pool boy in Florida. The president of Liberty University, a conservative Christian whose endorsement was reported to have helped Trump win the presidency, was said by his wife’s lover to enjoy standing close to them and watching as his spouse and the kid coupled.
There are countless examples of why Christian faith is collapsing, and it’s likely past due. As churches become more political, there are also calls for taxation. Pastors raise funds from the pulpit with more efficiency if they call out politicians and issues that they believe contravene Biblical teachings. Houston’s Joel Osteen and his wife Victoria have decided to ignore that cheeky line about it being “harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven.” They’ve built a multi-million-dollar operation in the former Houston Rockets basketball arena that has set them up in private jets, foreign automobiles, and a couple of mansions in the Bayou City. (Osteen has blocked me on Twitter so he no longer must see my wiseass ministrations to my followers, who are considerably less in number than those who believe Pastor Joey’s BS.)
Maybe these failings of Christ’s followers are why a secretive group of rich and religious types have launched a billion-dollar campaign to promote Jesus. Afraid the church cannot be saved; they appear to be hoping to convince the fallen that they need only to believe in the teachings of Jesus. Their advertising effort is called, “He gets us,” and will involve a reported $20 million dollar expenditure to purchase airtime during the Super Bowl, which is part of a $100 million dollar media campaign. Unsurprisingly, the money comes from predictable sources that adhere more to their own hypocritical instincts than they do any Biblical teachings.
David Green, the multi-billionaire founder of Hobby Lobby craft stores, is a central funder of the group. Green’s contradictions in morality are so absurd as to be entertaining. First, he cheered on the Bush Administration’s war in Iraq and then he went about plundering that nation’s religious artifacts and cultural icons to display them in his Bible Museum in Washington, D.C. The company was prosecuted for buying 5500 objects for $1.6 million dollars but blamed their acquisition on illegal and deceptive antiquities dealers. Prosecutors, however, convinced the court that there were numerous red flags and Hobby Lobby’s executives ignored the facts even as they were warned by experts the artifacts were certainly looted from Iraq.
Green, who moralized about birth control and refused to pay for contraception for his company’s employees, managed to avert his eyes from the immorality of cultural theft in his name and his company’s. National anti-LGBTQ efforts also received significant funding from Green. Maybe he’s trying to atone for his sins of stealing from Iraqis by pumping money into hip Jesus commercials. He has multiple transgressions for which to seek forgiveness. During the Covid shutdown, Hobby Lobby refused to close and ignored state and federal orders that inessential businesses stop operating. Green insisted his craft stores were needed because they provided N-95 masks. In several states, police were dispatched to force closure of the retail outlets. Green said his wife had a vision from God and that’s why they had to stay open. Worth $6.4 billion dollars, Green refuses to pay his employees sick leave, which, almost certainly is another mandate from God.
But now, back to Jesus.
The dark heart of this He Gets Us nonsense beats in an organization called The Signatry, an adjunct of the Servant Foundation. Signatry is a donor advised fund. DAFs are used by the wealthy to get an immediate tax benefit for their donations while waiting for the money to be used. In the case of Signatry, money is said to be employed for charitable purposes, but the organization’s message is about growing “the kingdom” through various ministries. The exercise of influence is a fundamental goal. If Green and other contributors, who are putting in their money anonymously, wanted to affect a positive change, they might consider dropping a few dimes into philanthropies or charitable organizations instead of image advertising for Jesus. That approach might be a bit more Jesus-y. They don’t want that, though. They want to create more conservative Christians because right-wing Christianity, which they thought would lead to political power, is destroying the church.
I wonder if Jesus gets that.
It’s probably worth contemplating what Jesus might think of a billion-dollar ad campaign to promote his image. Did he know it needed repair? Assuming the historical Jesus even existed, (there is no archaeological evidence), you ought to give some thought to whether he’d like to be on the TV or the Jumbotron right after ads on beer, whiskey, and gambling. How good can that be for the carpenter from Galilee’s brand? But, hell, the son of man has as much right to the public airwaves as the boys from Budweiser or the dudes from Draft Kings. It’s just that this campaign isn’t really about Jesus. The actual goal is to create more conservatives, preferably of the evangelical variety, to help the GOP and its right wing to grow and have more power and control in moral issues related to abortion and books and marriage rights and sexual orientation and histories of dinosaurs and humans rockin’ out on Saturday night. The He Gets Us campaign might help save churches, but that would only be a side effect.
And Jesus gets that, too.