10 Things Traditional Christians Got Terribly Wrong
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When Christians get political, they often do so because they believe that they have God on their side. This is true whether they are progressive or conservative, and throughout most of American history there have been both. (You’d think that the conflicting claims about what God wants would lead to more doubting, but here we are.) Looking over the long history of people claiming to be speaking for God’s wishes, it quickly becomes evident that Christians are frequently on the wrong side of history. Here are 10 things that American Christians of the conservative stripe got completely wrong when they were so sure they were speaking on God’s behalf.
1) Slavery. Both sides of the American slavery debate claimed to be speaking from profound Christian conviction. The Bible clearly has a positive view of slavery, something pro-slavery Christians routinely pointed out. Abolitionists took a broader, less literal view of the Bible. Unsurprising that this divide led to the South being, to this day, home of the most people who take a literalist, fundamentalist view of Christianity.
Of course, nowadays you can’t find even the most literalist fan of the Bible who is willing to agree with their predecessors in the 19th century who believed the Bible endorsed slavery. Of the many things conservative Christians have gotten wrong over the years, the pro-slavery argument is probably the one that is least likely to be revived by modern fundamentalists.
2) Women’s suffrage. Unsurprisingly, conservative Christianity was hostile to women’s suffrage, just as it’s been hostile to women’s progress every step of the way. Women’s “God-given” roles were routinely referenced in arguments against giving women the right to vote, such as when Susan Fenimore Cooper—daughter of James Fenimore Cooper–wrote in Harper’s that “Christianity confirms the subordinate position of woman, by allotting to man the headship in plain language and by positive precept.”
While the argument is clearly wrong in retrospect and disavowed by most modern conservatives, there are still some Christian conservatives who continue to believe that the issue isn’t resolved and should still be up for debate.
3) Evolution. From the second it became evident that the Biblical story of creation was wrong and life on earth evolved over millions of years of random mutation, many Christians were aghast and resisted the truth getting out as hard as they could. Because of this, there have been multiple times throughout history where Christians embarrassed themselves by being wrong in a dramatic courtroom setting. The Scopes monkey trial is the most famous, but the Dover trial of 2005 over the teaching of intelligent design in schools is up there in terms of sheer humor. The Republican-appointed judge even went so far as to describe the Christian conservative defenders of creationism as liars pushing a theory of “breathtaking inanity.”
4) Pain relief for childbirth. The Bible explicitly lays out pain in childbirth as Eve’s punishment for sin, so unsurprisingly, that’s what many Christians in the 19th century believed had to be so. Once reliable pain relief in childbirth began to be developed, therefore, there was a lot of resistance to it from Christians who feared it defied God to let women have some relief. The truth is that pain in childbirth is not a punishment from God, but the product of evolution, which is a far from perfect process. Eventually, the argument that women owed it to God to suffer through childbirth faded to the fringes of right-wing Christianity. “Natural” childbirth has seen a resurgence in popularity in the secular world since the 1960s, but that was more of a reaction to some medical overreach than a belief that women are sinful and deserve to suffer.