How the Fundamentalist Mind Compels Conservative Christians to Force Their Beliefs on You
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Since religions add to an adherent’s bucket of moral obligations, they can create moral dilemmas or tradeoffs where none would otherwise exist. Should I spend my days studying Torah or working to feed my children? Should I drive my daughter to the hospital even though it’s Friday? Should I give the little I can spare to the poor or to the nuns? Should I wander with a beggar bowl or help my father tend the fields so my sisters can go to school? Should I encourage my poor African parishioners to wear condoms to prevent HIV or tell them to entrust God with their family planning?
Sometimes the tradeoffs are a matter of life or death, as when Saudi girls may have been forced to remain in their burning school rather than flee unveiled. Or consider the case of a young Arizona mother who had to choose between her own death and the abortion of a 12-week fetus her church deemed a person. She chose to live so she could continue raising the children who waited for her at home. But her bishop, who saw the abortion as premeditated murder, excommunicated a nun who helped her, claiming the more moral path was to allow the death of both woman and fetus as God’s will.
Evangelical Protestants who believe the Bible is the literally perfect word of God take as one of their highest mandates a verse they call the Great Commission. I have seen it emblazoned in letters two feet high on the wall of a megachurch: Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 28:19, NIV). The word evangel means good news, and the name evangelical identifies Christians whose beliefs center on spreading what they think is the best news ever to reach the human race: that Jesus died for our sins and anyone who believes can be saved from hell. (One of my deep secrets as an evangelical teenager was how much I hated trying to sell other people on the Four Spiritual Laws that laid out the plan of salvation.)
Follow me, says the Jesus of Mark’s Gospel, and I will make you fishers of men. For evangelical Christians, fishing for souls is an obligation that can trump all others. What good does it do to feed the hungry or tend the sick if you leave their souls to eternal torture? Catholic Christians typically believe that good works are of value in their own right. Universalist Christians believe that the death of Jesus on the cross ultimately redeemed all of creation. Modernist Christians believe the Bible is a human document and that the life of Jesus is more important than his death. Evangelical Christians believe they have a moral obligation to proselytize.
Beliefs have consequences, and one consequence of evangelical belief is that decent people end up doing ugly things in order to recruit converts and save souls. It is because they care about being good that they do harm. In the much quoted words of Steven Weinberg, “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” The mechanism by which this happens is that religion creates a narrative in which the evil serves a higher good.
A new book by Mikey Weinstein, No Snowflake in an Avalanche, offers a window into how corrosive the Great Commission can be. It chronicles a harrowing decade in, what is to Weinstein, a fight to the death for religious freedom. You may be familiar with fragments of the story. When fundamentalist Christians at the Air Force Academy began goading and harassing Weinstein’s cadet son, Curtis, they awoke a grizzly bear.