So, just as many on the supposed American Left did after George W. Bush invaded Iraq and implemented schemes of torture upon innocent civilians, folks are back to citing the Bible for purposes of trying to shame those who hold it sacred. I am, of course, referring to the current wave of opposition to the Republican concentration camps for children sprouting up across the American West after the Trump regime implemented its policy of family separation. Reporters have started asking Jeff Sessions and Sarah Huckabee Sanders if such camps are “biblical,” only to be given the exact responses they should have expected. And why? Why are folks playing this game of biblical citation to try to shame the Right?
In my view, many on the Left have the suspicion that they do not actually represent America. A lot of this is tied into religion. Only recently has the population of “nones” grown sufficiently large to allow for real community among the non-religious–or, at least, a sense of non-isolation among us. When I was growing up, and my fellow students in elementary school learned that I was not among the churched, I was pretty much cut off from most social concourse save a few friends I had on account of them being in a similar situation. So already, I grew up with a real sense that I was outside the norm. I was reasonably smart, I suppose, and ended up in gifted and talented classes, and AP classes, that rather increased my distance from the mean. Add to that the fact that my parents were both military, and both from a long line of military service, while I had no ambitions this way.
In other words, I didn’t have a model for my future, and I didn’t have a real community. The only time I saw my ideal reflected in the world at large was in Star Trek episodes, where being a secular, bookish type was the norm. (This was long before the current trend of geek culture.)
The point is that I suspect many who see themselves on the Left continue to hold to the belief that they are alone in this world. Maybe not totally isolated, but they believe that they are the exception to American culture–or, at least, an American culture represented by the shorthand of Bibles and sports and guns. And believing ourselves removed from the culture at large, we often attempt to engage it through the clunky use of those analogies and idioms we know are common to said culture. This is the reason why the debate over concentration camps for children has devolved rather quickly into a discussion of biblical exegesis. “Look, we found a bible verse about taking care of children! Aren’t you rather ashamed of yourself now? How can you equate these acts with the command to love that is central to Christianity?”
But they aren’t. Because here is what we forget–there is no Christianity, there are only Christians. It’s become a staple of modern fantasy, as in the works of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, that gods need belief in order to exist, but the same holds true for ideologies. There is no Christianity without Christians, no Islam without Muslims, no communism without communists. These ideas don’t exist in some Platonic realm somewhere. Ideas have to be incarnated into living people, believed and executed by living people. Christianity doesn’t exist, but Christians do, and Christians run the gamut of belief, not only among denominations but within. Do Catholics practice birth control? Church leaders say they shouldn’t, but church faithful do at a rate of 98% or so. Do Southern Baptists drink alcohol? Church leaders say they shouldn’t, but my Baptist grandfather owned a liquor store, so you tell me. I have a Muslim acquaintance who does abstain from booze during Ramadan, but all other months are open for a little imbibing.
Because religion means nothing without adherents, the actual practice of religion varies widely depending upon the disposition of said adherents. Sure, one can claim that Christianity generally frowns upon inflicting childhood trauma upon foreigners, but Christians want to do exactly that, so you can’t hold up an idealized Christianity to that population and try to shame them, because they won’t recognize the God you don’t believe in as they one they do.
But we do this again and again because we have internalized our own sense of otherness, and this manifests in our failure to separate ideologies from people. This does lead to a significant level of embarrassment when it comes to assessing the Left’s own past. After all, we are told regularly that communism was one of the great failed ideologies of the modern era. Communism led to starvation and genocide and the Gulag. And so those on the American Left who draw inspiration from the Marxist tradition feel constantly that they have to answer for the specific results of Marxist inspiration from Stalin to Mao and the Khmer Rouge. Just right now, I myself have to resist from going off on tangents about the effects of colonialism in Southeast Asia to explain the rise of certain murderous movements, but that’s not the point. My point is, because we inherently see ourselves as Other, we feel deeply the failure in our own traditions, while having ceded the label of “real Americans” to our opponents, we have freed them from that burden. After all, no one speaks about the great failure of Christianity. People assume that communism leads to the gulag, but no one assumes that Christianity leads to slavery and Jim Crow. As an ideology, Christianity’s history on the world stage is one long string of failures that includes genocide, war, slavery, racism, fascism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and more.
Because, remember, there is no Christianity–there are only Christians.
And I’ll go you one further. Donald Trump is a Christian. After all, he believes himself one, and his Christian followers accept him as one of their own. So Donald Trump is a Christian. And don’t give me all that nonsense about his propensity toward commandment-breaking and lack of humility. He is a Christian because he is accepted as one. Remember, there is no religion outside its adherents.
Which rather means that it’s time to stop fighting on the enemies’ turf. All your bible quotations to the contrary will not change the fact that the policies of the Trump regime are Christian policies because they are policies embraced by Christians. And so if you can accept that, and acknowledge that these are extremist policies, can you also accept that perhaps you are a little closer to the American mainstream than you have led yourself to believe? And if you can accept that, then can you also accept that you, by virtue of this fact that you are not alone, have some power to employ in your struggle against the evil policies being enacted?