04 September 2012

If I had to choose an alternate religion… it’d be the one I slid into.

The synchroblog subject for the month is “Choosing my religion.” If I weren’t a Christian, what would I be?

Ordinarily I tackle synchroblog subjects on my More Christ blog, ’cause I think they’re subjects new and growing Christians ought to tackle. This one, not so much. Not that I’m afraid they’ll consider all the alternative religions out there and pick one, but that More Christ is meant to look forward, and this subject kinda looks back. And since looking back is a personal thing, better I discuss it on my personal blog.

So, what religion would I have if I weren’t a Christian? Simple. I’d be a Republican.

No this isn’t a jibe at Republicans. This is about me. Me me me me me me me.

As the synchroblog description points out, most of us Christians are Christian ’cause we grew up Christian, or in a Christian-dominated culture. I was not. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1970s. Christian? Hah. It was pagan. I grew up Christian in spite of it being pagan. Mom was going through a rough time and decided to return to the Christianity of her childhood, and took us kids to church with her, so we became Christians too. But the neighbors weren’t Christian. They were a hodgepodge of everything else. Lots of lapsed Catholics. My best friend’s family were lapsed Mormons.

And Dad was, and is, an atheist. As I’ve related elsewhere, he’s not a thinking atheist. He became an atheist as most atheists had—because they don’t want to believe in God. Unlike other atheists, who then study a bit of atheist apologetics in order to defend their beliefs, Dad never bothered. He doesn’t know why he ought to be atheist; he just is one. Bill Maher said it, he believes it, and that settles it.

Had Mom not decided to become Christian, I’d like to think I’d have become a Christian anyway—that God wanted me enough to arrange it some other way. But I do know I wouldn’t have adopted Dad’s atheism. For several reasons. Dad is probably the least appealing advocate for his cause—unless you too want a lonely, meaningless existence, that avoids thinking about it with the aid of hoarding, bizarre hobbies, and cheap wine. I would’ve insisted upon a belief that works intellectually—as Christianity does. Dad’s non-intellectual approach doesn’t work for me at all; it’s why I quit being a Fundamentalist. I would’ve insisted upon a belief that allows the possibility of the spiritual and supernatural, and atheism won’t.

I have a lot of respect for Buddhism. If God had decided to reveal absolutely nothing about himself, and we had to come up with the best, most noble ideas we could, I expect it to look almost exactly like Buddhism. (In cultures that don’t believe in reincarnation, like ours, of course it’d look a little different.) Had Christianity not existed, I would probably have gravitated towards Buddhism. Not Judaism—despite its many similarities to Christianity, it really is an ethnic religion, and if you prefer a multi-ethnic environment, you’d find that off-putting. Yeah, certain Christians insist you gotta act white or European if you’re gonna be Christian, but far more of us know better: There is no Jew or Gentile in Christ Jesus.

But again: I wouldn’t have gravitated to Buddhism first. Politics would have beat it to the punch. Politics would have become my religion—as it did for a while there in the late ’80s and early ’90s. And the politics I was raised in, and the politics I grew to wholeheartedly preach, were the Republican cause.

Some will object to the idea that a political party is a religion. They’ll assume I’m just co-opting the idea of alternate religions to make another anti-Republican screed. I disagree. In the gospels, the parties of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herodians were largely political. (The Herodians most of all.) The Pharisees sought a Messiah—not a spiritual, otherworldly one, but a physical, this-worldly one, who would literally conquer the Romans and set up the Kingdom as a political entity. The Sadducees sought the status quo, ’cause they got to run the high priesthood and temple so long that they appeased the Romans. (They sought Jesus’s death because they feared the Pharisees’ dreams would come true and Jesus would try to overthrow the Romans—but fail, and they’d lose power.) And because the Pharisees were alarmed about what sort of Messiah Jesus was turning out to be, they conspired with their political opposites—the pro-Roman courtiers of Herod—to get him whacked.

I’m not gonna debate the merits of the Republican or Democratic parties. I’ve done that elsewhere on this blog. That’s not the point of this essay. I’m only pointing out what I did do, which was get hugely involved in the Republican sect. The Christian Right elements in my Fundamentalist church certainly did nudge me in that direction, but what really sealed the deal for me were my parents. My Christian mother was a Republican. My atheist father was also a Republican. They might totally disagree about God, but both of them believed in Ronald Reagan. And with that kind of bipartisan support, I figured they must’ve had something there.

When we moved to northern Solano County, there were (and are) a lot of Republicans in the area. A lot of them were buzzing about a new Sacramento radio host, Rush Limbaugh, who articulated what a lot of them thought about politics—so much so they’d call his show and greet him with “Ditto to everything you just said,” which eventually became “Dittos” and “Mega-dittos.” I started listening around the time he went national. Limbaugh’s version of Republicanism, like my dad’s, isn’t all that intellectual. He believes what he believes, though it’s inconsistent as hell. But he can articulate it well, and entertainingly, so he provides a useful gateway to the whole shebang. Kinda like Joel Osteen and Christianity: Osteen’s version doesn’t look all that much like Jesus’s, but once you’re in, you might actually read your bible and discover Jesus. Then again, you might not.

Limbaugh wasn’t my only gateway drug. There were also James Dobson and Chuck Colson—fellow Christians, premillenials who decidedly taught our heavenly and earthly salvation are two different things, and while the Kingdom of God takes care of the heavenly stuff, the Republican Party will take care of the earthly. This dichotomy conveniently explains away all the contradictions St. Augustine found between Rome and New Jerusalem. This is why Jesus can teach we ought to love sinners and care for the needy, yet Tea Party Republicans can treat sinners like scum and the needy like lazy parasites. It’s okay that the politics and religion don’t jibe. But if you’re really worried about it, don’t worry: The Party faithful (in every party; it’s not just a Republican thing) has plenty of explanations for how you could reinterpret the bible until it fits perfectly with Party doctrine.

Party doctrine really appealed to me at that time. It suited my selfishness perfectly. I had my prejudices against the poor and the welfare state—taught me by my many Republican friends—and I figured I’d work hard and get rich, and the Republicans would have my back, and keep the government from forcing me to subsidize the lazy. I wanted to gather around myself a big pile of riches. And then die and inherit the Kingdom—which I assumed I’d gain regardless of how I did absolutely nothing to store up treasure there. Somehow I never connected the two.

So, what would I have been if I weren’t a Christian? Precisely what I was when I wasn’t really following Jesus: A political animal who preached the gospel of conservatism, who bashed all my liberal opponents without mercy, who figured I was on the path of righteousness because all my Christian-but-not-really-following-Jesus friends were on the same political team. Lots of them still are.

I’m not saying you can’t be both Christian and Republican. Of course you can. The difference is that for me, as it is for many people, including many so-called Christians, politics is an idol. It’s a false god. It’s a religion. It provides beliefs, values, ethics, doctrines, and dogmas. It provides a support system of mutual aid. It promises that those who follow it can achieve salvation, of a sort. It demands absolute and uncompromising subservience and obedience; it is a very jealous god. And it appeals to plenty of people who want to unleash their anger and argumentativeness and partisanship against political opponents. That’s why it appealed to me.

Buddhism is awfully adaptable. That’s why it spreads so well. Buddhists take pride in the fact that you can follow the Buddha yet stay in your existing religion: You can be both a Buddhist and Hindu, or both a Buddhist and Jew, or both a Buddhist and Christian. (Although Christ Jesus had otherwise to say about serving two masters.) It permits the existence of hardcore Republican Buddhists, and permits you to resolve every contradiction. So had I gone Buddhist, my primary god still would have been the Party.

I know a lot of Christians who are following Jesus, yet are registered Republicans. Likewise Christians who are Democrats. Where they differ from what I was doing is how their priorities are correct: They’re knee-deep in Christianity and their churches. They only have a toe dipped into their parties. My Republican friends plan to vote Republican mainly because they disapprove of abortion, homosexuality, and high taxes. They know little to nothing about all the other things the Party stands for. Nor do they really care. They know there are idolaters in the party, but they figure they have common goals, so they can tolerate the pagans, and vote for their goals. But they rightly recognize the ultimate solution won’t come through politics, but through the Kingdom. It won’t come through gaining and holding power, but through surrendering all power to Jesus.

I am now a Democrat only because I consider it the lesser of two stupids. I know: There are third parties, and there are independents. But I don’t believe the answer to a flawed system—or to political idolatry—is to opt out of the system altogether. It’s to re-prioritize. You need food—but you eat food without becoming a glutton, without making a god of your stomach. You can listen to music without idolizing your favorite bands, or spending all your income on music. You can adore your spouse, yet love Christ more. You can support a politician, yet not consider him your Lord and Savior.

The other synchrobloggers answered this question in the following ways. They get mighty interesting sometimes. Me, I just get wordy.

Tammy Carter: “What not to do.”
Liz Dyer: “The best religion.”
Glenn Hager: “Life.”
Wendy McCaig: “Jesus a Buddhist?”
Jeremy Myers: “Choosing my religion.”
Leah Sophia: “Choosing another way.”