I was reading an interview recently with Richard Topping, Principal of the Vancouver School of Theology, about the place and role of religion in a secular society like BC. This secular society is particularly visible in Vancouver, but we see it in Cranbrook and the Kootenays as well. Fewer and fewer people believe in God or find any value in being part of a church. Even among those who do attend church regularly, they feel free to come and go as they please.
Midway through the interview, Topping mentioned that he had been invited to a home in West Vancouver to meet with some university scholars and business leaders, most of whom don’t believe in God.
He says, “They invited me to come and talk to them about God and the kind of God I believe in. I was sort of being set up, and they weren’t counting on somebody who would fight back a little bit, in the kindest of ways. They maligned Christianity in one way or another. But I think we managed to get a conversation going … At the end of our time together, they gave me all the cookies to take back to the school.
“So a group of predominantly atheists gave me the cookies to take back and give to divinity students, right? And they’ve invited me multiple times since. We’ve developed friendships, and we’ve come to agree on things, like, ‘Bad ideas about God are dangerous.’”
That last phrase got me thinking. I agree. Bad ideas about God are dangerous.
Part of the reason we are such a secular society is that people no longer trust the church because it has been guilty of doing great harm in society. To be sure, the church has also done a lot of good; it’s not all bad news. But we need to be honest about the harm we have done.
So what do I mean by bad ideas about God?
It’s easy for us to point to such historical moments as the Crusades or the Inquisition and claim how awful they were. We can also cite those missionary movements which denied indigenous peoples around the world the right to practice their religion and forced them to convert to Christianity. Those are obvious examples of bad theology and bad practice.
But it wasn’t just back then. There are equally awful things happening today as well. An obvious example is the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. Members of this church spew hatred against Jews, Muslims, Roman Catholics, atheists, and other minorities. They are particularly virulent in their hatred of members of the LGBTQ+ community.
In other words, they hate everyone but themselves and those who are like them.
Their theology is that God is vengeful, and punishes severely. They see themselves as agents of God’s purity in a world which has slid into sin. As a result, they don’t care about the pain they cause, and see themselves as being warriors in the righteous war between God and a sinful humanity. Bad ideas about God are dangerous.
Let me cite another example which is particularly troublesome, which is the codependent relationship between the Trump White House and evangelical Christian leaders.
I was struck recently by a photo of a group of those evangelical leaders and pastors surrounding President Trump and praying over him. Many of them consider that Trump is God’s anointed man to lead the nation. Despite his behaviour (or should I say his misbehaviour), they claim that God has appointed and anointed Trump “to be our great leader.” Often, at Trump rallies, you will see evangelical Christians wearing t–shirts with the logo “God, Guns & Trump” — which makes me wonder if this is the new American evangelical Trinity.
The obvious problem with this is the bad idea of claiming that God supports any particular leader without reservation. It is an awful way to rationalize the rule of a man who is singularly unfit to govern a nation, since he clearly cannot govern his most base instincts.
It also is a way of denying that there might be any legitimate protest against the way he conducts himself in office. If he is anointed by God, then surely he can do little wrong.
But there is something deeper in this for me. Trump’s evangelical supporters claim to follow Jesus. Jesus was a Jew who lived among the poor, who reached out to everyone and welcomed them, who ate and drank with sinners, who claimed that God’s love is for everyone without exception. Jesus proclaimed above all that the kingdom of God is drawing near to us. God’s reign is a time and place of radical welcome and inclusion of all people.
God’s kingdom is among you, said Jesus. Christians pray for this every time we offer the Lord’s Prayer — “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.”
If this is true, then why do so many Christians continue to support discrimination against women, against the LGBTQ+ community, against immigrants and refugees, against a myriad of other oppressed minority groups? How can Christians possibly support the legislative program of Trump, who regularly insults minorities and women and people who disagree with him?
Jesus described a realm of radical freedom, radical love, and radical equality. Jesus called us to a ministry of reconciliation, inclusion, welcome, grace, and love. I don’t see these values in Trump’s policies, and certainly not in his behaviour.
I wonder if they can be seen in the evangelicals who continue to support Trump. I wonder if perhaps they may not be motivated by a hunger for power, rather than a longing to follow this poor, itinerant Jewish rabbi who hung out with the dregs of society.
Rev. Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook