Tag Archives: Phil Gulley

There’s Religion, And Then There’s Religion

Yesterday’s post sparked a number of comments about religion, pro and (mostly) con.

It is easy to look at the self-righteousness of the Christian warriors–the Mike Pences and Franklin Grahams of the world–and come to the conclusion that Christianity (and for that matter, all religion) is a poorly-veiled effort by self-righteous prigs to control and dominate others.

And yet….

We need to recognize that even those of us who are nonbelievers are nevertheless  products of specific religious cultures, and consider the ways in which our early socialization into those cultures have shaped the attitudes with which we approach issues of justice and human behavior. (Pardon the shameful plug, but I wrote a book–God and Country: America in Red and Blue– about the ways in which those unrecognized religious roots influence Americans’ positions on ostensibly secular policies from economics and criminal justice to the environment.)

Religion was initially a way to explain an inexplicable world–especially why some people prospered and others suffered. Different religious traditions approached these questions differently, and when humans invented science, some embraced the “new learning” and some rejected it.

That leads me to an utterly banal observation: some approaches to religious belief encourage people to live together amicably, and some do not. My own unoriginal rule of thumb is based entirely upon the behavior of purportedly religious folks. If your religion makes you more compassionate and kind, if it provides you with a helpful (but not unduly prescriptive) framework within which to approach moral dilemmas, it’s probably good.

If it turns you into a self-righteous moral scold, it probably isn’t.

I came across a far more eloquent version of my approach on Phil Gulley’s blog. Gulley, as many readers know, is a Quaker pastor and author from a small community near Indianapolis. The post in question was his response to a mean-spirited cartoon by Gary Varvel, who is a longtime cartoonist (and inexplicably, recently a columnist) for the Indianapolis Star. The cartoon, which portrayed Judge Kavanaugh’s accuser as a demanding publicity seeker, is reproduced on Gulley’s blog.

The Star evidently refused to print Gulley’s response, saying that the newspaper had already apologized for printing the cartoon. (A number of people canceled their subscriptions, citing it, and I can see why the paper might prefer not to call any further attention to it.) That’s a pity, though, because Gulley has captured the distinction between religious beliefs that prompt humility and self-examination and those that serve as a substitute for self-awareness and as a crutch for judgmentalism.

You really need to read the entire post, but here are the paragraphs that illustrate that distinction:

I’ve known Gary Varvel most of my life. We were raised in the same small town and have many friends in common. We embraced the Christian faith around the same time. I once believed as he still does. But his faith has taken him places I cannot go, embracing causes I cannot support. To be fair, he likely says the same thing about my faith. Gary has often said his faith informs everything he does. I believe him, which is why I reject his faith, or at least his version of Christianity, which always comes at the expense of others, be they women, or gays, or liberals, or any “others” whose demands for justice challenge its narrow and settled world.

I have never wanted anyone to lose his or her job. It has happened to me twice, and each time was painful and difficult. While I have never wanted anyone to be fired, I have often wished those who neglect the hard work of self-awareness and self-improvement would retire, or perhaps find another line of work that doesn’t involve shaping, or misshaping, public opinion. That is my wish for Gary, to retire and spend time learning the world his wife, daughter, and granddaughters inhabit, a world far different from his own.

Amen.