On Friday, congressional representatives got into a screaming match on the Capitol steps about, among other things, Christianity. High-volume theological disputes aren’t generally illuminating. But this one showed how Christianity remains a moral bedrock of political dispute in this country — and why that’s a bad thing.
High-volume theological disputes aren’t generally illuminating.
The argument began following the passage of a House bill that would codify abortion rights into law. Right-wing conspiracy theorist and anti-abortion advocate Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., began to yell somewhat incoherently at gathered lawmakers and demonstrators. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., a supporter of abortion rights, yelled back at Greene that she was being uncivil.
“You should practice the basic thing you're taught in church: respect your neighbor,” Dingell shouted. Greene blasted back, “Taught in church, are you kidding me? Try being a Christian and supporting life!" Dingell responded, “You try being a Christian... and try treating your colleagues decently!”
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Dingell thinks being a Christian means being neighborly and civil. Greene thinks being a Christian means attacking anyone who supports abortion rights. But they both agree that being a Christian is morally good, and that Christianity is virtuous.
For a Jewish atheist like myself, that framework is wearisomely familiar. It’s also disheartening. Despite Dingell’s best intentions, the equation of Christianity and goodness buttresses Greene’s white Christian nationalism and the politics of hate and hierarchy that go along with it.
About two thirds of Americans describe themselves as Christian. So it makes sense that people in public life would frame Christianity as a good thing. Christians may disagree strongly about what the Christian virtues are, but they agree that Christian virtues are, well, virtues. That’s part of what being a Christian means.
Many of us, though, aren’t Christian, and don’t want to try to be Christian. Just to take one example: Jewish people’s experience of Christian morality has not been universally uplifting, to say the least.
Some will argue that antisemitism is not real Christianity. But you can’t just disavow a couple of thousands years of persecution and hate. And if Christianity equals virtue, where does that leave Jewish people — or Muslims, or atheists, or Buddhists, for that matter?
Of course there are good Christians, as there are good people of every faith, and of no faith. But one of the hallmarks of immoral forms of Christianity is a belief that Christianity can only be good — and that the good can only be Christian.
This is the logic of Marjorie Taylor Greene and the rabidly Trumpist politics she represents. Sociologist Philip Gorski argued in a 2019 article that evangelical white Christians loved Trump not despite his violent and scabrous language, but precisely because he told them they were better than everyone else. Evangelicals, Gorski said, responded to “Trump’s racialized, apocalyptic, and blood-drenched rhetoric.” That rhetoric harkened back to the Christian language deployed to justify slavery and Native American genocide.
Trump told white evangelical Christians that they had a right and a duty to impose their morality, through force, on others. Marjorie Taylor Greene is following through on a tradition of dispossession and cruelty when she insults abortion supporters or tries to seize control of people’s bodies in the name of a higher morality.
Deb Dingell’s Christianity would seem to be more inclusive — her definition of loving thy neighbor translates politically into policy (same-sex marriage, abortion rights, etc.) that Marjorie Taylor Greene abhors. But nonetheless, it also, inadvertently, reinforces one of the chief tenets of white Christian nationalism — the idea that Christianity has a monopoly on virtue.
Christianity is a powerful and important tradition in the U.S.; it shouldn’t just be left to the Greene's and the Trump's. But part of contesting their hold on Christianity is refusing to acquiesce to Christian supremacy. It means acknowledging non-Christians in discussions of America, and in discussions of goodness.
Marjorie Taylor Greene is, unfortunately, still a Christian when she spews ugly antisemitic conspiracy theories about Jewish space lasers. She’s still a Christian when she attacks her colleagues. She’s still a Christian when she tries to force people to give birth because of her own particular convictions about souls and cell clusters. But being a Christian doesn’t make you a good person, just as being a good person doesn’t make you a Christian. When we, including Dingell, accept that, maybe we’ll be closer to defeating the evil, violent and Christian movement of which Greene is a part.