Badpuppy Gay Today

Monday, 11 August 1997

A CRITIQUE OF FUNDAMENTALIST DOGMAS

Excerpt from "THE GAY AGENDA: Talking Back to the Fundamentalists"


By Jack Nichols

 

"My own mind is my own church."

Thomas Paine 1

Religious fundamentalists remind listeners ad nauseam that the United States was founded upon Christian principles, implying that their dogmas--which fuel homophobia as well as other phobias--helped create this nation. In doing so they ignore the flight from Europe of Dutch Reform and Plymouth Brethren immigrants fleeing religious tyranny, especially that of the Puritans, as well as the founding fathers' distrust of majority Christian opinion. Today's homophobia is not only being deliberately fueled by fundamentalist dogmatism, but there are certain orthodox Christian beliefs, especially the doctrine of Original Sin, that subvert social harmony and self-esteem among homosexuals and heterosexuals alike.

When the Puritans arrived on American shores, they set about enforcing their own agenda, crushing dissent with accusations of witchcraft, a ploy not unlike that used by fundamentalists against gay men and lesbians today. The word "faggot" has its origins in the penalties of death these "Christians" enforced, faggots being the dry sticks they piled at the base of stakes on which dissenters were burned alive.

The original Plymouth colony settlers were Congregationalists, forerunners of the modern-day Unitarian Universalist movement. Their communal arrangements were, by present-day standards, socialistic, with all members working and enjoying an equal share of the goods produced. Members of the Society of Friends, or Quakers, were also among the earliest settlers. Their doctrine pointed toward an immanent deity, an inner light, as opposed to majority Christian opinion which looked outward and beyond the skies to an external God. This doctrine of immanence, refusing the ministrations of clergy as intermediaries, helped fashion an individualism in early American culture. Quaker community members would speak their own minds rather than listen to ministers, connecting, they felt, with the inner light. In 1963 a group of British Quakers produced a pamphlet titled Toward a Quaker View of Sex. 2 This pioneering statement discovered equal value in homosexual relationships provided they were imbued with loving care. As our gay, lesbian, and bisexual liberation movement emerged, it was Unitarian/Universalist ministers and Quaker spokespersons who argued first among religionists in support of our civil rights.

The earliest Baptists, unlike the Southern Baptists today, staunchly supported the separation of church and state, knowing from experience the pain and tyranny resulting from state-supported religion. Presbyterians, also firm supporters of religious freedoms, were nevertheless criticized for their Calvinist underpinnings by the principal strategists who molded the American revolution.

The American founding fathers showed that their own fears of religious tyranny were manifold. Thomas Paine, credited with having inspired the American Revolution, wrote Age of Reason in the hope that the successful political revolt he had helped engineer would be best followed by a revolution against religious orthodoxy. He wrote:

I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish Church, by the Roman Church, by the Greek Church, by the Turkish Church, by the Protestant Church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.... All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit. 3

Paine's publisher was indicted for blasphemy and imprisoned. Orthodox believers hanged Paine in effigy. While helping revolutionaries in France, he was thrown in jail to await execution, and not even President George Washington, a faithful Episcopalian, answered his letters or spoke on his behalf. Following his critiques of religion Paine became, because of "Christian" influences, persona non grata, and is even now seldom accorded his rightful preeminent place in American history. It is reported that "Christians" dug up his bones so that no one would know where he's buried. It may have been for the best, believe his admirers, because Thomas Paine had called himself "a citizen of the world."

Paine's Age of Reason converted many to deism, a belief in God without any divinely inspired spokespersons or books. Other founding fathers had shared this faith, which seems apropos, inasmuch as they had been witness to the ills caused by the competing followers of established creeds. They hoped to protect a new country from the aggressive impulses unleashed by "religious" crusades. If Washington was afraid to be seen publicly with Paine, Jefferson, who was also a deist, was not. He walked the streets arm in arm with Paine after the latter's return from France. Jefferson's autobiography tells how the clauses in the Constitution establishing religious freedom met with fierce opposition, but, he says, the preamble declared that its protection of opinion was meant to be total. Jefferson writes that when it was agreed that "coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion," an amendment was proposed to insert the words "Jesus Christ," so that it read "a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion." This proposed insertion, Jefferson exults, was rejected by "a great majority." He then reflects that this was "proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination." 4

In 1787 Jefferson advised Peter Carr on how to approach religion in the following words: "Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of God; because if there be one, He must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear. You will naturally examine first the religion of your own country. Read the Bible, then, as you would Livy or Tacitus." 5 Jefferson didn't trust the clergy. "The clause of the Constitution," he wrote, which, while it secured the freedom of the press, covered also the freedom of religion, had given to the clergy a very favorable hope of obtaining an establishment of a particular form of Christianity through the United States; and as every sect believes its own form the true one, every one perhaps hoped for his own. The returning good sense of our country threatens abortion to their hopes, and they believe that any portion of power confided to me, will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly: for I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. But this is all they have to fear from me: and enough too in their opinion.

The doctrine of Christ's divinity was not palatable to Jefferson nor was that concerning Mary's immaculate conception, Jesus' creation of the world, his miraculous powers, and his resurrection and visible ascension. Jefferson rejected the idea that Jesus' corporeal body is present in the Eucharist, as well as the Trinitarian concept of God and harmful doctrines like those of the atonement and original sin. These he clearly referred to as "artificial systems" invented by ultra-"Christian" sects unauthorized by a single word spoken by Jesus, and unnecessary as stepping stone beliefs promoting the good life. The very human Jesus admired by Jefferson experienced, he writes, the ordinary fate of those who attempt to enlighten and reform mankind, [and] fell an early victim to the jealousy and combination of the altar and the throne, at about thirty-three years of age, his reason having not yet attained the maximum of its energy, nor the course of his preaching, which was but of three years at most, presented occasions for developing a complete system of morals.... Hence the doctrines which he really delivered were defective as a whole, and fragments only of what he did deliver have come to us mutilated, misstated, and often unintelligible.

Jefferson spoke forcefully against the idea of divine revelation, thus removing himself entirely from the fundamentalist Christian purview and making of himself a deistic Unitarian, a religion he said he expected to overtake others. "I confidently expect that the present generation will see Unitarianism become the general religion of the United States, " he prophesied. Jefferson, like Benjamin Franklin, preached situation ethics. Utility," he wrote, "is the test of virtue."

Benjamin Franklin, writing about toleration, explained how it is possible to "look back into history for the character of present sects in Christianity." There he found "Christian" persecutors and Christians who complained they were being persecuted by "Christians" and others. The primitive Christians, Franklin said, "thought persecution extremely wrong in Pagans but practiced it on one another." The first Protestants of the Church of England, "blamed persecution in the Roman Church, but practiced it against the Puritans: these found it wrong in the Bishops, but fell into the same practice themselves both here and in New England." Franklin would thus have quickly flunked fundamentalist litmus tests. His descriptions of closed-mindedness hits them too near home:

I imagine a man must have a good deal of Vanity who believes, and a good deal of Boldness who affirms, that all the doctrines he holds are true; and all he rejects are false. And perhaps the same may be said of every Sect, Church and Society of men when they assume to themselves that infallibility which they deny to the Popes and Councils. I think Opinions should be judged of by their Influences and Effects." 6

Was this founding father a Christian? Not by fundamentalist standards. While Franklin thought Jesus to have developed an unsurpassed system of morality and religion, he confessed: "I apprehend it has received various corrupting Changes, and I have some Doubts as to his Divinity; tho it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to bother myself with it now." 7

Thomas Paine's description of the origins of Christian dogmas sums up what he, Franklin, and Jefferson had in common: a rejection of peculiar Christian dogmas still thought essential to salvation. "It is curious," Paine wrote, to observe how the theory of what is called the Christian Church sprung out of the tail of heathen mythology. A direct incorporation took place in the first instance, by making the reputed founder to be celestially begotten. The trinity of gods that then followed was no other than a reduction of the former plurality . . . the statue of Mary succeeded the statue of Diana of Ephesus; the deification of heroes changed into the canonization of the saints; the Mythologists had gods for everything; the Christian Mythologists had saints for everything; the Church became as crowded with the one as the Pantheon had been with the other, and Rome was the place for both. The Christian theory is little else than the idolatry of the ancient Mythologists, accommodated to the purposes of power and revenue; and it yet remains to reason and philosophy to abolish the amphibious fraud. 8

In his discourse on the belief in divinely inspired scriptures, Paine punches an irreparable hole in the concept of scripturally "revealed" truth. He notes that every national religion pretends it is on a mission from God. Each religion has inspired founders and a holy book. Such books contain "revelations" which, he writes, indicate "something communicated immediately from God to man." Paine does not dispute the power of the Almighty to make such a communication but, he warns, admitting, for the sake of a case, that something has been revealed to a certain person, and not revealed to any other person, it is a revelation to that person only. When he tells it to a second person, a second to a third, a third to a fourth, and so on, it ceases to be a revelation to all those persons. It is a revelation to the first person only, and hearsay to every other, and, consequently, they are not obliged to believe it. . . . It is a contradiction in terms and ideas to call anything a revelation that comes to us second-hand, either verbally or in writing. Revelation is necessarily limited to the first communication--after this it is only an account of something which that person says was a revelation made to him; and though he may find himself obliged to believe it, it cannot be incumbent on me to believe it in the same manner; for it was not a revelation made to me and I have only his word for it that it was made to him. 9

The founding fathers' clear hostility to blind belief, recognizing the paramount harm it causes, creates a prescription for every American, it seems, to make, individually, an independent investigation of truth. Jefferson specifically called for such an investigation in the aforementioned letter to Peter Carr: "Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion." Therefore, it becomes all the more important to investigate at least two principal Christian doctrines, those of the atonement and of original sin, for these stand at the center of the fundamentalist holy of holies and, in my opinion, are the most subversive of inner harmony and social rectitude. Calling them effectively into question puts fundamentalists and other orthodox believers where they belong: in the category of cultists. I would ask Christian gay men and lesbians who seem unable to bear the thought of renouncing these doctrines, along with their straightlaced fellow creedists, to rethink what they have generally accepted without question.

Seasoned Christian scholars, including Derrick Sherwin Bailey, have examined the biblical account of Sodom and Gomorrah, and have discovered, they say, that it was not the "crime" of homosexual behavior for which these cities were reputedly destroyed, but because their inhabitants were found wanting in hospitality, a more serious offense in tribal times. Gay MCC churches publish books and pamphlets that purportedly downgrade the importance of the Bible's six meager references to homosexuality, allowing Christian gay men and lesbians to declare without shame, as did MCC founder Perry in the title of his autobiography, The Lord Is My Shepherd and He Knows I 'm Gay. They point out that Jesus himself never said one word about homosexuality, and that the Old Testament celebrates same-sex loves, including that between David and Jonathan and Ruth and Naomi. The particular "gay agenda" envisioned by MCC, therefore, involves not a tinkering with basic Christian dogmas, but, instead, an uncritical integration of same-sex lovers into mainstream theological trappings. My own approach runs counter to this tendency, which appears to me to be superficial.

Any minority that has experienced outcast status knows that self-esteem becomes, in its midst, an often elusive virtue. The great African-American sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois wrote that the worst effect of slavery and discrimination affecting his race, is that those discriminated against doubt themselves and share in a general contempt for others of their kind. As long as the members of any minority continue to internalize oppressor opinion, they will meekly accept negative ratings, failing to question the repressive thought system within which they dwell.

The "Christian" doctrine of Original Sin creates double jeopardy in this regard, offering, as it does, a negative take on human nature. Even if a gay person manages to upgrade his or her self-image, this doctrine remains as a reminder that he or she, because of Adam's transgression, is still a walking lump of depravity who must accept a second doctrine in order to avoid eternal outcast status. The second doctrine, The Atonement, has been called the scheme of redemption. It posits a "Christian" God who, at the supposed end of the Jewish era, was no longer moved by animal blood sacrifices for the "atonement of sins," and therefore demanded a perfect human blood sacrifice, namely Jesus. The early development of this doctrine prior to its emergence in "Christian" form, begs our understanding of its tribal uses in attempts to fashion behavioral tools. Nevertheless, the human sacrifice promulgated by early Christian theorists has developed it into a capitulation by modern-day human beings to a savage focus on blood sacrifices.

Belief in "Original Sin," Adam's unfortunate bequest to all humanity, has promoters in academic fields outside the scope of conventional religion. Biological determinists, for example, argue that the human race remains a captive of its animal heritage. The specimens they use to "prove" this theory are, generally, life forms lower on the evolutionary scale. Uncritical acceptance of such determinism allows little or no hope of elastic adaptability and change, and human beings are thereby condemned to repeat their errors on an increasingly large stage. 11 Fundamentalists are little bothered by this in any case, inasmuch as they hope to see fulfilled their interpretations of the Book of Revelations' prophecies of the end of the world and of the taking up of the faithful into heaven. Believing that their own souls will be saved as the worldwide carnage they predict erupts, provides them no reason to seek global reforms. This is an egocentric mind state that bypasses even cynicism in its dreadful social consequences.

Nevertheless, the corruption, evil, and depravity brought about by disobedience in the Garden of Eden did not stop the Judaeo-Christian god from allowing a proliferation of Adamic descendants. After approximately fifteen hundred years, however, this god became so incensed over the behavior of his self-imaged creatures that, with the exception of eight persons, he drowned them all. The Hebrew god should have known, certainly, that his drownings were a useless endeavor. The remaining eight had been, like Adam and Eve, cursed by original sin. Once Noah's descendants reproduced, it was apparent that they were no better than those his god had drowned and so another scheme, it seemed, was needed. Thus far, when tribesmen transgressed Jehovah's law, they were required, by that same law, to sacrifice an animal, sharing with local priests its food revenue. Hopefully they also shared with those wronged. This procedure, a blood sacrifice, was turned into the unfortunate primitive fiction that "without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins." 12

The blood sacrifices of the Hebrew tribes thus encouraged the peculiar view that there is a specific connection between blood sacrifice and sin. The sacrifice of doves, for example, reportedly satisfied Jehovah's requirements for dealing with lesser transgressions. But as the transgressions multiplied, it became necessary to cut the throats of larger animals in order to rid the sinners of their guilt. Sheep and oxen were utilized and their meaty carcasses deposited in priestly pantries. Only through the sacrifice of the innocent could the guilty think themselves free of transgressive taint. The Christian theorists, while leaving Jewish customs behind, nevertheless enlarged the idea of sacrifice.

Sinning, not surprisingly, became such a widespread phenomenon, that--according to "Christian" doctrine--the sacrifice of animals was no longer sufficient as restitution. Since human beings lacked that innocence needed to make bloodletting "pure," only the sacrifice of God himself would do. If the planet was to be reclaimed, this doctrine teaches, it would be necessary for this god to die atoning for his creatures, all of whom were under the curse of his post-Adamic law. In a strange twist of justice, the ultimate Innocent would perish to save those guilty. It was as if a judge had recommended the execution of someone other than the actual murderer, calling such a miscarriage, as the "Christian" theoreticians call theirs, "satisfying the law." Jesus, alternately conceived as God, God's Son, and the Holy Ghost, was, in fact, the innocent human sacrifice that this god thought was needed.

If a believer in this scheme kills another because of misplaced values and an uncontrolled temper, he can rest easy thereafter, often waxing ecstatic as former "Christian" sinners do. The sin committed would be, theoretically, washed away in Jesus' blood. The more civilized ideas of restitution, of reparation, or some other attempt to undo the wrong committed gets pushed aside.

That a god would accept being tortured to wipe clean the records of various and sundry criminals destroys the central moral foundation on which any meaningful system of justice rests. This is most heinously accomplished by giving individuals a "quick fix'" escape hatch from their sin, allowing them to consider sin gone instead of encouraging self-examination to search out misplaced internalized values that have caused the a sinner's anti-social act. Whereas the born-again Christian fundamentalist would have us believe he is a patron of the good, society must be aware that he or she is not a product of earned virtue, but one who has been taught to think his self "saved" through a divinity's sacrifice rather than through a searching inner effort to perceive the actual state of the self. This fundamentalist deficiency lies at the very root of American society's disarray, giving reason to reconsider, perhaps, the predicament of those whom Socrates thought to be living worthless lives. "The unexamined life," he is reported to have said, "is not worth living."

A critic of Socrates once suggested that this statement of his was a bit harsh. But now, perhaps, it could easily be argued that such "harshness" is much needed as balance because the other route has been insanely glorified for so long. Those who dump their sins on an invisible external power fail to self-examine and have become, in fact, the prime subverters of a morally upright world by perpetuating self-ignorance, ignominiously swallowing unwholesome myths that propagate erroneous and savage doctrines. In the next chapter I will explore how this lack of self examination and dogmatism lead to intolerance and hatred of others seen as "different."

NOTES:

1. Thomas Paine, Age of Reason (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1984) , p. 8.

2. A. Heron, Towards A Quaker View of Sex (London: Friends Home Service Committee, 1963).

3. Paine, Age of Reason, p. 8.

4. Thomas Jefferson, The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Adrian Koch and William Peden (New York: Modern Library, Random House, 1944), p. 47.

5. Ibid., p. 431.

6. Benjamin Franklin, Writings (New York: The Library of America, Library of Classics of the United States, 1987), p. 425.

7. Ibid., p. 1179.

8. Paine, Age of Reason, pp. 11-12.

9. Ibid., pp. 9-10.

10. Derrick Sherwin Bailey, Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition (NewYork: Longmans, Green, 1955).

11. "The 'aggressive violence' theories of Desmond Morris ( The Naked Ape), Konrad Lorenz (On Aggression), and Robert Ardery (The Territorial Imperative) have special appeal to many because they offer complacency. They can be accepted because they offer little hope for the future in these days of nuclear peril. A man need not bother himself about upgrading his scene. Reform? Revolution? Why bother? It seems easier to continue to express at least a few of these less admirable habit patterns until we are eventually eliminated by hydrogen warfare. In the meantime such thinking leads to fascism because there is no doubt that others need to be controlled. To unshackle the masses, says such a philosophy, is to invite them to kill you." Jack Nichols, Men's Liberation: A New Definition of Masculinity (New York: Penguin, 1975), p. 70.

12. H. L. Mencken reports that in pre-Christian Mexico, the god Huitzilopochtli required even more drastic techniques: the blood sacrifices to him of 50,000 youths and maidens. Huitzilopochtli, like many mythological gods, had no human father. He emerged from the womb of a virtuous widowed mother who had allowed herself a somewhat inexplicable but intimate relationship with the sun. His brother, Tezcatilpoca, was second in command in ancient Mexican religious lore, requiring the blood sacrifice of only half as many Mexican believers. "But today," writes Mencken, "Huitzilopochtli is as magnificently forgotten as Allen G. Thurman." H. L. Mencken, "Memorial Service," in Prejudices: A Selection (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), pp. 143-44.

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Excerpted from The Gay Agenda: Talking Back to the Fundamentalists, by Jack Nichols, Prometheus Books, 1996.

This book is available through your local book store or may be ordered through Prometheus Books at

(1-800) 421-0351.

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