Religion is the oldest form of control. From the implicit consequences of pre-colonial missionary efforts to the tangible control over rhetoric shaped by King James’ Bible, the pervasiveness of religious institutions throughout history cannot be ignored. By placing themselves in positions of religious authority, individuals enable themselves to construct generalized structures of life that actively define community. Even today at Oberlin, we find organized religion influencing the periphery of our lives, both personally and over intangible distances.
Faith is meant to be positive, both within individualistic moral contexts and in broader social implications. Corruption and informed cruelty manifest when bigoted individuals become overly assured of their own beliefs, undermining the validity of any alternative possibilities. However, this deconstruction only happens when a handful of people, to their personal benefit, try to define what religion is for anyone who subscribes to that particular system of belief.
Belief is inherently personal, and religion by extension prioritizes the nature of the self. The moral guidelines that religion establishes uses this construct of a self-aware individual to make us cognizant of our effect on the people around us, using this route to create notions of social interactions and mutual benefit through cooperation.
The majority of religious individuals in the U.S. identify as Christian. While specific attribution may be toward smaller and varied denominations, the basic adherence to and belief in the community is based in the same ideas. Although I am neither Christian nor vaguely religious, I do value the existential values promoted by the culture. At the same time, my five weeks in the United States thus far as a student have been marked by a very specific form of evangelism, be it from street preachers or good Samaritans merely working on community outreach.
Preachers far and wide adopt different forms of rhetoric to make their point and spread their belief, yet one form in particular seems to outshine the rest. The concept of preaching is as old as religion itself, but its congruence with the mechanics of fear has been increasingly prevalent since the dawn of the Middle Ages. By imbuing in people the fear of God — more specifically, damnation as a consequence of a lack of belief — the Roman Catholic Church turned belief for a profit by selling indulgences. Today, a very similar structure is actively equipping evangelists with the tools to spread not religious faith, but fear.
Last Thursday, a man by the name of Joseph stood outside Stevenson Dining Hall with a sign that read, “Feminism destroys. Jesus Restores.” A few weeks earlier, he stood outside Wilder Hall giving out pieces of paper titled “What Is the Best Way to Live Your Life?” On both occasions, he was equipped with a speaker and microphone, making sure he was heard by anyone within a 20-yard radius.
The spectacle that was this man, spouting misogynistic and anti-Semitic “gospel,” was the most absurd sight I have come across in years. You see, his supposedly logical interpretation of the Bible and the Word of God is rife with inconsistencies, besides the invariably problematic attitude towards various communities. He writes, “God had high expectations from the Israelites. Why shouldn’t He? Should He drop His expectations for love and grace? If He drops His expectations to accommodate what man wants, then He compromised His perfection for man’s imperfection. Does a Perfect God compromise His Perfection?”
Humanity is problematic; it is imperfect because we are constantly in conflict with each other and with ourselves. The inherent nature of people is in our imperfections, and it is through learning and acceptance that we broaden our horizons to accommodate for these shortcomings. Genesis 1:27 states, “So God created man,” imbuing him with imperfections that we know to be reality. If the basis of Joseph’s anti-Semitic rhetoric is supposed perfection in God’s work, his premise is flawed even by his own standards.
Through this distorted understanding of the nature of God, and therefore constructs of theological power, men like Joseph make creation about subservience as opposed to freedom of one’s will and intellect. God stops being benevolent and embodies a malevolence instead, where belief to the contrary of their supposed “truth” is sin. Under Joseph’s rhetoric, God is not meant to be revered, but feared. The rest of humanity is, in the meantime, considered delusional for believing anything to the contrary. So Joseph picks up a microphone and declares himself a “Servant of God sent by Christ to evangelize the whole world.” This archaic savior complex roots itself in the propagation of fear; people are expected to organize single file to attain salvation, previously through indulgences and presently through faith in Joseph’s word.
“Are you an atheist? When you die, you will believe in Christ. Then, it will be too late, for you will already be damned, but you will believe in Christ,” he said. No longer is religious typical discourse about the teachings of Abrahamic religions, or even the spiritual benefits of belief. Instead, it’s dominated by implicit threats from roadside evangelists with a false sense of importance.
While it is abundantly clear that this form of evangelism is not the mainstream Christianity that people in America subscribe to, observing the extent to which self-appointed evangelists will go to spread their bigotry is concerning. People in cities regularly organize sparsely-attended marches or movements against secular and genuinely positive ideas. In January 2017, such individuals disrupted the Cleveland Women’s March by spouting ideas of a conservative, Christian-only America, claiming that feminists want to make the country “one nation under the devil.” The video link to this confrontation starts with, “the secular feminist movement is trying to brainwash our daughters to become disrespectful, Jezebel spirits. Jesus shut the mouths of barking dogs and hypocrites with the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, so that their ears could hear, then be converted, then be healed.”
No part of this particular scenario seems like the work, word, or wisdom of God. Rather, it seems like narrow-minded patriarchs with a desperate need for authority and an audience, seizing the opportunity to exploit their freedom of speech. Instead of preaching or teaching through kindness the morality and ethics the Bible recommends, they spread hate, lies and mistrust.
In the delicate socio-political context of the 21st century, it goes without saying that individuals promoting xenophobia, racism, chauvinism, and bigotry are better off without platforms. The confrontational nature of such people incites aggravated responses from rational individuals who are enraged by the rhetoric. As expletives are slung either way, deeper fissures of hate and misunderstanding are nurtured, and the only benefit is to the mechanics of fear, which root further and further into societal consciousness.
Religion especially holds power over social structures that constantly endangers the reality we live in. Take it from Margaret Atwood who, in the introduction to the 2017 edition of The Handmaid’s Tale, wrote, “‘The second question that comes up frequently: Is The Tale anti-religion? Again, it depends what you may mean by that. True, a group of authoritarian men seize control and attempt to restore an extreme version of the patriarchy, in which women — like 19th-century American slaves — are forbidden to read. Further, they can’t control money or have jobs outside the home, unlike some women in the Bible. The regime uses biblical symbols, as any authoritarian regime taking over America doubtless would: They wouldn’t be Communists or Muslims.”
Yes, we’re still some ways away from Atwood’s dystopian Gilead. However, as with any plausible reality, it is disconcerting to find a particular discourse of agency-based disenfranchisement gaining traction. These are realities of our time, and while it may seem distant from our contexts, they are already far too close for comfort. Really, if people were created in the image of God, a benevolent being capable of sacrifice for the benefit of humanity, we already have an ideal to strive toward; whether we attain it or not is entirely in our hands.