5 ways Christian fundamentalists completely misread the Bible

Christian extremists choose to read the good book literally -- unless it supports crazy ideas like environmentalism

Published June 18, 2015 7:00AM (EDT)

  (Lisa F. Young)
(Lisa F. Young)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.


Right-wing Evangelical Fundamentalism claims to “go back to roots of Christianity.” In fact, the “literal” (i.e. the earth was created in seven literal days) reading of the Bible was invented in the 19th century. Few fundamentalists care about the early church, the Gospels, the Catholic traditions, Augustine, Arian heresies, encyclicals and councils. Rather, they blend Southern Conservatism, bastardized Protestantism, some Pauline doctrine, gross nationalism and a heavy dose of naive anti-intellectualism for a peculiar American strain of bullshit. As Reverend Cornel West has noted, “the fundamentalist Christians want to be fundamental about everything, except ‘love thy neighbor.'”

Here are some verses we liberal Christians wish they would get “fundamentalist” about:

1. Immigration:

The verse:

When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. - Leviticus 19:33-34.

Why Fundamentalists Hate This Verse:

Because fundamentalists are xenophobic: religious fundamentalism is a reaction to the multiculturalism of liberal democracy. Rather than seek a “brotherhood of man,” religious fundamentalism longs for a tribal community, without the necessary friction from those with foreign beliefs, cultures and customs. Here’s an open letter from the President of an organization called Christians for A Sustainable Economy (Or as I call it: Christians for an unsustainableenvironment):

We are called to discern among, “sojourners” (like Ruth and Rahab who intend to assimilate and bless) and “foreigners” (who do not intend to assimilate and bless) and to welcome the former with hospitality.

This is an odd spin, given that in Leviticus, the command is unambiguous, there is no aside about a distinction between those who intend to assimilate. The letter then addresses the immigration bill:

Its passage would allow 11 million illegal immigrants to become citizens in the short-term, with likely an additional 20 million family members as new citizens within about a decade. ... The net price tag of S. 744 will be in the trillions of dollars. ... Such escalation of debt is one way to destroy a nation.  It is immoral. It is theft from American seniors and children. It is unbiblical. It is unkind.

I could write a bunch of stuff about those numbers being crazily inaccurate, but let me allow the Lord to respond:

I will be a swift witness against… those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against … those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts. Malachi 3:5.

2. Poverty

The Verses:

One of the most humorous aspects of modern-day, far-right Christianity is its reverence of capitalism. That’s because Christ could be considered almost “anti-capitalist.” Consider this verse:

Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. - Matthew 19:24.

There is some version of the story of the rich man approaching Jesus that appears in every synoptic Gospel. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus tells the rich man, “go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”

The story of Lazarus should similarly terrify modern day fundamentalists:

Lazarus is a beggar who waits outside of a rich man’s house and begs for scraps. When both Lazarus and the rich man die, Lazarus ends up in heaven, while the rich man ends up in hell. When the rich man begs for water, Abraham says, “Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish.” Luke 19:25.

Why Fundamentalists Hate These Verses:

Because the only thing fundamentalists dislike more than immigrants is poor people. Seriously. Just this year, Tea Party congressman Stephen Fincher explained why he thought the government should cut food stamps entirely, “The role of citizens, of Christians, of humanity is to take care of each other, but not for Washington to steal from those in the country and give to others in the country.” Michelle Bachmann has also made a similar statement. The entire Tea Party movement is based on the idea that a huge portion of Americans are “takers” who suck the lifeblood out of the economy.

The Catholic Church actually has a long history of decrying the exploitation of the poor and supporting union movements (See Rerum Novarm).  G.K. Chesterton’s writing on the rich often hits Occupy Wall Street levels (“The rich man is bribed… that is why he is rich.”) But fundamentalists insist that poverty be explained in terms of a personal moral failure. They therefore hold that success should be described in terms of morality; this is the so-called Protestant ethic that Weber praised. But it is also, as Nietzsche noted, the “ethic of the hangman.” The poor are considered culpable so that they can be punished – like today’s cuts to food stamps or the public shaming of those on welfare.

3. The Environment

The Verse:

In Genesis, man is given stewardship of the Earth, God’s creation. [Stewardship, in the Christian tradition implies protection. Man should exist in harmony with the earth, not work against it.] As is noted in Colossians 1:16-17:

By him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

Why Fundamentalists Hate The Verse:

Jesus Christ once told his followers:

No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. - Luke 16:13.

Increasingly, the religious right is trying to do exactly that, intertwining Evangelical fundamentalism with unfettered capitalism — with disastrous results for the environment. Thus, American political life is increasingly dominated by Christians who reject the religious ethos, in favor of capitalist ethos.

One Conservative Evangelical publication, World Magazinehypes the “We Get It” campaign, which seeks to discredit the threat of global warming. It also claims the threat of climate change is “alarmism” and fears that efforts to clamp down on emissions will hurt the poor (read: corporations). In reality, climate change will have its greatest effect on people living on less than a dollar a day who can not adapt to higher temperatures. Conservative Evangelicals are not concerned with dwindling biodiversity, the destruction of ecosystem, rampant pollution, global warming and the numerous other environmental challenges we face. Rather they, with the business community, are concerned with the bottom line. The future is irrelevant (unless we’re talking about government debt). Thus, the Biblical command to protect the environment is widely eschewed.

4. War

The Verse:

In two Gospels, Jesus tells his followers:

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. - Matthew 5:38-42, Luke 27-30.

In another passage he says:

You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. - Matthew 5:43 – 45.

Why Fundamentalists Hate This Verse:

As a religious and political movement, fundamentalists have defined themselves as a party of opposition, rather than of love, grace and mercy.

In her fantastic essay, Onward Christian Liberals, Marilynne Robinson argues:

The excitement we are seeing now is called by some scholars athirdgreat awakening, yet it is different from the other two... it is full of pious aversion toward the so-called culture... and toward those whose understanding of religion fails to meet its standards.

While past “Great Awakenings” have looked inward, seeing sin within the conflicted self, this new awakening looks outward, seeing sin in the wider culture. The culture, that which is secular is evil, while the church is sacred. This is why modern religious fundamentalism gravitates towards xenophobia, homophobia, sexism, etc. Fear and disgust are its motivating factors.

This fundamentalism inclines some religious people toward a pre-emptive “war of religion” and a strong disgust (that sometimes culminates in violence) toward Muslims. Oddly enough, the Christian tradition has developed a theory of “Just War” (developed by Aquinas) which condemns war except when all other options have been exhausted and there is just treatment of prisoners (with a specific condemnation of torture). If only one of the past two “Christian” presidents had listened.

5. Women

The Verse:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. - Galatians 3:28

Why Fundamentalists Hate it:

Although the right often claims the Bible supports their absurd ideas about gender roles (just like the Bible supported anti-miscegenation) such claims have been thoroughly debunked by theologians. Generally, when you’ll hear an explanation of why women belong in the home, it’ll rely on a misreading of one of Paul’s doctrines.

In contrast to Paul, Christ rarely concerned himself with sexual mores, he was far more concerned with fighting oppression. Fundamentalists want to keep women submissive and subservient, but Jesus won’t let them. In Luke, for instance, Jesus is blessed by a priestess named Anna. He praises a woman who stands up to a judge and demands justice. It’s worth noting that in a time when women could not testify in a court of law, all four resurrection stories have women arriving first to Jesus’ tomb (although it’s unclear which women). Jesus talks with a Samaritan woman at a well and praises Mary Magdalene for listening to his words (Luke 10:38-42).

Fundamentalism Obscures True Religion

These verses are powerful and I believe that they should be carefully considered.

I worry that Christianity and religion in general is represented by its most conservative, fundamentalists elements. Remember that Marx drew his the inspiration for his famous quote “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” from the example of the early church (Acts 4:32-35).

I understand the fun that Sam Harris and Reddit have destroying fundamentalism, and I went to a Christian college and had jolly good time of it as well. “Haven’t you read your own book?” I would ask smugly. But once the gleeful potshots are finished, we all have to face the fundamental and aching deprivation of having been born. We can continue to have a fun time berating those who believe the Bible explains science and that there was a snake in the Garden of Eden, but it’s really a waste.

The Christian message doesn’t contradict science, and nor is it concerned with bourgeois politics. Ultimately Christianity (and many other religions) are about transcending politics and fighting for social justice. Think of Martin Luther King Jr., Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and Thich Quang Duc – all of whom were influenced by their religion to change the world. Jesus saw how oppression and oppressors consumed the world. He, as all great reformers have, sided with the oppressed. This kind of skewed fundamentalism is radically new and far removed from true Christianity. True Christianity offers us a far superior doctrine — one of social justice, love and equality.

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By Sean McElwee

Sean McElwee is founding executive director of Data for Progress. He tweets at @seanmcelwee.

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