Preacher man talking on TV, puttin’ down the rock and roll. He wants me to send a donation ‘cause he’s worried about my soul. He said, “Jesus walked on the water,” and I know that it’s true. But sometimes I think that preacher man’d like to do a little walkin’, too.
— The Charlie Daniels Band
In an old Mad magazine parody, two neighbors are standing at a fence between their properties talking about the beauty of their shared religious beliefs.
One neighbor declares he’s particularly fond of a Bible verse that he quotes. The other shares his admiration of that verse, but he corrects his fellow churchgoer, noting that his recitation is not quite accurate.
The first neighbor does not like being corrected, so he asserts that his recollection of the particular Bible verse is correct. Their argument grows increasingly heated to the point that they almost come to blows. Before stomping angrily away, one declares something to the effect that, “I hate creeps who screw up a beautiful Bible verse like ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’!”
That, sadly, is a pretty good take on religion in 21st century America.
This country’s spirituality has devolved so drastically, it’s not unusual for churchgoers to openly condemn and spew hatred at any religion — or any church within their own denomination — whose belief set conflicts with their own. Add into the mix our country’s open enmity with Islamic nations and the presidential bid of a candidate who is a professed member of a “fringe” religious sect (Mormonism), and religious intolerance here is alive and doing quite well.
I’ve heard so many of the so-called faithful in our region decry the declining interest in their church programs, especially among members of the younger generation, even as they’ve openly condemned those same young people or other groups who don’t meet their high standards. Like the Mad neighbors, so many praise the Lord out one side of their mouths and damn those not like them out of the other.
Every religious sect and denomination, we’re told, holds the key that unlocks the mysteries of God. The only way, then, to secure a better afterlife is to fall in line and adhere to the dogma of those sects and denominations. There’s little wiggle room for beliefs that go against the grain.
It’s also a sad fact that many believers who attend a particular church start to worship the church’s pastor rather than the God he purports to represent. That’s where you’ll find congregations willing to cast ballots en masse for candidates who meet their pastor’s approval — or make a generous donation to his favorite cause — members willing to toss more than their tithe into the collection plate when the right reverend needs a new car or, most dramatically, damaged people willing to gulp down a cup of poisoned Kool-Aid in hopes of finding spiritual enlightenment.
Certainly in a troubled world citizens are likely to seek comfort from the daily grind. In a best-case scenario, they find that comfort in a welcoming house of worship. But somewhere along the way it seems we have forgotten as a nation that religious practices — no matter the denomination — are the dominion of man, no matter that spiritual leaders declare their dogma and beliefs “God-inspired” and argue that they have the answers to true enlightenment.
But only someone who is easily led would accept one man’s — or one congregation’s — interpretation of God’s word as absolutely unchallengeable. And only a religious leader who has set himself up as infallible would condemn others whose beliefs differ from his interpretation.
The next time a supposed sanctified individual tells you his particular belief set is the one true interpretation of God’s will, ask him why Baptist churches only blocks apart have such different “do’s” and “don’ts” that their congregants are expected to adhere to. Ask him how Protestants and Catholics in Ireland — who supposedly worship the same God — proved their piety for so long by bombing day care centers and public gatherings.
I’m always left shaking my head when this paper gets a squawk or a letter or some other such missive that purports to “set people on the right path.” Invariably, such words of wisdom include condemnation for any who fail to see the light.
I can only imagine a chagrined God looking down sadly, wondering how we got it so wrong.
Email Carlton Fletcher at firstname.lastname@example.org.