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I am going to say something that I have never before said in public. I have professed my faith in Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior.
More than once, actually.
I don’t remember how many times. Maybe half a dozen? I do remember each time had the same empirical result, which is to say no empirical result. I was the same after as I was before. I knew nothing had changed because my Christian upbringing taught the importance of the truth. What I didn’t know then, and what seems obvious now, is that the truth isn’t The Truth.
Years later my dad asked if I was saved. It was important to him. I said yes, and I felt like a liar. Then I realized there’s no way he could prove I wasn’t. Faith, after all, isn’t falsifiable. Telling him I was “saved” had the same small-T truth to it as saying I accepted Jesus, which is to say, no truth at all. Saying the words of the profession of faith in Christ did not actuate my inner moral conscience anymore than saying abracadabra.
To born-again Christians, the event I describe here, in which you profess your faith in God who gave His only Begotten Son to be sacrificed on the Cross of Calvary so that Man might be forgiven his Sins, is seminal. The revelation of God’s Power and Glory is supposed to be a turning point one reflects on in old age in search of wisdom to pass on to youngsters embarking on their own walk with the Lord. It is the implicit or explicit lesson to every Sunday school class, every Bible story, and every sermon. Everything about born-again Christianity is bent toward the goal of your being born again. The only thing missing is how to be a good person.
For me to say that the words of profession of my faith in Jesus did not actuate my moral conscience any more than saying abracadabra did isn’t merely offensive to born-again Christians. It’s also confounding. I mean, the point of being born again is to avoid burning for an eternity in a Lake of Fire. What’s morality got to do with that? (The people I’m describing, by the way, are all white. I have no unique insight into African-American evangelical religion or culture.)
My argument here is kind of the inverse of Martin Luther’s. The German theologian who launched the Reformation came to believe that “good works” did not bring salvation. Doing the right thing was not the way to Heaven. Salvation, he argued, could be justified by faith alone. Moral action wasn’t enough. You really had to believe.
This makes sense when you think about it from Martin Luther’s point of view. He was fighting the idea of—actually the widespread practice of—salvation through the cash purchase of little pieces of paper that said you are now absolved of such-and-such sin. If I were Luther, I might want to reform such blatant corruption, too. I’d want people to be truthful in the practice of their virtue. Dispensations are empty vessels, and that’s no way to build a religious community. Instead, corruption is a way to tear it down.
I’m no historian but it seems to me, as someone who has strayed (badly but gladly) from my born-again Christian beginnings, that many of today’s believers have turned the Reformation on its head in a way. Whole lifetimes can pass by without having to think seriously about what a good person is or how to put virtue into action—why, when, and how. And such apathy is made possible by the deep-seated belief that morality is the same as obedience to authority, especially obedience to God the Father. In other words, I am good because people in authority tell me I am good for obeying their authority. Take the believer out of the shadow of authority, however, and what do you have? A person who’s never developed a moral core. An empty vessel, sadly. Donald Trump and his white evangelical supporters have more in common than most people think. (Caveat: I developed a moral core, but it wasn’t easy on my own. Others often do the same.)
You’ve probably read recently about evangelical Christian leaders taking umbrage with Trump’s order to pull out of Syria, abandoning our allies, the Kurds, who have protected the small Christian communities in the region—communities now in peril. This, we are told, has forced leading evangelicals to “break ranks” with Trump. Broadcaster Pat Robertson even worried that with this decision Trump might have lost “heaven’s mandate.”
But seriously. If Robertson and others wanted to take action, they would. If the lives of these Middle Eastern Christians mattered so much to them, they’d do everything in their power, which is a lot, to pressure Trump to reverse his terrible choice. They will not, however, for three reasons.
One, these Middle Eastern Chistians are the wrong kind. They may as well be Mormons. Two, Trump is the best chance evangelicals have of establishing a social order of their making. And three, but most importantly, moral action—that is, doing good in the world—isn’t all that important in a fallen world that is coming to an end soon enough anyway. What matters is faith alone. (To be sure, there are many thoughtful evangelical Christians eager to engage morally in the world, however fallen. They are, alas, a tiny minority.) But don’t take my word for it. According to the New York Times, megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress made the very same point:
“Some evangelicals may disagree with the president’s decision,” Mr. Jeffress said, “but I guarantee you there is not one evangelical supporter of the president who would switch their vote and support Elizabeth Warren or Joe Biden over a Syria decision.”
In Martin Luther’s time, good works had become hopelessly corrupt. In ours, faith alone can be. Indeed, today’s true believers are turning the Reformation on its head. What’s moral about obedience to an authority with no moral core?