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Derek Penwell Headshot

Updating Common Sense: What Christians Really Believe

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As a kid I took for granted the fact that popping out of the womb as a male beat the hell out of the alternative. Any girl with half a brain, if given the choice, would obviously opt for checking “male” on the census form.

In fact, so clear was this bit of wisdom, and so desperately did young males my age need it to be true that we used “woman” as a slur: Sissy. Fem. Girly-man.

One time I called my little brother a woman in front of my mom. She said, “You know, woman isn’t a dirty word. There’s no shame in being a woman.”

I said, “Sorry, Mom.” But deep inside I knew she was wrong. Everybody did. The reality of male superiority was woven into the fabric of the universe.

But it wasn’t only women. I also took it as read that being gay made you somehow defective. We used sexual orientation as an epithet, too. You know the ones. I don’t need to repeat them.

We just knew these things, as surely as we knew the earth revolved around the sun, or that the sum of the interior angles of a triangle is 180º, or that Michael Jordan is the best basketball player of all time.

We didn’t argue that men were superior to women or that gay people had made some shoddy lifestyle choices any more than we argued about gravity or the law of the conservation of matter or entropy. Because, why would you?

That’s what taking something for granted means: You don’t have to argue about it anymore. It’s the way the world is. It’s not even conventional wisdom, because conventional wisdom implies that there might be another side to the story. This stuff is just eye-rollingly obvious.

But then one day that stuff about women and gay people didn’t seem nearly so obvious anymore. I realized that I knew women who were smarter and funnier and more successful than me. I spent time with LGBT folks who seemed much more together, much more empathic, much more generous than I am. Now, a lot of that stuff I once took for granted seems not only laughably false, but something that I should be actively attempting to stand athwart.

We need to take a look at this whole “taken-for-grantedness” thing. We need to update common sense.

I was reading some analysis recently about the HuffPost/YouGov poll that indicates a problem with Americans’ perception of the budget deficit. In short, the deficit has been steadily falling over the last four years -- which you’d never know by asking the average American, 68 percent of whom believe otherwise.

Why the disparity between reality and perception? Because reality changes, while perception very often does not.

People, according to George Lakoff, make sense of reality by relying on a deeply embedded structure of frames. These frames are the taken-for-granted things we use as shortcuts to understand a complex world.

In many ways frames operate as “what-everybody-with-any-sense-knows-to-be-true.” In the worlds they construct and over which they have dominion, these frames are things that no longer even need to be asserted, let alone argued. Everybody just knows.

But we’ve come to understand that some frames are so wrongheaded that we have a moral responsibility to leave them behind -- like the idea that some classes of people are fit for nothing more than slavery, or that women are inherently hysterical and unfit for positions of responsibility outside the home, or that sexual orientation is a choice to be made -- a choice that is open to praise or blame. Obsolete and unchallenged frames can be moral liabilities.

The liability of certain frames is also true when it comes to religion. Christianity, for instance, has long suffered from some popular certainties that need to be shed. The “taken-for-grantedness” of some frames in popular Christianity is no longer just a hidebound inconvenience; it’s an obstacle to faith. But because the fundamentalists who rely on those yell louder than anyone else, their vision of the world sits at the forefront of the public consciousness as “the Christian position.”

Well, some of the frames popularly believed to be “the Christian position” aren’t; they are distortions of what many folks who claim to follow Jesus believe.

So, here is a list of popular Christian frames that come to mind that need to go away:

Christians are credulous dolts, who view science as a threat.

  • In fact, an overwhelming majority of U.S. Catholics and white mainline Protestants take evolution to be the way we got here.


  • Across the board, a significant majority of Christians believe climate change is underway.


  • A majority of Christians (Evangelical, Mainline Protestant, and Catholic) view stem cell research as morally acceptable or as “not a moral issue.”

Christians hate gay people.

Christians are nationalists who hate immigrants.

I’m tired of playing defense against fundamentalism. Fundamentalists don’t occupy “the Christian position,” which requires some kind of special deference, not to mention the expectation of an explanation from those who would deviate. Christianity, in large part, is much more progressive than is popularly taken for granted.

Common sense about what the majority of Christians believe needs an update.