02/11/2014 08:49 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Evangelical Theology Is Used Like Sunscreen -- Not to Encourage Discussion but to Protect Against Exposure


Let's be honest. Sure some smart young people who "come to Christ" are deeply sincere. Then life happens to them and they come to see that nothing is quite as true as it was cracked up to be that night they got "saved." Then they have a choice: stick with the program, because that's how they earn their living and/or they now are known as "Christians" so backing down is hard since their identity is on the line-- or bail.

Some bail. They lose jobs, friends and family. Most just dig in deeper but aren't fooling themselves anymore as they slide into and past middle age. When questioned they lash out and get personal. Questions scare them because they never dared to listen to their own doubts. The person questioning them is denounced as a bad person, she's "bitter" or "angry" or "fallen" or downright "evil." Thank God for the many handy Bible verses for denouncing her, or as we'll now call her that dog who returned to her own vomit!

What the self-doubting (and often self-loathing) smarter and older evangelicals can't deal with are their own real questions: for instance how can anyone sane actually believe what the Bible says? Who really believes that gay men and women chose that "lifestyle" rather than being born that way? How can anyone honest look at the evangelical establishment, from the Billy Graham Association to the big publishing companies, to the media empires, to the big colleges and high schools, and really think any of the leaders of this incestuous highly-profitable club would be recognized by Jesus as on the path of the simple way, taking up a cross or following him as he reached out and touched the untouchables?

Let's face it, there's an army of evangelical leaders and followers out there that in their deepest inner selves know they have more or less wasted their lives while selling the Americanized "GOD" and "JESUS" as virtually trademarked products. They are about as open to questioning the basic facts of their pitch as the cigarette companies were to admitting that smoking is addictive. When they're assailed by their inevitable doubts they ignore them and plow on because they cannot face losing face, friends, family and above all -- for the legion of "professional Christians" -- the money.

The last thing the evangelical establishment wants is an honest debate. So they're into censorship on a huge scale. To question is to be written off. Just try sending a manuscript to an evangelical publisher that questions the very basis of the existence of the religion they earn their living selling one over-priced book at a time. If they believed their schtick was true they would welcome debate. Try submitting an opinion piece like this one to any evangelical magazine.

Try telling the truth about an evangelical leader, say that Franklin Graham pays himself $612,884 (in 2012) a year, not counting tens of thousands more in perks, out of funds donated by mostly lower middle class and poor white working people to help the poor through the so-called Samaritans' Purse. Just point out that media empires like Christianity Today magazine are not actually running anything remotely or honestly journalistic, but are empire builders, for instance pushing something like the latest nonsensical claim by the ailing Billy Graham that Jesus is on his way - yet again! -- any day now. I'll bet not one editor in that office "sharing Billy's final message" really thinks she or he is wasting their money by socking it away in their retirement plan.

The movers and shakers in the evangelical world know they're living in and perpetrating a fantasy land. They know and act upon the inner conviction that Jesus isn't coming back anytime, buy and sell, invest, plan retirements, protect their turf like everyone else... and yet, cash in on whatever the latest nonsensical folly they need to sell - again - to the faithful is, as they keep their supporters, or subscribers, or donors on the hook with more magical promises bolstered only by circular "the Bible says" arguments in an absolutely closed system. They are as leery of real debate as any Red Guard leader would have been waving the Little Red Book in the Cultural Revolution. The book (red or black with gold edges) "says!" And that's it, that's all they have.

If the evangelical publishers were legitimate they would publish books by atheists asking real questions. They would publish books by gay Christians. If Christianity Today (CT) magazine was actually journalistic they'd investigate Franklin Graham's greed, call out Billy's last book for the sheer nonsense it is as he (or his ghostwriter) recycled discredited "prophetic" End Times warmed-over apocalyptic fantasy - again. And they would run articles honestly calling out the racist evangelical "Tea Party" for their unpatriotic attempts to bring down the entire world economy, all to get even with the black man in the White House. They would also open their opinion pages to people who would ask the real questions. And they would not censor their "comments" sections as they do. In fact you'd have seen op-eds like this one in their pages and many more like it. You'd also read a review of books like my novel And God Said, "Billy!" exploring the roots of American religious delusion, and offering another way to approach true spirituality. And if you did read that review it would be about the book, not about how sad it is that I'd backslide so far...

Don't hold your breath.

None of this will happen because the evangelical world can't ever open the door to honest debate for the same reason that great magicians don't let you behind the curtain. All they can do is 1) ignore critics or 2) assassinate their critics' characters. Period. That's all they've got. It's silence or lies. Evangelical theology is used like sunscreen, not to encourage discussion but to protect against exposure.

It takes intellectual self-confidence to tolerate real opposition and answer arguments instead of attacking those who disagree as no longer one of us, or worse. But if one thing is true about the evangelical leadership it's that when confronted they scamper to find ways to discredit the questioner rather than engaging. (Just read whatever comments will be offered here below by readers of the Fox News ilk, and note that unlike the editors of the big evangelical outlets I never cut or edit comments figuring that if I can't take the heat I shouldn't be in the writers kitchen! Proof? Check out the 2000-+ often hate-filled comments I left on the page in response to my article on the slow motion lynching of President Obama. Then check out the comments of World magazine or CT and see if they ever let real dissent into their fortresses.)

The truth is the higher up the food chain you get in the world of big time American religion - from the Roman Catholic bishops protecting their legion of pedophiles to the Billy Graham people and the editors of CT pretending that Franklin Graham is anything but an overpaid right wing bigot ripping off the poor, the less likely it is you'll find people willing to really talk.

Why? Because the smarter, older and better paid the top leaders are the less likely they are to actually believe in what they're selling. The last thing the evangelical establishment wants is a real discussion of Americanized religion, who profits, and what moonshine it's selling. Besides losing face a real debate might force the evangelical leadership to confront their own loss of faith made that's made so very clear by the fact they say one thing but always do another. Again, did even one editor at Christianity Today magazine cash in their retirement plan after they "shared" Billy's latest and "probably his last book" claiming Jesus was on the way? If they were serious about agreeing with his end times views, and this is it folks, why didn't they sell all they had and give it to the poor?

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Frank Schaeffer is a writer and artist. His latest book -- And God Said, "Billy!" exploring the roots of American religious delusion, and offering another way to approach true spirituality, is on Kindle, iBook and NOOK for $3.99, and in paperback. It spent 8 weeks as Amazon's #1 best seller for Political Humor.