08/04/2006 09:14 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Crackpot Christianity and America's Current Moral Degeneration

No one should decidedly adhere to an exposition of Scripture that with sure reason is ascertained to be false in order that, from this, Scripture not be derided by the infidels. ----- St. Thomas Aquinas [from Lev Shestov, Athens and Jerusalem, p. 300]

With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil -- that takes religion. ----- Steven Weinberg

History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes. ----- Thomas Jefferson

Although he might not agree with my use of the term "Crackpot Christians," Kevin Phillips is certainly correct when he claims that "the radical side of U.S. religion has embraced cultural antimodernism, war hawkishness, Armageddon prophecy, and in the case of conservative fundamentalists, a demand for government by literal biblical interpretation."
[American Theocracy, p. 100]

These Crackpot Christians are largely responsible for placing one of their own, George W. Bush, in the White House. Their astounding ignorance, unquestioning faith, war hawkishness, and fascination with the End of Time subsequently rendered them gullible to the Bush administration's lies and exaggerations about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (especially the apocalyptic "mushroom clouds") and ties to al Qaeda. Thus, they cannot escape responsibility for supporting an illegal, immoral invasion of Iraq.

Judging by recent polls, Crackpot Christians continue to provide the residual support that prevents the total collapse of the worst presidency in American history. Their insouciance toward the ever worsening daily horrors in Iraq - so vividly reported by Jeffrey Gettleman in the August 2006 issue of GQ -- is daily testimony to their moral degeneracy. And, by their refusal to repent and improve, Crackpot Christians become responsible for the precipitous collapse of U.S. moral authority now occurring around the world.

Yes, thanks to the moral degeneracy fostered by Crackpot Christians and the perverse "moral clarity" of their leader, the world now considers the United States to be a country more evil than it was when President Clinton merely disgraced the White House with immoral sexual escapades.

But, then, Crackpot Christians have a long history of moral degeneracy. Simply look back to America's Civil War and you'll find southern clergymen - clergymen! -- citing verses from the Bible (e.g., Exodus 20-21, Matthew 10:14 and Ephesians 6:5-6) to justify slavery. According to Martin E. Marty (perhaps, our foremost authority on religion in America), "The South especially cherished the most literal readings [of the Bible], because on these terms it could find biblical passages in support of slavery." [Pilgrims in Their Own Land: 500 Years of Religion in America, pp. 302-303]

"Scripture, the Confederate clergy advised, even justified secession." [Phillips, American Theocracy, p. 144] And even after Union forces delivered God's just retribution (speaking in Crackpot Christian terms) for the South's evil ways, southern clergymen soon were abetting their perpetuation -- which subsequently spread into America's southern Midwest and across America's Southwest -- by fostering the self-deception of "redemption."

Readers of Michelle Goldberg's new book, Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, can see Crackpot Christianity at work today, subverting America's liberal democracy in an attempt to impose Christian "Dominion" - essentially southern political and religious culture -- over the entire country. According to Ms. Goldberg, "Dominionism is derived from a theocratic sect called Christian Reconstructionism, which advocates replacing American civil law with Old Testament biblical law." [p. 13].

"'Dominion theologians,' as they are called, lay great emphasis in Genesis 1:26-27, where God tells Adam to assume dominion over the animate and inanimate world." Moreover, "dominionism" has been hugely influential in the broader evangelical movement," [ibid] thanks to the influence of the Crackpot Christian par excellence, Pat Robertson.

Thus, both the threat posed by Crackpot Christianity and the source of its moral degeneracy spring from attempts to impose on others the ridiculous belief that the Bible is literally true and inerrant. Fifty-five percent of Americans believe the Bible to be literally true. And when you ask Evangelical Protestants whether the Bible is literally true, an astounding 83 percent say, "Yes."

Astounding? Yes, incredibly! Especially when you consider the informed observation of New Testament scholar, Burton L. Mack. According to Professor Mack: "Despite the enormous investment in biblical studies in our society, there is actually very little public knowledge about the Bible. One cannot assume that anyone knows why the individual books of the Bible were first written, how they were understood by those who first read them, when and why they were brought together in a single volume, what the historical significance of that moment was, how the Christian church has reinterpreted all of them many times in the course of Western cultural history, and what the lasting effect of that layered text has been." [Burton L. Mack, Who Wrote the New Testament: The Making of the Christian Myth pp. 3-4]

Here's an example that demonstrates the problem of thoughtless biblical literalism. When polled, 60 percent of Americans asserted that the Hebrew Bible's description of Noah's Ark is literally correct. Yet, biblical scholars have uncovered evidence, which indicates that the Hebrew Bible contains two stories about Noah's Ark. They derive from distinct sources that they call P and J.

Thus, P (Genesis 6:19) has God instructing Noah to bring one pair (male and female) of each animal into the ark while J (Genesis 7:2) has God instructing Noah to bring seven pairs of clean animals and one pair of unclean animals. Moreover, P tells us that the flood lasted a year (370 days), while J claims it was forty days and forty nights. Finally P (Genesis 8:7) has Noah send out a raven, while J (Genesis 8:8) claims it was a dove.

But biblical scholars also know that Moses did not write the Pentateuch. First, as Richard Elliot Freedman has observed: People "noticed that the Five Books of Moses included things that Moses could not have known or was not likely to have said. The text, after all, gave an account of Moses' death. It also said that Moses was the humblest man on earth; and normally one would not expect the humblest man on earth to point out that he is the humblest man on earth." [Who Wrote the Bible? p. 18]

Second, scholars now believe that the five books have been derived from four source documents; P and J, but also E and D. They believe that Genesis contains two distinct, but intermixed, stories. One story, which refers to God as Elohim, is based on the E and P sources. The other story, which refers to Yahweh, is based on the J source. As Professor Freedman notes: "In the case of the creation, for example, the first chapter of the Bible tells one version of how the world came to be created, and the second chapter of the Bible starts over with a different version of what happened. In many ways they duplicate each other, and on several points they contradict each other." [Freedman, p. 50]

Moreover, the P source, written, perhaps a hundred years later "as an alternative" to the E and J sources, was, in turn, selected by a redactor some two hundred years later to become the Genesis 1:1 - 2.3 that we read in the Hebrew Bible today. Professor Freedman speculates that the redactor (probably Ezra) included all four sources in the Hebrew Bible for two reasons, notwithstanding their contradictions: (1) each source had long-standing popularity by the time the redactor got to them and (2) each source was popularly thought to have been written by Moses.

And, thus, it is from such mundane and erroneous considerations -- and not the literal word of Moses -- that today's Crackpot Christian dominionists claim their authority.

The New Testament is equally riddled with errors and contradictions. For example, consider the story of the "virgin birth" found in Matthew and Luke. According to biblical scholar, Paula Fredriksen, "The tradition that Jesus' mother was a virgin" draws on a prophecy available only in the Greek version of Isaiah 7:14: In the original Hebrew, the word that stands behind the Septuagint's parthenos, "virgin," is aalmah, "young girl." [Paula Fredriksen, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, p. 27.

Matthew and Luke incorporated the Septugaint's Greek version because, "In the Septuagint, the Gospel writers felt they had a third historical source for information [in addition to Mark and the Q sayings] about the life and especially the death of Jesus. We see this most clearly in Matthew, who often prefaces or concludes some action or story with the words, 'This was done in order to fulfill the words which were spoken by the prophet' (whether such a prophecy exists in the Jewish Scriptures or not)." [Ibid]

Moreover, Matthew and Luke are but two of the four fictitious names given to the authors of the Gospels. We know this, because in the original texts "their authors chose to remain anonymous" [See Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament, p. 8) According to Professor Mack, "with the exception of the seven letters by Paul and the Revelations to an otherwise unknown John, the writings selected for inclusion in the New Testament were not written by those whose names are attached to them." [Mack, p.6])

In addition, as Professor Ehrman tells us, in his book Lost Christianities, "Mark's Gospel circulated in different versions" something he knows because "we have numerous manuscripts of Mark's Gospel." Of even greater significance is the fact that "the last twelve verses of Mark, in which Jesus appears to his disciples after the resurrection� [are] not found in the oldest and best manuscripts of Mark. Instead these manuscripts end at Mark 16:8." [p. 78]

Among other discrepancies found in the Gospels, Ehrman notes the following: "Did Jesus die the afternoon before the Passover meal was eaten, as in John (see 19:14), or the morning afterwards, as in Mark (see 14:12, 22; 15:25)? Did Joseph and Mary flee to Egypt after Jesus' birth as in Matthew (2:13-23), or did they return to Nazareth as in Luke (2:39)? Was Jairus's daughter sick and dying when he came to ask Jesus for help as in Mark (6:23, 25), or had she already died, as in Matthew (9:18)? After Jesus' resurrection, did the disciples stay in Jerusalem until he had ascended into heaven, as in Luke (24:1 - 52), or did the straightaway go to Galilee, as in Matthew (28:1 - 20)?" [Lost Christianities, pp. 169-170]

Given all of these errors and contradictions, what should sensible Americans -- including sensible American Christians -- make of the Crackpot Christians who rely upon biblical literalism and inerrancy to inform their speculations about the End of Time? Why, just yesterday, ABC News reported on a group of (Crackpot) Christians, who are lending their support to Israel's bombing and invasion of Lebanon, because, as Rev. Margaret Stratton told her 200 Methodist Church attendees in Waco, Texas, "'What is happening in Israel today, with their neighbors is prophesied in the Bible. The whole world should understand the reason for the conflict in the Middle East,' she said, adding this has all been foretold." ["Save Israel, for Jesus?" ABC News, August 3, 2006]

Now, there are at least two problems associated with Crackpot Christianity's End of Time's biblical literalism. First, these crackpots make this claim virtually every time violence flares up in the Middle East. As Mark A, Noll writes in his exceptionally wise book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, within weeks of the outbreak of the Gulf War of 1991, "evangelical publishers provided a spate of books featuring efforts to read this latest Middle East crisis as a direct fulfillment of the biblical prophecy beholding the end of the world." [p. 13] Moreover, as historian Paul Boyer has concluded (in his study of prophecy belief in modern American culture, When Time Shall Be No More):"popular interest in Bible prophecy burgeoned under the impetus of the atomic bomb, the founding of Israel in 1948, and other factors." [p. 10]

The second problem with the End of Time's fixation by Crackpot Christians also was highlighted by Professor Noll. End of Time's believers "all shared a disconcerting conviction that the best way to provide moral judgment about what was happening in the Middle East was not to study carefully what was going on in the Middle East. Rather, they featured a kind of Bible study that drew attention away from careful analysis of the complexities of Middle Eastern culture or the tangled twentieth-century history of the region toward speculation about some of the most esoteric and widely debated passages of the Bible." [pp. 13-14]

Thus, just from these few examples, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that America's Crackpot Christians are no less delusional than the Islamic jihadists who expect virgins in paradise as the reward for their martyrdom. (One scholar of ancient Semitic languages believes that the Koran's "virgin" is a mistranslation of the term "hur," which should be translated to read "white raisin," a prized delicacy in the ancient Near East. See Alexander Stille, "Scholars Are Quietly Offering New theories of the Koran," The New York Times, March 2, 2002)

But an understanding of their delusion goes far to explain the election of a Crackpot Christian as President of the United States, America's subsequent invasion of Iraq for the sake of oil and Israel, and the current indifference to the tremendous suffering precipitated there by the United States -- all of which has resulted in the precipitous collapse of America's moral stature around the world.