Like my wife Elizabeth, I have deep regrets that the institution that brought us together, and provided the context within which we could have a rich and rewarding life together for nearly twenty years until her death in Switzerland, should now be one that I find it difficult to speak of with respect. But that is, not to put too fine a point on it, very much the case. I used to think that, as an Anglican, I could largely disregard what other Christians believed, and could, thus, separate myself from beliefs and practices which I then regarded as clearly immoral expressions of intolerance and hatred. But I was naive then, and thought that this was not characteristic of Anglicanism as I had come to know it. It is true that I began that way, holding, in a very conservative way, beliefs and attachment to traditions which effectively excluded from the church all but those who could understand Christianity according to a fairly narrow, Anglo-Catholic interpretation of what constituted true Catholicity and therefore true belonging in the church; but I gradually lost those hard edges, and, while still inveterately Anglican, began to think of Christianity as, at its best, a broad house in which believers and unbelievers, as well as adherents of other religions, could find a place of peace where they could explore their humanity together without prejudice.
When I had come to the end of my active ministry I was not all that far from being an unbeliever myself. I could no longer take seriously the central Christian affirmations of the supernatural birth of Jesus — well, from childhood I had never really accepted that — or his death and resurrection, or his miracles and bodily ascension into heaven (which makes no sense, of course, in terms of scientific cosmology). Nor could I make any sense of the claim that Jesus was both God and man. This became more and more unintelligible to me, especially when, considering the gospel narrative of the life, teachings and acts of Jesus, he came to seem to me not only not in any relevant sense a perfect man, but someone of his time and place whose claim to superior morality came to seem, almost daily, less and less convincing. While he never came to seem to me as morally reprobate as Muhammad, his moral failings are too prominent — especially his teachings regarding a place of eternal punishment, where the fire is never quenched and the worm never dies — to accord him even approbation as a good man. What is unique to him — say, his prescription that we should love our enemies — seems untenable, and what is worthy in his moral teaching is almost entirely borrowed from Jewish sources. I make no judgement, and do not intend to, regarding Jesus’ historical existence, for it seems obvious to me that the gospel Jesus is not a figure of history, whatever historical reality may lie behind it. The historical questions seems to me largely uninteresting. If gods do not come to earth as Jesus is said to have done, then the gospel Jesus cannot be an historical figure.
One thing, however, that is remarkably constant in the history of Christianity is, almost from the very beginning, a level of intolerance for those who believe differently that simply subverts whatever claim Christianity might have had to represent a God of love and mercy. The level of antisemitism in the Christian scriptures, when studied without comfortable glosses, is truly alarming, as Daniel Jonah Goldhagen has quite rightly pointed out in his book A Moral Reckoning (2002). When a new bishop was elected for the Diocese of Nova Scotia some years ago, I would cringe each time he used the text from the first letter of Peter in which Jesus is portrayed as a stone of stumbling:
“Behold, I lay in Sion a chief corner-stone, elect, precious: . . . Unto you therefore which believe He is precious: but unto them which be disobedient, the stone which the builders disallowed, the same is made the head of the corner. [There is clearly a confusion here, whether a textual corruption or a misunderstanding. The only term that fits the context is not "the head of the corner," whatever that is, but "the keystone of the arch."] And a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense, even to them which stumble at the word, being disobedient.” [I Peter 2:6–8]
Those who stumble, of course, are the Jews — something that the bishop seemed to miss entirely when he used this text again and again to support his understanding of the church as a temple made from living stones. His sermon, often repeated in different contexts (I must have heard it a dozen times), was intended to express his vision of the church as a living structure, where each person had a crucial part to play. He simply ignored the fact that the text itself made an invidious comparison between those who were faithful to the new Christian revelation and the Jews who were not, but who instead found in Jesus an obstacle to faith, rather than the key to faith itself.
Reading stories about the Holocaust during those last years when Elizabeth’s MS progressed more and more, and trying to discern, within the terrible things that were happening, something that might seem like the merciful hand of God, and finding no mercy, love or care at all, what I did find was even more alarming, that Christianity itself, if it did not necessitate the Holocaust, at least made it possible, and provided an underlying rationale for the violent antisemitism of Hitler and his gang of Nazi thugs (as Churchill used to call them). Indeed, reading about the Holocaust, and recognising in texts that I should have regarded as holy, and yet was less and less able so to regard, the source of the hatreds that precipitated the mass killing (it is no coincidence that most of the killing took place in Poland, a deeply Catholic country, and deeply antisemitic too), I began, step by step, to reverse the implicit teachings of the intolerance that had been lurking, unnoticed, in my upbringing. I caught myself using the Pharisees (that is, Jewish scholars who were in the process of creating what has come to be known as rabbinic Judaism) as a foil to Jesus’ proclamation of the truth — and I caught myself in mid-sentence, and challenged the Christian tradition on the spot for its use of Jewish scholars as the Christian paradigm of hypocrisy. It was with that sudden recognition — in the midst of speaking to a congregation – that I began to see so clearly how the so-called New Testament ploughed and harrowed the ground in which antisemitism and religious intolerance could flourish.
Thus, it should come as no surprise at all to us to find Billy Graham casually using Christian intolerance as a political tool to support Mitt Romney in his bid for election. In the Guardian, yesterday, there is a short article entitled “Billy Graham’s lurch towards Mitt Romney risks his legacy,’ by Jonathan Wynne-Jones. I think talk of Graham’s legacy is a bit overblown. If Graham is known, as Wynne-Jones says, “as a man of unflinching, unerring principles,” then people have not been paying attention, especially given the notorious case of the Nixon tapes, where Graham is shown in his true antisemitic colours. As one commentator said, when the tapes were made public:
One can take cold comfort from the fact that Nixon’s time in the White House was soon over. That Mr. Graham’s influence over religious life in America has continued to grow for the past 30 years is less encouraging. It’s a sad end to what appeared to be an impeccable career.
How is it that the kind of antisemitism revealed in the tapes — where the dolorous influence of a supposed Jewish plot is spoken of in terms that would have made the publisher of Der Stürmer proud — did not already irreparably mar that legacy? Because, presumably, antisemitism is normative Christianity.
But the current example, in which Franklyn Graham extols the virtues of Mitt Romney and questions President Obama’s standing as a Christian, refusing to say that Obama is not a Muslim (how stupid can you be and still be taken seriously, one wonders?), because under Obama’s presidency “Islam has gotten a free pass.” As Wynne-Jones points out, Graham’s Evangelistic Association took down from its website the claim that Mormonism is a cult in the same league with the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Scientology. The reasons for Graham’s softening stance on Romney and Mormonism are not, of course, far to seek. Billy Graham has expressed the hope that
millions of Americans will join me in praying for our nation and to vote for candidates who will support the biblical definition of marriage, protect the sanctity of life and defend our religious freedoms.
And yet Graham, himself, is reluctant to acknowledge that the President is a Christian, even though the President himself told him that he is one. Again, from Wynne-Jones account, here are the words of “America’s Pastor” himself:
Now he has told me that he is a Christian. But the debate comes, what is a Christian? … For him, going to church means he’s a Christian. For me, the definition of a Christian is whether we have given our life to Christ and are following him in faith and we have trusted him as our lord and saviour.
This piece of political opportunism should earn Graham a good rap on the knuckles by the IRS, but of course it won’t. This is simply the way religions behave. They are opportunistic enterprises that look to their own advantages and accumulations of power. Romney will give that to them, even if he is not a Christian by the standards of either Protestant or Catholic orthodoxy. Graham is even prepared to lie — as when he says that for President Obama “going to church means he’s a Christian” clearly is (for there is no evidence that this is what Obama thinks being a Christian to consist in) – and to prevaricate — as silently dropping the criticism of Mormonism as a cult clearly is — in order to elect someone who accepts the narrow limits of evangelical morality on questions of marriage (that means no gay marriage), sanctity of life (that means no abortion or assisted dying), and religious freedom (that means not giving Muslims a free pass — whatever that means).
Billy Graham is, and, it seems, always was, a vile intolerant man. It had never occurred to me that he was not. I thought so as long ago as the 1950s, when my father and sister went off to a “Billy Graham Crusade” in Delhi. I hated the claustrophobic religion in which I was brought up, and the fear — the real, bone chilling fear that comes to those who are taught that there is a sin that deserves the torments of hell, even though you cannot know what the sin is, or how to avoid it — that accompanies such faith. But I did not recognise then, as I do now, the opportunistic nature of religion, and the convenient way it is understood in order to accumulate money, power, and public recognition. It is this deeply immoral nature of religion that strikes me now with great force: how it is willing to lie, to side even with those who, a moment before, were held to be heterodox and damned, how fearful it is of those who disagree, and how willing it is to turn (what is thought of as) love into intolerance, in order to get its way. This is what happens when beliefs are held without evidence or foundation. The letter to James may say that
every good giving, and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the lights, with whom is no variation, or shadow of turning, [1.17]
but that cannot be said of his acolytes on earth, who shift and change in the political wind as readily as a weather-cock. That such a man-made system of beliefs should produce such a vile intolerant man should not surprise us. The evidence the world over that religion is used in this way is conclusive. Religion just is what we do with our intolerances.