COMMENT: Faith takes a backseat to actions

Monday, November 10, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CST; updated 12:02 p.m. CST, Wednesday, November 12, 2008

“The most important thing about Christianity is that it’s true.”

This statement, which rolled off the tongue of a prominent newspaper editor, still haunts me. Charles Moore, formerly of the Daily Telegraph, said this during a speech entitled “A Critical Catholic’s View of the Passing Scene.” I had attended the lecture in England last spring with high hopes, ready to hear a savvy man reconcile his impressive knowledge of the world with Christian rhetoric. The talk did have its informative moments, but I couldn’t take my mind off this frustrating remark, and I left more agitated than enlightened.

His “axiom” is the logical equivalent of “The most important thing about my opinion is that it’s right.” And this is a type of religious arrogance with which I am, sadly, very familiar.

I grew up in the Ozarks, the land of "JESUS" billboards and free Bibles on street corners. Mega-churches provided (and still provide) services complete with choreographed dance routines, jumbo screens and church-promoting commercial breaks. Smaller churches invited you to admit your guilt and personally cry at the altar, to throw your hands in the air and speak in tongues. The question was not “Do you go to church?” so much as “Which church do you go to?” This was all predicated on a mechanical belief in how truly true Christianity really is.

As a member of the community, I was effectively enrolled in an opt-out donation program for the soul and made to justify myself if I wanted to keep my spiritual organ. Rather shamefully, I could only parry attacks from proselytizers by telling them I was half-Jewish and spitting out a few Hebrew phrases my cousin taught me at her bat mitzvah in Wisconsin. I ended up deeply resenting a religion that I would have given a chance if anyone had agreed that it warranted explanation (the same way I ended up resenting that newspaper editor for being a fatuous Christian when he promised to be a critical one).

Surrounded entirely by members of the same religious group, it seemed more logical to class people by what they did about their beliefs than by what their beliefs were. Some of my teenage peers used Christianity as an excuse to hate and exclude; they spent their time looking up Biblical passages that would justify rampant homophobia, or the assertion that, as sons and daughters of Ham, black people would surely burn in hell. Others found reasons to be generous and kind in that same manual; they spent their weekends building houses for the poor and spent their weekdays asking the geeky kid to sit with them at lunch.

In both cases, facets of Christianity had been the means to an end, which leads to the real bone I have to pick with Moore’s statement: Relative to all “things” about Christianity, it is not important whether or not it’s “true” (annoying as it is to see that truth taken for granted). What Christian beliefs lead people to do is what matters – and certainly not just in the context of my high school.

Last year, Catholic Charities USA provided food services for 6,533,080 individuals. There are currently 288,990 poor children being sponsored by the Christian Foundation for Children and Aging.  Almost3,000 cattle are now on farms in Africa, courtesy of Send a Cow, another Christian organization, which tries to promote sustainable farming in impoverished areas.

Meanwhile, the Nationalist Movement, many members of which consider themselves "Christian soldiers," held a rally protesting the celebration of Martin Luther King Day. Warren Jeffs, a leader for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, used his position as "prophet" for his sect to coerce young girls into getting married and having sex.

If Christianity could be proven to be false, would that make the meals and livelihoods those charities provided any less important? If Christianity had been proven true and Jeffs confirmed a "prophet," should that have had any bearing on his trial? The answer to both questions is a resounding no: Practical and tangible results of religious faith, whether in a Jewish carpenter or anything else, are the truly significant factors.

As the Q-and-A session ended, I found myself wishing that Jim Casy, the disillusioned preacher and moral guru from "The Grapes of Wrath," had been there to raise his hand.

“There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue,” he would have begun. “And some of the things folks do is nice, and some ain’t nice, but that’s as far as any man got a right to say.”

Katy Steinmetz is a reporter for the Missourian. She recently moved to Columbia after spending two years teaching in Winchester, England, and one year in Edinburgh, Scotland. She has freelanced for a variety of publications, from 417 Magazine in Springfield, Mo., to the Guardian in London. Katy plans to complete her MU master's degree in 2010.

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Katy Steinmetz November 10, 2008 | 4:18 p.m.

What say you, Columbia?

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