In 1971, John Lennon wrote a song that captured the spirit of a generation—“Imagine.” In it, he invited us to imagine a world with “no heaven above us,” “no hell below us,” “nothing to kill or die for,” and “no religion.” The result he envisioned?
“Imagine all the people / Living life in peace.”
Nearly a half century later, John Lennon’s vision of religion-less peace is as alive as ever. But the question is: Was he right?
How did we get here?
There is a growing sense in the United States that strong forms of religion—such as Christianity—are the enemy of peace and brotherhood. Many Americans have now come to believe that Christianity is inherently hateful or bigoted.
John Lennon didn’t invent this view. Historically, it began around the sixteenth century, when many Europeans, tired of their so-called “religious wars,” sought to invent a liberal, secular notion of “tolerance” to counter the inherently “intolerant” nature of Christian belief.
Eventually, the growing desire for tolerance evolved into the belief that war and religion were close cousins: Abolish the latter and the former would disappear. Atheistic French philosopher Auguste Comte (1798-1857) was one of the first to make this belief explicit, arguing that human beings are intrinsically good but are corrupted by strong forms of religion.
In the place of traditional religion, Comte proposed an atheistic religion that he called “humanitarian religion” or the “religion of humanity.” This religion would retain the Christian emphasis on loving other people, but strip it entirely of belief in God or any type of transcendence. In Comte’s view, we must get rid of Christianity if we wish to get rid of the “intolerance” that leads to all manner of evil.
Comte’s religion—complete with a catechism and annual calendar of great secular heroes—was rejected and even ridiculed by his contemporaries. Yet, it seems that Comte won the day. Countless intellectuals, such as Marx and Freud, have argued that religion is a plague on humanity. I’m fairly sure John Lennon had never heard of Comte. But what he wrote in 1971 poetically captured Comte’s vision.
In our own day, Comte and Lennon’s echoes are legion.
Consider, for instance, Martin Castro, the chair of the United States Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR), who, in a document entitled, “Peaceful Coexistence,” stated that Christians are largely discriminatory, intolerant, racist, sexist, homophobic, and Islamophobic.
Consider the corporate bullies who threatened the state of Indiana for proposing a religious freedom law. Consider the more strident voices on television or in the news. Consider even your own Facebook or Twitter feeds. Everywhere we find people calling Christianity hateful and bigoted.
The question is: Are they right?
Three Responses to the Claim of Christian Bigotry
In short, No. Christianity does not, by its nature, cause its adherents to possess hateful attitudes or commit hateful actions. Are there instances of Christians—or Christian societies—sinning against others? Of course. But there’s a world of difference between arguing that Christians sin and arguing that Christianity causes those sins.
To say that Christianity is the cause of bigotry misses the mark for at least three reasons:
- Christianity uniquely creates the conditions for tolerance.
Christianity believes in transcendent truths and, subsequently, rejects false ways of thinking or immoral ways of acting. Without this framework, tolerance is impossible. After all, one cannot be “tolerant” of something unless we disagree with it. That’s the whole point of tolerance. “I disagree with you, but will live alongside of you. I will seek to persuade you but not coerce you.”
- Christian love is better than tolerance
Christianity does much better than to “tolerate” persons with whose way of thinking or acting we disagree. True religion takes its cues from Jesus, who calls His disciples to “love” persons with whom we differ. Tolerance can be good, but love is stronger. Instead of “I can hold my nose and put up with you,” it says “You and I differ, but we both are made in the image and likeness of God. We both are sinners. We both are in need of a Savior.”
- When it comes to intolerance, the bigger danger is not Christianity, but secularism.
The biggest flaw with the charge of Christian bigotry is historical myopia. Throughout history, it has been the implementation of secular ideology that has led to the most sustained and widespread intolerance and even hatred of other human beings.
The secular movements of the twentieth century were bloodbaths of hatred and bigotry. The French Revolution killed 40,000 dissenters and imprisoned 300,000 more. The Nazis and their collaborators killed some 6 million Jews. In the Soviet Union, more than a million died in concentration camps and millions more by displacement, assassination, or starvation.
We Christians, too, have blood on our hands. It was Christians, for instance, who reinforced the slave trade in the United States for centuries. But there is a major difference here. The African slave trade was not the result of the Christian worldview. In fact, what overturned the slave trade was a re-commitment to Christian truth, as nearly all of the abolitionists were driven by their Christian faith.
In other words, Christianity possesses within itself the power to overcome hate and bigotry—not with violent retribution, but with selfless love and tireless work toward justice.
The Christian teaching about human dignity—about treating others with respect—is grounded in the reality of God. The Bible reminds us that every human being is made in God’s image, worthy of incalculable honor and compassion. Not only this, but the Bible also reminds us that the path to peace is not through tolerance, but through death and resurrection. Because Jesus died for us when we were His enemies, we can love others, even if they consider us their enemies.
Until Christ returns to establish His reign of peace, therefore, we Christians must continue to speak the truth in love, even if we are considered hateful or bigoted for doing so. For it this combination of love for people and intolerance of false ideas that characterized Christ’s first coming and it is this combination that will characterize His future reign of peace.