Chuck Ripka is a moneylender -- that is to say, a mortgage banker -- and his institution, the Riverview Community Bank in Otsego, Minn., is a way station for Christ. When he's not approving mortgages, or rather especially when he is, Ripka lays his hands on customers and colleagues, bows his head and prays: ''Lord, I pray that you will bring Matt and Jaimie the best buyer for their house so that they have the money to purchase the new home they feel called to. And I pray, Lord, that you grant me the wisdom to give them the best advice to meet their financial needs.''The article goes on to discuss how various Americans of different faiths are integrating their faith into working life. Brian went on to discuss the implications of the ongoing religious awakening in American society, the discomfort it brings to many Unitarians, and the possibility that we may be able to join forces with mainstream Christians to effect positive social change.
But the sermon, and the article, hit a nerve with me, and helped me understand the source of a lot of my anger with the ongoing fundamentalist revival.
What bothers me isn’t people being openly religious. What bothers me is that people ask God to help them get a bigger house, which is just as inane as praying for your football team to win. The biggest problem of the fundamentalist “third great awakening” is how remarkably free it is of ethical content. People are going through their lives pursuing the standard set of goals considered normal for our society: career success, nice home, happy family, good health, new car, a vacation in Hawaii, and so on. To fill the emptiness of the materialistic quest for happiness, they adopt religion. This religion gives them rules to follow in order to be one of the good people and get into heaven. If they fall short of these rules, they ask God for forgiveness. Overall, the rules give people pretty fair guidelines about how to be a successful productive member of society.
But is that what religion should call people to do? What this kind of worldview fails to do is raise ethical questions about what you should do with your life. Essentially, these goals people are pursuing come from society, and they use religion as a guide or self-help tool to help them achieve these goals. But are they pursuing the right goals? Is economic and social success the thing that religion should be helping you pursue? I don’t think so.
Part of my beef with the fundamentalist movement is its denaturing of the gospel. By claiming the Bible is “literally true,” they are able to treat it as part history text, part rule book and ignore any ethical implications it might have for the way we live our lives today. In the article, one banker describes the job as the opportunity to minister to people in financial trouble and help them with their problems. That’s certainly a good thing to do. But shouldn’t a religious person ask whether a bigger house or a new car is really what the family should do with its extra resources? Instead of praying for help getting a mortgage, shouldn’t a Christian suggest perhaps doing something with the money to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, or heal the sick as Jesus clearly taught? But of course, the bank wouldn’t make any profit if it did that, now would it?
These loudly religious people seem to simply assume that they live in a Christian society and that the Bible just gives them rules to follow to live in it well. At most, they will argue that society used to be Christian but has fallen a bit because of widespread sexual immorality, abortion, and secularism. But what past society do they long for? J.P. Morgan era plutocracy? Jim Crow? Widespread and widely accepted violence against women? Child labor? To me it looks like many of these so-called Christians are using religiosity to justify their self-interested lifestyles to themselves and others, and to avoid examining their increasingly segregated society in which power and opportunity are closely held by a privileged few, a society in which many good (and Christian) people are trapped in dying communities with inferior access to jobs, education, medical care, even food, a society which continues to ruthlessly, mindlessly, suicidally destroy the very national resources upon which it depends?
Religion should call people out of their everyday lives and force them to evaluate the ethics of how they live their lives, and the ultimate question of what their lives mean, and should mean. We live in a society that increasingly tells us that if we all look after our own self-interest, it will all average out to the greatest good for the greatest number. Every religion I ever heard of says that ain’t the case. The fundamentalist movement wants to dodge the question entirely, get saved, and get raptured out of here before the shit hits the fan. But we don’t need to be rescued. We need to stay and fight.