Someone posted a story on my social media page about a pastor who claimed he could make a man’s penis bigger by praying for it. For that matter, he says if people don’t like any part of their bodies, he can fix it through prayer. With very little investigation, I discovered this man has made crazy claims in the past, and done some shocking things to his parishioners. So much so he’s garnered his own Wikipedia page. Watching the pastor in action clearly shows he has created a following of people lined up to sniff whatever he’s stepping in. Clearly, he’s stepping in some bad stuff.
What leads someone to make such ridiculous claims? How can someone’s faith lead him down the path of such insanity? It’s not as big of a leap as one might expect.
I was taught, while growing up in the Pentecostal church, that if a person didn’t feel his faith, his faith didn’t exist. As a somewhat detached, introverted, young intellectual, I raised my hands, learned to speak in tongues and awkwardly worshipped with the extroverts. I was taught that we had the truth, and others simply chose not to follow it. I was taught that our truth harkened back to Jesus himself, and had been that way for nearly 2,000 years. I had no idea, at the time, that our faith was actually a new brand of fundamentalist Christianity, and had only evolved decades earlier from a relatively new version of Christianity, evangelicalism, which began in the late 1700s.
Experiential Christianity, the conviction that one’s religion should be experienced, not simply believed, first took hold in the Southern states. It was a backwoods referendum against education that came to the forefront of American life through the Scopes Trial in 1925. It was then that the State of Tennessee charged John Scopes, a substitute High School teacher, with the unlawful act of teaching evolution in a state-funded school.
Scopes was a pawn between conflicted theological movements. The modernists said science was not at odds with God, while the fundamentalists believed the Bible took precedence over human knowledge. Scopes was ultimately convicted under Tennessee’s Butler Act, but most historians agree fundamentalists took the brunt of the humiliation.
Beginning with the Dust Bowl of the 1930s many Southerners, and by default, fundamentalists, moved to the West Coast in droves looking for work. Historian Darren Dochuk said, “By 1969, California claimed more southern residents than Arkansas.”
The theology that Christianity was a relationship, and not a religion soon poured from pulpits, radios and television airwaves. The Jesus Movement, a Christian counter-culture to the hippie counter-culture, offered a kinder, gentler Gospel with less fire and brimstone and more contemporary music aimed at capturing the hearts of young people.
While experiential Christianity filled pews across America, the newest iteration of fundamentalist theology fueled a new contender: feelings. Modernists may have held its grip on science, but fundamentalists bottled up and sold feel-good passion, branded by God.
20th century phrases, such as “asking Jesus into your heart,” and “love the sinner, but hate the sin” exemplified an era aimed at incorporating devotion and absolute truth, despite its departure from the Bible itself. The fundamentalist Christian faith was no longer just about keeping the faith pure, but emotions, resolve, and certainty. For the last several decades, those feelings have guided American fundamentalism into politics, public policies, and sometimes, sociopathic behavior.
On July 29, 1994, Paul Jennings Hill murdered Dr. John Britton and his bodyguard, James Barrett. Hill was a member of the Christian Right’s anti-abortion group, the Army of God. Hill believed he was doing God’s work. It was reported he is even considered a martyr to the Army of God fringe group. Certainly, by comparison, praying for someone to have a bigger penis doesn’t seem like that big of a deal.
Most fundamentalists argue that the Bible guides their feelings, which is still the ultimate authority of their faith. However, the Bible has spawned over 41,000 sects of Christianity, many of which claim to hold the ultimate truth and interpretation of what that truth infers.
Throughout the centuries, “Biblical authority” has supported slavery, and opposed civil rights, women’s suffrage, and more recently, LGBT equality. As history shows, however, church doctrines tend to change with societal attitudes. For example, in 2001, only 13% of white evangelical Protestants supported marriage equality. By May of 2016, along with broader societal acceptance, 27% said they supported marriage equality.
Our nation’s inability to think has moved humanity backwards. Feelings, more than facts, dominate social media through memes, fake news, and anecdotal stories. People who feel deeply about their religion only need to believe they have God’s approval, backed up by their interpretation of the truth. Then, all bets are off. Praying to extend a man’s penis, killing a doctor in the name of righteousness, or refusing equal rights to fellow human beings is all fair game.
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