American culture is driven by consumerism. As a result, from time to time our favorite brands get new packaging: the Coca-Cola can features a new paint job; the New York Times gets a facelift; Cadillac introduces an SUV. This process has even affected that venerable institution, Christianity.
Over the past two decades a new form of the religion of Jesus has made its presence known in the marketplace: Christianity Lite. This is a watered-down version of America’s favorite religion specially packaged for today’s narcissistic consumer. It’s Jerry Springer’s introduction to the teachings of Jesus complete with talk-show preachers, rock ‘n’ roll hymns, and saccharine homilies for every occasion. Stripped of the ethical framework laid down by Jesus, devoid of the hard personal work that leads to deep religious devotion, this decaffeinated version of Christian doctrine picks and chooses from the Old and New Testament to support its positions; thus, capital punishment is good, while euthanasia is bad. In the place of personal revelation it offers rote memorization; rather than serious ethical discussion, it substitutes sensationalism. A sad example of this process is the Terri Schiavo case, which Christianity Lite has made its cause célèbre and, thereby, turned a family tragedy into a media festival.
The struggle over the right of Schiavo to die in dignity illustrates the three weaknesses in Christianity Lite, the problems that arise when erstwhile Christians are relentlessly fed a diet of pop theology. The first weakness is that this updated version of the teachings of Jesus focuses almost exclusively on the endpoints of the continuum of life. Christianity Lite is obsessed with the subject of abortion, demanding that any fetus be carried to term, regardless of the surrounding circumstances: whether the mother was raped or her life placed in peril by the pregnancy. Once the baby is born, Christianity Lite abruptly loses interest; it cannot be bothered with issues such as the desperate lives of children born into poverty or those who are subjected to physical or psychological abuse.
At the other end of the spectrum of life, Christianity Lite is fixated on euthanasia. In the process, it ignores the many problems of our aging population: their lack of access to adequate housing and medical care, the reality that many nursing homes and residences for the elderly are dreadful. In essence, Christianity Lite believes that it is acceptable for an octogenarian to live a lonely, marginal existence; it becomes interested only if she should be beset with painful, terminal cancer and wish to end her life.
Jesus, however, focused on the full range of human life and preached a message of compassion that extends to all of us. In the Sermon on the Mount, and other teachings, he exhorted his followers to care for the poor, the helpless, the scapegoated, and the outcast.
The second weakness evident in Christianity Lite’s handling of the Schiavo case is that it ignores the history of the Christian church. Freedom of religion is a relatively new phenomenon in Western History. It dates from a proclamation in 1689 by England’s King William and Queen Mary. Even in modern times, freedom of religion has been an issue in the European Community; for example, many religious practices were banned in Nazi Germany (and the cross was replaced by the swastika.) Because of this difficult history, mainstream Christianity has typically kept government at arms length—welcomed the separation between Church and State. Christianity Lite, on the other hand, has formed an unholy alliance with self-serving factions within the Republican Party and seems all too willing to transform what have been theological questions into judicial ones. But no system of jurisprudence can determine when life begins or ends; these are questions that are spiritual, not secular. Forcing their deliberation in the court system weakens the separation between church and state that has been such a vital component of American democracy. This new form of Christianity asks the state to determine who lives and who dies, who can be married, and what texts our children read at school. One can only imagine what is next on their agenda: probably strict censorship of the media.
Finally, the third weakness of Christianity Lite is its willingness to make public what historically have been deeply personal matters: whom we choose to marry, whether to carry a damaged fetus to term, or how to attend to a loved one trapped in a painful slide to death. This assault on the right of privacy is consistent with a subculture that has developed a pathological love for public confession, particularly if it is in front of a national television audience.
The decline of Terri Schiavo is a tragedy, but it is a personal, family drama that involves only her husband, Michael, and her parents. With its insistence on sensationalizing this sad affair, Christianity Lite reveals it dark attraction to religious voyeurism. In doing so it betrays the most elemental teaching of Jesus, his admonition that we treat others as we wish to be treated ourselves.
Bob Burnett is a Berkeley activist, writer, and Quaker. He can be reached at email@example.com.