One of the chief reasons for studying the past and reading old books, as for learning about our contemporaries in other cultures and other parts of the world, is to appreciate the tremendous diversity of human possibilities. It is, however, difficult to spend much time studying the past without being impressed by how similar people can be across wide spans of time and despite great differences of culture. For someone who, like me, has spent many years with his head crammed in books written over two millennia ago, 1859 AD doesn’t seem so long ago, and Victorian England doesn’t seem quite so different from America in 2017. But of course the differences are striking once we zoom in a bit; to take but a few examples, neither the lightbulb nor cocaine had yet been invented, women could not vote and the United States had about 4 million slaves, and probably nobody believed that it would ever be possible to create bombs that could kill millions of people in seconds. It was a different world. Yet John Stuart Mill could write this in On Liberty:
To what an extent doctrines intrinsically fitted to make the deepest impression upon the mind may remain in it as dead beliefs, without being ever realized in the imagination, the feelings, or the understanding, is exemplified by the manner in which the majority of believers hold the doctrines of Christianity. By Christianity I here mean what is accounted such by all churches and sects — the maxims and precepts contained in the New Testament. These are considered sacred, and accepted as laws, by all professing Christians. Yet it is scarcely too much to say that not one Christian in a thousand guides or tests his individual conduct by reference to those laws. The standard to which he does refer it it, is the custom of his nation, his class, or his religious profession. He has thus, on the one hand, a collection of ethical maxims, which he believes to have been vouchsafed to him by infallible wisdom as rules for his government; and on the other, a set of every-day judgments and practices, which go a certain length with some of those maxims, not so great a length with others, stand in direct opposition to some, and are, on the whole, a compromise between the Christian creed and the interests and suggestions of worldly life. To the first of these standards he gives his homage; to the other his real allegiance. All Christians believe that the blessed are the poor and humble, and those who are ill-used by the world; that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven; that they should judge not, lest they be judged; that they should swear not at all; that they should love their neighbor as themselves; that if one take their cloak, they should give him their coat also; that they should take no thought for the morrow; that if they would be perfect, they should sell all that they have and give it to the poor. They are not insincere when they say that they believe these things. They do believe them, as people believe what they have always heard lauded and never discussed. But in the sense of that living belief which regulates conduct, they believe these doctrines just up to the point to which it is usual to act upon them. The doctrines in their integrity are serviceable to pelt adversaries with; and it is understood that they are to be put forward (when possible) as the reasons for whatever people do that they think laudable. But any one who reminded them that the maxims require an infinity of things which they never even think of doing, would gain nothing but to be classed among those very unpopular characters who affect to be better than other people. The doctrines have no hold on ordinary believers — are not a power in their minds. They have an habitual respect for the sound of them, but no feeling which spreads from the words to the things signified, and forces the mind to take them in, and make them conform to the formula. Whenever conduct is concerned, they look around for Mr. A and B to direct them how far to go in obeying Christ.
Now we may be well assured that the case was not thus, but far otherwise, with the early Christians. Had it been thus, Christianity never would have expanded from an obscure sect of the despised Hebrews into the religion of the Roman empire. When their enemies said, ‘See how these Christians love one another’ (a remark not likely to be made by anybody now), they assuredly had a much livelier feeling of the meaning of their creed than they have ever had since.
I know from experience that it is “not thus” with all Christians today. One of my most formative experiences was attending a high school run by fundamentalist Pentecostals, the sort who believe that virtually every word in the Bible is literally true, that the universe is about 6000 years old, that Christ will very probably return in their lifetimes, and that demons routinely accost people and even take possession of their bodies (indeed, I was deemed to have been possessed by a demon in 10th grade on the powerful evidence of chronic migraines and a taste for Metallica and Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles). Needless (I hope) to say, I have not retained, and never really had, much respect for these people and similar sorts of beliefs. But one thing that impressed me and continues to provoke real, if complicated, admiration is that these people were genuinely serious Christians. A few of them were pretty awful people, and all of them were seriously misguided, but many of them really did succeed in putting into practice the “collection of ethical maxims” that Mill identifies: they were mostly poor and without ambition of worldly riches, preferring to use what wealth they acquired to help those in need; they were strict and severe in their condemnation of many people’s behavior, and were certainly intolerant in many respects, but they largely abstained from ‘judging’ people in the wholesale way that rejects them as unredeemable; their ideas about what it meant to love someone were certainly questionable, but they really did strive to love their neighbors as themselves. Much of what was bad about these folks came from taking the Bible absolutely literally, but they didn’t exempt the Sermon on the Mount. Sure, they spoke in tongues, but if anyone was ever in need, they did what they could to help. In an intellectual, doctrinal sense I do not think that these people were actually Christians as the main stream of 2000 years of that religion has usually been understood. But they’re certainly on the short list of people I’ve met who would have had the easiest time fitting in if they were suddenly transported to a Corinthian house church in the time of St. Paul.
As virtually everyone knows, however, Mill’s description of Christians in 1859 still reads as though it were written last week. We do not need to look very long to find people who self-identify as Christians but who answer perfectly to Mill’s description. This is not to say that most self-identified Christians are bad folks; in my experience, they’re good, bad, and everything in between about as often as anybody else. After all, one might think, as Mill himself did, that there is more than a little bit about Christianity as presented in the teachings of Jesus that is very far from ideal; one hardly needs to be a Nietzschean Antichrist to suggest that we all might be better off not selling all we have and giving it to the poor, not giving our coats to people who rob us of our cloaks, not being poor, not refusing to judge, and not loving our neighbors as ourselves. So perhaps it is a good thing that the vast majority of nominal Christians today fail so miserably to live up to the teachings of the man who they take to have also been God.
Nonetheless, it is striking that even in the United States today, despite considerably greater religious pluralism than what even Mill could have thought possible in England during his own lifetime, self-proclaimed Christianity continues to be consistent not only with a remarkable indifference to any possibility of putting traditional beliefs into practice, but with naked contradiction to anything that could plausibly be mistaken for an answer to the question “what would Jesus do?” Most of us fail to live up to our ideals, and Christians differ widely and for good reason over what Christians should do; combined with the widespread tendency of self-identified Christians to instead do whatever it is that people in their specific social environment conventionally do, it’s no surprise that non-Christians are no more likely now than in 1859 to find themselves saying, ‘see how these Christians love one another!’ What is striking is how easy it is to find oneself thinking, ‘see how these Christians hate other people!’ Hence we can encounter things like this:
The high (or low, rather) point is probably at 0:51, where our supposed disciple of Christ tells the beachgoers whom he presumes to be Muslim, ‘You will never, ever stop me, my Christianity, from rising above this Sharia Law!’ As words on a page that might not look so odd, but combined with all the crotch-grabbing and the string of ‘motherfucker’s, this doesn’t look much like imitatio Christi. Sure, Jesus liked to call people hypocrites and he once got really angry and threw some tables around in a marketplace. I have a hard time seeing him grabbing his crotch at people, though.
This sort of thing is, to be sure, not remotely representative of self-identified Christians in the United States. But the attitudes our pal here expresses are not nearly so rare among self-identified Christians as one would expect from, well, anything that is in the New Testament. Though mainstream Christian culture in the U.S. does not endorse this kind of belligerent harassment of people, it says something about that culture that it is possible even for an idiotic jackass to think that one of the things a good Christian man does is make lewd gestures and shout obscenities and threats to strangers on a beach because they happen to look vaguely similar to some people guilty of terrorist acts and because they stepped in to prevent him from bothering some women. In Matthew 5:22, Jesus says “I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court, and anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” One can imagine that our drunk friend’s response would be that Muslims are not his brothers and sisters.
But of course even this is nothing new, but just another instance of religion being enlisted in the service of irrational hatred. Frankly, even to talk about it feels a bit cliché. Earlier in On Liberty, Mill appealed to such things as “a most striking instance of the fallibility of what is called the moral sense: for the odium theologicum, in a sincere bigot, is one of the most unequivocal cases of moral feeling.” Perhaps sincere bigots and their moral intuitions will, like the poor, always be with us.