Course notes on Religion and Morality for students of the Edexcel syllabus – Part Three : Contemporary Focuses

From the syllabus for Religion and Ethics (Paper 2):

4.2 The relationship between religion and morality

a) Dependence, independence, autonomy, theonomy, heteronomy, divine command ethics, challenges from atheist and anti-theist perspectives, moral arguments for the existence and nonexistence of God.

b) Contemporary focuses, including the Westboro Baptist Church, religion and terror, conservative movements, including Quiverfull, biblical parenting.  

With reference to the ideas of R Dawkins and R A Sharpe.

IMPORTANT NOTE 1 : this post only looks at the highlighted sections above. Nevertheless, although the issue of ‘religion and terror’ has been dealt with separately, additional brief observations will be made about it here. Some of the scholarly perspectives mentioned in that previous blog entry might also help to make sense of the sometimes extraordinary beliefs and practices found within the most controversial contemporary groups like the Westboro Baptist Church. Lastly, an attempt will be made to explore how the examples mentioned in part b) might help to foster an understanding of the relationship between religion and morality in a contemporary context.

IMPORTANT NOTE 2 : Keeping ‘Evaluation’ questions in mind, there are considerable synoptic overlaps to be found in the content of these notes with Paper 1 topic 5.1 – Context to critiques of religious belief and points for discussion, and 6.3 – Religion and Science, as well as Paper 4B topic 6.1 – Pluralism and Diversity and 6.2 – Equality and Discrimination – Gender

THE WESTBORO BAPTIST CHURCH

It is important to emphasise from the outset that the Westboro Baptist Church (founded in 1955 in Topeka, Kansas by Pastor Fred Phelps and hereafter referred to as the WBC) is independent of any other Baptist organisation. There are about 100 million Baptists globally, and approximately half are members of the Baptist World Alliance churches.

Contrastingly, according to both the Wikipedia and the BBC journalist/documentary film-maker Louis Theroux, the congregation of the WBC tends to hover at around a mere 70. Most members are related to Phelps – who died in 2014 – though a small number are converts. Taking into account the size of the group, the fact that they are disaffiliated with mainstream Baptism, and the famously incendiary and controversial nature of their beliefs and practices, the actions and declarations of the WBC should therefore not be regarded as representative of the wider Baptist movement that is, in fact, a major branch of Protestant Christianity. Nevertheless, as will be highlighted in the ‘Analysis’ section of these notes, the WBC and other entities listed under part b) of the syllabus all exhibit traits that are collectively representative of the wider phenomenon known as Fundamentalism.

In spite of their vanishingly small membership, the WBC are very well-known, particularly because of the press coverage afforded their public demonstrations, at which they display colourful placards adorned with deliberately provocative and offensive slogans (e.g. ‘God hates fags’) that are expressive of a bizarre and bigoted theology which includes the following beliefs and assertions:

  • Adulterous sexual activity of any kind is sinful, especially homosexual activity. As Shirley Phelps, the daughter of Fred Phelps, declares in the first of Louis Theroux’s trilogy of documentaries, “Don’t think of fags as just those guys taking it up the tailpipe. Think of it as people who are involved in some perverted sex act. I’m talking about anything other than one man, one woman, in the marriage bed.” The notorious phrase ‘God hates fags’ also has a wider remit. It is meant to apply not just to homosexuals but to anyone who condones a homosexual lifestyle. For example, at one point the WBC declared their intention to picket the funeral of the Hollywood actress Elizabeth Taylor, who was a tireless advocate for AIDS awareness during her life and revered by the gay community for her support.
  • The increasing tolerance of homosexuality in the USA is a clear indication that America is doomed and its citizens destined for Hell. To highlight this, the WBC has picketed the funerals of members of the US military who died during tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. The reasoning behind this is that these soldiers were struck down by God because they were fighting for a depraved and doomed nation.
  • As mankind as a whole remains mired in sin, all suffering in the world is a deserved punishment from God, a belief exemplified by the slogans on two more placards: ‘Thank God for dead soldiers’, ‘Thank God for breast cancer.’ Accordingly, the Holocaust was also willed by God and is a punishment meted out to the Jews because they were the ones who killed Christ. Unsurprisingly, Jewish synagogues have also been the target of picketing.
  • On the basis of Revelation 7v4 (‘Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel’), the WBC nevertheless asserts that although the destruction of Israel is assured, at the end of time 144,000 pious Jews will repent of their sins and be saved, along with the WBC congregation, who also number among ‘the Elect’. Members of other Christian churches and denominations are not so fortunate and are destined for Hell.
  • The WBC believe that we are living in the end times, and that only they, along with the aforementioned members of the Jewish community, will be spared. Needless to say, members of other Christian churches and world faiths will not be.
  • The WBC regard themselves as prophets ordained by God to warn an unaware and unrepentant generation. And Barack Obama’s ascendancy to the White House caused their mission to acquire an greater sense of eschatologically infused urgency, as they believe him to be the Antichrist. “Now that you’ve got the beast in the White House,” says Shirley Phelps-Roper (quoted in an online article in the Huffington Post) “and the destruction of this nation is almost upon them, God is going to return to the Jews. God is going to have mercy on them and restore them.”

QUIVERFULL

Quiverfull is as much a theological position as it is a movement, one that has attracted adherents and sympathisers from different Christian denominations, though most belong to the conservative, evangelical wing of the faith. According to the investigative journalist Kathryn Joyce, those who subscribe to this theology are roughly estimated to number from the thousands to the low ten thousands.

The origins of Quiverfull beliefs can be traced to as far back as the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, specifically to statements issued by conservative Christian movements condemning the use of birth-control methods to limit family size as being incompatible with Biblical teaching*. However, the main catalyst for the emergence of the movement is thought to have been the publication in 1985 of Mary Pride’s book, The Way Home: Beyond Feminism and Back to Reality. The book describes how an initial preoccupation with feminist activism was eventually supplanted by the author’s conversion to conservative, evangelical Christianity and – according to the Wikipedia – her willing acceptance of, ‘the biblically mandated role of wives and mothers as bearers of children and workers in the home under the authority of a husband.’ The Biblical passages selected by Pride to buttress her new found perspective included ‘verses which she interpreted as perpetuating her advocacy of compulsory childbearing and her opposition to the use of birth control.’

Among Quiverfull partisans, those passages tend to include the following:

Psalm 127 verses 3-5 : ‘Children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from him. Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are children born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.

Genesis 1 verse 28: ‘Be fruitful and multiply.’

Ephesians 5 verses 22-24: ‘Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.’

Accordingly, those aligned with Quiverfull theology abstain from all forms of birth control, both artificial and natural (such as the Rhythm Method), as well as sterilization. Pregnancies and barrenness are both held to result from the exercise of Divine Providence, as evidenced by Biblical verses that refer to God opening or closing wombs (e.g. Genesis 20v18, 29v31). Every child is thus regarded as a blessing from God, rather than as an unaffordable economic burden. Some Quiverfull advocates even go so far as to claim that Christians who do practise forms of birth-control have fallen under the influence of the Devil, thus preventing children from being born that God might otherwise have willed to exist. When infertility or an ’empty quiver’ occurs, fertility treatments like IVF are not considered to be an option as they are perceived to effectively usurp God’s will. Instead, childless couples are encouraged to pray in the hope that God will intervene, and to consider the possibility of adoption.

Family life is based on a Biblical patriarchal model grounded in male ‘headship’ and authority, both within the home and in wider society. More specifically (and according to a doctoral dissertation authored by Bethany Sweeney), Quiverfull adherents understand Paul’s analogy in Ephesians (see above) as indicating that, ‘husband and wife together are not only a mirror image of the relationship that Christ has with the Church, but the closest thing to the realization of that relationship on earth. Through the Christian marriage relationship, husbands and wives model the salvation that Christ offers his Church to unbelievers, with the husband serving the role of Christ and the wife serving the role of the Church.’

Additionally, Biblical parenting and especially home-schooling are advocated by the movement, in order to provide children with an upbringing founded on the Bible as the inerrant ‘Word of God’, and to keep them away from the secular, humanistic brand of education based on ideas such as Darwinian evolution that a public school education would otherwise expose them to (see the acclaimed documentary Jesus Camp, available to view for free HERE for more on this). Contrastingly, the teenagers who feature in Louis Theroux’s documentaries do attend both school and university, and are encouraged to gain professional qualifications. In the first of Theroux’s films, Shirley Phelps explains that her children do not preach to their classmates. Instead their presence in school is to serve as ‘walking picket signs’ and to ‘be in the faces of this community.’ More mainstream Christians may also be perfectly happy for their children to attend a government school but might also engage in Biblical parenting simply by reading their children bedtime stories, studying Biblical passages together as a family, encouraging them to attend Sunday School, and so on.

* Although this incident dates from the early 19th Century, it is worth noting that according to a biographical study by Richard Reeves, a young John Stuart Mill was on his way to work one morning in 1823 when he found a dead, newly born baby lying beneath a tree. The infant had been strangled. This was no surprise. London at the time was full of poor families who could not support another child. The experience prompted Mill to tour a working-class district of London distributing a pamphlet which described and supported contraception. Mill was arrested, along with the other pamphleteers, for the promotion of obscenity. As Mill’s father was famous, the nervous magistrate referred the case to the Mayor of London, who put Mill in jail for two days. As he was only 17 at the time, his family were concerned about his future prospects and succeeded in managing to hush the incident up. The details only re-emerged after Mill’s death. However, the story was transmitted through the salons and clubs of London by means of doggerel verse, an important Victorian broadcasting device: ‘There are two Mr Mills, too, which those who like reading, What’s vastly unreadable, call very clever, And whereas Mill senior makes war on good breeding, Mill junior makes war on all breeding whatever.’

CONSERVATIVE MOVEMENTS

The Edexcel syllabus cites both Quiverfull and Biblical parenting, as examples of ‘conservative movements’ within Christianity. The scope of this category, however, is arguably wider than might be inferred from these examples, and it could quite easily be applied to tendencies that can be found in more mainstream forms of the faith. This is because it can be said to describe a proclivity – in the face of modernity/postmodernity (see here for the relevant course notes on these terms) – to fall back on the authority of literal readings of key passages in the Bible in order to make sense of the world.

In the moral sphere, especially in the USA, this conservative approach has inspired a good deal of political activism and the emergence of what is known as the Christian Right.  The Christian Right is an informal alliance formed around a core of mainly (though not exclusively) white conservative evangelical Protestants and some Catholics, as well as members of the Mormon church. This coalition – one which has become more visible in US public life since the late 1970’s – tends to unite around a constellation of socially conservative positions on issues such as abortion, euthanasia, contraception, embryonic stem cell research, homosexuality, the teaching of evolution/intelligent design in schools, and climate change. Uncritical support for the state of Israel is also part of an agenda motivated by the belief that the Jews must foregather in the Holy Land before Christ returns, an event presaged by the appearance of the Antichrist and the conversion of 144,000 righteous Jews to Christianity (the remainder will perish miserably, along with members of other world faiths and nonbelievers). Accordingly, those who identify with the Christian Right tend to align themselves with the Republican Party. During US elections, Republican campaigning tends to focus on garnering support from this powerful conservative voting constituency.

ANALYSIS

Given that Quiverfull and especially the Westboro Baptist Church are arguably not representative of mainstream Christian beliefs and practices, can studying them reveal anything worthwhile about the relationship between religion and morality, taking into account the ‘contemporary focus’ mentioned in the syllabus?

Here, the answer would seem to be ‘yes’ for a number of reasons. Firstly, all the phenomena cited under part b of the syllabus can be said to be examples of what is known as fundamentalism, including ‘religion and terror’. Defining what fundamentalism is problematic because it originally was a term specific to Protestant Christianity that was first deployed in a series of pamphlets dating from 1910 and published in the USA and it has since been applied in an ever expanding manner. For example, terrorist organisations like al- Qaeda and ISIS might be described as species of ‘Islamic fundamentalism’, and the term has also been used to characterise forms of uncompromising radicalism that can sometimes be found among supporters of animal rights, radical feminism, deep ecology, and free-market capitalism.

In his brief but splendid study, Malise Ruthven therefore prefers to restrict the parameters of what fundamentalism can be said to embrace, commenting that, ‘The original Protestant use of the word anchors it in the responses of individual and collective selfhoods, of personal and group identities, to the scandal and shock of the Other.’

‘The Other’, in this sense, can include other faiths and new religions, something which is now inevitable in societies that are increasingly globalized, multicultural and pluralistic. The effect of this, for Ruthven, is to produce a shock of ‘recognition that there are ways of living and believing other than those deemed to have been decreed by one’s own tradition’s version of the deity.’ Protestant fundamentalist beliefs in the inerrancy of the Bible, the creation of the world ex nihilo by God (in contrast to Darwinian evolution), the authenticity of miracles, the imminent return of Christ, as well as traditional versions of Divine Command Ethics that have been used in the past to justify racial segregation, discrimination against racial minorities, women and homosexuals, and to condemn abortion, the use of contraception, and doctor-assisted dying, are further threatened by more liberal theological and ethical stances adopted by other denominations, as well as by secularists, humanists and outright atheists, and changes in the law that have emerged from this milieu. This is therefore certainly reflected in the behaviours adopted by members of the Westboro Baptist Church and Quiverfull, that can be regarded as pushing back against a contemporary cultural climate which can itself be said to be the outcome of the Enlightenment, modernism, and especially postmodernism, one in which what were formerly taken to be absolute divine truths are imperiled by relativism and religious pluralism. Anti-Semitic statements about Jews as ‘Christ-killers’, and bigoted references to ‘terrorist Muslims’ are yet another manifestation of this fight back, as well as political campaigns to strictly limit the availability of abortion in the USA.

Interestingly, Terry Eagleton – echoing an argument found in the writings of the philosopher Slavoj Zizek – argues that the fundamentalist ‘is not really a believer at all. Fundamentalists are faithless. They are, in fact, the mirror image of sceptics. In a world of extreme uncertainty, only copper-bottomed, incontrovertible truths promulgated by God can be trusted.’

Declarations like ‘God hates fags’ and ‘be fruitful and multiply’, as well as other strict behavioural restrictions found among Mormons (who abstain from tea, coffee, and alcohol), Jehovah’s Witnesses (who avoid blood transfusions and military service), and Christian Scientists (who eschew conventional medicine because Christ is the only Healer), therefore help – according to Ruthven – to more rigidly define the boundaries between believers and unbelievers, between us (the saved) and them (‘the Other’, the damned).

From all this, Ruthven concludes – in a statement that illuminates the issue of how a ‘contemporary focus’ has impacted on ethics and might be said to be explicitly condemnatory of fundamentalist versions of religious morality – that Christian fundamentalists are ultimately ‘theological refugees in a world they no longer control. In America, fortunately, their avenues of expression usually fall short of violence (though there have been physical attacks by fundamentalists performing abortions). However, they have had a baleful influence on American foreign policy, by tilting it towards the Jewish state, which they eventually aim to obliterate by converting righteous Jews to Christ. They have damaged the education of American children in some places by adding scientific creationism, or its successor ‘intelligent design’ to the curriculum. They inconvenience some women, especially poor women with limited access to travel by making abortion illegal in certain states. On a planetary level, they are selfish, greedy and stupid, damaging the environment by the excessive use of energy and lobbying against environmental controls. What is the point of saving the planet, they argue, if Jesus is arriving tomorrow?

Ruthven can also arguably be said here to at least partly be confirming R.A. Sharpe’s thesis that ‘morality is corrupted by religion’, as fundamentalist expressions of faith certainly seem to have this effect, as well as the deleterious effects of ‘Biblical parenting’ noted by Richard Dawkins and that can be set alongside his more general claim that religion has encouraged and continues to encourage some of the worst moral behaviour e.g. genocide, misogyny, racism, homophobia, and so on

AND FINALLY….

One surprising feature of the Westboro Baptist Church is how articulate some of its members are, a point which comes across clearly in Louis Theroux’s documentaries and in former member Megan Phelps – Roper’s compelling TED talk (above). Some also have legal qualifications or have undergone training in forms of health care. So it is worth asking why it is that individuals with undoubted intelligence and academic ability continue to maintain such radical and bigoted beliefs? Here, a suggestion by the Muslim intellectual and science journalist Ziauddin Sardar about Islamic terrorists may also be usefully applied to the WBC. In his book, Islam Beyond The Violent Jihadis, Sardar notes that ‘the British jihadist Nasser Muthana…is a medical student; the current leader of al-Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is a qualified surgeon. The former leader, Osama bin Laden, was an engineer. The leader of the pack who committed the 9/11 atrocity, Mohamed Atta, was an engineer. In fact, an exceptionally high percentage of jihadis and ISIS recruits, including British Muslims, come from medical, engineering, or IT backgrounds.’

Sardar speculates that this could be because ‘science, engineering and medical students are not taught critical reasoning and are seldom encouraged to ask searching questions,. This is even true in Britain, where we pride ourselves on the excellence of our technical and medical courses’, as well as for Europe and US universities. For Sardar, ‘there is now ample evidence to show that science, engineering and medical studies encourage binary understanding of correct and incorrect, and of right and wrong. No attempts are made to explore social and ethical issues, or to inspire critical thought and questions. Thus ambiguity is suppressed, and certainty about facts and techniques is enforced….This is also a major attribute of Islamic orthodoxy, where doubt is banned, criticism is seen as a sign of unbelief, and questioning is regarded as akin to rebellion and hence apostasy.’

These observations are clearly relevant to the phenomenon of religion and terror, and are also of relevance to the kind of Biblical parenting that younger members of the WBC were subjected to. By implication, perhaps the best way to inoculate oneself against such rigid, black and white absolutist thinking in the sphere of religion and morality could be to study Philosophy, Religion and Ethics at A Level.