Last Thursday, novelist Anne Rice announced that she had "quit" Christianity. "For those who care," the author of The Vampire Chronicles posted on Facebook, "and I understand if you don't: Today I quit being a Christian. I'm out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being ‘Christian' or to being part of Christianity. It's simply impossible for me to ‘belong' to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I've tried. I've failed. I'm an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else."
The outcry greeting this message was alas predictable. While atheists and secular humanists rushed to embrace her, Rice was quickly denounced by large numbers of Catholics and evangelical Christians as a "traitor" and "prodigal daughter." In messages and blogs that ironically confirmed her bitter experience of angry, raging Christians, she was demonized for rejecting Christ, even when she was explicitly embracing him. The American Catholic journal First Things broke ranks only to dismiss her stance as a ruse designed to stir publicity and stoke sales.
While several Christian websites and news organizations pleaded for calm, declaring that Rice was probably experiencing "a dark night of the soul," and even quietly acknowledging that Jesus of Nazareth had a pointed dislike of religion (and would also likely reject Christianity today), few seemed willing to accept the precise grounds for Rice's decision, much less concede that she might actually have a point. As Rice elaborated in a follow-up post, "In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen."
"I refuse. I refuse." Given this principled stand and its broad indictment of how Christianity is practiced and represented across much of the U.S., one wonders how the stated factors causing Rice's rejection of faith could be so easily ignored and swept aside.
Rice was raised Catholic, left the faith at age 18, called herself an atheist for most of her adult life, then returned to Catholicism in her fifties. Given her ten-year struggle with the Church, one would like to think that her list of concerns would be taken a fraction seriously, and might generate even soul-searching and self-criticism. Indeed, that her embrace of Catholicism after decades without Christianity would lead to more self-examination by all denominations today. I've seen precious little of that so far.
While I applaud Rice's principled objection to bigotry and prejudice, it seems necessary to join her in asking: Why do faith and worship among large numbers of Christians today virtually require that one be anti-Democrat (with a fervent hatred of all things government to boot)? Why are multiple denominations, evangelical and otherwise, brimming with hostility to and judgment of others? Why indeed does allegiance to those denominations suggest, almost as a precondition, that one reject large amounts of science, including evolutionary theory?
One has to ask because evangelical Calvinists such as Asa Gray managed to be pro-Darwin and pro-Christian well over a century ago. Natural selection was one of the ways that God worked, Gray and many other Victorian Christians argued powerfully, to large audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. The Oxford chaplain and Christian Darwinist Aubrey L. Moore added in his bestselling Science and the Faith (1889), "panic fear of new theories," such as Darwin's, was not just "unreasonable" but also, by his lights, anti-intellectual. So why did an almost unshakeable hatred of Darwinism take hold in this country, in particular, to such a degree that to dispute its basis would have one drummed out of countless congregations?
In the nineteenth century, Republican freethinkers such as Robert Ingersoll argued that religious doubt was "the womb and cradle of progress." Where are such Republicans today, more than a century later, when the very phrase "Republican freethinker" sounds like a contradiction in terms, even such an impossibility that it would be tantamount to political suicide? A Gallup poll in 2007 found that a clear majority of Republicans doubts the theory of evolution—a position that also would have been thought worryingly anti-intellectual a century ago.
Meanwhile, as illiterates today such as Sarah Palin ask us to "refudiate" Islam, even as they toy with running for President, the Christian Post is urging readers to cancel "Burn a Quran" Day on the grounds that it would enflame already strained relations between Christians and Moslems. You think? That's after the so-called "Dove World Outreach Center," a non-denominational church in Gainesville, Florida, "recently announced it will host a Quran burning event on its church property in observance of the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to warn Americans about the dangers of Islam." The Dove World Outreach Center? You couldn't make this stuff up.
On the very day that Anne Rice voiced her principled refusal of all that's done in the name of Christianity, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich strongly urged the U.S. to attack the two remaining countries that President Bush had called part of the "Axis of Evil"—namely, North Korea, Iraq, and Iran. "Well, we're one out of three," the ever-opportunistic Gingrich had the gall to declare to the American Enterprise Institute, years after it became clear that Bush flagrantly lied to Congress and the American people about the threat that a very secular Saddam Hussein posed to the rest of the world. Years after Bush's "shock and awe" reduced much of Iraq to rubble, destroying hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and American lives, Gingrich and others are still trying to stoke the same prejudices that got us into that pointless war.
Never mind that vast numbers of Iranians today are trying desperately to foment their own democratic revolution, one that's very much in American interests. Never mind, too, that twenty percent of South Koreans legitimately doubt that secular North Korea attacked and sank the Cheonan patrol ship, because there are numerous, troubling signs that evidence linking North Korea to the attack has been falsified and tampered with to fit the South Korean government's narrative.
While it shouldn't surprise us that shameless opportunists like Gingrich and Palin would use their platforms to drive the U.S. further into conflict, turmoil, and debt—and while all Americans should swiftly "refudiate" their dangerous saber-rattling in favor of appropriate sanctions and diplomacy—one can alas see, with painful clarity, why Anne Rice's refusal to have anything to do with such narrow, extremist positions would make her an immediate outcast.
To me, she's a freethinking independent who has decided with great regret that the Christianity she sees practiced around her no longer encompasses her faith in Christ. So while I applaud her principled independence, I think it's worth asking in some concern how that situation came to pass and whether the path of U.S. Christianity will continue to narrow and harden as Palin and others continue to imagine themselves its legitimate representatives.
And if the erstwhile governor of Alaska is mistakenly given more power, God help us all. As evangelical literalists such as her are doing all they can to stoke a political Armageddon in the name of Revelation, the phrase "Jesus, protect me from your followers" has never seemed more apt.