About a week ago, Professor Paul Ewell, a dean at Virginia Wesleyan University, made national news, although not in a manner he might have wanted. He was forced to resign after he said on Facebook that President-elect Joe Biden and his supporters are “ignorant, anti-American and anti-Christian.” And by the way, President Donald Trump has already tweeted his support for Prof. Ewell with a one word tweet: “Progress!”
I do not know Paul Ewell, but I recognize hateful, nationalist, right-wing, evangelical fundamentalist rhetoric when I see it. And the fact that Joe Biden is a Catholic just makes Ewell’s rhetoric and slant even more obvious and odious. There is a lot going on here — and it runs very deep.
On more than one occasion when I was teaching in college, I had a student say to me and to the class: “Catholics are not Christians, they’re anti-Christian.” This happened most often in a course titled Voices of Community, which was a second-term, required, college English course that used readings about America’s ethnic and religious diversity to encourage essay writing and discussion.
Being from New York and living in New England most of my life, these students’ statements about who was Christian and who wasn’t, came as quite a surprise to me. In speaking further with them, in and outside class, I realized they had been taught exactly this message by their ministers and by their church religious-education classes.
So there is something happening in this election’s aftermath that many Democrats may not as yet have realized: The election of a Catholic to the office of president means, to a great many of the so-called “Christian Right,” that a non-Christian or, even worse, an anti-Christian, will now be our president.
Why going as far as saying “anti-Christian?” There is a specific reason and it is based on one highly questionable interpretation of various passages in the final book of the New Testament, The Book of Revelation (especially 17-19). In that text, the words Babylon and Whore of Babylon are used as a cryptic metaphor/code name to condemn the pagan Roman Empire that had conquered the whole area of Palestine and Judea, beginning in the first century BCE.
The Book of Revelation was written about 98 CE. The Roman Catholic Church did not exist yet in the year 98. Why would the author of the Book of Revelation be ranting on about an evil, powerful, Rome-based church when it hadn’t even yet taken shape? Just do the math.
The Book of Revelation foretells the Fall of Babylon on account of its evil immoralities. By the way, for anyone who hasn’t heard, the Roman Empire did fall, beginning 200 years after that revelation was written, and the city of Rome was sacked by the Visigoths in 410. That book really nailed it.
The tradition of equating the Whore of Babylon with the Roman Catholic Church was set in motion primarily by the early Reformation authors Martin Luther, John Calvin and John Knox in the 1500s. They even suggested the pope was the anti-Christ. The Roman Church in the Renaissance needed reformation; with that, we can all agree. However, does that justify a far-fetched and erroneous biblical interpretation continuing to be fanatically embraced 500 years later? And used to condemn and malign a president-elect who happens to be a Catholic?
Apparently, quite a few Americans think that’s OK. Fortunately, one of them just lost his job for thinking, and speaking, that way. But please believe me, there are millions of Americans who passionately believe all this and that they, by being “born again,” are the only true Christians. They have their own definition of what it means to be “born again.” They have their own definition of church structure: Namely, every congregation is 100% autonomous onto itself. They answer to no higher authority other than their own direct, personal interaction with Jesus, their personal interpretation of the Bible, and the self-appointed elders of each congregation.
Believe me, speaking as a (probably rather bad) Catholic myself, Catholics and the Catholic Church are very far from perfect. However, there is one thing we don’t do: We don’t go around telling everybody else they are “not Christian” or they are “anti-Christian.” This stuff was stopped in its tracks by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s — just look it up.
In fact, as per the current teaching in the catechism of the Catholic Church (published in the 1990s), non-Catholics “are Christians who are loved by God” and “who possess the Word of God.” Yes, they have separated from the Roman Church, but they are to be recognized as our valued and beloved “separated brethren.” One can, and should, still love a brother or sister, even when there is disagreement.
We can all be assured this is an attitude President-Elect Biden carries in his heart when he tells us how he hopes to bring a time for healing to our nation. We can be assured of something else: If Joe Biden strays off the path to the degree that Trump has done (highly unlikely, to say the least), Pope Francis will tell Joe, and the whole world, that he had better shape up. That’s one of the advantages about religion that has a hierarchy — there’s somebody in charge who can call you on the carpet when you’re way out of line.
High on the list of how to start our nation on its path of healing will have to be “calling on the carpet” any and all Christian ministers who continue to preach divisive, uncooperative, “us vs. them” forms of Christianity — whether the “them” means other Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews or Secular Humanists.
As I mentioned in my last column, 65% of Americans are Christian and 90% believe in God. We can’t go on having 90% of Americans still fighting over religion. It will tear our country apart as it was tearing the colonies apart. And make no mistake, for Trump’s and Trumpism’s dedicated supporters, this is a religious battle. The way to heal this deep divide is that those of us who are religious and want to stop the hate and division, have to speak up now — speak up loudly and often during the next four years.
It’s almost impossible to keep religion out of politics, especially in the United States. Our Constitution does not contain the word God — not because it aims to prohibit people from belief in God, but rather because it aims to allow people of different denominations of belief, with no one of them receiving favor or prohibition from the state. No one is to be branded as anti-American on account of their religion and denomination.
We are all brothers and sisters, “Fratelli Tutti” as Pope Francis said in his encyclical last month. I feel assured Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are starting from that item of faith — thank God.
John Nassivera is a former professor who retains affiliation with Columbia University’s Society of Fellows in the Humanities. He lives in Vermont and part time in Mexico.