The kingdom of religion in the United States, long dominate and powerful, is dissolving before our very eyes. Total participation is at an all-time low, and vast stretches of the national landscape are functionally void of religious influence.
Many find the seeds of this sad harvest in what is known as the Doctrine of Discovery.
This idea was first formalized by Roman Catholic popes in the 15th century when they announced that Christian countries in Europe had the right to discover, occupy, and control any land not already possessed by another Christian country. Later, this doctrine was embraced by the United States Supreme Court when they supported the right of European immigrants and settlers to claim land in the New World.
Noted scholar Robert P. Jones has a new book coming out which explores this history and connects it to the social trauma of our own population.
The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy and the Path to a Shared American Future. That’s a long title, and you can buy it and read it on September 5. I plan to do both and to interview him in TheMeetingHouse.
But there is another history that has shaped our present and makes shaky our future: the Doctrine of Denial.
I capitalize those two words of this phrase although I have never seen it used with this kind of official designation. By which I mean the long history of Christians denying the reality of things science discovers and/or explains.
For instance, scientists of the 19th century—Charles Darwin, for instance—began to describe the earth as very old, much older than religious dogma allowed. Furthermore, they asserted that this earth was (and is) shaped by natural forces. This way of looking at the created order came to be called Evolution. And Christians promptly and roundly denounced it as unbiblical, unscientific, and unchristian.
That was just the beginning (unless we go back to Galileo, Copernicus, and the shape of the night sky).
Next came the Bible itself. When historians and theologians began to unravel the mysteries of the holy book, both the Jewish part and the Christian part, it received the same pushback.
What is now known as the critical study of the Bible (using questions and techniques common to historical science) elicited the thorough-going denial from many Christians. What developed was the Christian doctrine of inerrancy, with long lists of rules by which the Bible was defended and its critics denounced. This process occupied the entire 20th century and resulted in, among other things, The Chicago Statement on Inerrancy (1978)..
This Christian/Evangelical disposition to reject the conclusions of science (biology and history, in these two examples, plus astronomy) surfaced again in response to the gay rights movement. LGBTQ advocates asserted their sexual identity was given at birth and was, therefore, something to embrace.
The scientific journey of discernment on this matter can be traced through the professional manuals: Statistical Manual for the Use of Institutions of the Insane, first published in 1918, recognized homosexuality as a pathology. Its successor, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), termed homosexuality as a mental disorder. That was 1952. By 2013, sexual orientation had no place in the medical description of mental or physical illnesses.
But like evolution and history in earlier years, the Christian Doctrine of Denial empowered believers to discount the intellectual consensus and hold onto their ancient worldview.
Which explains the current campaign against transgender people.
Doctors have long dealt with what they call gender ambiguity, when sex organs do not present clearly at birth. In addition, some people experience gender dysphoria, when the gender assigned at birth does not conform to the emerging self-awareness of the individual. These two realities are the foundation for transgender therapy and action.
But they are not enough to persuade those shaped by the long-standing Doctrine of Denial.
For many, denying the consensus of scientific thought of any kind constitutes a biblical badge of honor. Holding on to an older understanding of reality in the face of what they call “modernism” is the foundation of their religious faithfulness.
Thus, in state after state where Christian culture is strong, elected officials are doing all they can to push back against the scientific understanding of sexual identity. They quote the Bible, the Hebrew Bible, where it says, “God created human beings in his own image … male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27 NLT).
Once again, the Doctrine of Denial is undermining education, politics, and human flourishing. And religious faith itself.
Yes, the old Doctrine of Discovery set in motion much that troubles the world today, but do not ignore this equally damaging Doctrine of Denial. These doctrines of destruction are rightly named as major factors in the wholesale abandonment of the religious interpretation of life, death, and all that lies beyond.
Dwight A. Moody, copyright @2023