Sunday School for Sinners

Some radicals have intimate contact with Christian conservatism, through family or community. Others have seen it only on TV or as “opposition” at a protest, like the January anti-choice rally in San Francisco. Perhaps some people have even worked on issues with the more progressive Christians. Whatever we know, it is not enough. The breadth and pervasiveness of modern American Christianity make it imperative that we study in order to overcome. And, though the social repressiveness of Christianity is often touted, little is written on the left about why Christianity has become so successful.

One of the best marketing tools used in the last decade by the right has been the label “compassionate conservative.” This term has found a home along the economic spectrum of the right, demonstrating its flexibility. For those who are “conservative” and wealthy, it has come to mean “I want my cash but I don’t mean to screw anyone else.” For those who are social/moral conservatives, the message is more “When I impose the morals of Christ, I’m doing it for the good of those degenerate, sinning, murderous homosexuals.” Kind of like killing the Inca so they couldn’t sin after baptism. What this means for us is a united front of language and action that isn’t easily penetrated. Conservatives (in fact, all ruling power) have been ok with contradiction for a long time, and pointing out that war and the murder of doctors is at least as wrong as abortion isn’t liable to change anyone’s mind.

The other duality of conservatism (besides its fiscal/moral split), is its neighbor/enemy stance. Though the Gospels tell us that we should have compassion and find a way to humiliate rather than kill our enemies, the modern interpretation has been much more tribal. Christians are very likely to help you out in a pinch (this is good to remember if you are traveling cross-country), but their leaders are also likely to raid your ass in a crusade if you threaten the obesity of their empire.

So, just as many of us resist the blanket definitions of anarchist/radical/left-of-left, we must know what kind of Christian we are talking to. Are they pacifist, non-evangelizing soup kitchen folk or door to door bible salesmen with a message of apocalypse? Maybe they are permaculturing, off-the-grid survivalists who use alternative fuels, shelter travelers and make jam? It’s only respectful to find out who you’re speaking to or about. However, remember that it’s for Jesus.


The success of churches today rests on many pillars. First, the capitalist-libertarian erosion of the public safety net with the exportation of living wage jobs has forced hordes of families to seek refuge elsewhere. Churches have long been a staple fixture of inner city communities, and they are often one of the only meeting places in rural communities. Some church complexes (and this is Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, not “cults”) are comprised of sanctuaries, daycare, kindergarten to high school, bars, lounges, soup kitchens and pantries, shelters, gyms and fields, banquet halls and more. Many hospitals began as part of church work, and charities like Habitat for Humanity are still Christian run. What if you saw all that on an infoshop brochure?

Christianity provides (like many religions) comprehensive community. Rites of passage — especially birth, coupling and death — have a defined meaning and place. Rituals offer physical and spiritual satiation, whether communion, baptism, speaking in tongues, bible study, or holiday celebrations. Because there is a role for each generation, people can participate from their birth until death with uninterrupted transition.

Christian propaganda has become insidious, or at least, ubiquitous in pop culture. Christian rock, country and gospel have stations all over the country; television sitcoms portray the dilemmas of growing up Christian in a “secular” society; evangelizing radio dominates the airwaves and even recreation has gone Christian. Surfers, biker gangs and even punks have converted en masse. This obviates the message that being “for Jesus” is dowdy or dorky; in fact, it’s cool. Even fashion has evolved to reinforce Christianity. “What would Jesus Do?” adorns jewelry, bags and the trim on clothes.


I view the Christian empire with a mixture of awe and disgust. There is much to be admired in the organization, and just as much to abhor. The best expressions of Christianity have created a symbiotic community based on love and service, while the most repressive rely on fear and ignorance.

There are a few lessons which radical communities could take from the success of American Christianity. First, we will only be successful when we have no shame about what we believe. Broadcast is important, and people know when you’re scared. There is a fine line between information and evangelism, but silence will never attract more people to radical movements. Second, many Christian communities work to be self-sufficient. The libertarian idea of independence can only be realized when we have both the competence to support ourselves and the communities to pool resources in. As Miles Stair reminds us, the government “has no affirmative duty to protect us” so well-being is the responsibility of individual and community (1). However, beyond some organizing strategies and a wee bit of love, Christianity has tormented this hemisphere for centuries.

The morals of love and brotherhood purported to be such a part of the Christian experience often function as the rewards for good behavior. Churches allow anyone to “come as you are,” but staying that way is often out of the question. Conformity includes creed, behavior and identity and becomes repressive quickly if one is not looking for imposed order. To someone seeking order, it can even be comforting. Unfortunately, the story passed on by most Christian sects is contaminated by St Paul (the defamer of Mary Magdalene) and the racism which brewed in Europe and exploded in the colonial Americas. Sunday morning is still the most segregated time in the US, which says a lot if many people depend on church for community and social welfare. Connections between sexual repression and abusive behavior have also been documented (2). As much as Christian morality denounces over-stimulation as unhealthy, lack of stimulation — whether knowledge of our bodies or just good fucking — does a whole lot of bad, too. It would be impossible to blame the US’s “isms” entirely on Christianity, but the propaganda does certainly reinforces them.

Within the cocoon of the San Francisco Bay Area, it’s easy to believe that radicalism has a chance to shape our society. Collectives are alive here; there are queer and anarchist people of color scenes, and protests regularly draw tens of thousands. But even if there were 500,000 post-lefties in the country, we are vastly outnumbered by the volume and communities of the right. Isolated, small town radicals may have a better idea of the work it will take to challenge the power and ideology of conservatism than Berkeley gardeners. So, engage the next bible seller you see, tell new creation stories, and send a spy to church if you can’t stand to go yourself. We can’t confront the Christians until we know enough to offer a real alternative.

(1) Miles has a great right wing survivalist page, Besides avoiding the “mark of the beast,” he’s actually got good tips on self-sufficiency. (2) Eric Schlosser’s book “Reefer Madness” has a whole section on the porn industry & American bipolar attitudes toward