Can’t Christians Find a Better Religion?

God himself might not forgive their nasty history

The Methodist Church in rural Indiana that I attended as a kid was not too many notches above Quaker simplicity. There were modest stained glass windows, but the only other art, above the altar, was the famous Warner Sallman portrait of Jesus. There were flags on both sides of the altar, the Christian and American. No one gave much thought to the presence of the latter; how could Christianity and our patriotic certainties not be in sync? We were sure that apostle Paul had it right: “…where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty,” (II Corinthians 3:17) although Paul didn’t have democracy in mind at all.

But the mixture of patriotism and religious fervor has proven lethal, repeatedly. Much of the time patriotism is unthinking allegiance, and the assurance that ‘God is on our side’ fuels enthusiasm for war. At the outbreak of World War I, all of the belligerents assumed it was quite okay to pray for victory, and we look back at the madness unnoticed at the time.

When the war was announced, in St. Petersburg “…an enormous crowd had congregated with flags, banners, icons and portraits of the Tsar. The Emperor appeared on the balcony. The entire crowd at once knelt and sang the Russian national anthem. To those thousands of men on their knees at that moment the Tsar was really the autocrat appointed of God, the military, political and religious leader of his people, the absolute master of their bodies and souls.” (John Keegan, The First World War, p. 71)

“In Berlin the Kaiser appeared on his palace balcony…to address a tumultuous crowd: ‘A fateful hour has fallen upon Germany. Envious people on all sides are compelling us to resort to a just defense. The sword is being forced into our hands…And now I command you all to go to church, kneel before God and pray to him to help our gallant army.’ In the Berlin cathedral, the Kaiser’s pastor led a huge congregation in the recitation of Psalm 130 and at Oranienstrasse synagogue the rabbi conducted prayers for victory.” (Keegan, p. 71)

In England and France there were similar scenes and exhortations. Everyone knew which country was the best—that’s what patriotism is all about—and thus, was especially favored by God. Stoked with zeal, millions of men marched off to war. But did God really care? Advances in weaponry since the Franco-Prussian war (1870-71) guaranteed that the four-year conflict that ensued would result in unprecedented carnage and suffering. Christian ideals didn’t quite work out, and Christian civilization failed.

So the devout might want to rethink the assumption that their religion has been a force for good. They seem stunned that this could be questioned: Just consider the thousands of good deeds performed every day by Christians doing what Jesus would do. Yes, of course. But there are thousands of good deeds done by secular folks who don’t need Jesus to tell them to be generous and compassionate.

We need to be shown the evidence that Christians are morally superior, and consistently have been. If not, what’s the point? But that’s a hard case to make; the faithful need to own the history of this aggressive brand of monotheism, and the wreckage it has brought.

The title of John W. Loftus’ 2014 anthology, Christianity Is Not Great: How Faith Fails—a compilation of 500 pages of evidence—is warning enough that God’s infallible plan to bring salvation to the world didn’t work out so well. I suspect that most of the folks in the pews, confident in their one true faith, are not aware of the swaths of destruction described in David Eller’s essay, “They Will Make Good Slaves and Christians: Christianity, Colonialism, and the Destruction of Indigenous People.”

One of the most destructive texts in the gospels is the so-called Great Commission, uttered by the resurrected Jesus in Matthew 28:19-20: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you…”

“…make disciples of all nations…teaching them to obey everything…” For Christians today, who take up collections to support missionaries, this is a feel-good text: share the message about Jesus with the whole wide world. But for centuries Christians have taken this as permission for coercion. When this sentiment, make disciples…teach them to obey, was combined with aggressive colonialism, the results were catastrophic.

Early in his essay, Eller mentions England’s pursuit of the Opium Wars with China (1839-42; 1856-1860), “to defend its right to be a drug pusher,” but Christian missionaries had been pushing their product as well:

“During this shameful episode, the Christian god spoke to one Hong Xiuquan, informing Hong that he was the younger brother of Jesus and commissioning him to liberate China from its devils. The result was the Taiping (Heavenly Kingdom) movement, which left at least twenty million people dead between 1850 and 1964.” (p. 134)

That alone should stop Christians in their tracks. Just how smart is it to spread utterly unverifiable theologies to credulous people, no matter where they are?

Matthew 28:19-20 qualifies as a ‘divine mandate,’ and Eller quotes Jan H. Boer’s definition of colonialism:

“Colonialism is a form of imperialism based on a divine mandate and designed to bring liberation—spiritual, cultural, economic and political—by sharing the blessings of the Christ-inspired civilization of the West with a people suffering under satanic oppression, ignorance and disease…” (p. 135)

But the ‘liberation’ was, in fact, grotesque:

“Over five centuries, colonialism took many different forms, sometimes trade, sometimes robbery, sometimes settlement, and always eventually conquest and subjugation…In the search for power and profit, Western-Christian colonists seized land, labor, wealth, markets, and political control, never shying away from the most superb forms of violence and abuse.” (p. 135)

“…more than a few historians have characterized missionaries as ‘ideological shock troops for colonial invasion whose zealotry blinded them’ not only to the evils of colonialism but of Christianity itself…” Missionaries played ‘a special role as agent, scribe, and moral alibi’ to a half-millennium of heinous treatment (treatment that, by the way, missionaries have neither disowned nor discontinued…”) (p. 137)

There are four sections in Eller’s essay devoted to Latin America, North America, Australia, and Africa.

Latin America

“The first region to feel the righteous fury of colonial Christianity was the Caribbean islands and Central and South America. At the very moment when the crusades against the Moors of Spain was complete, and in the throes of the Spanish Inquisition, the crusading inquisitional zeal of Spain was thrown at the New World.” (p. 138)

On his second voyage, Columbus carried a letter to the indigenous people from King Ferdinand, calling for their submission:

“Should you fail to comply, or delay maliciously in doing so, we assure you that with the help of God we shall use force against you, declaring war against you from all sides and with all possible means, and we shall bind you to the yoke of the Church and of Their Highnesses…” (p. 138)

Eller quotes Adriaan van Oss: “If we had to choose a single, irreducible idea underlying Spanish colonialism in the New World, it would undoubtedly be the propagation of the Catholic faith.” (Catholic Colonialism: A Parish History of Guatemala, 1524-1509, p. xi) And a document based on Ferdinand’s letter “restated the Christian belief in God and Catholicism’s authority over all humankind…” (p. 140)

It was not a gentle business, no friendly persuasion: “Across the continent, management of the vanquished Indians was placed in the hands of various Catholic orders, including the one-gentle Franciscans, who ‘became unequivocally committed to Spanish imperialism, condoning the violence and coercion of the Conquest as the only viable method of bringing American natives under the saving rule of Christianity.’” (p. 141)

North America

“…religious motivations and legitimations were never far from the minds of sovereigns, as in the charter granted to the Virginia Company in 1606 by King James I [Yes, that King James], which justified colonialism as noble work ‘which may, by the Providence of Almighty God , hereafter tend to the Glory of His Divine Majesty, in propagating of Christian Religion to such people, as yet live in darkness, and miserable ignorance of the true knowledge and worship of God.” (p. 144)

“…the Protestant extremists known lovingly in American history as Puritans, did not offer Christian kindness to the natives of Massachusetts for long after the mythical ‘first thanksgiving.’ As in many lands before and since, disease scourged the native populations, which the loving Christians considered a ‘wonderful plague’; in1634 John Winthrop could write that the Indians ‘are neere all dead of the small Poxe, so as the Lord hathe cleared our title to what we possess.’” (p. 144)


“Christian colonization in Australia has two significant distinctions. First, in addition to being conducted exclusively by the British, Australia was originally a dumping ground for criminals and undesirables. Second, unlike any other continent, Australia was inhabited exclusively by hunter-gatherers, whose small and mostly nonwarlike bands could offer little or no resistance to white incursion.” (p. 148)

“On no colonial stage was the purported superiority of white Christians played out more purely than in Australia, where the natives’ physical and cultural ‘primitiveness’ rendered them ‘little more than intelligent animals’ in the eyes of the invaders.” (p. 148)

“The three hundred to five hundred Aboriginal societies or linguistic groups had no economic value to the colonists, and based on the Christian belief that only humans have souls and moral significance, Aboriginals were widely judged not even worth saving: the very idea that they could be converted to Christianity was not officially embraced until 1825.” (p. 148)


“Africa has the dubious distinction of being the last continent that Christian colonizers sunk their teeth into. On the positive side, Africa escaped the worst ravages of colonialism until late in the nineteenth century; on the negative side, when the Euro-Christians did arrive, they has four hundred years of practice at the colonial project.” (p. 151)

“At the high point of the slave trade, in the years between 1776 and 1800, two million Africans were transported to the Western hemisphere, the largest number destined for Brazil…almost five million were brought to Brazil, 1.3 million to Spanish colonies, 2.3 million to the British Caribbean, 1.1 million to the French Caribbean, and nearly four hundred thousand to the North Amercan mainland. Clearly Christian countries had no qualms with slavery, and the United States had to fight a war against the slave-owning Bible belt to abolish a ‘peculiar institution’ that violated its Constitution but apparently not its religion.” (p. 152)

That’s All Too Bad, But…

Eller’s essay is worth a close read to get more details about the crimes of colonialism, and to follow the many trails for more study that he provides in the extensive footnotes. But how many Christians these days even care about this nasty history? Can’t it just be shrugged off, along with the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the horrors of the Thirty Years War? “That was then, this is now. Not my fault.”

But it is now.

“…missionization is hardly a thing of the past. Christians continue to practice, and to praise, mission work, and most have never come to grips with the history of the undertaking. Quite the opposite: Christians look for every opportunity to inject themselves into other people’s countries, characteristically confident that they are doing a good thing.” (p. 156)

We are appalled not just by the distressing habit of shrugging off Christianity’s deplorable criminal past, but also by the ongoing embrace of arrogant theological certainties: “We know for sure God wants this, and God doesn’t want that.” Make disciples of all nations…teach them to obey. That has played out horribly in human history, but strident Christians today want and expect everyone to submit to their theologies on every social issue imaginable. The same colonial mindset prevails.

Can Christianity ever self-correct? It is heartening to see some Christians stand their ground against the theological maniacs. Didn’t we all say, “Whoa, isn’t that cool!” when Pete Buttigieg called out Mike Pence on his mean-spirited brand of faith?

But there is no much intrinsically wrong with Christianity; it’s hard to have much hope.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was reissued last year by Tellectual Press with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

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