Just two days after it was posted on Youtube, the video had racked up over 2 million views and now has over 15 million. The number of comments now totals over 30,000. In it, the author, Jefferson Brethke, recites a poem about the fundamental difference between Jesus and religion, and why we should follow the former, and not the latter. While some have criticized the poem as an attack on traditional right-wing values, others have argued that Brethke actually reinforces religion in his poem. In some respects, Brethke does seem to undermine his own message, and he does so in three ways: he avows a belief in the church and the Bible, re-affirms the doctrine of grace (a very orthodox and philosophically troubling doctrine), and employs a fallacy called a tu quoque argument, or “appeal to hypocrisy”.
Brethke claims to reject religion, yet in almost the breath seems to embrace it. Watching the video, the viewer might think to herself, How refreshing—a critique of organized religion, but about midway through his video, Brethke reassures the listener that he does, in fact, believe in the church and the Bible: “Now, let me clarify: I love the church, I love the Bible, and I believe in sin…”. The problem with this statement is that, essentially, the church is synonymous with religion—it is an organized institution that teaches people what and how to believe with regard to spiritual phenomena. And the sacred text of that religion is the Bible, from which ordained priests and ministers teach lay members how to think, act, and behave in accordance with religious laws and doctrines which they themselves have invented but proclaim to have received from God. this is especially problematic given the extreme violence committed in the Bible on behalf of God’s “chosen people”. Brethke’s little Freudian slip here makes his video begin to look more like an excuse for religion—religion of the most violent kind—than a critique of it.
But Brethke’s inadvertent endorsement of religion does not end with a vague proclamation of his love for the church and the sacred text which contains its teachings; he actually endorses specific doctrines found in the church’s sacred writings and taught by those who decide to become a minister in the church. The teaching Brethke invokes again and again to illustrate his position is called the doctrine of grace, a concept which is especially important for Protestant Christians:
Religions might teach grace, but another thing they practice: / They tend to ridicule God’s people; they did it to John the Baptist. […]. If grace is water, the church should be an ocean. […]. I don’t have to hide my failure, I don’t have to hide my sin, because it doesn’t depend on me; it depends on him. […]. Salvation is freely mine, and forgiveness is my own, not based on my merits, but Jesus’s obedience alone.
This screed on religionists’ failure to emphasize grace over judgement is actually quite orthodox, because it simply reinforces grace, a religious doctrine promulgated by the church, an organized religious institution. For those unfamiliar with American Protestant Christianity, the doctrine of grace basically states that salvation is possible only through the mercy of God, never through good deeds, and the mercy of God can only be earned by believing that he became a human being and committed suicide to atone for human sin. But wouldn’t a truly radical critique of religion involve a critique of religion’s doctrines, including the doctrine of grace? Wouldn’t a truly radical religious critic attack this doctrine as morally reprehensible? After all, it teaches that no matter how much good you do you’re worthy of eternal torment, so doing good deeds (like feeding the hungry) doesn’t matter to God, and only by accepting God’s suicide on behalf of humanity will humans ever earn salvation. Sucking up to a manipulative deity, a critic would argue, does not produce nearly as much moral improvement in the world as do good deeds, so the doctrine of grace has mixed up priorities. Thus, Brethke’s insistence on the centrality of grace further betrays his loyalty to religion.
If this still doesn’t have you convinced that Brethke is secretly religious, there is still the fact that he relies on a tu quoque argument, or an appeal to hypocrisy, to create the false impression that he’s challenging religion. He makes this argument repeatedly throughout his video, which seems to focus on the church’s failure to “practice what it preaches”, as if what it preaches may still be perfectly fine and dandy:
…just because you call some people blind doesn’t automatically give you vision/…[i]f religion is so great, why has it started to many wars, built huge churches, but failed to feed the poor, / Tell single moms God doesn’t love them if they’ve ever had a divorce, but in the Old Testament, God actually calls religious people whores. / Religion might teach grace, but another thing they practice: / They tend to ridicule God’s people; it happened to John the Baptist. / […]. / Now I ain’t judgin’, I’m just sayin’, quit puttin’ on a fake look, ’cause there’s a problem if people only know you’re Christian by your Facebook.
The problem with these pronouncements is that they don’t actually refute anything (although we certainly invite you to do so as a minister ordained online). By pointing out the church’s hypocrisy, Brethke doesn’t actually refute the church’s teachings; he merely points out the church’s inconsistency in following those teachings. In doing so, he deftly avoids having to attack the teachings themselves. But perhaps that has always been his intent—merely to hold the church accountable for failing to abide by religious beliefs which he and the church both share. At any rate, he ends up failing to refute any actual religious beliefs being promulgated by organized religion.
Brethke’s “critique” of religion is well-meaning and derives from a pure, heartfelt source, but it isn’t exactly clear that it is a critique in the first place. He ends up admitting that he still loves the church (an organized religion) and the Bible (a holy book which lies at the heart of that religion), endorses the very orthodox and morally questionable doctrine of grace, and avoids actually refuting religion by focusing on the hypocrisy of the church rather than the teachings of the church themselves. Ultimately he paints a picture of himself as a modern, relatively liberal religionist, but not necessarily as a critic of organized religion.
As a ULC minister, what do you think about Brethke’s video? Does he give the false impression that he rejects religion?