Why Bill Maher is Right, and Joseph Farrah is Wrong

Joseph Farrah took issue yesterday with Bill Maher’s denunciation of the Christian persecution myth – the myth of modern persecution that is, spouted almost daily by any Republican public figure you care to mention – like Farrah himself. Farrah called his column, Bill Maher – Let me Explain Christian Persecution.

This would be great. But somebody first needs to explain it to Joseph Farrah. I will undertake that task here, because, well, it’s what I do.

In one of the classic, unfunny non sequiturs of the 21st century, Maher said on his sleazy HBO “Real Time” show: “Conservatives who constantly whine that Christianity is under attack from liberals have to explain why there are over 3,000 churches in the U.S. but only 400 Whole Foods. Clearly your side is winning.”

I beg to differ. The moment was hilarious. So is Farrah’s rebuttal:

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“Mike Huckabee says, ‘We are moving rapidly toward the criminalization of Christianity.’ Ted Cruz says, ‘There is no room for Christians in today’s Democratic Party.’ What?” Maher asked. “Eighty percent of Democrats in Congress are Christian and 78 percent of Democratic governors. You can look this s-t up, you know.”

Well, let me clarify a few things.

It may be true that 80 percent of Democrats in Congress claim to be Christians.

It may be true that 78 percent of Democratic governors claim to be Christians.

It is definitely true that the Democratic president of the United States claims to be a Christian.

The persecution of Christians by Christians has always begun with the denunciation of heresy, that the side about to take it high gets told they are not really Christians. The side doing the persecuting of course are always – just ask them – real Christians.

Farrah quibbles that Maher is wrong, that there are 300,000, not 3,000 churches, but asks, “How many of those more than 300,000 churches are really providing the salt and light in their communities for which they were charged by their Lord and Savior? (Matthew 5:13-16)?”

What’s funny is that Farrah’s gang of religious thugs are not really Christians themselves. They have forgotten Jesus exists. They quote almost entirely from a cherry-picked copy of the Old Testament. I have argued many times before, and I believe the point cannot be contested, that without Jesus, you are not a Christian. It is, after all, ultimately a religion about Jesus.

But Farrah can no more quote from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount than a vampire can bathe in holy water. It violates his beliefs. And his ranting here about “salt and light” is just more fake Christian hypocrisy and false outrage over people not doing something he himself doesn’t believe in.

None of this is terribly surprising. Historically, Abrahamic monotheism has always needed somebody to persecute. Not to say all members of Judaism or Christianity, but there has always been a hard core who are more than willing to use religion as an excuse to oppress.

They have generally gotten their way, through pogroms and crusades and book and people burnings and other terroristic activities because, well, as we have seen in the modern world, fanatics do get their way.

And there has been no want of fanatical intellectuals to offer them excuses. Look at St. Augustine and his just war doctrine. English theologian John Spencer (1630-1693) agreed with Medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides (1135-1204), “in seeing the principle and overall purpose of the Law as the destruction of idolatry.”[1]

Idolatry is to be defined as anything the fanatics don’t approve of, which these days includes the environment (the earth itself), and especially, government (it’s okay to make corporations into idols because that’s where the money comes from).

Is it? In 622 or 621 BCE, in what is a well-known story, King Josiah of Judah (639-609) ordered a reconstruction of the Temple and his priests found a text which “revealed the traditional practice of the cult of YHWH in Judah had been wrong.” This was the excuse needed to wipe out once and for all those pesky ancient, traditional (and polytheistic) tendencies of the Jewish people. Josiah was not the first to try.

That seems to be what has happened today, that these fanatics have discovered that mainline Protestants have been doing everything wrong, that, as Santorum has said, they are serving Satan. You know, because actually including Jesus in a religion about Jesus is something only Satan could be sneaky enough to do.

Josiah’s targets included the worship of Baal and Asherah, according to 2 Kings 23:4-7. Even the foreign cults which had received patronage as early as the time of Solomon were not spared. And the traditional hilltop worship of the Gods of the Jewish people (the “high places” of the Old Testament) was wiped out: “And he brought all the priests out of the cities of Judah, and defiled the high places where the priests had burned incense from Geba to Beersheba” (2 Kings 23:8).

We have seen the Religious Right’s attempt to associate Baal once again with the things they don’t approve of (Glenn Beck blamed Occupy Wall Street on Baal, Rick Perry says “homosexuality” is one of Baal’s strongholds, and Rick Perry pal John Benefiel claims Baal controls America).

Just as a quick aside here, did you notice Jesus mention Baal even once? I did. He did talk about how evil rich people are, and how blessed the poor. How rich people served Satan because that’s how you get rich. Just sayin’.

All Josiah’s activities – breaking altars and pillars and cutting down trees and desecrating holy places with “the bones of men” (2 Kings 23:10-14) sounds a great deal like the work of those busy missionaries in 9th century Germany with the Irminsul and sacred groves substituting for the Asherah poles. Today it would be Festivus poles. And it sounds a lot like the Religious Right’s plan for mosques or any other holy place not their own.

Gentiles and Pagans were not the only targets of persecution. It is accurate to say nobody loves persecuting Christians like other Christians, and history proves it. In the fourth century, “the century opened by the Peace of the Church, more Christians died for their faith at the hands of fellow Christians than had died before in all the persecutions.”[2]

As Fox host Gretchen Carlson says, “I’m all for free speech and free rights, just not on December 25th.” Which means no, you’re not for free speech and free rights. Rather the opposite in fact.

Read the United States Constitution, darlin’. You too, Joseph. While you’re at it, crack open those Bibles. Then get back to the real Christians and explain why you threw Jesus under the bus. Then explain to us how you are the real Christians. A 10-point quiz will follow.

Farrah has already failed of course. He claims, “Persecution couldn’t stop the spread of Christianity – not the genuine form of faith of the early believers.”

Of course, there was no persecution then, any more than there is persecution now. As that great Evangelical Christian Thomas Jefferson observed, “Had not the Roman government permitted free enquiry Christianity could never have been introduced.”

Sad to say the Church has been less open-minded in matters of belief.

‘Cause fella, as George Carlin put it, “Millions of dead people. All because they gave the wrong answer to the god question.”

The people asking that question claimed to be Christians, and Joseph Farrah is only the latest to be asking that question. That means you, Joseph Farrah, are not among the persecuted, but among the persecutors.


[1] Jan Assman “The Mosaic Distinction: Israel, Egypt, and the Invention of Paganism,” Representations 56 (1996), 52. John Spencer, De legibus hebraeorum ritualibus et earum rationibus, libre tres (The Hague, 1686). For a discussion of the importance of Maimonides’ explanation for idolatry see Guy G. Stroumsa, “John Spencer and the Roots of Idolatry,” History of Religions 41 (2001), 1-23.

[2] Ramsay MacMullen. Christianity & Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 14.

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