The New Religious Legalism

burning at the stake heresy

The Burning of Avvakum (1897), by Grigoriy Myasoyedov

One of the unfortunate tendencies of religious individuals who gain power is a desire to control the actions (and even thoughts) of others through legalism, whether it is socially or legally enforced.

We have seen that historically. Some in the Roman Catholic church attempted to crush the Reformation through violence. Puritans used the law to enforce community moral guidelines. Islamic nations dictate the attire of women. Christian fundamentalists prohibited adherents from seeing movies.

When a group has unchecked power, they almost inevitably turn that power against those who disagree (or even could potentially disagree) in an attempt to force uniformity. That happens whether the supreme good is a concept of God or a libertine view of sex.

As society was discussing Bruce Jenner transitioning to Caitlyn, many criticized even those supportive of transgender identity for an innocuous use of the previous name or her “dead name.” As the list of things you cannot say grew ever longer, a pastor made a very apt comparison.

I had to laugh, not at the absurdity of the comparison, but rather at the accuracy of it.

Much of the American Left has embraced a religious fervor in terms of how they defend their positions on sexuality and how they attack those who deviate from that sexual orthodoxy.

I’ve written before how many regard any disagreement with their position as either hatred or heresy.

If you and I disagree, then there is a discussion to be had. But if I convince myself you are a hater or a heretic, I can safely ignore you and your opinions because they are grounded in irrationality and falsehood.

Branding someone with either scarlet “H” allows us the chance to rebuff without rebutting, to cast aside without contemplating. I don’t have to consider your opinion because it’s not worth the time.

In fact, because of the extreme nature of your point of view, I can insist that you shouldn’t even be allowed at the proverbial table for the discussion. We should not have to contend with a hate-filled or heretical position.

It is not simply conservatives like myself who have noticed. One liberal professor wrote anonymously how he/she fears they will be fired if they even gently challenge the ideas of left-leaning students.

So it’s not just that students refuse to countenance uncomfortable ideas — they refuse to engage them, period. Engagement is considered unnecessary, as the immediate, emotional reactions of students contain all the analysis and judgment that sensitive issues demand. As Judith Shulevitz wrote in the New York Times, these refusals can shut down discussion in genuinely contentious areas, such as when Oxford canceled an abortion debate. More often, they affect surprisingly minor matters, as when Hampshire College disinvited an Afrobeat band because their lineup had too many white people in it.

Numerous Americans have felt the sting of violating the new religious laws. Brendan Eich learned that heresy may not be illegal, but it is enforced.

Eich was the CEO of the internet company Mozilla until he sinned against the cultural establishment. He was forced out of the company he founded because of a small six-year-old donation to Proposition 8, a Californian legal effort to defend traditional marriage.

It did not matter that no one could say a bad word about Eich personally. No one cared that he had worked with numerous homosexual individuals and none of them ever felt attacked, harassed, or discriminated against in the least.

That’s why they responded with such shock at the revelations of his donation—because he had always treated everyone, including gay and lesbian individuals, equally and with respect. No matter, his heresy must be punished.

Heresy trials have simply moved to the court of public opinion and the burnings start on social media instead of at the stake.

Somewhat ironically, this tendency only further supports the truth of Christianity. The Bible asserts that every human is fallen and, if left unchecked, will use power to punish and provoke. There are no truly benevolent dictators in this world.

It’s why C.S. Lewis said he supported democracy—not because he trusted giving power to the people, but because he didn’t trust giving power to anyone.

In “Equality,” an essay in Present Concerns, Lewis wrote: “Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.”

The heresies may be different, but the demand for uniformity and unquestioned acceptance always remains the same.

Instead of bringing in an age of love and acceptance, the new moral arbiters of society, the new cultural masters, are as demanding as any fundamentalist Christian ever could be.


  1. Excellent points. The new flavor of social heresy is amassing a trail of broken relationships behind it. One very long time friend of mine who is gay was shocked to find out that my convictions are more than an empty ideology. He abruptly ended our 15 year friendship, despite having known all of these years where my faith lies. It’s one thing to say what we believe, but watch out when you actually live it!

  2. I have many friends and family who say they are Christians but think that homosexual marriage is necessary as love is more important than anything else. I explained to them that each one of us has some temptation in our lives that we must resist whether it is bitterness, same sex attraction, alcoholism, or other sins. My husband is watching the HBO series “Newsroom.” In one episode the protagonist bullies an aide to Rick Santorum. He asks “How does gay marriage threaten traditional marriage?” I blogged my answer saying that it confuses gender and one day we will call boys and girls purple penguins so as not to offend anyone. I gave the link to the story where this actually happened. I sent it to one cousin and she said we will just have to disagree. I tried in love so that is all I think God requires of us.

About Author

Aaron Earls

Christian. Husband. Daddy. Writer. Online editor for Facts & Trends Magazine. Fan of quick wits, magical wardrobes, brave hobbits, time traveling police boxes & Blue Devils.