I propose rebranding Christianity.
Rebranding has external ambitions: it seeks to change people's perceptions of a thing. What if a rebranding could also change the internal adherents to a brand?
What if rebranding Christianity could change Christians?
To start, I will note that I have experimented and interacted with Christianity my entire life, as most white Americans have.
The relationship is complex. I grew up in a Catholic family and have held certain tenets continuously through my life. I believe in treating others with respect, being thoroughly honest, and taking principled if difficult stands in the face of injustice. The latter is a particularly Catholic approach, with the focus on social justice.
Yet the experience was also tied up with guilt and fear, of an angry God and of always making mistakes. I got deeper into this guilt after I read a book about Catholicism that took an extremely hard line — one without compassion, one so focused on sin that it forgot the message. This hurt me as a teenager and I still work through the implications.
Now let us explore the concept of a brand. We almost always think of them in corporate terms — a company or product that wants to present itself in a certain way. A number of problems exist with corporate brands. For one, they often seek to cover up, rather than confront, unpleasant truths.
Recently we have seen the rise of personal branding, an unfortunate development because of its shallowness. Most people seek to influence external impressions of themselves. At best, a rebranding will also prompt soul-searching. A personal rebranding should cause a person to reevaluate themselves. It should also prompt a greater sense of confidence and autonomy. This is not always or even often the case.
How one views oneself affects how one acts toward others. Perceptions, internal and external, do matter. When one views one's religion as essentially judgmental, one starts to judge others.
Rebranding as practiced today is generally a hollow sheen disconnected from practice. It is a logo and some colors. It does not entail a change to the fundamental nature of an organization. It signifies aspirations but not actions that further that goal. It is impractical and uninterested in actual effects on society. Rebranding today is amoral and without higher purpose. Religion at its best elevates the human race and the planet, and rebranding can further this cause.
The idea of rebranding a religion will strike many as deceptive. The efforts by Scientology to rebrand itself have mixed results. They lend a less menacing face to a mysterious religion, yet fail to truly address the concerns and questions people have. A rebranding should do both.
The problem with modern Christianity
Many modern day practitioners have grossly distorted the overall message that Christ brought. They have used Biblical passages as bludgeons. They have elevated issues that Jesus did not even discuss (see homosexuality) to defining wedge issues. And they have injected their beliefs on social issues into public policy, damaging the secular objectivity of our political system. Most of all, a number of Christians have expressed and practices profound intolerance for those with differing views or lives. They have taken up judgment against gay people, against women who have abortions, even against those preach the social gospel of economic equality. They have demonstrated profound disregard for Jesus's teachings of tolerance and love for all. And they have directly contradicted his urging to build a more equal society.
Their approach is both un-Christian (because it ignores important parts of the religion) and anti-Christian (because it seriously alienates others).
Unfortunately it is the older generation — the baby boomers — who tend to employ and support this approach. Whether the trend will reverse when this generation dies out is not clear.
The result of this approach is a generation — my generation — disenchanted with the religion. Because the public face is so noxious, many of us have rejected it entirely. This is a distinct trend from the increasing global secularism, yet the two are intimately related. The terrible reputation of Christianity has cast a shadow over all of religion, just as Islamist terrorism has led many to view religion as inherently violent and the hijab has led many to view religion as inherently oppressive.
There are two components to the rebranding. They make the most sense sequenced, since the first is backward-looking and the second forward-looking.
The first step in changing the face and the fundamentals nature of Christianity is to acknowledge and apologize for the past wrongs that Christians have committed.
An effective campaign will address the many concerns people have with Christianity as has been practiced for many years.
The campaign will take the form of a conversation. It will start with a letter to all those who Christians have wronged. It will honestly address the various problems. It will humbly ask for forgiveness. And it will be signed by believers, their handwriting signifying a commitment to their apology. All Christians are encouraged to participate. It is their signatures, not those of high-up officials, that really matter. There are few modes of communication more thoughtful and sincere than a letter. To write one in the modern age is to convey a seriousness of purpose. It indicates that the writer truly values the recipient.
The letter is not a metaphor. It will be a document available for all to read, with the names of signatories attached. And it will be presented in various forms across the world — as Tweets, Facebook posts, TV spots, and speeches. In every case, it will seek to convey the same message.
The letter is a start. The campaign will not be a monologue. It will be a conversation between believers and non-believers. And it will seek not to convert but to listen — to grievances, to fears, to questions. The most effective way to do this is to open up churches to open-ended inquiry. Bring in everyone and anyone who wants to discuss. Let them speak their minds. Answer questions with respect, not defensiveness. And do not go for the hard sell. Explain in simple terms what Christianity is about, and leave it at that. If people feel compelled, invite them to come back to learn more — and discover Christ's love for them. This is an entirely different approach to evangelizing than most practice. Most will approach the process as a teacher. They want to instruct the uninformed as to the inherent virtue of the religion. This is a condescending attitude to have and it shows.
Many Christians will initially balk at the idea of apologizing. They do not want to apologize for their strongly-held beliefs. The problem is that their actions have been profoundly harmful. To understand the magnitude of the problem, it makes sense to bring in those who have been seriously hurt by Christians. For example, the folks who were molested by priests as children. And the gay people who were kicked out of their homes for something in which they had no choice. And the mothers who were harassed for having abortions. What Christians have done in these and other cases is wrong. That is a fact.
Jesus would weep.
Some will also ask why they need to look to the past. They will suggest that only future actions matter. Ah, if it were that simple… There can be no healing without an apology. There can be no introspection without looking at the past. By ignoring what happened before and declaring it off-limits, people shut down those with serious grievances and render their concerns invalid. Fundamentally, it is up to the victim to decide when to forgive. The perpetrator does not get to choose when they are forgiven. Forgiveness is a possibility — not a right.
Inherent in this apology is a willingness to change.
The next stage is to create a radically different future that returns the religion to its roots.
In this we can take inspiration from Pope Francis, who is single-handedly responsible for changing perceptions and reshaping how believers practice their faith.
The emphasis will be on Jesus's core message of love. It will hew to this message with discipline. It will avoid sideshows. It will be simple and elegant and profound. It will be exuberant. It will be joyous, in the sense of a Gospel choir. It will embrace all or humanity and the entirety of the human experience.
Love is a worldview. It is the basis for an entire mode of living. It is enough to form an entire religion. And it is the source of all other beliefs, scriptures, sermons, and actions. Christians need to refocus on this, the original and timeless message.
The campaign will start with a letter of its own, signed by all those committed to loving others and to demonstrating that love. And it too will include conversations with non-Christians. Most importantly, the campaign will go on to reshape our world into something more just and humane. Service, charity, and policy form the three pillars. Christians will get out in their community and help the oppressed and fortunate in practical ways. They will give generously to people and organizations who can benefit from added resources. And they will vote for leaders and policies that advance justice for all.
An important and intentional result of this campaign will be the increased unity between different sects. Catholics and Protestants have engaged in a harmful and unnecessary battle for centuries that has fractured the Church and created internal antagonism. It can feel as though the two sects dislike one another as much as they dislike atheists! The distinction is quite absurd when you look at it: it is fundamentally about works and faith. Protestants hold that one can be saved through faith alone. Catholics theoretically believe the same, but in practice strongly emphasis good works (like charitable giving). It is no more complex than this. Questions of whether one should pray to Mary are sideshows that should not divide an entire religion. Those distinctions are better suited to different denominations.
I feel strongly that good works play an important role in the religion, and in any sort of salvation. Jesus made clear that one who despises, ignores, or assaults the poor will have almost no chance of making it to Heaven. Those who sympathize with the weak will find a place in his Kingdom.
The funny thing is that many Catholics and Protestants alike agree on the nature of works! They take the position that works are the result of true faith. In other words, one who genuinely believes will act justly. This is a tricky position, because it suggests that faith alone saves. Many have explicitly adopted this opinion. Yet they also understand that works play an integral role. Ultimately, both are critically important, and any true Christian will have heaps of both. Whether works are necessary for salvation misses the point. If you have to ask, you are probably looking for an excuse not to do good, and your faith is probably quite shallow.
Most of us understand intuitively that doing good things is a good thing. It is Church officials who have raised this pedantic argument. Most of us can look beyond this petty argument.
By focusing on the fundamentals, people of both sects will understand what they have in common and focus increasingly on those aspects. Thus will the choice of sects come down more to style and emphasis, rather than separate worldviews.
Christianity can survive and grow in the modern age. To do so requires intense reevaluation on the part of Christians.
And it requires action.