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The Conservative Sermon That Went Viral: Why “Hate Religion, Love Jesus” Ain’t What It Sounds Like

Jeff Bethke’s “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” is visually striking, heartfelt, and wildly popular. So why don’t I like it?

Friends of mine–progressives, seminarians, and iconoclasts among them–posted it on Facebook with comments like, “Wow!” and “Amen!” and “Exactly!” So I watched it. And I did not get it. Or rather, I think I did get it, and I found it unsettling and uncomfortable, apparently for none of the same reasons as its other detractors: the pastors who faulted Bethke for lambasting the institutional church and misrepresenting Jesus’s attitudes toward religion, or David Brooks, who found it impassioned but “ultimately vague and ineffectual.” Brooks, employing his usual broad strokes and sweeping generalizations, noted that, “The paradox of reform movements is that, if you want to defy authority, you probably shouldn’t think entirely for yourself” but should draw on the thought of other countercultural figures, of authorities who came before you.

Both criticisms, in my view, mostly miss the point. Bethke’s video is problematic not because it criticizes the institutional church, or because it fails to draw on other “countercultural” authorities, but because it does neither of those things. “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” is not an anthem of the hippy-dippy, anti-church, “spiritual-but-not-religious” folk so often derided in theological circles, though it has been widely misinterpreted through that lens. Bethke’s message is best understood in the context of what could be (glibly) characterized as “Mars Hill Christianity”: an approach to religion that is stylish, tech-savvy, plain-spoken, and deeply conservative.

In fact, Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, was the first person I thought of when I watched it. That’s because, after the New York Times ran an article on Driscoll’s severe, hyper-masculine approach to Christianity in 2009, I watched a few of the pastor’s sermons on YouTube, including one called, “Why I Hate Religion.”

Driscoll and Bethke do not use the term “religion” to denote church. The contrast between “religion” and “redemption” in Driscoll’s sermon, or between “religion” and “Jesus” in Bethke’s poem, expounds St. Paul’s distinction between law and Gospel, and is in continuity with the traditional Protestant interpretation of the Epistle to the Romans: that it is not through observance of the religious law, but only through faith in Christ that human beings are saved.

When St. Paul argued against the law, he was arguing against the so-called “Judaizing Christians.” When Luther argued against works, he was arguing against the legalism of the sixteenth-century Roman Catholic Church. When Driscoll and Bethke argue against religion, they are arguing against the legalism present within the Christian community today, and not against the church itself.

Bethke was not caving or backtracking, as David Brooks has suggested, when he said he “agreed 100 percent” with one of his theological critics, Kevin DeYoung. Bethke already agreed. He never rejected the institutional church. He is, as it turns out, a member of Mars Hill.

That is, Bethke doesn’t hate the church, he hates legalism and hypocrisy. He’s not alone there. According to a study done by The Barna Group a few years ago, 91% of young people see Christianity as anti-gay, 87% see it as judgmental, and 85% view it as hypocritical. Anecdotally, I find that most young people who are put off by Christianity reject it, in large part, because of its perceived homophobia, moral hypocrisy, and antagonism toward science. Bethke is onto something, and it makes some sense that he has struck a nerve.

Nonetheless, I find it odd that Bethke avoids any mention of the specific controversies that so often drive young people from the church, the most obvious example being Christianity’s reputation for homophobia. Naturally, we’re a little biased here at GCD, and I can’t fault you for considering the source when you read my criticism. But am I wrong to expect a man in his early twenties, who rails against the judgmentalism, hypocrisy, and legalism within the church, to make some passing reference to an issue as pressing, as topical, as obvious as Christian homophobia? And am I wrong to be surprised when no one seems to notice?

This omission, paired with the striking conservatism of Bethke’s personal confessions of religious hypocrisy–that he attended church on Sundays, but also watched porn, got drunk, and had sex–lead me to conclude that there is something happening in “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus,” and it is not something progressive.

Rather, Bethke is articulating, for a twenty-first century audience and from an essentially conservative perspective, the classic Protestant distinction between faith and works. Along the way, he alludes to Romans and Second Corinthians, proclaims his love for the Bible and the church, and argues for such traditional Protestant doctrines as sola fide, sola gratia, and penal substitution. If we are going to criticize “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus,” we should criticize it with these facts in mind.

The video is–from its doctrines, to its confessions, to its male language–thoroughly conservative. It addresses religious hypocrisy, generally, but fails to address particular issues beyond the least controversial possible (e.g., Christians should help the poor). It presents itself as a critique of organized religion, whereas, in fact, it is very much in continuity with institutional Protestantism. These, I think, are the reasons I don’t like it.

In the video and in interviews, Bethke comes across personable, kind, and genuine, and I should add that, however much I’ve compared his theology to that of Mark Driscoll, I prefer Bethke’s personality, temperament, character, and general attitude by far. Bethke’s is a kinder, gentler Christianity. Still, “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” is best understood in its proper context: conservative evangelical Calvinism of the Mars Hill variety.

What do y’all think of Jeff Bethke’s video? Do you agree with his critics? Am I full of shit?

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