Works without Faith

"Candles of Prayer" by Werner Kunz
"Candles of Prayer" by Werner Kunz

Two conversations I had in high school, with friends of different Christian sects, would stay in my mind a long time, becoming a crucial part of how I understood my own relationship to religion for years.

  1. Driving to some group outing (I want to say bowling, even though this was not part of our usual routine), I chatted with a friend from a fairly conservative Evangelical church in which I learned about the notion of “taking Jesus as your personal savior.”  I don’t remember how we got into it, but the salient moment was when she explained why missionaries were so important: because all those people in Africa (to our suburban high school minds, a homogenous wild place that we’d seen in Sally Struthers commercials) who died without accepting Jesus went to Hell.  My internal conscience revolted, upset both at the idea that God might condemn people to an eternity of suffering for being born in the wrong place and that my friend could believe such a thing so fervently.We Catholics, you see, had been lawyering the Bible for years.  At the time, I didn’t know about the doctrine that unbaptized babies go to purgatory, nor the liberal idea that people unschooled in Christianity could still be saved because they held close to the tenets of Christianity.
  2. Sitting around a camp fire another evening, I remember debating with a much less conservative friend about the nature of religion and Christianity itself.  In the midst of some good-natured ribbing between the Catholics (or Popies, as they liked to tease us) and the Protestants, we debated the core idea of salvation through faith versus salvation through faith and works.  It seemed absurd to me that faith in itself would be enough to be saved.  I offered the classic utilitarian objection: “Couldn’t you just live a terrible life and then repent on your deathbed?”
    “Yes,” my friend replied, “but if you really believed, you wouldn’t want to.”
    I thought it sounded fishy at the time, and still do.

Which brings me to today, in which I am a Unitarian Universalist, a covenantal (rather than doctrinal) religious faith that draws on many traditions but turns on the essential notion that we don’t know what comes after this life, so we’d best concentrate on understanding the life we do know about and making it the best we can, for ourselves and others.  Call it Works without (a specific or required) Faith.  It’s a religion that can work without compromise, because we need not explain our way around particular passages in ancient books, we can draw on wisdom from around the world, and we can include everyone without the stigma of believing some of them will go to Hell.

But having found this position, it helps me understand the connection between conservative politics and conservative Christianity.  Despite all of Jesus’ teachings about the poor being his ambassadors on Earth and the dangers of inequality and the importance of loving one another, the prominent leaders of the conservative parties do not court the Christian vote by promoting social welfare but rather by promoting prayer in school, anti-abortion statues, and other divisive doctrinal issues.  It’s because, to them, faith matters more than works.

If faith is the key component to salvation (and the core of their religious teachings), then the imperfect (and aren’t most of us in that category) members of the religion will fail to emulate Christ in all things, but will still believe in him (and thus be saved).  But if believing is enough, what obligation do they have to do his work in the world?  As a college student, I always hated the busy-work of quizzes or written responses to homework; as an instructor, I’ve learned that if I do not require some response to the homework, people often skip it.  It’s human nature.  Salvation through Faith Alone is a giant loophole in God’s syllabus, leading to all manner of social injustice in our culture, as self-righteous politicians wave the Christian flag while endeavoring to do nothing to help those Christ would have been ministering among.

Thus, I found myself having an epiphany last month, as Rev. Alan Taylor spoke about prominent Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, an early 19th Century abolitionist whose fiery rhetoric and calls for activism derailed his ambitions for a place in Boston society.  The epiphany was the answer to the question that has haunted me for years: How can Evangelicals, who claim to follow Christ’s admonitions to help their fellow man, vote for politicians whose economic policies are aimed at maintaining or advancing the upper class?  Faith over works.  While I concentrate on the real impact those politicians have on individual lives, the “vote religious” crowd focuses on the public demonstrations these individuals make of their faith.  After all, if salvation comes through faith, we need to elect someone with a visible faith.


  • Numerous Christians don’t fit this schema for various reasons.  Of course, many Christians elude my descriptions above for many reasons, but there is a growing strain of Evangelicals who believe strongly in social justice.  C.F. Jim Wallis and his folks. (Also, my friend Christopher LaTondresse over at Recovering Evangelical)
  • One powerful force still driving many Christians to vote Republican is the abortion issue. While I don’t agree with their position, I can understand that if you’ve got a conviction that abortion is murder, that might be the deciding vote every time.  Alas, such voters usually do not endorse or pursue other means of reducing abortions (such as sex ed), which makes me think it’s not really about abortions, but about being loudly faithful.
  • I’m sure there are many Christians who hold other views that fall on the conservative side of the divide for whom the Christian thing is a nice bonus, rather than the deciding factor.


6 thoughts on “Works without Faith”

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful writing. I kept thinking about what to me is another distortion of Jesus’ teaching –the evangelical preaching of the prosperity gospel.

  2. A scholar friend emailed this in response and was gracious enough to let me post it:

    Interesting post Brendan, particularly this section:

    “concentrate on understanding the life we do know about and making it the best we can, for ourselves and others. Call it Works without (a specific or required) Faith.”

    To me, this is just called being the best human being one can be, or maybe, Faith in self?

    As I work through my own feelings about religion/spirituality, I guess I always come back to the notion of show me a religion that explains a children’s hospital full of cancer patient and then I’ll believe in God.

    Perhaps more than a bit cynical, but I grew up around a lot of faux religious types who were in it for the dressing up on Sunday for public display, etc., that mars so many small communities. And, that said, I do get a bit guilty that we’ve basically not gone to church for my daughter’s sake, in hopes at least that she learn some basic decencies that churches promote. I guess I want that stuff, but not the bad.

    And, why people vote the way they do is alternatively fascinating and hugely depressing. Where I grew up in Western PA should be the Democratic stronghold of the state, if people voted their economic/personal interests. But they don’t. They vote based on abortion and gun control (and probably racism, to be truthful). People in my hometown were convinced Obama’s election meant, “they are coming to get my guns.”

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