From the time when we are young children, we have a need to be thought of as being one of the good guys. It must be a genetic thing, like loving ice cream or the almost magnetic attraction that children have to dirt.
When I was a child, the majority of my summer evenings were spent outside playing with other kids in the neighborhood. Our most popular diversion was playing cowboys and Indians. (You can tell this was in the days before political correctness had reared its ugly head.)
In our lily-white subdivision, the cowboys were always the good guys. I imagine that on reservations in North Dakota or Arizona, the good guys may have been wearing the feathers. But there was always a group of good guys and always a group of bad guys, no matter whom the bad guys might be.
And one thing was almost always true. Everyone wanted to be the good guy. We had to take turns, making somebody be the bad guy who eventually had to be shot down with our cap pistols or put in jail or somehow punished for his badness. Even in our childish play, we wanted to be the ones who triumphed over evil.
Television made it easy for us. The good guys almost always wore the white hats. There were only two exceptions I ever saw to this — Adam Cartwright and Paladin. They wore black hats just as the bad guys did, but this only showed us they had a bad boy image. Underneath that image, both of them had hearts of gold, or at least of a silver alloy.
If you were to fast forward even a decade, the bad Indians were replaced by bad aliens from other planets. It was easy to tell who they were, too. For one thing, the bad guys from outer space didn’t look like people. And the bad guys on “Star Trek,” no matter how much more advanced they were than earthlings, never seem to have invented the 100-watt light bulb. All their spaceships were dark and dingy.
Flying around in a dark and dingy space ship was just another way of proclaiming to the television-viewing universe that you were on the wrong side of the law. After all, the good guys were perfectly willing to let the light shine on everything they did.
Although the bad guys on our playgrounds and television screens were legitimate foes to hate, things got a whole lot uglier when our church leaders told us who the bad guys were. I was a Protestant who grew up in New Orleans, and the grown-ups made it hard for us kids to play together because everyone was always being told that everybody else was going straight to hell.
Half the people in my world were Protestants of one flavor or another. The other half were Catholics. (I knew about Jews, but I did not know any Jews personally. Mormons and Muslims were not even part of my worldview, at least until I got older.)
No, in my little world there were the Protestants and the Catholics. The good guys were — well, the good guys were you and the people who went to church with you. The bad guys were the ones who were batting for the other team.
Our pastor told us in no uncertain terms, and often, that the Catholics were doomed to eternal punishment. The nuns and the priests were telling the Catholic kids that we Protestants were going to roast in the same place.
We could wear the same color hats on the playground, but we all knew that when this life was over, there was going to be a line in the afterlife and the other group was going to be on the other side of it. After all, God did not love (fill in the name of the other group here). They were not chosen, as we were.
Oh, how young we were!
We used to talk about it sometimes, without any rancor. It wasn’t something to get upset about, any more than some of us liked one baseball team and others preferred another.
Somebody would say, “Too bad y’all are going to hell,” and the other group would raise their eyebrows knowingly and say, “We’ll see who goes where.” And then one of us would find a particularly interesting worm or doodlebug or spider, and the conversation would drift off to something more interesting.
As we played cowboys and Indians together, the irony was not lost on me that after this life God was going to have to pick through my friends and me and keep some of us and throw others away.
Even when I was a little girl, this did not make sense to me. Maybe I was more virtuous than Larry. After all, he was a boy and a Catholic. But was I really that much more virtuous than Vicky, whose only sin other than being Catholic was that she owned and loved boxer dogs? I didn’t think that was enough to send someone to the Bad Place.
As you can see, weighty things boggled my mind even before I started first grade. I knew God was going to sort through His children the way you might sort through a bowl of mixed nuts, high-grading them to choose the good ones and leaving the rejects behind. I only hoped He’d think of me as a pistachio or even a pecan rather than as a lowly peanut or a sunflower seed.
As I got older, I realized that some churches specialized in preaching doctrines of hate. I learned that being Protestant wasn’t just a one-size-fits-all arrangement. My pastor gave out cheat sheets that we could pull out whenever we met someone of a different denomination, telling us how their beliefs were different and wrong, and how they, too, were going to hell — right alongside the Catholics.
(I took this list when I attended Brigham Young University as a Protestant, so I could tell the Mormons what they believed. During my five years at BYU, I never heard any of those so-called beliefs discussed among my friends or preached from the pulpit. Apparently these beliefs are so secret that the members do not know they believe them.)
And then, of course, I started hearing about the Jews, the Muslims, the Sikhs, the Hindus and the Zoroastrians — and everyone else who did not believe exactly the way we were told to believe in our own little church. What sinners they all were! All this time, I had thought we only had the Catholics and the atheists to worry about. Apparently I had been a little naïve.
Suddenly, heaven was becoming a lot more exclusive. I was so glad to be on the right side of the fence. But even then, something didn’t pass the fish test. Was the afterlife really like a gigantic country club? Did God really play favorites to such an extent that He was willing to wash His hands of all of His children who were not fortunate enough to have learned the truth just as it was taught in our one tiny church?
It didn’t feel fair. I knew that this life is not supposed to be fair, but I hadn’t realized that the next life was going to be just as unfair as this one, and that didn’t seem — well, fair to me.
Little did I know that I was going to go to college far, far away from New Orleans, and that I was going to end up as neither a Catholic nor a Protestant. Now a whole lot of groups of people think I am going to hell, and some of them are not shy about telling me what they think.
Some years ago, after I became a card-carrying member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I wrote a letter to the editor of The Washington Post that mentioned I was a Mormon. Afterwards, I received a series of letters from a well-meaning Evangelical man who tracked down my address (before the days of the Internet) and wasted a lot of stamps trying to talk me out of going to hell.
Later there was a popular series of novels — the Left Behind series — whose entire premise was what happened after the Rapture. The series began on an airplane flight, where all the passengers who were Evangelical, born-again Christians suddenly disappeared.
God, by way of an invisible celestial vacuum cleaner, caused all the Evangelical Christians to immediately be translated into heaven, leaving the less-fortunate people (including all the members of all the fringe religions such as Catholics and Mormons and Jews and everyone else who was not an Evangelical born-againer) “left behind” to sort things out.
It was the literary equivalent of the schoolyard practice of choosing teams to play baseball, when all the good players were chosen by God, and all the less-desirables were, well “left behind.” When you think about it, nobody, but nobody, wants to be in the group who have not been picked to be on the celestial baseball team.
Oddly enough, when I went to college I learned that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were just as interested in the question of good guys versus bad guys as my childhood friends back in the schoolyards of New Orleans. But Mormons have their own name for the bad guys — “the great and abominable church” as found in 1 Nephi 14.
Mormons love to speculate about the identity of the great and abominable church. At one time, many believed it was the Catholic Church. Then they realized that of all the churches, we probably have most in common with the Catholics because they, like the Latter-day Saints, stand fast against the changing mores of the world. It had to be somebody else.
All Christians read the same Bible. Well, that’s not completely true, but it’s close enough. We all worship Christ, at least to the extent that we were taught how to do so. We all try to do good deeds, and to love our neighbors, and to leave the world a little bit better than we found it. And how about those people with no allegiance to any church who still try to love others?
If all that is true, who are the good and bad guys? Who gets to wear the white hats, and who has to wear the black ones? Who are the sheep, spiritually speaking, and who are the goats? Who gets caught up into heaven to wear the gold stars on their foreheads, and who is spiritually “left behind”?
I recently found a landmark talk by Mormon apostle Dallin H. Oaks. It was given to the students of BYU-Idaho, which means that it is elementary enough that even I can understand it. The title of it is “Witnesses of God,” but it could just as easily be called, “Who are the Bad Guys?” because in essence that is what it’s about.
He said that the people who are serving Christ to the best of their knowledge and ability are on Christ’s side, whatever church happens to claim them. That alone is a bombshell, spiritually speaking, so I’m going to say it again. The people who are serving Christ to the best of their knowledge and ability are on Christ’s side, whatever church happens to claim them.
I thought about that for weeks after I read it. If only the priests and ministers of the world read that statement and believed it, there would be infinitely less hatred on the planet. There would have been no Inquisition, for one thing. Joseph Smith would not have been martyred. For good or for evil, things would have been a whole lot different.
But Elder Oaks didn’t stop there. He also said that the people who are serving God to the extent that they know how to serve Him are also on Christ’s side, even if they are not Christians. These include Jews. They also include Muslims and people of other non-Christian religions.
Whoa! That’s something new, and it came out of Idaho.
But it has a scriptural precedent. In 1 Nephi 17:35, it says, “Behold, the Lord esteemeth all flesh in one; he that is righteous is favored of God.” It doesn’t say “he that is a righteous Mormon” or “he that is a righteous Catholic” or even “he that is a righteous Christian is favored of God.” No, 1 Nephi 17:35 opens a whole lot of doors.
I’m not going to split hairs over the definition of “righteous.” There are a lot of religious crazies out there who think they are being righteous, even as they strap bombs to the bodies of ten-year-old children. I’m going to let God determine who is really being righteous, and leave it at that.
But if all these people are wearing white hats, there has to be a black-hat contingent. And Elder Oaks pulled no punches in defining that contingent. In fact, he said there were four groups of people in the world today who constitute the bad guys:
- Anti-Christs. He defined anti-Christs as atheists, or as anyone who does not allow the free expression of religion by those of us who do believe in Christ. He said that one way anti-Christs most effectively take people away from religion is by the use of ridicule. If they can make us embarrassed to be Christians, they have done their work.
- Moral Relativists. These are people who say that because there is no God, there can be no sin. Therefore, whatever a man does is right. Moral relativists would have us believe that if you call out someone for their bad behavior, then you are committing the bigger sin of being judgmental. And that, they say, is worse than any other “sin” you could commit.
- Secular Humanists. These are people who believe that mankind will be saved by mankind itself. Political correctness is the brainchild of the secular humanists, who are so determined to make life fair for small minorities of people that they make life unfair for everyone else. Oh, do I despise those people! I just want to kick every one of them.
- The Great and Abominable Church and Other “Churches.” Speaking to his Mormon audience, Elder Oaks made reference to 1 Nephi 14 and reminded us that in the latter days there will only be two churches — the church of God and the church of the devil. In other words, either you’re for God or you’re against Him. It can’t get much plainer than that.
Elder Oaks said we should fight against the people who are fighting against the Savior in three ways. Here they are:
- In our prayers and greetings. We have been so careful in recent years not to offend others that “holiday” has replaced “Christmas” and “Easter” even in our greeting cards and our salutations to others. We need to stop being ashamed of speaking of Christ and God — not just among the believers, but also among the unbelievers.
- We need to publicly recognize the blessings of God. The United States was founded as a Christian nation, and although we claim citizens of many religions today we should not shy away from thanking God for blessing us. We need to thank Him publicly at every opportunity, and we should not forget that the Founding Fathers credited Him for preserving and protecting America.
- We must contend for the free exercise of religion. Elder Oaks said this is more than freedom of worship. This includes freedom to “come out of our private settings, including churches, synagogues and mosques, to act upon our beliefs, subject only to the legitimate government powers necessary to protect public health, safety, and welfare. Free exercise surely protects religious citizens in acting upon their beliefs in public policy debates and in votes cast as citizens or as law-makers.”
I usually have a humorous ending to my columns. Today I don’t. Today I want to say that I acknowledge God as the source of my blessings — and, indeed, for my life itself — and I thank Him for those blessings.
I hope to stand with all of you other white-hatted people in public support of Him, no matter what church you happen to attend. Let’s put aside our minor differences and labels, and come together to fight the true evil that exists in today’s black-hatted world.