Recently, there’s been an explosion of advertising for something called “I Agree With Markwell.” Flyers, sidewalk chalkings, T-shirts, and even digital ads on campus TVs have been springing up all over Northwestern, all of them declaring their agreement with Matthew Markwell. A Google search for the phrase will bring one to this website, where Markwell’s statement is presented. The following is that statement, as it appears on the website, as of the writing of this post (The message has changed subtly over the course of the campaign).
The response on campus has been, as far as I’ve observed, largely negative. Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and other people of non-Christian religions have taken offense at the implication that their faiths and beliefs are false, based simply upon the statement of some everyman (I take care to add this caveat, because while I think that religious beliefs in general are false and unproven, just saying “Well, I have a relationship with Jesus!” does not constitute an effective argument against any of these other faiths). Non-theists, as well as many of the aforementioned theists, have been galvanized by the allegation that they are inherently “sinful” and “broken,” (earlier incarnations included such terms as “messed up” and “jacked up”)and the Northwestern chapter of Secular Student Alliance has seen a spike in membership. Even many Christians are upset about the campaign, as they feel it to be a polarizing and extreme presentation of their religion, one which makes them look bad.
Why, though, are we all so upset about this campaign? Why is it that this statement of faith provokes such repulsion and anger in the populace at large? Personally, I take issue with many aspects of the campaign. For one thing, the statement is disappointingly bland and generic. Markwell’s regurgitation of tired old Evangelical hoodoo lacks the hyperbolic fear-mongering of Jack Chick, the moralistic and rhetorical traps of Ray Comfort, or the pseudoscientific rationalizations of the Hovinds. Despite the aggressive marketing campaign, the substance of “I Agree With Markwell” is terribly unoriginal.
That said, I seek out this sort of thing for my own amusement. I’ve gone through the Jack Chick archives. I watched Ray Comfort’s “180″ “documentary” (Which I will eventually write a post about. For the time being, suffice it to say that it’s half an hour of Ray trying to trap people into saying that legalized abortion is morally equivalent to the Nazi Final Solution). I’ve even sat through some of Kent Hovind’s weird little Young Earth Creationist, anti-government lecture videos. What about all the normal people? While it’s nearly impossible to live in this country and not hear a good deal of Jesus-talk, I doubt that everyone is as upset as I am about how uninspired the Markwell message is.
I think that the reason people are so angry about the “I Agree With Markwell” campaign is that its message is antithetical to what we value and honor, as a university, and as a society in general.
“Well, of course!” the more dogmatic Christians might say, “It challenges our wretched, sinful nature!” This is an ongoing theme in the more obnoxious branches of Evangelical Christianity. The notion, you see, is that people reject the Christian god not because they are unconvinced of it, nor because they object on ethical grounds to Christian theology, but because they just like sinning so damn much. Apparently, we all “know” that the Christian god is real, we’re just ignoring it so we can break the rules. Many people, though, are good without a god, and even more are good without this specific one. Clearly our objection isn’t that we’re being made to look upon our sinful, wicked ways. It’s something more than that.
Look at the first paragraph. According to Markwell, “sin and brokenness exist in every part of this world” and “every person is subject to it.” From the start, the philosophy of Cru is clashing with our societal values. We, as a community and as a culture, value people. Not just humans, not just life. People. We treasure the unique attributes of our fellows. Our parents tell us when we are young that we are special, and once we go out into the world and meet others, we look for what makes them special. We go to concerts and theaters to see great performers display their talents. We go to museums to look at artwork and artifacts from our ancestors and our contemporaries, delighting to applaud the genius of our species. We will freely acknowledge that no one is without flaws, but we seek to support one another, and communally strive to overcome obstacles. We do not see ourselves as broken.
In the second paragraph, Markwell talks about how his god manifested and accepted punishment as a proxy for all of humanity. This, too, is an abhorrent concept to our society. One of the things that we stress in our justice system is personal responsibility. The death penalty is under perpetual scrutiny because we cringe at the thought of putting any innocent person to death. Even in non-judicial matters, we honor personal responsibility. Save for young children, we expect members of our society to be accountable for their actions, and to own them, for good of for ill. To shirk personal responsibility for our actions and to shove the blame and punishment onto another is considered a horrible and despicable thing.
The third paragraph continues this retreat from accountability. “Nobody gets right with God by doing good things, having an emotional experience, possessing special knowledge, or even saying specific words, but by trusting Jesus’ sacrifice and surrendering your life to Him and really meaning it,” declares Markwell. On one of these points, Markwell is indeed in agreement with our cultural values. While we do celebrate emotion and appreciate it, we do not use it do define a person’s worth. The others, however, are all criteria that we use to measure success and personal worth. We applaud great communicators, great athletes, great philanthropists, great leaders, great thinkers, and all manner of exceptional individuals. Not only do we honor such individuals, we strive to be like them. We pride ourselves on our knowledge of the world around us. We push ourselves to accomplish astounding things. We most delight to pass our time with those who provide the best conversation. When we fall short of our lofty goals, we do not slink off into a corner to weep and resign ourselves to mediocrity. No, we try again and again until we succeed!
The second portion of this paragraph, that we will only ever be good enough by blindly trusting someone, is also contrary to what we value. When visiting a doctor, we do not simply trust in our surgeons, but expect to have the procedure we are going to undergo explained to us. When we are presented a new discovery in the natural or social sciences, we expect data and evidence, not just assertions. It is the same when we are the ones seeking trust, for do we not present our resumes at job interviews? Any claim we make is subject to scrutiny, be it “citations, please,” or “pics or it didn’t happen.”
The final paragraph is a summation of the philosophy set forth by Cru, that their worth and “hope for all that [they are]” is derived not from their personal merits, nor from the lives they’ve impacted, but from perceived validation from an unseen source. Their “sins,” personal failings, and responsibility for their actions? Forgiven and swept away. Their contributions to the collective good of the society, their efforts to improve themselves and the world around them? Unimportant and irrelevant. Their sole reported source of measuring worth, both of themselves and others, is whether or not they have kowtowed to an invisible, intangible malefactor, dangling them over a fire until they profess love.
No doubt people will point out that many of the Christians they know are good people. Well, I should certainly hope so. I am of the opinion that people inclined toward altruism and kindness will be that way, regardless of their superstitions. To their credit, whether they will admit it or not, most Christians, and indeed, most theists, do not put their money where their mouths are, so to speak. Whether Matthew Markwell or any other members of Cru are good people or not, I do not know. What I do know is that the fact that Markwell and his comrades attend Northwestern University suggests that this statement of faith they have presented is not what they live their lives by. If they did draw their “hope for all that [they are]” from their god, which they claim will only deign to bestow grace upon them if they trust it completely, then I dare say they would not have managed to muster up the necessary enthusiasm for learning and accomplishment required to gain admittance.
It is for these reasons, I think, that there has been such a backlash against the “I Agree With Markwell” campaign. The statements and philosophies that the website sets forth are not merely divisive on the grounds of religious denomination. Rather, they are so deeply abhorrent to the rest of the Northwestern community because they contradict and spit upon so much of what we value and hold dear.
DISCLAIMER: This has been a personal interpretation of the material provided, and is not an official or necessarily representative statement on the part of the Secular Student Alliance.