Love Jesus, Hate Religion: A Heresy With No Name

“‘Hate religion, love Jesus’ is a heresy looking for a name,” Steve the Missionary (@SteveMissionary) tweeted recently.

Indeed it is, and any Catholic dad who has had to defend going to church knows it.

Rejecting religion is more popular than ever right now.

You can see younger generations’ discomfort with religion in declining church attendance and the rise of the “nones” — but the Christian kind is common too.

My own children love Lauren Daigle, whose newest album includes “Losing My Religion” where she tells God, “I’m losing my religion — to find You!” The song is a soft-focus version of Jefferey Bethke’s hard-hitting rap “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” that went viral on YouTube eight years ago, helped inspire a Newsweek cover, and expressed a thought that just keeps returning.

First of all, it is completely understandable why people would want Jesus but not the Church.

This is part of the appeal of the excellent TV show The Chosen. There is a feeling of sweet freedom to watching the band of sisters and brothers camping and laughing with the personable but serious God-man.

Holding that up against the troubles we have seen in the Church recently can make “going to church” look overstuffed, overblown and unattractive. But that’s a false dichotomy.

We don’t face a choice between a simple and free following of Jesus on the one hand and a fancy but false religiosity on the other.

What we have is a choice between following the Jesus of the Gospels or following a Jesus of our imagination.

Because, while Jesus hated false religiosity, he embraced authentic religion.

He was extremely critical of the Pharisees’ emphasis on the externals of religion, culminating in the scathing words of Matthew 23. But Jesus also saw the power of religion to renew us internally.

  • “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them,” he said.
  • He renamed Simon, saying, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.”
  • After his resurrection, he came to his apostles to establish the Sacrament of Penance, saying, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
  • When he gives advice on admonishing sinners, he lays out careful steps, ending with the Church, saying, “If he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.“

If you are a Bible-believing Christian, it makes no sense to love Jesus without the Church.

Why does Jesus love authentic religion? Because, for one thing, it keeps us accountable.

I’ll never forget what I heard from a stiff-upper-lip British priest who was called “Canon,” not “Father.” He recalled a conversation he had with a man who claimed he could praise and worship God much better in nature than in a church.

“Perhaps you can,” said the canon. “But do you?”

Probably not. We were made for community. We were made to share a life with others. We were made to both lose and find ourselves in something greater than ourselves.

On our own, we easily abandon our ideals and serve ourselves, despite ourselves. Organizing with others keeps us honest.

In fact, we have a strong religious impulse whether we like it or not.

Chesterton said those who reject God are “capable of believing in anything.” New generations are busy proving him right.

“Why are Millennials so into Astrology?” asked The Atlantic. MTV reported that a third of Gen Z chooses who to date based on astrology. Astrology is ancient, archaic, inconsistent, and even dangerous — but it’s also a “21st-century trend.”

Many religions form out of our best impulses. Courts in Great Britain defined veganism as a philosophical belief system with much in common with religion, and they have a point. The vegan saying “everything you eat is a moral choice” sounds like Leviticus. The Catechism warns that even exercise can become a religious “cult of the body.”

Ultimately, the question isn’t “Religion or no religion?” It’s “What religion?”

Purdue Anthropologist Peter Peregrine told PBS, “There are no societies that are a-religious. Belief in the supernatural, in a spiritual world is a fundamental human feature. It’s part of the human condition.”

I tell my kids that, like it or not, they will have a religion, and so they should embrace Catholicism. That will make it less awkward when they meet Jesus.

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.