The title could seem overstated, even impertinent directed upon such a large phenomenon as a nation’s predominant religion, but especially in its more conservative and evangelical wing American Christianity can itself be remarkably given to the overblown, aggressive or emotionally intrusive statement. Thus it’s not possible for some to maintain Obama has been wrong or misguided about, say, marriage equality, rather it has to be he has “blasphemed God!”! Even for a believer (or even the Pope) to be just concerned with welfare and poverty issues could cause him or her to be judged and dismissed as “a Marxist”.
Because despite everything I believe American Christianity does represent and preserve a few beliefs and ideas in danger of being forgotten or overlooked elsewhere, I shall first define what I mean by “American Christianity” and before pointing to some good things catalogue the real, sometimes major blemishes. This is needed because one notices how inside and outside America, most admirers of the positives seem in their enthusiasm to find it too easy uncritically to absorb, even cheerfully export, the negatives. (Asian and African churches particularly have not been helped by that tendency).
Granted if one is to generalize, American Christianity is highly diverse. Its Catholicism alone is of a unique, sometimes quasi-Protestant or very protesting variety. However, my main concern is what is covered by what broadly descends and from the first from Calvinism and Presbytery or else is close in its “evangelical” belief system to the widespread Bible-believing Baptist tradition still much represented in the South. Together these streams often combine in what gets labelled “the Religious Right”. Both these traditions, though increasingly questioned or abandoned by the young, remain widespread in terms of influence and to the extent both have things too unexamined about them, for a toxic influence.
THE CALVINISTIC ELEMENT
Together Calvin and Calvinism are almost what was most controversial about Reformation Protestantism. Calvin instituted a mini inquisition in Geneva teaching people to spy on one another. Calvinist Americans (originally from Scotland where Calvinism took strong root) retain a questionable habit of labelling, judging and testing fellow believers ( and wider society) while themselves chasing respectability and success to the point they are St Paul’s men-pleasers (Eph 6:6). But worse, overturning the beliefs of centuries and ignoring that Christ taught riches could be a stumbling block to attaining the Kingdom, Calvin taught that prosperity and success were the mark you belonged to the righteous elect and enjoyed divine favour.
The consequent emphasis upon material success has sown the seeds which would flower in contemporary prosperity gospel, a kind of legitimized religious materialism and even greed recently obscenely symbolized by preacher Creflo Dollar’s 69 million dollar private jet to help him bring people the gospel. There is something in all this that recalls the condemned Church of Laodicea which declares, “I am rich, I have prospered and I have need of nothing” (Rev 3:17). In reality, however, even Calvin’s prosperous children need something and it’s to support or to be supported by the traditional party of the wealthy in politics, the Republicans, in order to impress their beliefs and agendas upon the masses. The irony of this is just not seen.
THE BAPTIST INPUT
Despite some liberal policies – support of separation of church and state, women preachers, some reasonable scope for divorce – the Baptist/evangelical strain which in modern times has produced the archetypal Billy Graham, has been hamstrung upon its Koranic style treatment of “God’s Word”. Here the Bible becomes an inerrant authority, an authority which can assume the role of a Paper Pope and almost more infallibly. Any human quirks or weaknesses in the record are simply not seen. St Paul and others don’t write inspired documents, they simply repeat what God says much as Mohammed claimed to receive the Koran. References to “God’s Word” at least implies complete direct dictation.
It follows that the mainstream of Baptist/Evangelical churches read the bible at face value literally. Poetry and ambiguity, cultural and historical filtering don’t count (who cares about poetry in America and a day means 24 hours only doesn’t it?)…..unless and until by selective reading it suddenly does count. Thus today there are evangelicals of the plain sense school prepared to preach that “as in the days of Noah they were marrying and giving in marriage” (Luk 17:27) has to mean Noah’s contemporaries were pushing gay marriage. How? Why? Remind these same people that the “covenant” David and Jonathan had was a berith which can mean marriage or inform them that one of the ancient meanings of “eunuch” that Jesus said some are naturally born, was the nearest thing to the modern “gay”, and you would be accused of special pleading or worse.
Biblical literalism excused or justified the South’s slavery historically, but selective reading still abounds. Paul gets suitably ignored about women covering their heads or men obeying political authority (American independence was born of ignoring St Paul!); but whatever the apostle may have meant in Romans 1 about Roman morals it’s living proof “homosexuality”, (though the bible knows no such word), is the final barometer of morality and national life. Tolerate marriage equality and you go the way of Rome and divine judgement falls! Making your gay offspring homeless is perfectly OK. The long history of bullying and violence directed against gays or those thought not masculine enough everywhere from schoolyard to high street has never been protested but even been deemed inevitable by those same literalists who will scream like stuck pigs about persecution and diminution of their rights under secularism.
Hawthorn’s Scarlet Letter might as well to be attached to every gay or seeming gay in those corners of the land where heteronormative Christianity rules and regards the disposition not as an inspiration for the likes of Michelangelo but a living curse. (Gay is envisaged as nothing but drug and alcohol fuelled sex addiction around bars or perhaps a demonic possession). Besides which, sinners have no real rights in democracies, only conservative Christians should own democracy…or just rule the land. But that’s only one issue.
Despite Jesus’ relative pacifism and “put down your sword”, religious rights for literalists include carrying guns according to the constitution. (You might need to fight an evil government or the forces of Antichrist!). The connection between gun laws and America’s internationally exceptionally elevated crime and murder rates is just not seen; such connections are only made by evil unbelievers! Disciples of Jesus are as good as gun-toting soldiers. Again the irony, even eccentricity of all this is not seen.
THE RULE OF “GOD’S WORD”, A WEAKNESS OPPOSED TO THE SPIRIT
Even given a less face value, more consistent reading of scriptures which educated conservatives do allow, should the Bible ever assume the almost Paper Pope authority evangelicals give it to the point they will almost hit people over the head and dismiss them and any contrary argument with what the inerrant “Word of God” declares? Even for those of us who consider scripture precious, we must say, no.
I always cite how the apostle Peter denies vision itself to protest to God what he is shown is against scripture (Acts 10). Long before him the daughters of Zelophehad successfully petition against what they deemed unjust to them in details relating to the (revealed) Law (Num 27). The fact is one cannot adequately read and apply scriptures to absolutely all people, situations and times always, especially not without some illumination. Try it and you may finish up with policies like the most rigid rulings of conservative Catholicism whose guide is less scripture than philosophical formulae according to Thomas Aquinas and scholasticism.
It is hardly surprising that in recent ecumenical decades evangelicalism has become almost Catholic on abortion. It used to be some exceptions like rape were deemed permissible. Now for pro-lifers every women is supposed to preserve life at all costs as though before modern times the number of women and foetuses who died in childbirth was not truly enormous in the course of just nature. If God could allow so much infant mortality that medicine alone has diminished, God is surely capable of excusing termination of life in the case of the traumatized, the life threatened, or those who feel contaminated by sexual abuse whose effects may well be lasting for the future child anyway. Is it Christian charity to want to jail doctors or victims for doing the practical or merciful?
This irrational absolutism has prevented true and just laws being instituted because the whole subject becomes polarized into either/or, “murder” against life alternatives rather than a matter of proper exceptions. (I accept that abortion on demand and for convenience is against life but that’s another matter).
Given that the Spirit (who is said to lead into all truth, Joh 16:13) is not a vivid part of the evangelical’s Trinity, it follows that we will often find conservative believers absent from common sense or charity not to say any exalted Truth. Many conservatives would even deny the Spirit any place in the life of the church and are vehemently opposed to charismatic trends of whatever sort. It can even be heresy to assume the Spirit is present beyond the times of the apostles.
And so we have the contradiction of “born again” Christians dubiously claiming colourful conversations with Jesus yet without aid from the Spirit or hearing God’s voice (memorization of bible influences the substance of many “conversations”). I, like many, was (unnecessarily given his background) surprised to learn that even Billy Graham denies having ever heard God’s voice. While I don’t believe anyone, short maybe of extreme saints, will hear from any member of the Trinity on a frequent basis, as per my Cosmic Father (https://goo.gl/o7YqtJ), I do believe one can and even should hear from God….now and again and with real communication, not just repeating a believer’s remembered scripture verses.
So here one touches on the blindspots, contradictions and even cruelties which American Christianity can manifest. But rather than continue as one could, to change the subject, what about the positives?
America of the adverts is also the America of evangelism. Beyond all the potential abuses, caring enough about people and beliefs to go out and preach to strangers and argue for one’s convictions is to a degree commendable. It’s because some churches like The Church of England seem incapable of persuasion, apologetics, dynamic preaching that they cannot recoup their massive losses and confront indifference. Even a former Archbishop of Canterbury has recently opined his church will be extinct in around a generation. This isn’t good enough, including because to preach the gospel, to make disciples, is part of Christ’s own parting commission to followers (Matt 28:19 ). Not everyone can evangelize any more than they have a voice to sing a hymn (St Paul calls evangelization a gift) but many could and can reach out and they should make some effort if they are to call themselves Christians.
A SENSE OF SALVATION
It may be expressed and described in different ways, but what is preached by many American churches, especially the more traditionally revivalist, is a form of “salvation” which involves a deliverance from potential damnation. This means that if persons aren’t sidetracked into prosperity gospels and even if and when believers need to recall a few social and political issues, still the religious issues will remain primarily spiritual and visionary. They need to be that whether to make a real impression or to be at all close to the gospel as originally preached. Social and political gospels may satisfy for a while, but ultimately people want and expect to deal in ultimate issues, life, death and the beyond.
Like it or not,Jesus referred to loss of soul and the threat of hell quite frequently (45 gospel verses refer to it). Not of course in the style of the hell fire sermon of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist which is morbid/obsessive, but nonetheless succinctly and firmly. Quite how and why hell could and should exist at all and if and how it belongs to justice is a major issue. I explore it in my Cosmic Father (https://goo.gl/o7YqtJ) not always supplying regular answers and not Calvinistic ones; the subject is beyond present scope but I would say this much here. Ideas and attitudes essential to Christianity begin to weaken outside of a view to an eternal loss. It is for example more possible and just reasonable to forgive to the uttermost if absolute hell is the prospect of your worst enemy. It is at the time that American Christianity is beginning to weaken and youth abandoning it that you will read books like “evangelical” Rob Bell’s Love Wins which preaches a certain universalism and disposes of more dire possibilities around the soul.
A SYMPATHY FOR ISRAEL
Far from universal among American churches though it is, and sometimes exaggerated into a kind of Zionism where it appears, nonetheless few national churches have as much feeling as America’s whether for the Jewish origins of Christianity or the importance of modern Israel in the larger spiritual picture of things. It is as though American Christianity had to make up for the history of western Christian anti-Semitism. Certainly somebody needed to make up for it because it was never acceptable and was a serious heresy when it swerved with Augustine and others into what is called supersessionism or replacement theology. This makes out that OT prophecies regarding Israel are either invalid or apply to the Church instead.
Surely nothing could be further from the intended truth. If replacement were the case Jesus would have rejected more than date setting when, for example, he is reported in Acts 1:6 as refusing the disciples’ question about when he would see to the re-establishment of Israel, i.e. political Israel, the messianic kingdom, the Millennial reign he had not set up during his ministry.
Christians are not obliged to agree with everything modern Israel says and does, but they should perceive history and providence, prophecy and the turning of the ages in the establishment of modern Israel. Anything else risks becoming, as it has done among some Eastern Orthodox Christians and others, a kind of unacceptable anti-Semitism with refusal of a proper witness to God’s purposes in history.
In certain respects some traditional churches are closer to the Muslims (whose Koran is strongly against all Jews) than Christian doctrine and it may be their fate is to be swallowed up by Islam if they can’t distinguish themselves more in some areas of belief. (Let’s not forget that Pope John Paul 11 astonishingly, perhaps just ignorantly, kissed the same Koran which often declares against the Jews with whom, like Christians, one should never be friends and [according to Surah IX, v. 30] Jews are simply “perverse” so that Allah is opposed to them.
A SENSE OF IMMEDIACY AND APOCALYPSE
Americans have little sense of history, but less anchored to tradition and the past they are more open to the possibilities of the future. This includes embracing the much misunderstood, too little considered issue of apocalypse and Second Advent. Again it is anyway supposed to be only Christian to be awaiting the Advent which is awaited two ways, first archetypally in a state of general readiness (because there is a sense in which the divine is always coming to us and we are to be ready for it) but, more literally, there is a point in time in which God absolutely intervenes in history and returns.
Although liberal scepticism has it Jesus wrongly expected to return within a generation this is not really so likely, especially not if he told his disciples on leaving he would be with them till the end of the aion (era). What era? For American Christians it is the end of “the Church age”, but for some of us (inevitably charged with heresy, divination or whatever!) this could plausibly alternatively or additionally be the end of the age of the current age of Pisces with whose beginning the birth of Christ and the arrival of the Magi (astrologers) corresponded. Accordingly, though plainly some people keep date setting, dreaming Second Advent and rapture (itself a rather American obsession but with surely some basis in otherwise incomprehensible or ignored claims of Jesus and Paul about a sudden disappearance), it is not wrong per se to look at world events and ask questions about where we may stand in terms of history and possible last things…. Which leads me to a related point which is re “prophetic” perspective.
A “PROPHETIC” OUTLOOK
There are always two kinds of prophecy, the prophecy which seriously foretells (this tends to be rare and is a gift and vocation) and the prophecy which is more like commentary on events from the religious/biblical standpoint and there is not enough of that in the churches. Whether one agrees with what was said or not, an interesting recent example has proceeded from Billy Graham’s daughter Ann Lotz Graham who has been saying that God “allows” – not the same as positively wishes and wills – terrorist attacks and natural disasters because they are also wake-up calls for people.
The point is an important one, (again reaching into theology beyond present scope) but believers and even the world do need to be told, and in a way that voices for the traditional and liturgical churches rarely if ever do, that spiritual forces are at work in events and must be engaged. In an evil world God’s so-called “wrath” is more like his withdrawal of a degree of protection that must always be prayed for and sometimes earned by suitable personal and social reform (repentance). “Ah Assyria, rod of my anger” (Is 10:5) says Isaiah about what is to occur for a faithless Israel. This kind of discernment needs to have a greater part in contemporary religious discourse.
It is of course something that risks misuse and ironically Ann Lotz’s less imaginative brother Franklin Graham can be a leading abuser. He works a bully pulpit which doesn’t seem to have understood the kind of principles his sister refers to. For example, instead of being open to the possibility that Obama is a rod of God’s anger and that the shocking Christian American history of violence and discrimination against gays is being allowed, judged or repaid when Christians defending their business rights against gays now get (unjustly) treated in the courts, nothing is ever seen except insults to God and Christians who are being or who will be shortly persecuted.
But supposing God will be deaf to conservative prayers until real repentance and changed outlooks are evinced? Franklin G’s perspective has been shockingly, inexcusably wrong when he can even praise Putin of Russia’s treatment of the gay issue (fascist gangs freely roam the streets attacking and torturing those who might be gay). Could God possibly approve Graham’s wrong minded, ill informed bully pulpit nonsense? Addressing every issue, hurling threats in all directions, his poorly disguised egotism should relent and let others prophetically speak about any judgement God might intend upon America.
EXPERIMENT AND DEMOCRACY
Not all experiment works and not every novelty is valuable, but we should be open to the new or at least not be stuck in a rut. The gospels constantly challenge to new and radical perspectives, to ongoing self and social criticism. One would hardly imagine so to judge from the appearance, style and practices of much Christianity, some of which is even stuck into the Catholic motto, semperidem (always the same). It is the American churches which are really prepared to experiment, change and adapt, and not just to obtain more funds but at least sometimes to discover what spiritually works, what occasions success, influence, a change to lives, a healing of mind or body. Such things matter or they should do to churches. Religion is not just about eternal security but a few temporal risks and what I would call “spiritual efficiency” and letting faith work.
In certain respects tradition, so valued in some churches, is almost religion’s greatest enemy preventing the church from hearing “what the Spirit is saying to the churches”, that refrain in the early chapters in Revelation, and meaning. what the Spirit is saying now and into the future, saying without only quoting previous scriptures or repeating familiar prayers and chants of the centuries. While main traditions of the faith may not be wholly disregarded or excluded just as the bible cannot be denied in the general direction and essence of its meaning, some variation on a theme and development is also required. The openness of America religion can be risky but is meaningful. Of course it needs to be part of and interact with a degree of democracy too, and here we come back to a potential American weakness.
Yes, the people and culture are democratic but not quite so much as they imagine. There is something polarizing and polarized about American society as in its history of race relations and there is something which seems to encourage situations in which, as the wife of someone in politics in America once said to me, “everyone persecutes everyone else in the end”.
So, I admit the possibility that such as the new secularism and emphasis upon gay rights may create a situation of discrimination for Christians (who once reckoned to discriminate against all and any sexual variation). I touched on this in McCleary’s Additions and the article, Something Wrong with American LGBThttp://wp.me/p4kNWg-8a . True democracy must always go a fair way to tolerating what it doesn’t particularly like, want or approve. Otherwise it’s not democracy but sharia or fascism under another name. But to the extent American Christianity is able to find the grace to tolerate, then, as against the increasing cynicism and dismissal that American religion is generating around the world, I do think it still has some lessons to teach us.