A Sketch of What Happened to American Christianity

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The frame for this series of blog posts is, “Re-learning Christian Faith.” I’m looking at changes in Christianity’s condition and place in the world because those who hold to the faith and are held by it have come to an intersection, a crossroads, whether or not they realize the situation has changed and choices must be made. Those choices are being made, but it would be better for people of faith to make them consciously than to follow a crowd down a wide path Jesus himself rejected.

Christendom has waned. In Europe where it began and developed, Christendom (the kingdom of an imperious Christianity) has been waning for a long time, but here in the United States a more democratic form of it continues on as a popular change-resisting movement which has now grown belligerent. Christendom, of course, was always belligerent because it imposed Christianity upon people and nations and felt itself justified in using, not only political persuasion, but war, torture, and all sorts of intimidation and cruelty.

Being a minister in a traditional Protestant denomination (Presbyterian), I have witnessed the church’s loss of power, prestige, and influence. When the Cambodian Invasion hit the presses in 1970, our General Assembly was in its annual session, and the Nixon administration sent an undersecretary of state to address the Assembly on the matter which was erupting into a crisis for the president. I doubt that any administration now or in the future would care that our General Assembly was meeting, let alone send an official to address it in a time of political crisis. Since retiring, I have been asked by several people, “Presbyterian? Is that Christian?” I live in Pennsylvania. Our first presbytery was in Philadelphia. I’ve been told that much of established Pennsylvania law was written by Presbyterians. The only clergyman (all men at the time) to sign the Declaration of Independence was John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian minister serving as a delegate from New Jersey to the Second Continental Congress. It has been told, perhaps apocryphally, that at the time of the American Revolution, King George remarked that his colonies had “skipped off after a Presbyterian preacher.” But today I am asked by evangelical Christians whether Presbyterian is a form of Christianity or some other religion. Many have never heard of us.

We don’t know our own history and, worse, don’t care. Popular thinking comes from the television and so-called social media. As American evangelicalism found itself increasingly isolated from American secular culture, it insulated and isolated itself. Christian schools protected its children from mingling with children of color and from worldly ideas. Home schooling offered further insulation so the children could be “trained up right.” There were Christian yellow pages so evangelical families could avoid doing business with non-Christians, whom they did not trust.

In this isolation, the teaching of science could be kept under the thumb of biblical literalism as it had been kept under church authority in Europe while Christendom retained its power. People, especially women, were to be kept in their (supposedly God-ordained) places. The so-called sexual revolution of the 1960’s and early 1970’s was to be condemned and withstood. Evolution in particular was to be rejected. Climate change was to be viewed as a hoax. Godly women were to be submissive, and godly men were to be gentle with their submissive wives (as long as they obeyed and stood by their men).

With the rise of the “moral majority,” Christian evangelicalism turned belligerent. One newspaper comic strip artist summed up the thrust by having one of his characters declare that, since we’re the majority, we shouldn’t ask for power but just take it. Dispensationalism (started in the 19th Century by the British cleric John Darby and popularized by the Scofield Reference Bible and then by novels – Hal Lindsey’s, The Late, Great Planet Earth, and the Left Behind series) sanctified evangelical belligerence by declaring the old dispensation of humility and tolerance over and done. We were, it proclaimed, entering the “end times” when the final conflicts would begin, the faithful would be “raptured” to safety, and Christ would return to cast non-believers into hell and establish his kingdom forever. The time for the Sermon on the Mount (Gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-7) was over; the time had come to stand up for Christ and destroy his enemies. The day of Christian humility and gentleness had passed, which was certainly unintentionally ironic in view of Christendom’s history of pomp and brutality.

Evangelical Christianity, however, is not just one thing. There are “evangelicals for social justice.” There are evangelicals who are neither belligerent nor fundamentalist, not anti-science, not isolationist. In truth, my brief sketch of the changes that have occurred just in my lifetime could be argued or nuanced at various points. Home schooling has proved very good and helpful for some and probably many children, especially as public education is dismantled or bled dry by corporate “reforms.” If Dispensationalism dismisses the Sermon on the Mount, 19th and early 20th Century Protestant Liberalism tended to make it so much the centerpiece of Christian faith that Jesus’ crucifixion was reduced to a mere demonstration of the kind of love Christians were to emulate.

There is now also a kind of anti-faith fundamentalism popular on social media sites but spreading even to some actual scientists and otherwise serious thinkers. I might call it fundamentalist popular atheism because it interprets the Bible just as literalistically as the believing fundamentalists but to mock and deride it. Accepting what fundamentalists say about the Bible as what the Bible truly says, they make the Bible an easy target for scorn, a foolish opponent quickly conquered. So, biblical faith and serious interpretation get slammed and degraded from both sides: believing fundamentalism and the unbelieving fundamentalism of popular atheism.

We stand at a crossroads. Christian faith was never meant for power, prestige, and privilege. Jesus rejected that way for himself and for us. Today, many American Christians angrily decry their loss of privilege and cultural establishment as though it were persecution. Many still want dominance over the nation and all its people. Douglas John Hall, the theologian whose work persuaded me to launch this series, believes Christians of the traditional Protestant churches now have a window of opportunity to be transformed by gospel (good news of Christ) into faith communities engaged in the movement Jesus set us out on before Christendom, before the church became imperial. But to take that path, we will have to accept our role as a minority and learn to serve without power, to persuade without coercion, and to love without returns on love’s investment in people.

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