September 14, 2010
Is America Christian? Part 2

Having established that the United States is at least culturally Christian, I want to turn to the question: whose Christianity? Which version of “Christian” is it?

This is no small question, and is pretty straight-forwardly intended to set up the next post, which will look at the question of American government and Christianity. But in order to get there we need to do a major foray into the nature of Christianity and assess what “Christian” means.

On its surface, the question “are you a Christian or not” has a fairly simple answer: if you believe that God sent his son to earth to redeem our sins, and you believe that Jesus Christ is your savior and that faith in him will bring you eternal salvation, then yes: you are a Christian. If you don’t believe that, you’re not.

But of course it’s not that simple in the real world. Whatever Christians claim about the common foundations of their faith, they have in fact developed a remarkable array of ways to practice their beliefs. Catholicism formed in the centuries after Jesus’ death to try to create and enforce a common doctrine in a context of small, isolated Christian communities spread across the Mediterranean, each practicing remarkably divergent versions of Christianity. (This is what the Epistles are about, for example.) Various “heretic” sects emerged over the ensuing century, and an entirely separate branch of Catholicism developed in the form of Orthodoxy.

Then, once Protestantism took root, Christian sectarianism blossomed. A key principle of Protestantism, after all, is that one’s relationship with God is private, not mediated through some central church that seeks to link all believers in common practice. Accordingly, your faith is yours, and no one can say it is “heretic.” A profusion of religions and religious practices was inevitable in such a world. Thus we have Protestant faiths in which men and women can’t sit in the same part of the church, and we have Protestant churches, like Robert Schiller’s mega-church Chrystal Cathedral, in which families can sit together in their cars inside the church for services. We have churches whose members speak in tongues and churches whose members seem to pride themselves on their moderateness. And, of course, there’s Mormonism, which is certainly of the Protestant tradition, but with an extra book of the Bible.

Of course, there is potentially no doctrinal problem here: so long as everyone believes in Jesus as lord and savior, it is possible that all these traditions can recognize each other was Christian. It doesn’t always happen, of course—Joseph Smith got lynched in Illinois before the locals drove the remnants of his early Mormon church out of the state, for example. (Brigham Young would, of course, lead them to Utah.) Europe slaughtered a third of its population during the Wars of Religion on the question of being Catholic or Protestant. Still, if co-traditionalists can recognize the Jesus-based theology at the heart of all these religions, it is possible for them to recognize each other as Christians.

The social and political problem of all this religious diversity, of course, lies in the divergent political and social agendas that these alleged coreligionists derive from their faiths. Is polygamy okay? Does the Sermon on the Mount compel us to give to the poor, or are we responsible for our own lives? If we are given dominion of all the beasts and land, does this mean we can use them as we will, or does it require we be conservationists, treading lightly? Should we take Jesus seriously when he says that to follow him we should shun our families and our possessions, or does he mean that traditional families should be central to our lives? Does “turn the other cheek” mean passive resistance, or it is okay to turn the cheek because we’re turning to pull out our nuclear weapons?

There are Christians who offer different answers to all these questions, and many more. One version, Christian conservatism, has been ascendant in the US for the last 30 years, but it is not the only Christian tradition in America. Much less the only religious tradition in America. Which makes linking the “Christian” nature of the United States with particular political proposals a very difficult thing to do.

As we shall discuss tomorrow!