On Being A Christian In America
The idea that religion and politics don’t mix was invented by the Devil to keep Christians from running their own country. – Rev. Jerry Falwell
It is becoming more and more difficult to consider oneself Christian and American. – FB comment
See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. – Matthew 10:16
Nine people gathered to study the Bible are gunned down without mercy or remorse. Three churches housing predominantly African-American congregations are set ablaze by arsonists in three states in five days. As the Supreme Court extends marital rights and responsibilities to all persons, many Christians rend their clothing, some declaring their willingness to martyr themselves in defiance of the law of the land. As our public mores continue to change, the role of the churches in shaping those mores seems to decline ever more. People of the Christian faith are nervous, wondering if being a Christian and an American is even possible.
We have always been a people of diverse faiths. Massachusetts may have been offered to the TULIP Calvinist Puritans, but Maryland was a Roman Catholic colony. The official religion of the Commonwealth of Virginia was the Church of England long after the War of Independence. Rhode Island was founded on the principle of freedom of conscience regarding religious belief. We have had Jews and pagans, Muslims and Japanese Shinto and Chinese animists and, of course, the variety of Native religious beliefs and practices, sometimes intermingling and cross-fertilizing with Christianity and other faiths. Still, our predominant civic faith is rooted in a secular version of the Calvinism that was at the heart of the Massachusetts Bay Colony when it was founded in 1620. In the centuries since, despite being officially secular and allegedly neutral in practice, our laws and public morals have walked hand in glove with a predominantly Protestant Christian sensibility. In my lifetime, most small towns were closed up on Sundays. Divorce, sex outside of marriage, the rights of women and minorities (including religious minorities such as Catholics, Jews, Orthodox, and others) were curbed by a legal system that reflected the preferences of the male, Protestant majority. We were, in many ways, a Christian nation in practice if not in name.
The past two generations have seen vast changes in that social, legal, and cultural landscape. While a vast majority of Americans claim some sort of religious allegiance, that number has dropped eight percent in a decade. While religious belief in some bland sense – an affirmation of the existence of God, however personally defined – continues, religious practice, adherence to even the most basic dogmas of the Church, and Biblical illiteracy are more the norm than the exception. We in the old mainline Protestant Churches – the United Methodists, the Presbyterians, the ELCA, the Disciples of Christ, the UCC/Congregational Churches – bemoan the graying of our congregations and continue to flail about as we search for something, anything, that will bring younger people back through our doors. The appeal of the church, it seems, is waning in tandem with the increasing separation of our social and cultural life from its influence.
What was once taken for granted is no longer the case. What once seemed an easy enough match up between our professed religious beliefs and our practiced social moral code now seems miles apart. We are, in the as Robert Heilein wrote, strangers in a strange land.
Which is as it should be.
When being a Christian is easy; when the state offers a silent nod of approval to the beliefs and practices of a particular religious faith; when we forget that our mission and ministry is rooted in conflict between the powers of this world that sent Christ to his death and the Spirit of God who raised Jesus from the dead; when these things occur, being church is no longer a matter of being ekklesia, those called out. Being an Episcopalian is no different from being a member of the Chamber of Commerce or Country Club; being a Methodist is no different than being police chief or mayor; being a Baptist is no different than being a teacher or plumber. To be a Christian is just to be. Our sense of separateness, our understanding of ourselves as those who are in faith through grace no longer has the emotional and spiritual power it should.
None of which means we should love our country, or our fellow citizens whose lives and beliefs and mores may be very different – even diametrically opposed! – a whit less. This is our home, this beautiful, baffling, contrary country of ours. I know my life is enriched by all the different people I have known, by the friendships I continue to cultivate, and the conversations and arguments I will always have with people who are very different than I am. That some of my friends think Christianity is kind of silly, well, that doesn’t have anything to do with me. That some practice their beliefs in ways very different from my own practice helps me see how limited my vision continues to be. I hold those I know who are Jewish or Muslim or some other faith in as high regard as my fellow Christians. Perhaps a bit more, knowing how difficult it can be to be observant of a minority religion in a society that more than occasionally is actively hostile to them.
Those African-Americans I know who live out their lives in faith humble me; attending worship with them reminds me of the singular power of Christian faith: the affirmation of humanity in the face of systemic dehumanization. African-American worship, at least in my experience, is rooted in joy and celebration because it is as the gathered people of God they become a people, a people, not whatever the dominant society says they are. Black churches have always been targets for racist violence. White folk know it is here, in this place, all the things whites say about African-Americans – their fundamental evil, their laziness and shiftlessness, the threat they pose to white society – is not only denied, but their humanity is affirmed. Nothing is more threatening to principalities and powers than a people who believe themselves to be a people.
I find irony in the sign on the burned church pictured above. A church building should always be considered a dangerous place. To be a Christian should never rest easily with our other social relationships. We should always be troubled in our secular life by the insistent demands of the faith. Whether we call ourselves liberal or conservative or whatever, we should never forget our primary identity as Christians forms a filter through which we observe and live out that secular life. Entering worship on Sundays should make us uneasy; leaving worship on Sundays should remind us why we are uneasy. To be Christian and American is to be a sheep among the most dangerous wolves imaginable: they aren’t just in sheep’s clothing, but in the clothing of the sheep from our own flock. Lest we ever get complacent, we should always remember those who have been murdered in places of worship over the years; remember the church buildings set ablaze; remember that, increasingly, to be a Christian is to be thought someone who considers him- or herself better than others, rather than someone who is a servant to others.
Ours is a world filled with hazards. Our faith calls us to love and serve that world in humility. The transformation for which we work will never be voted upon, nor negotiated. It is the slow, steady work of millions of hands over many years, under the power of our loving, saving, ever-creating God. If that doesn’t make folks uneasy, I don’t know what will.