Religion has always been a big deal in the United States. But recently, due to tectonic shifts in the culture, one particular group—namely, White evangelical protestants—is feeling threatened.
That evangelicals feel embattled is noteworthy, since for at least a couple of generations, they’ve appeared to be driving the cultural bus on which the rest of us are passengers. I know a little something about these folks, having grown up as an evangelical in the evangelical heartland (i.e., Grand Rapids, Michigan). I remember, if not so much what I was taught, then at least what I took that teaching to mean. I suspect that my early understanding of the faith reflects the kinds of things many evangelicals still believe—or at least the kinds of things everyone else assumes evangelicals believe. And unfortunately, evangelicalism in particular is, for much of the world, just a placeholder for Christianity in general.
Here’s what I grew up believing (and what I think many people believe Christianity is).
You had to believe that only Christians (and then, only certain kinds of Christians) had any realistic expectation of salvation. We thought that getting everything “right” was essential, and that a particular set of beliefs about Jesus was indispensable. Catholics, for example, didn’t qualify. A common question we asked when doing reconnaissance work on a person’s faith: “Are you Christian or Catholic?”
You had to believe that your salvation existed as an inevitable contrast to the salvation of all those other people who didn’t know Jesus–which is to say, people of different religions . . . Muslims, Buddhists, Mormons, and Episcopalians. Moreover, all those who didn’t know Jesus found themselves the target of intense programs of proselytization.
You had to believe that lacking the correct anatomical appurtenances (namely, a penis) was a disqualifying characteristic for leadership. Women were “helpmeets.” Theoretically, women were equal to men in God’s eyes; they just had been given different responsibilities from men—perhaps not coincidentally the kinds of responsibilities men often thought beneath the dignity of maleness: cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing … and their churchly equivalents: organizing pot-lucks, preparing communion, and tending the nursery.
You had to be Creationist (or at least an advocate for “Intelligent design”), pro-life, and cultivate and enduring fear of the looming threat of “Secular Humanism.” We took seriously our responsibility for insulating ourselves the culture—or at least that portion occupied by us and our children—from the creeping influence of those things that would surely threaten to undo us, if given the chance.
You had to believe that America—and its capitalist economic system—were, if not specifically ordained by God, then at least God’s favorite expression of social and economic organization. Not only were we patriotic, we believed patriotism an essential aspect of Christian faithfulness.
The lines dividing Christian and American were semi-permeable, allowing for a great deal of leakage. We pledged our allegiance to the American flag, the Christian flag, and the Bible. We sang that we were “in the Lord’s army.” To have any doubts about one was to call into question one’s loyalty to the other.
You couldn’t drink, smoke, or swear. We were teetotalers. Being from the north, we held against smoking (our Southern “brethren” differed from us on this point). We didn’t cuss. If a person could refrain from these three big and obvious sins, that person had already traveled a good piece down the road toward salvation.
You had to abstain from all forms of sexual impurity. We found sexuality per se vaguely threatening. In fact, we obsessed over the threat of sexual transgression. Clearly, murder and robbery occupied elevated spheres of manifest wickedness; but since nobody we knew ever did anything quite that interesting, we had to satisfy ourselves with sexual immorality as the next best thing. Our preachers warned us against it in sermons. We had classes on how to avoid it at Christian Service Camp. Our parents gossiped about new occurrences of it after committee meetings. On balance, we paid more attention to sexual sin than any other category of iniquity.
You had to be suitably censorious about gay people. Not only couldn’t you commit—or even contemplate—sexual sin (see above), you couldn’t even approve of anyone who fell outside the normative borders of married heterosexual desire. We believed gay people were willfully aberrant malefactors who had made simply made bad choices—choices that we also believed they could unmake (given a spirit of repentance).
Interestingly, the way we used our money got very little attention. It’s not that we didn’t want to help the poor; it’s just that we were pretty sure that the poor found themselves impoverished in virtue of their inability to make good, solid choices. Poverty, I grew up believing, was an individual problem, not a systemic one—which meant that individual charity was a much more effective means of addressing it, than government programs.
As a minister, here’s what I’ve come to believe:
I bring all this up to point out that while these kinds of beliefs, to a greater or lesser extent, describe evangelical assumptions about what faith is, these assumptions are evangelical in nature—not necessarily Christian. Too much of evangelicalism misses the point of what it means to follow Jesus.
Christianity—at least as Jesus envisions it in the Gospels—expresses God’s longing for reconciliation with humanity, for a new realm in which humans regard one another as neighbors who deserve a kind of justice that will allow them to live in peace. One of the enduring themes of Jesus’ ministry centers on his continual aggravation with those of us who smugly think that purity of theology always supersedes the moral obligation to love our neighbor.
Jesus doesn’t say (nor do I) that theology is unimportant, only that theology isn’t an end in itself. We struggle with what we believe not so that we can feel satisfied that we’re right, but so that we’ll know how to live ethically. Christianity asks us to care about theology so that we can be better, so that we can love more so that we can serve more selflessly those who are too easily cast aside by people convinced being right is the only game in town.
A world caught in the grip of fear and hatred could use some Christians who are more concerned to live like Jesus than like those whom Jesus constantly accused of missing the point.
Related by Derek Penwell here on GMP:
We can’t always be sure what Jesus would do in pursuit of God’s reign of justice and peace, but there are some things we can be sure he’d never do.
We cannot live in perpetual fear of those whom God loves just as much as God loves us.
Photo credit: Flickr