Weekly Edgework #71 - November 8, 2005

Christianity on Trial

America is simultaneously the most professedly Christian of the developed nations and the least Christian in its behavior. That paradox... illuminates the hollow at the core of our boastful, careening culture. (“The Christian Paradox,” by Bill McKibben, Harper’s Magazine, August, 2005)

Since I am not a citizen of the United States of America, it could be argued that I have no business commenting on American culture, let alone American versions of Christianity. We have enough to talk about in my own Canadian back yard. That argument has some validity and I do, in fact, find myself writing more and more about faith and life on my home turf. But I consider myself to be a global Christian, and as such I think I am free to comment on faith and life issues anywhere on the globe, even in the most powerful nation on earth today.

I have lived in the United States for nearly four years and must say right at the outset that I have met many wonderful people there. People who are intent on fleshing out the gospel of Christ, often at great personal cost. I even have relatives on the Eastern Seaboard. So when I reflect on broad societal trends in America, what I say does not apply to all Amercians equally. Not all are in sync with or satisfied with the populist status quo.

Aside from a concern for how Christianity in America is perceived by the world at large, I have a more direct interest in what is happening across the 49th parallel to the south of me. And that is the fact that American Christianity is intent on exporting its version of faith and life, dumping it – tariff free – in my back yard. It is no secret that most books in our church libraries, for example, originate in America – including the paranoid novels of Peretti and Jenkins-LaHaye. And even more, American radio and television productions invariably find their way into our homes. We become what we consume, and I am afraid that too many sincere Christians in my back yard are jeopardizing their health by a steady diet originating in the heart of the South.

According to the Harper’s article quoted above, about 85 percent of Americans consider themselves to be Christian in one way or another. In spite of all disclaimers and caveats, that creates – at least in the eyes of the world – a place saturated by Christian identity. Yet 75 percent of Americans polled believe that the proverb, “God helps those who help themselves,” comes from the Bible, when in fact it originated with Benjamin Franklin. This fact is simply representative of a disturbing disconnect between a professed Christianity and the way life is lived on the ground, no matter what criterion we choose to focus on.

Take the Christian notion of giving aid to the poor, for example. Contrary to the popular perception flaunted around the world, Americans give less aid to the poorest people of the world per capita than nearly all other developed nations – 21 cents a day, including aid given by private charities. Secular countries like Sweden and Holland have no trouble doubling or tripling that amount. What message about Christianity does that give to the malnourished billions in the world?

Or for that matter, what message emanates from the fact that America is the most violent rich nation on the globe. Its murder rate is four or five times that of most European countries, for example. And there are at least six times as many Americans in prison per capita than citizens of other developed nations. America is the only Western democracy left that executes its own citizens, and most enthusiastically so in states where Christianity is supposedly the strongest. And America is at the top of the charts when it comes to divorce rates, teenage pregnancy, obesity, buying on credit and running up government deficits.

How can one explain this paradox - the most Christian nation of the world coming in dead last on almost every biblical criteria one can think of when it comes to actual practice? It seems that American Christians have largely “replaced the Christianity of the Bible, with its calls for deep sharing and personal sacrifice, with a competing creed.” It seems that their fascination with apocalypticism, as evidenced by LaHaye’s best selling Left Behind series, has created a distraction from the central biblical tenet of love of neighbor. And such distraction is only augmented by the focus of most megachurches in American suburbs on “how to get God to serve the demands of self-centered individuals.” It’s not that God is not interested in our personal concerns, but when that notion replaces or ignores “Jesus’ radical and demanding focus on others” Christianity is in danger of becoming “Franklinity” instead.

It is true that many American churches take care of their own – loving the neighbor in the next pew.

But if the theology makes it harder to love the neighbor a little farther away – particularly the poor and the weak – then it’s a problem. And the dominant theologies of the moment do just that. They undercut Jesus, muffle his hard words, deaden his call, and in the end silence him. In fact, the soft-focus consumer gospel of the suburban megachurches is a perfect match for emergent conservative economic notions about personal responsibility instead of collective action. Privatize Social Security? Keep health care for people who can afford it? File those under “God helps those who help themselves.”

Christianity is on trial. That could be said wherever Christianity is present, even in my hometown of Steinbach. But it is also true in “the land of the brave and free” – the United States of America. The world is watching and making its own judgment. Unfortunately hard evidence seems to indicate that the more “Christian” a nation proclaims itself to be, the less likely it is to demonstrate that on the ground. And as time passes it is increasingly likely that those taking note will say, “I know they are Christians, but I wish they were not!”