It ought to confuse and convict Christians in America that no one can agree if America is or is not a “Christian nation.” Of course different people mean different things by the term but many argue that if ever a nation has displayed Christian virtue to the world, it is the United States of America. One Nation under God. After all, over 70% of our population claim to be Christians.
The very fact that the debate is debated should throw serious shade on those claiming that we are somehow a nation of Christians. Or even primarily Christians. Jesus said that we would be able to tell who loves Him(John 14:21). We have a Jude0-Christian ethic that was adopted by our founders but they intentionally shied away from establishing a state religion and this includes Christianity. This Judeo-Christian ethic provided the framework for many of our core values as citizens. All men are created equal, etc.. But this is not the same thing as saying that we are a nation of Christians.
In fact, the relationship between the Christian faith and American culture has been tenuous at best and strenuous most of the time, each pushing against the other, each trying to convert the other. Both are highly influential and adaptable. While it might be theoretically possible for both systems to exist side-by-side without changing one other, that’s not how it seems to have worked itself out.
America’s belief system is built on the idea of pulling yourself up by the bootstraps to success. It is intimately intertwined with consumerism, the pursuit of comfort, the right to property and free market tendencies. It is built on the idea of self-reliance and a good dose of morality and sadly sometimes, moral superiority.
Alan Wolfe considers the relationship between Christianity and American culture in his book, The Transformation of American Religion. “In every aspect of the religious life,” he writes, “American faith has met American culture-and American culture has triumphed.”
That is to say, views certainly shape one another and in Wolfe’s opinion, American culture has won out over Christianity, at least for the majority who claim to be Christian. In fact, the burden of Wolfe’s book is to suggest that, for all the religious rhetoric, professing people of faith, including Christians, are remarkably just like everyone else: “Whether or not the faithful ever were a people apart, they are so no longer,” he says. He goes on to give a bit more insight into his meaning:
More Americans than ever proclaim themselves born again in Christ, but the lord to whom they turn rarely gets angry and frequently strengthens self-esteem.
To people of faith, I say this: . . . your religion has accommodated itself to modern life in the United States.
How is it then that so many people in America claim some version of Christianity while living just like everyone else? It seems that, after having marinated in American Culture, many people who claim to be Christians have actually drifted away from Christianity altogether, coming up instead with something completely different. Sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton have called this new brand of faith “moralistic therapeutic deism”.
In their 2005 book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton examined the actual, daily-way-we-live faith of teenagers as it has been handed down to them by their parents and their churches. Smith and Denton found that the key distinctives of this strand of faith were as follows:
- A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
- God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
- The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
- God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
- Good people go to heaven when they die.
This set of beliefs is markedly different than Biblical Christianity but fits quite nicely with the predominant American approach to life, giving credence to Wolfe’s assertion that, when pressed, we must admit that, at least for the most part, American culture has transformed the practice of Christianity in America into something else. Something somehow less. Less potent. Less dangerous. Less sacrificial. More commercial. More self-centered.
In fact it seems quite plausible to argue that Moralistic therapeutic deism has become, for many, synonymous with “Christianity”. The term has been back-loaded with a different meaning and the result is that many people who may mean markedly different things using the term, can all call themselves “Christian” without being questioned. This is so much the case that “preachers” like Joel Osteen quite intentionally steer away from the Bible’s themes of sin and judgment, instead promising that we can have Our Best Life Now if we just live right and think happy. This is not Christianity.
Moralistic therapeutic deism has become the default American version of “Christianity”. This is certainly not to say that there are not people striving to faithfully follow Jesus in America. But they are rarer than we would like to believe. This helps explain why over 70% of Americans profess to be “Christian” and yet Christianity’s influence is so barely seen in our culture. Because Moralistic therapeutic deism has as much to do with Biblical Christianity as “American Cheese” has to do with cheese.
Since Moralist therapeutic deism is not Christianity, we are left with confusion and contradictions between what we as a nation claim to believe and how we actually live. Stephen Colbert has no problem pointing out the inconsistencies:
“If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”
The real issue, of course is that when a good many Americans say they are “Christians”, they really mean “One nation united under moralistic therapeutic deism”. Though we use the word “Christian”, we don’t mean Biblical Christian. We mean good, moral people, who do our best for ourselves (first) and maybe others; we’re generally nice people with God on our side. So to answer Colbert: of course we don’t help the poor because our faith doesn’t require it. Our faith is centered on personal contentment/fulfillment. We may help others when we feel like it but our faith doesn’t necessarily demand lives of sacrificial love. It’s enough, after all, that we attend a worship performance, show our faith by our bumper stickers and thank God for the good parking spot at the mall. This certainly helps explain why some get mad about coffee cups but not social injustice.
This is a critical time for those in America who really do want to follow Jesus. The name “Christian” has been co-opted and commercialized. What are we going to do about it? There are, of course, many people in America who are striving to live everyday life with the intentionality of following Jesus. There are certainly churches helping the poor. There are churches seeking social justice and promoting adoption and foster care. There are, of course, churches welcoming refugees and blessing others with the blessing of Jesus. But sadly, these churches seem to be the minority while countless others have simply confused Therapeutic Moralistic Deism with what it means to follow Jesus.
Jesus said that you will know His people by their fruits (Matthew 7:15-20). He also said that you can tell who really loves Him by who keeps His commandments (John 14:21). James said that if we claim to have faith but don’t back it up with our deeds, our “faith” is worthless (James 2:14-26) and John said that if we claim to love God but don’t love others, we’re liars (1 John 4:7-21). Biblical Christianity teaches that, though our works cannot make us right with God, they are the evidence of a life transformed. They are the fruit of the seeds of faith. Being a blessing to others is a fundamental part of what it means to be God’s people (Genesis 12:1-3; Jeremiah 29:1-9; Matthew 5:13-16, etc.) and if our faith isn’t made manifest in sacrificial love to others, we’d better question the real object of our faith. If we as a nation don’t love and serve the “least of these,” we’re not a Christian nation.
We have chances in front of us everyday to help others distinguish between Christianity and Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. The sheep and goats will not fully be separated until Judgment but for now, those who love Jesus can help others understand what this truly means by feeding the hungry, welcoming strangers, clothing the naked, caring for the sick and incarcerated (Matthew 25:31-46), caring for widows and orphans (James 1:27), etc.
Though we should definitely be clear in our preaching and doctrine to distinguish Biblical Christianity from “American Christianity” (Moralistic Therapeutic Deism), we also have the the responsibility to not just declare but demonstrate the difference. Biblical Christianity should look like love in action (1 Corinthians 13; 1 John 4). Biblical Christianity always points to Jesus rather than self. Biblical Christianity not only proclaims redemption but strives to demonstrate it. Following Jesus means loving others, seeking peace and reconciliation while admitting that we can only seek these things when Jesus enables us to do so.
Will we finally admit and demonstrate that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is not Christianity? The world is watching. What will we show them?