America has often been less than clear about its relationship with Christianity. On one hand, we claim to be a “Christian” nation. Yet, on the other hand, American culture itself, with an emphasis on individualism, self-reliance, self-sufficiency, and the pursuit of comfort, is often antithetical to Christianity.
It seems that the two are often at battle with one another and, as Alan Wolfe argues in The Transformation of American Religion, it’s not always clear that Christianity wins: “In every aspect of the religious life, American faith has met American culture - and American culture has triumphed.” And just in case he hasn’t been clear enough, he argues that: “the faithful in the United States are remarkably like everyone else.”
While America has certainly benefitted from Christians and claims to adopt general Judeo-Christian worldviews, it is sadly the case that Christianity in American often ends up looking more like America than making America resemble Christianity. What happens with many is that American Values/Patriotism become so enmeshed with their Christianity that they cannot tell the difference. We see this in such such silly things as states mandating schools emblazon “In God We Trust” across school walls. That is not Christianity, it’s authoritarian civic religion but frankly, many people can’t seem to tell the difference.
Many people have a certain set of cultural values that they confuse with Christianity. They engage in a culture war believing that they are fighting for Christianity when they are not. We’ve seen this most recently with Ted Cruz and others who argue that the Second Amendment is a “god-given right.” Ted Cruz and Alyssa Milano will soon be meeting to discuss this very idea (Shane Claiborne weighed in on Facebook). American culture is weird, man.
In 2018, “pastor” Robert Jeffress put this faulty understanding on display when he defended president Trump to NPR. Rachel Martin asks Jeffress to explain why/how Jeffress believes that Christians in America are actually persecuted. Read the exchange here:
JEFFRESS: Well, I think there are certainly ways in which they have been marginalized. And I mean, here's the question you have to ask yourself. I mean, why is it that, for the first 150 years of our nation's history, prayer in schools, reading the Bible, Nativity displays - all of those things were not only allowed but they were welcomed? But then suddenly, 70 years ago, the Supreme Court decides these things are unconstitutional. I ask liberals all the time, what changed suddenly?
MARTIN: It became more religiously diverse, the country.
JEFFRESS: What did - but did the Constitution change? No. The establishment clause of the First Amendment simply says Congress cannot establish a state religion. That's what it says. But somehow, that has been perverted and twisted into outlawing prayer and Bible-reading. That's what I'm talking about. That's the marginalization of Christianity. And I believe that's why evangelicals are rallying around this president who recognizes that marginalization.
Jeffress doesn’t specifically mention cashiers saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” or Starbucks cups, but he might as well. His explanation of why he believes that Christians are marginalized is that prayer and bible reading are not mandated in schools, and public Nativity scenes have been challenged. In other words, what Jeffress laments is not an attack on Christianity but on its preferred cultural position. Jeffress laments that Christianity is no longer the de facto cultural position of America. He doesn’t mention anything of substance and nothing he mentions is persecution or even marginalization. But he frames it in fear and as an attack on his beliefs.
He has confused his personal cultural preferences with Christianity. And he is not alone. Being a “Christian” country does not mean that we demand that everyone act the way we think and subscribe to what we call “traditional values.” Christians lay down their rights for the good of others. Yet, Cruz, Jeffress and their ilk do the exact opposite. They warn us that Muslims want to enforce Sharia Law while not seeing the log in their own eyes.
If these people really wanted people to think that America is a “Christian” nation, wouldn’t it be powerful if they were known for their love (John 13:35)? for clothing and feeding the poor (Matthew 25:31-46), caring for widows and orphans (James 1:27), for seeking to better our cities (Jeremiah 29), for bringing light and flavor to our communities (Matthew 5:13-16), for being Peacemakers (Matthew 5:9), who had no one remaining needy in the communities we built (Acts 4:34) and just generally tried to live at peace with everyone we could (Romans 12:18)?
In the meantime, we are facing vital times. If anything the tie of the Religious Right to Trumpism helps us understand who is pushing for Christianity and who just wants to keep a certain cultural position.