America the Unbeautiful (The Short Version!)
As I find myself inundated with political campaign ads and propaganda from both of our major political parties overloading my senses and my brain lately, it has been hard not to ponder on the state of Christianity in America and how American ideals and American politics have crept in to our religion. I see that the more I look at the situation, the more striking parallels that I find between what churches in the United States are pitching and what our American ideals and values are. America is the land of the self-made man, the rugged frontiersman, and the enshrined rights of the individual. This, I think, has spilled over naturally into our theology. Whereas the Puritans brought Reformed orthodoxy to the New World, by the time of the birth of our nation, the newly founded United States wasn’t really Christian. It more closely resembled the Deism of the Enlightenment than orthodox Christianity. The movement from the original Puritan settlers to the Deism and Unitarianism that ruled the day in the late 18th century is easily traced and observable from an historical study of the topic. But then again, as we will see, Puritan orthodoxy doesn’t really jive with American values and ideals.
Our doctrines that are prevalent in 21st century Christianity may be somewhat closer to orthodoxy than the Deism of the enlightenment in many ways, but in most cases they still aren’t orthodoxy. In many cases, they’re outright Pelagian, enshrining the rights of the individual. The result is that now we have less of a communion of saints and more of a collection of sovereign choosers. We truly have degenerated into a counterfeit version of Christianity that is of the people, for the people, and by he people - something much more in line with American values than with biblical Christianity.
One common myth that we must dispel from the outset is that the United States was founded by a bunch of Christians. That idea is just not true. Thomas Jefferson was a deist, Benjamin Franklin coined the popular phrase “God helps those who help themselves,” which is completely against the Christian Gospel, and John Adams, our second president, spoke about “this awful blasphemy,” regarding the deity of Christ. To be sure, there was some respect for Judeo-Christian values, but the founding fathers as a whole were not Christians. Historically speaking, we ought not be deceived that the founding fathers were a bunch of believers seeking to glorify God.
So what American dogmas have crept in to Christianity in the United States? If we backtrack to some traditional American ideals, we certainly can see that one of them is the personal rights of the individual. How does this manifest itself in professing Christians? Very simply put, many people confuse the enshrinement of individual freedom with biblical theology. One of the most central Christian dogmas in America is freedom of choice; or free will, if you will. While this piece is not a rant against free will and is not intended to be a Calvinist deriding Arminianism, I do believe that American ideals in this area have severely tainted the theological ideas of many professing American Christians. No matter what a person’s stance on human freedom, biblical Christianity emphasizes through and through the primacy of the grace of God and the finished work of Jesus Christ. Professing American Christians, however, are quick to defend their right to choose. But what about God’s right to choose? It seems that He gets lost in the matter most of the time while the will of the individual gets made into the central dogma. It becomes all about me and my choice instead of God and His grace. No matter what view of the will a person holds to; any way you slice it, it’s not the central dogma in Christianity.
This view not only perverts our theology but trickles into every area of Christianity. Instead of preachers standing tall in the pulpit and proclaiming God’s one-sided divine rescue from sin and death, many of them appeal to human activity. To be sure, human activity is involved. It takes a person proclaiming and a person to respond, but when the methods become geared towards an appeal to freedom of choice, the methods end up being decidedly humanistic. Salvation itself, which Scripture proclaims is an act of God, is turned into the proper use of exhorting, appealing, and means. Now salvation ends up being dependent on the preacher guiding people through the proper methods. Looking back through American history regarding Christianity, the second awakening was the result of such ideas. Led by men such as Charles Finney, traditional Christian doctrines were thrown to the wind and persuasive techniques and unbiblical inventions that assumed personal freedom rushed to fill the void. But it should be no wonder to us that this has happened and continues to happen, since these are the values that American democracy has instilled in us. No matter if a person is politically liberal or conservative, we’re all Americans and we’re all affected by the culture in which we live. Conservatives argue continually regarding the second amendment and our right to bear arms while liberals appeal to the woman’s right to choose in the area of abortion. God, however, is not running a democracy. At least that’s not the kingdom - or King - described to us in Scripture. Americans favor a God, like our president that we can elect; not a sovereign King who is infinitely freer than us who elects His own. That idea doesn’t jive with American ideals. No wonder people get defensive when you tell them you hold to the biblical doctrine of election. It goes not only against our American ideals, but against our fallen nature that craves autonomy and control - even over God. We’re Americans; we demand our right to choose!
Fast forward to 20th and 21st century America and we find many of the same ideals that the country was founded on, but we find some new ones that have crept in. The first one that is worth addressing is consumerism. Consumerism seeks to pitch Jesus Christ and the Gospel as a product to be peddled, including the proper sales pitch. The aforementioned Charles Finney once quipped that “A revival is not a miracle, or dependent on a miracle in any sense. It is a purely philosophic result of the right use of means.” Pastors and evangelists end up looking more like businessmen than ambassadors of grace. So much for the Gospel being the power of God for salvation as Scripture tells us. We Americans are shoppers. We try product after product and are inundated with commercial pitches to buy one thing or another. Why not use this approach with Christ? Try Jesus! You might end up liking Him and what he offers. You can just try something else later if you don’t like Him. How much different is this from our core American ideals really? Not so much, I would argue. Constructing Jesus as a product is yet another attempt to persuade the chooser by painting the commodity in the best light. Dress Him up the best you can and more people might choose Him seems to be the reasoning. Even professing Christians treat churches like products. How often do you hear of someone going “church shopping?” If you don’t like the music at one church, no problem. Just find another one. Evangelicals are notorious for that. But what of God’s methods? What about the method he has prescribed in Scripture? Romans 10:5-17 is a much better method than what the modern evangelist offers. Gimmicks are for the birds, but God’s Word never returns void (Isaiah 55:11). The problem in American Christianity is not our lack of pitching Jesus in the best consumerist fashion, but that our Gospel is human centered. We’ve managed to reverse everything, kicking God out of His throne room and anointing ourselves as the true sovereigns. Contrary to consumerist Gospel, Jesus does not need to be justified before the unbeliever; softened to something other than God and painted in a light that appeals to shoppers at a mall. On the contrary, it is the sinners who stand naked and wretched before God who need to be justified.
The final topic I would like to touch briefly is the specifically American ideal of self-esteem. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness right? Another major deviation from Christianity is the self-esteem Gospel. Robert Schuller is probably its most well-known proponent. The very popular Joel Osteen also teaches a form of this type of Gospel, combined with the prosperity and health and wealth teaching. Granted, we ought not view Jesus as a massive buzz kill because He’s not. He doesn’t come to make us dreary and glum. Nevertheless, Jesus Christ’s main purpose was not to come to Earth in human flesh to make us happy and feel good about ourselves. He came to save sinners. Yet, in America, our right to choose mentality manifests itself in another manner. Namely, many of us make decisions based on how happy something will make us. What’s in it for me, we ask. If it isn’t useful (consumerism) it better make us happy and make us feel good about ourselves (self-esteem). But then, what message can possibly be better than the message of salvation by grace alone via the work of Jesus Christ? What message can possibly be better than one that tells us how we, condemned sinners, can be right with God?
So tell it like it is. The Gospel is offensive to the unregenerate, but it is the method God Himself has given us. People have too much sinful pride (don’t we all?) to want to hear that they are wicked and condemned because they are sinners, and that God Himself must rescue them apart from their best human efforts. It’s not our Gospel to change, meld, or dress up to suit the needs of the listener by way of appealing to their preferences in order to allow the sovereign chooser a better chance to accept Christ. It doesn’t work that way. We preach, the Holy Spirit gives life, and sinners are united to Christ. God’s method is the best method. After all, it’s a safe bet to say that God probably knows a little bit more in this area than we do. It is His work and His Gospel. It’s dangerous to change it and the result is a whole bunch of false American Gospels.
It’s difficult to get our culture and ideals out of our religion, because we are in some senses products of our culture. But we must. God defines the terms and He is gracious enough to tell us how to spread that news and the means of grace He uses to save His people. Matthew 28:18-20 and Romans 10:5-17 is a great start. For the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16), not the power of man unto self-salvation. For our God saves.