The Blind Spots of an American Evangelical

Collin Hansen’s new book Blind Spots has initiated a helpful conversation about what American evangelicals conventionally miss when their faith is defined by insular, America-intensive subcultures. I found especially instructive his interview with Gloria Furman about what she learned about blind spots as she has lived and ministered in Dubai.

We’re inevitably shaped by the culture in which we live. The incarnation also means that we can live a life fully pleasing to God in specific places and times. But we’re also constantly at risk of developing tunnel vision because of our culture, unwittingly letting bad theology and corrupt priorities degrade the biblical fidelity of our faith. Among American evangelicals, among the greatest risks are the influence of the prosperity gospel (God primarily cares about making you comfortable and prosperous) and the gospel of American patriotism (my Christian faith is inextricable from my identity as a Patriot, and probably as a Republican).

There are two primary experiences that help reveal a Christian’s cultural blinders. One is education in the Great Tradition of Christian learning. How much do your Christian priorities look like those of the apostles, Augustine, Calvin, Edwards, and other luminaries of the faith? We have to know the work and lives of those writers, preachers, and missionaries in order to be encouraged and corrected by them. This is why C.S. Lewis called the reading of old books “the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds.”

The second experience is exposure to the world church, and to missions around the world. Even if all you can do is to get to know international folks at your church, cultivating familiarity with the concerns of believers from non-American places can reveal your blind spots. We have dear friends at our church in Waco who are from Nigeria. They’ve told us that in the area around Jos, in central Nigeria, the weekly risks of terrorist violence against Christians shapes every Sunday. If no church gets attacked, it is a good Sunday. This certainly puts into perspective our selfish griping about our church’s problems!

As many readers know, we have just returned from a semester in St Andrews, Scotland. This is a pretty lightweight “cross-cultural” experience, yet we were still struck by the enormous differences in the church’s attitude toward Scottish and British culture than that of much of the American church. For example, there was no hint of nationalism blended with our church’s services, not even the week of the UK parliamentary elections.

There was no assumed choice politically in those elections, partly because there is so little pandering in British politics to practicing Christians. Practicing Christians are just too marginal to bother with them. Sure, candidates will occasionally make obligatory references to Britain’s Christian tradition, but the people at our church seemed to have no consensus about how UK Christians should vote.

Prayers for the elections were sincere yet modest. We prayed for those elected to be people of integrity and honesty, and that they would regard all people equally, including the poor. There seemed to be little notion that God planned to use the power of government as a primary means to accomplish the work of the Kingdom – at most, there was hope that politicians would ensure decent, fair government, and let the church be the church.

How different from the mood in so many evangelical churches in America! From dubious “Christian America” histories, to thinly veiled “voter guides,” we Anglo evangelicals send all kinds of messages, implicit and explicit, that getting Republicans elected will do something important for the work of the Kingdom. Yes, there are good reasons that we may end up defaulting to the Republicans on the basis of (promises made about) religious liberty, marriage, and abortion. But we American evangelicals need a big dose of circumspection about nationalism, politics and politicians.

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  • Don Bryant

    Usually I am not looking to Britain for clues about shaping a healthy Evangelical church culture. 🙂

  • David Parrish

    Good thoughts. I had similar experiences while I was working on my PhD in the UK for a few years. Since then I’ve moved back to the bible belt with what I think is a healthy new perspective. The downside is that I occasionally find myself being too critical of American churches which certainly isn’t the right response.

  • Michigan22

    That’sounds unfortunate, Don. Wherever you go, there is something valuable to learn if you’re humble enough. The church in western Europe, though small, often looks more like the kingdom of God than Americans think.

  • dmr5090

    Hey there Thomas, thanks again for sharing your thoughts. It provoked two or three of my own.

    I wonder if the frequency with which you see nationalism and the explicit, in-church tying of the gospel to politics is a function of living in Waco. I attend a seminary in Philadelphia as a student and, this is entirely anecdotal, but during the last presidential election, I went around asking my peers on election day whether or not they had voted. I asked ten people, and only one claimed to have voted. In every other case–without exception–when I asked why they had not voted, it was either out of fear of being identified with the “religious right,” or for making the mistake you rightly warn against in this piece–tying the gospel too closely to the political process. In other words, I suppose the danger you point out of mistaking political solutions for kingdom work is partly a function of where we live. In the northeast (and I’d imagine possibly also the Pacific northwest), the pressures strike me as different than what you describe. My own experience here has been that Christians could perhaps stand to gain from a heightened sense of civic responsibility and are too afraid to be labeled “conservative.”

    I confess, moreover, that I don’t see the two parties as equal alternatives for Christians (“vote Democrat if your conscience is more tender towards the poor; vote Republican if your conscience is more tender towards social issues”). It would seem to me personally that love demands a vote for conservatism, both economic and social. I know that’s not popular to say. And I don’t say it often, because I know how contentious it is. But for myself, a vote for a Republican isn’t for the sake of partisanship or towing the “Christian party line.” Rather, Christians I know who vote Republican do so because the Republican party is the only party that will, in certain corners, welcome economic and social conservatism.

    I wonder, also, whether or not the difference in posture you saw in the UK towards the political process was partly bound up with their heritage of Christendom, where the Church truly was in bed with power in scary (and ultimately harmful) ways. However influential the Church has been on American politics, though, the history seems different enough that I would expect different posturing towards the political process. Surely not that voting conservatively is our hope! (Though, voting conservative strikes me as wise precisely *because* the government is not the primary means of accomplishing kingdom work). I suppose the point is to sense that there is great responsibility that comes with the gracious gift of a vote. And while some churches (or parts of the US) may need the exhortation you offer above, I find that other churches (often in other parts of the US) may need just the opposite exhortation. Life is complicated…

    Thanks again for another helpful, thought-provoking post, brother!

  • john8

    I think I will agree with the idea that America is not as homogenous as portrayed in the article. Also the culture and church seem to change so quickly these days that stereotypes are not often helpful, at least for long.

    There are many Christians who are strongly supportive of Republicans, not for kingdom building but because they are pro-life. And to many Christians the continual murder of millions of helpless people is the defining cultural issue of our time, dwarfing all other matters of culture both politically and spiritually. Sure, many people are naive about politicians but would we have complained about Wilberforce’s passion for political endeavor at the time?

  • Thomas Kidd

    These are excellent points – the distinctions and challenges are not just country-based, are they?

  • bmayer504

    Twenty years ago, I decided that I could not in conscience be a Christian and belong to one of the two major political parties. Political parties are temporal and the Kingdom of God is eternal, the “already but not yet.” I have come to the conclusion that the best thing for American evangelicalism would be for American evangelicals to renounce the two major parties and so that they can speak prophetically on matters like race, economics, life, and family.

  • Danny

    I bet you’ll never hear good advice like this on Fox News. They make their money by whipping the faithful into a righteous, political lather.

  • When have Republicans ever done anything to defend religious liberty? I’m aware of them working to preserve Christian hegemony, but that’s not the same thing. Rather the opposite, in fact.


  • Timothy Weston

    Thank you for putting American Christianity into perspective. The reasons that you cite in your essay are among the reasons I left the evangelical movement. I like TRiG’s statement on hegemony as well.

  • Doug Barron

    I am not a Replublican. Though, I am Certianly not a Democrat. The Democrat party left all morals behind years ago, chasing the populist vote, which it indeed captured. We live in a very hedonistic culture today. Sad and tragic. I am called to discern as best I can, who is going to be the leader that will uphold the teachings of Jesus. Yes, the replubican party makes a facia attempt to do so. The TEA Party goes further in that direction. The Democrat Party, again, has abandoned the moral/ Evangelical ship. I don’t have to be a member of any party to make a moral, Holy Spirit filled decision as to who I vote for to represent me in our government. To be a follower of Jesus does not mean, be of a party, just be for our Father.

  • beebdeed

    As a Brit, I am surprised that you did not make more of the most obvious difference between churches in the UK and the USA, namely that here it is associated with left-wing thinking and attitudes whereas in the States it is with the right…….