Editors’ Note: This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Patheos community here.
Patheos has invited a number of us to write an end-of-summer post about what we find “most critical within our tradition” today (italics added), “the issue of greatest import.”
My tradition is Christianity – especially in its American form. I have been both all of my life. The most critical issue within American Christianity today as I see it? The co-optation of its most publicly visible face by an individualistic, self-oriented, exclusivist and entrepreneurial form of Christianity.
Individualistic: the Christian life is primarily about where we as individuals will spend eternity – heaven or hell. Or, in the prosperity gospel, how our lives as individuals will turn out in this life. In either case, what matters most are what we believe and how we behave as individuals.
Self-oriented: this is a direct and intrinsic corollary of the previous point. Christianity is about the eternal preservation of the self. Or the well-being of the self in this life. Or both.
Exclusivist: Christianity is the only way. That’s why people need to be Christian. Salvation – whether in the next world or this world – comes only through Jesus. That’s our product.
Entrepreneurial: the best-known American clergy today are those with mega-churches and/or television ministries. Most started their ministries themselves or inherited them from a charismatic founder. Many of them (most?) have not had a serious and sustained theological education. Many (most?) have not been ordained by a “brand-name” denomination. Entrepreneurial clergy succeed because they read the market well. And the market is seldom the way of Jesus.
This form of Christianity dominates Christian television and radio in America today. It is highly visible politically in the issues of “the Christian Right.” They are mostly about individual behavior, especially sexual behavior: abstinence teaching in sex education classes, no abortion, sometimes opposition to contraception, and of course defense of “traditional marriage.”
Beyond sexuality, the emphasis on individualism often leads these Christians to disregard and disparage “the common good” – as if “the common good” – what’s good for all of us and not just for a few of us – were a socialist or communist notion and not a biblical emphasis.
Also beyond sexuality: these Christians are most likely to support the use of overwhelming military power to counter any perceived threat to the United States. They were the demographic group with the highest approval (84%) of launching – starting – the war in Iraq in 2003. Most of them also unconditionally support the use of Israeli military power in Gaza and more broadly to control Palestinians living on what was once their land.
If the most public form of American Christianity were Christianity, I could not be Christian. I have a friend who frequently asks me, “How can you be Christian?!?!” I tell him: “I know that I live in the belly of the beast – and I still want to try to change the beast.”
What is at stake is what might be called “the soul” or “heart of Christianity.” Is it about my doing well in this life and/or the next? Or about so much more? For me, it is about so much more. For it to be less than that would be a betrayal.