Three American Religions Confused with Christianity
Recently I have been examining and critiquing an American religion called Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism (MTD). I have argued that many Americans who think they are Christians (disciples of Jesus Christ) are actually believing in and practicing a false religion. Anyone who knows the New Testament and Christian history well can immediately recognize how false MTD is. Of course there is truth in it; that is not the issue. Almost no religion is wholly false. Christianity is ethical but not a way of salvation based on moral endeavor. Christianity is comforting to those who are afflicted but not a belief system or way of life intended primarily to make people feel good. Christianity includes belief in a transcendent God but one who is intimately involved in nature, history and individual lives and who does sometimes act in special ways not explainable by natural causation.
Here I want to briefly examine and critique to other false American religions that are prevalent. They may overlap with MTD—just as hybrids of many world religions exist. Both, like MTD, are thought by their adherents to be Christian but are not. Both contain some seed of truth but are false gospels when relied upon for salvation (wholeness, healing, overcoming our spiritual brokenness and uniting us with God).
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
The second, after MTD, is Americanism. This is the religion that places America alongside God or confuses American with God as object of ultimate concern (to borrow Tillich’s term). The key to recognizing Americanism is worship of America. Of course, hardly anyone actually admits to worshiping America, but by “worshiping” here I mean “assigning ultimate worth to.” Idolatry is the essence of sin and, when practiced, leads to apostasy. Placing ultimate worth on America, which includes considering America irreplaceable in God’s program for bringing about his kingdom, is idolatry. Even where it is denied it sometimes appears implicitly in the words said, the songs sung, the loyalty given.
Christians ought always to be on their guard against idolatry and avoid even the appearance of it. Some versions of “American exceptionalism” constitute at least the appearance of idolatry if not idolatry itself. For example, believing that American has the right to violate universal ethical norms that no other country has the right to violate at the very least flirts with idolatry. It is an example of the religion of Americanism when it is based on belief that America is in some sense God’s kingdom, God’s chosen and favorite nation, a right object of devotion and supreme loyalty.
The third, after MTD and Americanism is “Christianity” that replaces doctrine and devotion with social justice. I have not yet decided on an appropriate label for this false religion, but you can no doubt think of one. Some would call it “progressive Christianity.” I don’t only because that is not sufficiently clear. But insofar as “progressive Christianity” means “Christianity” that replaces doctrine and devotion with social justice I consider it a false religion, pseudo-Christianity.Again, almost no one would admit to replacing doctrine and devotion with social justice, but some self-identified Christians and churches do just that. It appears in what is preached, what is not ever preached, what consumes the energy and attention of the individual or congregation.
Theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg rightly wrote that “There is a theologically superficial enthusiasm that makes involvement in social ethics a substitute for the substance of an uncertain faith. Such a position creates mistrust and hampers and delays progress toward Christian unity.” (The Church, 151) By “uncertain faith” Pannenberg meant belief about which one is not at all certain or confident. In other words, many “progressive Christians” have lost confidence in belief and therefore turn wholly or almost wholly to ethics—especially involvement in programs for (perceived) social justice. By “progress toward Christian unity” he meant fellowship among Christians and churches because those who substitute faith/belief with social justice often vilify those who do not conform to their vision(s) of justice.
The problem with this third false American religion is not concern for social justice; it is the replacement of doctrine and devotion with involvement in programs and campaigns for social justice that often include an implicit if not explicit socio-political ideology.
Christians, as Christians, ought to tie their social ethics inextricably with belief grounded in Scripture and tradition and devotion to Jesus Christ as personal lord and savior. Too often that is not the case with progressive Christianity (as described above).
Some years ago I read an interview with a nominee for a state high court who was asked if she thought being a Unitarian in a state populated mainly by Catholics and Protestants would be a negative for her confirmation. She literally laughed (as indicated by the interview reporter) and replied that (paraphrasing) “Everyone knows Unitarians are just people who consider liberal politics a religion.”
Now, no doubt some Unitarians will disagree with her, but many Christians will recognize some truth in what she said about her religion. The problem is that many Protestants (and some Catholics) also reduce their religion, ostensibly Christianity, to politics—whether of the right or the left.
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