The Coddling of the American Church: Division, Conspiracy Theory, & Truth Decay in America, Part #4

The Coddling of the American Church: Division, Conspiracy Theory, & Truth Decay in America, Part #4 January 17, 2021

I’ve gotten some wildly different readings & responses to this series so far. I’m encouraged by some of the response; but frankly frightened by some of it. The most violent reactions come from solid citizen church folk. Allow me to parse this insight for a moment…

Some of the negative pushback come from those on the Right, many of whom are Trump supporters and some of whom are actively engaged in propagating dubious claims about the election and so forth. Some Christians take it personally to be asked to consider whether or not our Leaders have been engaged in perpetrating lies. Some even suggest–even in January 2021 that President Trump is not only the greatest President of their lifetimes, but perhaps (always after Lincoln) the greatest in our entire history.

By way of comparison: some of the positive feedback originates in some readers’ desire to humiliate, punish, and perhaps even destroy their political enemies. These readers would take the absolute opposite tack on Donald Trump: he is BY FAR the worst president in US history. Many of these are also Christians, who have concluded that “Jesus Is Not a Republican and Christianity Is Not Nationalism.”

That contrast should cause any reasonable reader some pause. Take a moment and let that sink in. Speaking of Lincoln near the end of the Civil War, he wrote these words: Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. Sound familiar?

I’ve been reading David French’s timely new volume, Divided We Fall. In it, he shows some of the many ways that our nation has become so deeply rancorous and even hateful toward one another. After the election in November, a report in the Wall Street Journal put it this way:

If it feels like Republicans and Democrats are living in different worlds, it’s because they are. There are few places left in America where one tribe of voters is likely to encounter the other. Predominantly white, rural areas are solid Republican; urban areas are dominated by Democrats.

Sadly, as French shows, the church is not one of those places where the “two tribes” can encounter each other, possibly even learn to respect and love one another. Too bad. I seem to recall a saying about the Kingdom being like a dragnet, that pulls up all sorts of fishes… (Matthew 13:47)

To get back once more to the Coddling of my title: this separation of tribes, and the lack of mixing among political and religious tribes, is a vital function promoting the Coddling of the American church. Truth-telling requires that we weigh and balance the very best arguments from our opponents and/or interlocutors. We are being coddled by simply avoiding any source that might push back against any of our held truths. This is a seriously depraved life of the mind, folks.
I want to situate my remarks about Coddling in the Church by invoking the Ten Commandments of Exodus. Specifically, the ninth: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Notice that lying here is always in the context of our neighbors. My late father’s pet peeve, I think, was when someone lied to him. I’m afraid he passed this peeve on to me, his oldest son.
First: Conspiracy theory is highly disruptive to ideas in society about the availability of Truth. In particular, when we spin or advance false narratives/ charges against people, we do them harm. The Amplified Bible puts it this way: “You shall not testify falsely [that is, lie, withhold, or manipulate the truth] against your neighbor (any person).” So beware of “manipulating” truth, and circulating falsehoods–like on Facebook. One of my many fears at present is how cavalier many fine Christians have become with matters of historical truth. Our treatment of Truth is so important that it got listed in the Big Ten of Exodus.
Second: the 9th Commandment seems rather simple, but a whole chapter could be written about its unspoken requirements. Here’s how the Westminster Larger Catechism articulates the full task of the 9th Commandment:
The duties required in the ninth commandment are, the preserving and promoting of truth between man and man, and the good name of our neighbor, as well as our own; appearing and standing for the truth; and from the heart, sincerely, freely, clearly, and fully, speaking the truth, and only the truth, in matters of judgment and justice, and in all other things whatsoever; a charitable esteem of our neighbors; loving, desiring, and rejoicing in their good name; sorrowing for, and covering of their infirmities; freely acknowledging of their gifts and graces, defending their innocency; a ready receiving of a good report, and unwillingness to admit of an evil report, concerning them; discouraging talebearers, flatterers, and slanderers; love and care of our own good name, and defending it when need requireth; keeping of lawful promises; studying and practicing of whatsoever things are true, honest, lovely, and of good report. (Emphasis added; footnotes omitted.)
So finally: is it too much to ask that we slow down, take a breath, and consider the brilliant advice of French in one of his columns last summer in The Dispatch: “Unless the church can address its deep and more fundamental failure of moral and theological instruction in politics, many of its leaders and thinkers will continue to pay whack-a-mole with the symptoms of the underlying disease. And make no mistake, conspiracy theories represent one of those symptoms. After all, what is a conspiracy theory but a lie? It comprehensively and grievously violates the Ninth Commandment. A conspiracy theorist bears false witness against his neighbors—against his fellow citizens. He accuses them of grievous sins, he destroys their good name, and he can even incite deadly violence.”
And what’s the disease? Well, part of it is we are passing on lies and false history when we engage in Conspiracy Theory. But the bigger disease of which it is just a symptom is this: we are eagerly allowing ourselves and our churches to be Coddled… about which, more is on the way!
Photo by Lee Scarratt on Unsplash
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