I have been thinking again about the mystery of American Christianity. I’ve been thinking about the Gospels, and the current political situation in America, and all the people claiming to stand up for Christianity. And I’ve come to some conclusions.
What I’ve been thinking is this:
You cannot serve two masters. Either you will hate one and love the other, or you will be loyal to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and mammon. But nothing ever calls itself mammon. Mammon always calls itself something else. All of the gods of the nations are idols, but idols never call themselves idols. Idols always call themselves gods. The word “ba’al” just means “lord,” after all. To worship the ba’als is not to consciously pray to a statue; it’s to call something God when it isn’t. When Aaron fashioned the golden calf, he didn’t say “here’s an idol for you.” He said “this is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” The Antichrist is someone who calls himself Christ.
One of the reasons we are called to live a life of continuous conversion is that we so often find ourselves calling something “God” that isn’t God. You have to keep converting, turning around, re-orienting back to the real God. Conversion is dynamic. Conversion is ongoing. Conversion is constantly returning to God when you’ve found yourself praying to a golden statue or an Antichrist. Some statues are more convincing than others. Some Antichrists do a talented impression of Christ. Some temples to Ba’al look an awful lot like cathedrals.
Christ was silent before His accusers. God is notorious for standing by quietly while others blame Him for all kinds of things. You can’t wait for a thunderbolt to tell you what is really God and what is an idol. You have to seek God. You have to accept that lots of things that look like God are not. And you have to keep actively seeking, even when you think you’ve found Him, because God is quiet and idols are loud.
It’s easy to fall into a form of Christianity that is actually idolatry, and that’s what American Christianity is.
When I speak of American Christianity, I’m not speaking of all Americans who are Christian. I’m speaking of a specific idolatry that I find here in America, an idolatry that surely resembles other idolatries that have cropped up in other places all over the world throughout history. I am speaking of a particular brand of idolatry that I see many American Catholics and most American Evangelical Protestants taking part in together, though the movement also comprises some Orthodox Christians and some members of mainline Protestant denominations as well– and even some professed nonreligious people who are useful to the Christians. Some of those idolaters are scrupulous regular churchgoers and many, particularly on the Protestant side, are not. The major figureheads of this religion are rich, but most of the idol worshippers are middle class or poor. Most of them are white, but a significant number are not. The movement is headed by men and deeply misogynistic, but many of its most fervent disciples are women.
This movement is directly opposed to Christ’s message as I read it in the Gospels, but it claims Christ as an excuse for anything it wants to do anyway.
I’m not an expert in how this particular movement got started. I could point to some factors, none of which I’ve noticed on my own but which I’ve begun to learn about from people much more knowledgeable than I am. I could tell you to look at the moving goalposts of whiteness in America, and how certain ethnic groups like the Irish and the Italians didn’t count as respectable Americans up until a certain moment in the 20th century, and then they did, and then their Catholicism was folded under the banner of “harmless respectable religion” instead of “weird foreign cult” in the American imagination, and they began to feel commonality with American Protestants in a way that Catholics from another part of the world wouldn’t. I can tell you about the efforts of the Republican party to solidify Catholic voters together with Evangelicals against the rest of the country under Richard Nixon by condemning feminists loudly. I could point to movements in American Protestantism like the Megachurches in Orange County, the absurdity of the so-called Prosperity Gospel and the turn inward toward accepting Christ as your personal savior instead of a focus on collective accountability and social sin. I could point to reactionary movements in the Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council. I could tell you about my own experiences in the Charismatic Renewal. What I know is that right now, in the country I live in, there is a dangerous idolatry calling itself Christianity while worshipping power and money. And you are accused of not really being a Christian if you don’t revere their idol.
Some people have concluded, from their experiences with American Christianity, that all of Christianity is idolatry and lies, a cynical power grab calling itself a faith. I’m not better than people who think that. I’m not special because I still love Christ. I’m just going a different way. I think Christ is really the Son of God. I think the sacraments of the Catholic Church are real and efficacious and the theology of the Catholic Church has beautiful truth to teach us. But there is also this terrible cancer which is a part of my experience of being Catholic in America. This sickness is real. It’s really the business of every Christian in America to understand it, to be converted, and to warn others about it. If we don’t do that, we sin. If we blow it off with “that’s not REAL Christianity, only Christianity that behaves nicely is Christianity,” and conclude that it’s not our problem, we deceive ourselves.
I don’t expect that every Christian, or even every Catholic, in America who denounces the cancer of American Christianity will agree on all of our theology and social teaching. I think the opposite will be true; we’ll be a motley bunch each considering the other silly. A lot of you probably think I’m a heretic and for all I know I am. But we can be untied on some things.
We can easily see the ways in which the Gospel and American Christianity are different.
We know that, in the Gospels, Christ was moved with compassion when He saw suffering people. But American Christianity tells suffering people it’s their own fault for not making wiser choices. A Christianity that busies itself with caring for our neighbors is like Christ. A Christianity that busies itself with scolding the helpless is an idol.
We know that the Christ of the Gospels talked to strangers, defended people in danger, and treated the marginalized gently. He saved His harshest words for people in positions of power and, usually, people within His own religious sect. He punched up, not down. But American Christianity punches down. It praises cruelty to desperate people and currying favor with the rich and comfortable. A Christianity that is gentle and understanding with the marginalized and relentless in pestering the powerful looks like Christ. A Christianity that does the opposite is an idol.
We know that the Christ of the Gospels meekly accepted His cross, forgave those who lynched Him and prayed for them. But American Christianity tells its disciples that they are in constant danger and they need to fight and attack everyone who isn’t just like them to protect themselves from the perceived threat. A Christianity that bears the Cross is like Christ. A Christianity that is militant because it’s afraid, is an idol.
These are just the first few of my thoughts on the matter.
You cannot serve both God and Mammon, and you cannot serve both Christ and American Christianity.
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy