Growing up in the Midwestern United States in the 1980s, I absorbed a very specific vision of Christianity. It was a Christianity that viewed the cultural revolutions of the late 1960s and 1970s as a catastrophe of immorality and a willful rebellion against God. It was a Christianity that dove head-first into national politics in order to change the country’s culture. It was a Christianity that rejected progressives like Jimmy Carter, and embraced conservatives like Ronald Reagan. Specifically, evangelical Christianity went all-in with political movements such as the Religious Right and the Moral Majority.
I was 11 years old in 1984, and I remember watching election night with my parents. The U.S. map was almost entirely red. Reagan won by a landslide, and my parents couldn’t have been happier. After all, they said Reagan was against abortion, wanted prayer back in public schools, was a fierce enemy of communists (who were all atheists), and wanted to make America a Christian nation again. As a young Christian with no access to any dissenting opinions about this vision, I thought it made perfect sense.
Today, American politics is still profoundly shaped by the formal coalitions of economic and social conservatism and Christianity. According to PewResearch Religion and Public Life Project, Mormons have the largest percentage of self-identified Republican and Republican-leaning voters (65% R and 23% D), and Evangelical Christians have the second-largest percentage (50% R and 34% D).
30 years have passed since that November evening in 1984. Since then, my political views have changed from conservative to progressive to…cynical and apathetic. The political and cultural divide in America is not new, but I believe it can be felt more viscerally now because of almost unlimited access to online information, 24-hour television news channels, and social media. We see (and now participate in) argument after argument after screaming argument. Nothing is accomplished without bloodying and humiliating one’s ideological opponents. This reality has made me cynical and apathetic about American politics and government.
This type of debate and “conversation” has crept into the divides that separate those of us who have faith in Christ. Again, this is not new; but it is seen, heard, and experienced more clearly in our hyper-connected world.
As I pondered these things, I thought about the term “American Christianity.” When I think of uniquely American characteristics (characteristics on which no political party has a stranglehold!), I think of individualism, personal responsibility, innovation, opportunity, and freedom. Can these values be applied, merged, and weaved together in a better way with principles taught by Christ? Can we find intersections of these values even with a strict, literal reading of Scripture? Surely we can do better than we have up until now. Below are my thoughts on these values; I hope they spark your own thoughts.
Individualism and Personal Responsibility. I see Christ’s Way as the way of love: love for God and love for others. It is my responsibility to love others, not to make others love me. If I want to see a world that is more loving, it starts with me being a more loving person. It is the call of each individual Christian to find this vision and apply it.
Innovation. How often, as Christians, (as human beings!), are we as innocent as serpents and as wise as doves! Jesus taught the opposite, of course. We have many miseries in our world, the world where we pray for God’s Kingdom to come. Take the issue of gun violence, for example. We have seen unprecedented horrors ever since Columbine, yet nothing has changed. Perhaps it’s time to stop yelling at our political opponents about solutions, and take a step back. What if we as a nation actually thought about the reality of these tragedies? What if we let the horrors of Sandy Hook sink deeply into our marrow? What if we took the time to mourn, as Jesus taught us to mourn? Perhaps we can be truly innovative in restoring and establishing Kingdom ideals if we practiced the foolishness of Christ, even if it looks like inaction.
Opportunity. Do you see injustice, suffering, marginalization, or poverty? Do you see people who are in need of love and connection? Whether you identify as a prophet or teacher, we do not lack for opportunity to share love. If anything, we have option paralysis.
Freedom. In Christ, I believe we have the freedom to be truly and uniquely ourselves. We have the freedom to seek understanding, to doubt everything–even to be faithless. (For he will remain faithful, because he cannot reject his own.)
These ideals are American ideals that both Christian Republicans and Christian Democrats can practice without compromising their own political convictions.
With these values in mind, let’s create and practice a Christianity that is uniquely American.