One: As I have argued elsewhere, the American Protestant church is a product of the American Revolution and has always been joined to it at the hip. Because I've made this argument before, I won't spend too much time with it here, but the long and short of it is this: The American church is a product of our national history and we are its homely, powerless, wanna-be twin sister.
In sorting ourselves out relative to the unpleasantness of 1776, we pulled down the charred remains of the bridge to the ancient church that was burned in the Reformation and invented a new one—stripped of mystery, stripped of a sense of itself, dependent upon the democratic process, and deeply imbedded in national affairs.
It is no wonder, then, that we feel most alive when we mirror one political party or another, attend national prayer breakfasts, send our national representatives to the White House, issue resolutions, or tweet our opinion about the way real Christians will vote. Have we "got God?" "You betcha'. I'm pretty sure that God has been hired by both candidates' Political Action Committees and will be telling us how to vote any day now."
Don't misunderstand: I have no problem with seeing the spiritual relevance of the political choices that we make. I am one of those who are convinced that, in fact, there may be very little to life, if anything, without spiritual significance of some measure. But judging from our vocabulary, the time we spend on things political, and the fact that we are prepared to trash the entire church in arguments over the latest bit of legislation out of Washington, plainly our emphasis on it is in the wrong place.
Yes, I know that we've defined politics as the management of our common life, and I know all the arguments about why Jesus was political. But God is and has been devoted to something larger than politics for quite some time now. Witness, for example, how many nations and empires that have blown away with the dust—or the complete lack of interest that Jesus exhibited in the fortunes of the Roman Empire and its taxes.
But because this is where we live, a conversation or encounter with God is secondary. And it shouldn't surprise us that most people find it is easier to just get a voter registration card.
Two: The second tendency in American church history has been a de facto love of deism. The influence of the Enlightenment's clockmaker God is, of course, stronger in some parts of the country than in others. And it has a complex role in American history.
Some of its advocates considered their position superior to that of Christianity. Thomas Paine, for example, has been characterized as an "Anti-Christian" deist. Others combined their deistic tendencies with church attendance, including Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and (more controversially) Washington.
Historians have also argued that deism is more or less a dead movement. But the tenets of Unitarianism, the odd website or two devoted to contemporary deism, the language of civil religion, and the rhetorical efforts of some Progressives to get around language about the Trinity and Incarnation suggest otherwise. Deism, like Gnosticism with its dualistic language, is one of those movements that don't really need a club or a school to continue asserting their influence.
It is as much a bent of mind as it is a discernable movement. And it is alive and well in parts of the Progressive church, but all you can do is talk about (not to) a God like that—and there's not really a lot to say.
Three: The third force dampening our ability to talk about an experience of God is something that ought to be positive, and it is to an extent: our seeker-friendly orientation.
This is nothing new (although you would think it is, to hear us describe it). Jesus was seeker-friendly. So was Paul. (Remember all that "Neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female" language in the Epistles?) In fact, the global presence of the church is due in large part to the trans-national, trans-ethnic appeal of the Gospel message. And while the church's apologetic has been offered in defense of its faith, that defense has also been shaped by a desire to render it accessible to those who have had their doubts.
The problem is that today's emphasis on welcoming seekers amounts to "say nothing that offends others—receive anyone and everyone as part of the family without requirements of any kind." In fact, the current approach is so amorphous that it isn't really necessary to talk to or about God at all. Tracking the same phenomenon elsewhere in the church, Paul McCain observes: