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Wednesday
Apr222009

Good News! — the End of “Christian” America

The April 13, 2009 issue of Newsweek proclaims “The Decline and Fall of Christian America.” Editor Jon Meacham, who describes himself as “an observant (if deeply flawed) Episcopalian,” wrote the cover story. Meacham is an intelligent, articulate Christian. While many in the media don’t seem to get religious issues, Meacham does.

His title, “The End of Christian America,” is intended to be provocative. “This is not to say that the Christian God is dead, but that he is less of a force in American politics and culture than at any other time in recent memory.” He goes on to say, “While we remain a nation decisively shaped by religious faith, our politics and our culture are, in the main, less influenced by movements and arguments of an explicitly Christian character then they were even five years ago.”

I must confess that when I read the article my first response was, “This is good news!” It brought to my mind a darker day and a brighter day in the history of Christianity. The first century was a dark time in terms of the oppression of God’s people. The ruthless Roman Empire saw the emerging Christian church as a threat, so Rome used its vast resources to destroy the church. And yet, it was a bright day. The message of Jesus Christ was being planted in the fertile soil of the Roman Empire and it was growing at a phenomenal rate—so much so that Paul declared, “All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God's grace in all its truth” (Colossians 1:6). Imagine that! First century Christianity had no designs to influence the politics of Rome. It never entered the minds of those early believers to grasp for political power or status. Yet Rome feared them as they followed Jesus Christ.

As time passed Rome lost her fear of the Jesus followers. Constantine neutralized the threat. He did so my making Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire. What followed was the bastardization of the faith. Rome did not suffer from the marriage of the church and political power, but the church did. The corrupted church persecuted and killed would-be reformers. In its use of power and violence the church looked like the state, for it learned corruption, coercion and violence from the state as it became the spokesman for the state. And we have never been the same.

Constantine is alive and well. There are still those who believe that the best thing that could happen would be for this nation to become a Christian nation by the use of political power. As they have worked to this end, the results have been disastrous for Christianity. The faith of the New Testament has been confused with and co-opted by American nationalism. Instead of the powerful voice emanating from the Sermon on the Mount, we have a westernized version of Christianity that replaces love with personal freedom as the highest human value. This enables us to justify a whole range of actions that are precluded by the Great Commandment given to us by Jesus Christ.

So the new surveys saying that Americans are falling away from Christianity actually give me hope. You see, I don’t think Americans are rejecting New Testament Christianity. I think they’re rejecting something else. They are rejecting the unholy union of Christianity and nationalism. They are rejecting a faith that just doesn’t ring true. That’s good news!

But this good news comes with a huge challenge. The church is going to have to pull down some idols so that we can clearly proclaim the message of Jesus Christ. Pulling down idols is never popular. But it must be done. The red, white and blue cross will never satisfy. The cross as coercion will never satisfy. The cross as a justification for our way of life will never satisfy. That’s the problem with idols. They just can’t deliver for us.

There’s a new wind blowing. There are a number of Christians, particularly younger Christians, who want to make a difference. They’re rejecting the marriage of Christianity and __________ (fill in the blank). They want a faith that is genuine. That genuine faith—the faith of primitive Christianity—will be a threat to the right and the left. (You won’t hear it proclaimed on Fox News or Air America!) That pure faith will not be co-opted by those who use religious language but still bow down to the idols of power and ideology.

What if…(dream with me for a moment)…what if a new generation is rejecting the perversion of New Testament Christianity? And what if this allowed them to see Jesus? Wouldn’t that be good news? But a huge question remains. Can the church rise to the challenge of proclaiming the good news in a world that still loves Constantine more than Jesus?

Reader Comments (2)

Right on, brother!

That is the good thing about the Emergent Church movement. I think that they want faith to be pure and unadulterated, which is really important to me. And while sometimes I feel they don't place as much as an emphasis on some things as they should, they very well could be the future of the church. I think that your comments about Christianity and politics mixing really hits at the heart at many people's disdain for Christianity.

April 26, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAustin B.

Phil,
It seems to me that whenever we have used political power to try to further religion, we have focused on regulating people's behavior (thou shalt not). This tended to give Christians the image of being strict, holier-than-thou, and angry at those who didn't believe properly. The more I listen and study, I find that Jesus wanted our hearts and lives to reflect his love, not bind our heads and bodies to words and laws.
The writings of Paul have often been used to justify some of the behavior laws and rules that are designed to constrain others or protect ourselves from differing opinions. As I read more of Paul's actions and words in Acts and his letters, I find that he was excited to share the good news that God wants and accepts "even me" to join in his kingdom. Paul also seems to be saying that the joy to be found in sharing God's love is beyond the safety found in trying to follow laws, rules, and regulations, and that we shouldn't try to force others to fit into our perceptions of God.
I hope that this refocusing of the Church on living the Word will help those who claim to be spiritual but not religious know the joy that Jesus offers.
Peace.

May 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Shaw

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