What makes us uniquely Christian? Is it our practice of Christianity in an American context? Or is it our Wesleyan expression of Christianity within the American setting? Perhaps, as many have said, the nation-state now colors everything. Christianity, as we have come to practice it in 2017 is indistinguishable from its original form. Diluted in the murky waters of time, money, denominationalism, politics, and well-refined American theologies, Christianity in America appears less and less Christian. We bear little resemblance to those who first took the name in Antioch, Syria.
We invoke the name of a God (assumed to be the Judeo-Christian deity), we pray, we worship, and we serve those in our communities. However, the 50/50 split that divides America politically separates many congregations. Evangelical churches refuse to recognize the validity of their liberal colleagues. I’ve witnessed this in my own community. Christianity is diffused into hundreds of tiny, easily manipulated definitions of what it means to believe in Jesus Christ. As such, a new language is created, spoken only by the self-appointed defenders of the faith. Those who speak these languages exist on the right and the left of the theological and political spectrum. Neither group has a desire to understand or listen to each other. Some, on the left, emerged from the evangelical right. They bemoan their former stupidity and how they were so slow at not “getting” the message. They regularly implore their fellow evangelicals to jump ship. Those on the right are comfortable with their positions. God seems to be on their side. After all, didn’t God put their guy in the White House?
The man who prayed at the inauguration certainly thought so. People I’ve met with since then have held the same opinion, God (the Christian one), is invested in the success of America’s government. Since the Pilgrims arrived, we’ve operated under the idea that God had a special place in God’s heart for the people who lived in this country. From moment one, our goodness and our God-ness became inseparable. Our Christianity was part of who we were as a free people. Pretty soon, given the religious language in the founding documents and the frequency with which the founders quoted the Bible, it became hard to talk about America without also mentioning God or Christianity. Everything seemed like a natural fit. That was until people started coming to America, took their words about religious freedom seriously, and began to use their own faith languages. After all this time, we’re once again at an impasse. There seems to be only on way to talk about Christianity.
Here’s the thing though: those guys who were also big on talking about God, were also huge on using God to justify human bondage. Even the so-called “enlightened” ones like Thomas Jefferson). There were some critical areas where they didn’t see the big picture as it relates to God. Yet, they were really adept at looking at how God would view and bless their own narrow self interests as landowners.
Maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t a good idea to bind up America’s identity with Christianity in the first place. What if, for Lent, we started giving up some of the America in American Christianity? Strip out the America like we’re removing old shag carpet from a room we’re trying to renovate! What might that look like? Would it be unrecognizable from the shimmering little white church I’m serving now? I hope so. Would it be devoid of racist and anti-Semitic references in scripture, prayer, and theology? You bet. Would it allow Jesus’ words to speak for themselves without trying to make them fit every first world problem we encounter? You know it.
The Rev. Richard Lowell Bryant serves as pastor of Ocracoke United Methodist Church on Ocracoke Island in North Carolina's Outer Banks. He blogs at Richard's Food for Thought, from which this post is republished with the author's permission.