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PerspectiveDiscussion of news topics with a point of view, including narratives by individuals regarding their own experiences
White Christianity is in big trouble. And it’s its own biggest threat.
By Charles Mathewes
Charles Mathewes is a professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, and a senior fellow at UVA's Miller Center.
December 19, 2017 at 6:00 AM EST
It’s that time of year again, when we hear about the profanity of “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” and about Starbucks’ covert “war on Christmas,” run through their seasonal coffee cups. Inevitably, President Trump has intervened, insisting that stores everywhere “don’t have Merry Christmas. They don’t have Merry Christmas. I want them to say, ‘Merry Christmas, everybody.'” Once again, we are awakened to the terrible assaults on the Christian heritage of our nation.
This year, however, it’s increasingly difficult not to notice that the main threat to Christianity in America comes from American Christians themselves.
Earlier this month, the Supreme Court heard a case from a baker who argued his Christian convictions led him to refuse to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. Last week, we witnessed the spectacle of white Christians in Alabama who convinced themselves either that the man they hoped to elect as their senator was not so creepy around young girls as to get himself banned from a mall (fact check: he was), or that the behavior that got him banned is actually biblical in character, and therefore okay (exegesis check: it isn’t). In the end, 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Moore.
When we’ve reached a place where good Christian folk think it’s a matter of major theological principle not to sell pastries to gay people but are willing to give pedophiles a pass, I think it’s safe to say that American Christianity today — white American Christianity in particular — is in a pretty sorry state.
It’s not just that a vocal segment of white Christians can’t tell righteous leaders from sexual predators and overestimate the power of baked goods to communicate spiritual messages; our failures are wider and deeper and more foundational than that. We’re remarkably ignorant of the history and the current state of the world we inhabit, and no better with scientific knowledge either. We don’t believe the media, but we’ll believe the most incredible Twitter rumor or Facebook post, curated for us by Vladimir Putin. We are surprisingly ignorant about religion, not only other people’s, but even our own.
But perhaps most importantly, white Christians seem unwilling to be guided by the plain truth of our shared faith. Instead of forming judgments about how to live our lives based on how our religious convictions interact with real-life circumstances, we pass off irascible reactions as theological principles. White evangelical Christians like guns, for example, and do not especially like immigrants. Compared to other demographics, we’re excited about the death penalty, indifferent to those who are impoverished or infirm, and blind to racial and gender inequalities. We claim to read the Bible and hear Jesus’ teachings, but we think poor people deserve what they (don’t) get, and the inmates of our prisons deserve, if anything, worse than the horrors they already receive. For believers in a religion whose Scriptures teach compassion, we’re a breathtakingly cruel bunch.
Indeed it’s hard to know who we do feel pity toward, except ourselves — for we believe that we are the real victims in today’s world. Those among us who are evangelical Christians are especially paranoid: While Americans overall are twice as likely to say there is more discrimination against Muslims than against Christians, the numbers are almost reversed for white evangelical Protestants. And apparently things are getting worse: the percentage of evangelicals who said that religious freedom in the U.S. declined over the past decade rose from 60 percent in 2012 to 77 percent in 2015.
There are many factors — historical, social and political — that have helped shape white American Christianity into what it is today. But when it comes to keeping us away from the core truths of our faith, I suspect this one error is key: Christians today seem governed by fear. Theologians as well as psychologists will tell you that there is a spiritual peril in acting out of fear and a sense of danger. Fear drives us into patterns of “reasoning” that are far from reasonable, but more akin to reactionary patterns of cause-and-effect. And fear moves us away from the core of Christianity — love. “There is no fear in love; but perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love,” says the first epistle of John.
The tyranny of fear in white Christian life is especially visible among white evangelicals, who stand out in their opposition to pluralism in America. While all other religious groups, like Americans overall, oppose letting small business owners refuse to serve gay and lesbian people — by margins of roughly two to one — white evangelicals, by 56 percent to 39 percent, say shopkeepers should be allowed to so discriminate. And Christians’ defensiveness is increasing: in 2012, 54 percent of white evangelicals supported giving preference to “traditional Judeo-Christian values”; that number rose to 76 percent in 2015. What’s true of white evangelicals is a leading indicator for white Christians as a whole. The fear of the future makes us, in Jesus’ words, strain at gnats while we swallow camels (Mt 23:24).
This is disastrous because, from the perspective of hope, in many ways our age represents an unprecedented opportunity for Christians. The collapse of Christendom over the past few centuries has created a potentially more egalitarian, authentic and pluralistic religious world. Serious relationships with members of other religious traditions, as well as atheists, teaches believers more about their faith than we would ever have otherwise known. Religious and secular human rights activists uncover the depths of our world’s suffering and pain and display more of God’s care for the oppressed, the marginalized, and the abused. The incredible tumult among ordinary churchgoers increases theological literacy in the pews, so that 500 years after the Reformation, Luther’s dream of a “Priesthood of all believers” is potentially closer than ever.
Ironically, it may well be that it is Christians’ fears about losing control of the culture that have accelerated the rise of secularism itself. (This has been an open secret in the sociology of religion for almost two decades.) Consider the rise of the “Nones” in American public life — those adults, especially younger adults, who when asked about their religious affiliation, say “none.” For decades that number was very low, but then it began to increase rapidly in the 1980s. Why was that? It seems to be caused by the tight alliance of Christianity, especially conservative white Christianity, with conservative politics over the past several decades — an association itself driven by prophesies of a rising tide of godlessness in America after the 1960s. Those prophesies about the 1960s were wrong; but they fueled the alliance of white Christians with right-wing politics from the 1980s forward, and that alliance has repelled many younger people from religion out of a distaste at seeing religion so eagerly bend the knee to short-term political gain. That is to say, Christians’ response to a misperceived crisis have become, in fact, a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Pope John Paul II, who most American Christians (even Protestants like me) would allow was a pretty good Christian, said in his first homily as pope, “Do not be afraid!” This remains useful theological advice. If we are Christians, we must believe that we are safer in God’s hands than in our own. We should take no care for the morrow, but preach compassion and mercy to all, without distinction. If we do that, they’ll know we are Christians by our love — rather than our fear.