As Americans who have lived for the past eight years in the not-so-pro-American climate of Western Europe, my wife and I decided to approach our summer vacation in the States not just as an opportunity to visit family and picturesque natural scenery, but as a chance to “rediscover” America.
And as Christians who love to visit churches on our travels around the world, a sub-theme of sorts of our summer was encountering American Christianity — especially at a time when the international reputation of our own evangelical community is in tatters thanks to its association with Trumpism.
To see as much of the United States as possible, we drove 4,685 miles in our rental car across four time zones and nine states, from Indiana to California.
At a gas station in rural Nebraska, an employee heard my kids’ English accents and asked, “Where are you folks from?” My wife explained that we live in England. The man then asked, somewhat incredulously, “Then what are you doing here?” We were there because we were very deliberately not flying over “flyover country.”
As we drove from the evangelical heartland through Mormon Utah to less religious San Francisco, I came away with three main observations of religious life in America.
“Everything is bigger in America!” my daughter kept saying as we drove down ultrawide roads past big-box stores and their giant parking lots full of massive SUVs and pickup trucks. And, yes, the people in the United States are noticeably bigger too, but we had coached our kids ahead of time not to comment on that out loud.
Religion in America is also comparatively enormous. Even small towns have multiple large churches with expansive facilities and parking lots.
The Mennonite church we visited during the Swiss Days festival in the small town of Berne, Ind., (pop. 4,000) is almost certainly larger in square footage than the cathedral in Berne, Switzerland — which we visited on our Easter holiday this year. When we attended a Sunday service at a United Brethren Church in Huntington, Ind., (pop. 17,000), my sister’s British fiance commented that the size of the church — with its vast sanctuary, Sunday school classrooms and indoor basketball court — rivaled London’s Westminster Abbey.
Wheaton Bible Church, in the suburbs of Chicago, has dozens of acres of land, a sanctuary the size of a concert hall, an indoor playground (which my kids thought was amazing) and a lobby easily large enough to fit the entire gothic edifice of the church we attend in Cambridge, England.
This sort of scale physically highlights the enduring vibrancy of American Christianity and its vision to minister to the whole person and to a diverse range of people. But it does look a bit odd through European eyes.
To accommodate and afford these massive facilities, many of America’s churches are on the periphery of towns and cities — reflecting and no doubt accelerating America’s suburban sprawl and reliance on automobiles. In Europe, by contrast, churches tend to be in the center of a city or village, geographically and symbolically at the heart of communal life. I’ve driven across every county in England, and much of Western Europe, and I’ve never seen a church with a “campus” on the edge of a town.
Second, religious buildings may be on the edge of town, but religious messages are in your face as you drive across the United States. From the Midwest to California’s Central Valley, we were confronted by roadside barns, trailers and signs hand-painted with messages like “Jesus saves.” And we saw dozens of those evangelistic gospel billboards all across the country.
The hand-painted stuff has a certain folksy, Americana charm about it, but the gospel billboards irked me every time we passed one. I love the gospel, but I hate billboards. They are visual pollution that mar America’s otherwise exquisite landscape.
On road trips, we want to enjoy the scenery and conversation without being bombarded by billboard advertisements for strip clubs, erectile dysfunction treatments, fast-food joints, obesity treatments, and law firms, law firms and more law firms. Add the gospel billboards to this ungodly mess, and it’s understandable that visitors from Europe (where billboards are mostly banned) have a conflicted impression of Americans as a religious, lascivious, gluttonous and litigious people.
But America is full of (mostly) lovely people. We were reminded of that in every encounter with Americans — from Walmart employees to university professors to those much-maligned “white evangelicals.”
And that leads to my final observation: The churches we visited defied the stereotype, pervasive in Europe, that American evangelical congregations are hotbeds of right-wing partisanship. To be sure, there are some prominent politicized pastors who use their platforms and access to garner media attention.
But at the three Sunday services we attended — at a United Brethren church in Indiana, an Assemblies of God church in Utah, and an Evangelical Covenant church in California — we saw a side of American evangelicalism that doesn’t often make the news.
We saw this other side especially at the service at the Pentecostal church in Utah, right after the mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio; and El Paso. The pastor preached a heartfelt, hour-long sermon about the need for the Christian community to stand up against evil, injustice and social division. The service ended with the entire congregation — a remarkable mix of Latinos, Asians, blacks and whites — standing up and laying hands on one another as the pastor prayed for Dayton and El Paso and for churches to be active agents of comfort, healing and hope.
The experience filled us with hope for our own faith community, reminding us that there is still much good news about American evangelicalism. But please don’t put that message on a billboard!
Judd Birdsall is the managing director of the Cambridge Institute on Religion & International Studies at Clare College, Cambridge.