In a week of provocative articles about Christianity, comes this one (I’ll quote it throughout, so don’t feel you need to read it). The gist of it is that a recent poll shows that Christians who self-identify as “Evangelicals” are the most likely of all Americans to oppose many of the things that Jesus preached and commanded. They tend to approve of guns, wars, and the death penalty in spite of Jesus’ command to love your enemies; and they tend to oppose social programs that care for the poor, widows, orphans, etc., in spite of Jesus command to take care of these particular groups of vulnerable people. You might say that this is a generalization, and you’re right; keep in mind that I’m summarizing a summary of a poll, so it’s actually a generalization of a generalization of a generalization, but the point remains that there is a real trend here behind the data.
If you’re a regular reader, you might recall that over Christmas I attempted to summarize a book called Empire and Evangelicals in three very long posts. The book deals with the question of whether and how American Evangelicals are connected to “Empire”, the concept of Imperialism that is no longer tied to any particular nation-state as much as it is to capitalism (and thus is still best represented in America). Are Evangelicals the biggest supporters of cultural and economic imperialism? If so, why? Why is there such a large correlation between these concepts?
Before attempting an answer, allow a quick clarification. Evangelicals don’t exactly hate Jesus — as we’ve provocatively asserted in the title of this piece. They do love him dearly. But not because of what he tried to teach humanity. Rather, Evangelicals love Jesus for what he does for them. Through his magical grace, and by shedding his precious blood, Jesus saves Evangelicals from everlasting torture in hell, and guarantees them a premium, luxury villa in heaven. For this, and this only, they love him. They can’t stop thanking him. And yet, as for Jesus himself — his core values of peace, his core teachings of social justice, his core commandments of goodwill — most Evangelicals seem to have nothing but disdain.
This quote from Phil Zuckerman’s article “Why Evangelicals Hate Jesus”, as generalizing as it is (a friend called it “akin to bigotry” in its generalization) hits on a very important element of religion: folk religion. Folk religion is a very general category that describes religion when it has filtered down from the leaders and theologians to the realm of everyday living for normal folk. Religions themselves involve complex connections of doctrines that form a cohesive framework through which we see and interact with the world. Because most people do not devote their lives to the understanding and clarification of that system, the religious worldview and practices of most people do not entirely reflect the actual religious framework to which they subscribe. Basically, we learn enough of our religion that it makes sense to us, and we incorporate it into what we already know so that it is useful.
For example, Christianity in India often looks very different from Christianity in, say, Europe. In India, Christianity as a monotheistic religion doesn’t seem to clash with the age-old belief in animism. Though Indian Christians believe in God the Father Almighty and Jesus Christ the Son, and though many Indian Christians are properly monotheistic or trinitarian, many Christians, particularly in rural areas, still believe that there are spirits or little gods all over the place that they must continue to appease in order to avoid sickness, crop failure, etc. They have adapted their Christianity to leave room for these rituals, because these rituals are useful for their everyday lives.
Another example is in Korea, where honouring one’s ancestors is not just a part of family structure (i.e. honouring your parents and elders), but a part of life on every level. Traditional Korean religion, therefore, makes much of honouring the spirits of your departed ancestors. Us good Western monotheists usually are scandalized by the notion of making an offering for the spirit of your grandparents, or even bowing to a representation of them, seeing this as worshipping idols – but in Korea, it is simply showing proper respect. Korean Christians who do not do so often feel that they are not properly respecting their ancestors, and are often rejected by their families for failing in this important duty. While there has long been debate about how a Christian is to approach this practice, many Korean Christians have accommodated this practice; many have never thought to do otherwise, and it is probably only because Western missionaries once insisted on it that it became an issue at all. At the folk religion level, we tend to integrate beliefs rather than make radical shifts from one worldview to another, and what is useful often decides how beliefs are to be integrated.
In North America, there is a common definition of salvation that is very useful for us. Zuckerman describes its rise:
And this is nothing new. At the end of World War I, the more rabid, and often less educated Evangelicals decried the influence of the Social Gospel amongst liberal churches. According to these self-proclaimed torch-bearers of a religion born in the Middle East, progressive church-goers had been infected by foreign ideas such as German Rationalism, Soviet-style Communism, and, of course, atheistic Darwinism. In the 1950s, the anti-Social Gospel message piggybacked the rhetoric of anti-communism, which slashed and burned its way through the Old South and onward through the Sunbelt, turning liberal churches into vacant lots along the way. It was here that the spirit and the body collided, leaving us with a prototypical Christian nationalist, hell-bent on prosperity. Charity was thus rebranded as collectivism and self-denial gave way to the gospel of accumulation. Church-to-church, sermon-to-sermon, evangelical preachers grew less comfortable with the fish and loaves Jesus who lived on earth, and more committed to the angry Jesus of the future. By the 1990s, this divine Terminator gained “most-favored Jesus status” among America’s mega churches; and with that, even the mention of the former “social justice” Messiah drove the socially conscious from their larger, meaner flock.
American conservative Christianity has developed in a largely negative way over the past century or so, often developing in reaction to other trends and developments. “Fundamentalism” appeared just over a hundred years ago as the belief in the inspiration of scripture – particularly, a very conservative view of the inspiration of scripture that involved the complete and total infallibility of the original writings – in response to the growing movement of theological liberals who were influenced by the rise of textual criticism (which suggested that the Bible was written – and redacted or edited – by many people, at a much later date than we once thought; this lost much of the mystery and sense of the authority of the Bible, which the fundamentalists sought to preserve). The liberal movement made much of Jesus’ social teachings, and so for many fundamentalists the connection between social teachings and theological liberalism was forged: to reject one was to reject both, for some. When you add in the strong sense of Christian identity in America, and then contrast it to the imposed atheism of Communist USSR, it’s easy to see how Christianity could be associated with the good guys, and thus capitalism, while communism belonged to the bad guys, the atheists.
The clash of worldviews that was the cold war had a lot of religious attachments, which undoubtedly contributed to the notion that America is the home of the righteous remnant, the persecuted people of God. Historically, people who consider themselves to be a “righteous remnant” write apocalyptic books that show how God will destroy their enemies, and in so doing, return peace to the world for those righteous ones who remain faithful to Him. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way American Christians confused a political, ideological struggle with a religious or theological one – meaning that whether or not we believe the message of Jesus, we also believe that God has not only come to save us from sin, but also from the godless communists!
Zuckerman goes on to provide a version of the folk-religion argument:
In addition to such historical developments, there may very well simply be an underlying, all-too-human social-psychological process at root, one that probably plays itself out among all religious individuals: they see in their religion what they want to see, and deny or despise the rest. That is, religion is one big Rorschach test. People look at the content of their religious tradition — its teachings, its creeds, its prophet’s proclamations — and they basically pick and choose what suits their own secular outlook. They see in their faith what they want to see as they live their daily lives, and simultaneously ignore the rest. And as is the case for most White Evangelical Christians, what they are ignoring is actually the very heart and soul of Jesus’s message — a message that emphasizes sharing, not greed. Peace-making, not war-mongering. Love, not violence.
Again, in spite of his over-generalizations, there is a true point to be found here: in folk religion, we believe what is useful to us, often giving mental assent to the rest of our doctrine while, in practical terms, giving precedent to cultural ideas and practices. No Christian, even the most vehemently opposed to all social teachings, would ever deny that the Bible tells us to take care of the widows and orphans. But in spite of that belief, when faced with a public policy that proposes to do just that, take care of the poor, they might even suggest that such a policy goes against their religion. This is because their Christianity has been melded together with their cultural beliefs, and it is easier and more useful to them to default to their cultural beliefs. If they are self-reflective (or have been challenged on it enough times), a person may have justified this contradiction somehow; often, we don’t even think of such things, we just continue to believe both sides (our religion and our culture) and practice what is easiest and most useful, and never even notice the contradiction.
I was going to finish with Zuckerman’s last line, but it’s a bit too polemical for what I want to say in this post. The gist is, a conservative American has the right to support and oppose whatever it is that a conservative American would support and oppose, but the claim that Christianity supports them in this is completely unfounded. I agree, and I think it’s a distinction that we should strive to make, not only for the sake of our politics but most importantly for the sake of our understanding of Christianity, which cannot be reduced to political conservatism or liberalism.
So for God’s sake (and, much moreso, our own), let’s be aware of what we believe (folk religion, or a mix of religion, ideology, culture, etc.) and how it relates to what we claim to believe (what Jesus taught). The width and depth of this gap in our understanding, on such a large scale, suggests a pretty big failure of the Church to do our job in teaching and applying Jesus’ message. Be self-critical, because we aren’t always right, or even consistent. And read Scripture regularly; may we see in Jesus’ teachings the things that we’ve ignored or failed at, and try again.