An American Myth

As I write, Election Day is in full swing and we’re hours away from the first results being tabulated. We’re living through the most divisive election since 1968 and probably the most divisive season in American life since the run-up to the Civil War in the 1850s.

What I’m struck with is how divisive this election season has been among American evangelical Christians. Inter-evangelical conflicts have been front-and-center ever since Donald Trump came down that New York City stairway five years ago, and the online sniping, dueling blogs, and downright boorish behavior by people who should know better has not enhanced our reputation. It’s even made me wonder whether American evangelicalism can survive as a renewal movement within American Christianity.

The political and theological battles among folks who claim to follow Christ have been percolating for at least two generations, ever since the so-called Moral Majority was established by Jerry Falwell in 1979. Those evangelicals who opposed Falwell, Pat Robertson, and other minions that made up the “religious-right” coalesced around the Post American magazine (later Sojourners) and the 1973 Chicago Statement of Social Concern. While their numbers were much smaller than those of the religious-right, they made up for that with influence in many of the Christian liberal arts colleges that are part of American evangelicalism. From the 1980s on, there has been a low-level cold war between the two with the typical political insults hurled back and forth every so often. With the retirement and eventual death of Billy Graham, the forces that restrained this cold war were removed and we’re at the point where for many, evangelicalism is defined more by political ideology than theological conviction.

I don’t think there is a quick way to put this genie back in the bottle. There are no trite little religious sayings or slogans that can address all of the complexity at the heart of this. So what do we do? In this writer’s view we need to grasp both Christian purpose and American purpose. Let me start with the latter.

Perhaps the greatest driver of American Christianity’s understanding of political life has been its embrace of the myth that the United States is somehow God’s chosen nation to carry out his purposes in the world. In other words, the United States has become a “new Israel” commissioned by God. God has made America and its citizens “exceptional” in the world. We’re different than Canada, China, Japan, Germany, the UK, and so on because to use the words of those great theologians Jake and Elwood Blues, “we’re on a mission from God!”

More Religious, More Secular

The roots of this are both religious and secular. When the Puritan communities settled Plymouth and later Boston they envisioned themselves commissioned by God to establish a Christian society based on John Calvin’s Geneva (in Switzerland), that would provide the half-hearted monarchs in England, France, Spain and the Roman papacy with an example of true Christianity applied to political and social life.

This Puritan dream collapsed in the early 18th century and was replaced in the American Revolution by a secularized version. The new American elites viewed the new country they had created as an example to the European monarchs of what a virtuous political community should look like. While for the Puritans, their settlements were a “city on a hill” (to use a term from Matthew’s gospel), the deistic, more secular revolutionaries of the 1770s viewed their revolution as creating a more secular “city on a hill” based on political and economic freedom.

Their vision was noble, but misguided. The reality is that the American founders envisioned a nation-state based on republican principles that came from enlightenment rationalism. The American founders were scared to death of the religious violence that decimated Europe in the 17th century, violence created by different forms of Christianity vying for superiority in the European monarchies. Jefferson, Adams, Washington, Franklin and others desired a government that would eliminate religious competition for government status and the violence that often went along with it.

American evangelical Christians in the late 18th century were more than happy to go along with this arrangement. They were willing to give up formal endorsement from the government in exchange for religious freedom–the liberty of individual Christians to choose their church according to their conscience and the freedom of churches and religious groups to conduct their work free from government intrusion. At once, the United States became more religious and more secular. Government could not interfere in religious life (as was the case in England) nor could churches demand some kind of religious test to hold political office (as was the case in most European monarchies at the time).

Resisting the Political Illusion

What does this mean? Three things. First, while Christian and Enlightenment ideas strongly influenced American society, the United States was (and is) not a “Christian nation” in the sense that many use this term today. We are a nation-state like all of the others which exist in our world. We are no different or no better than Canada, the United Kingdom, Japan, or the other nation states that make up our world. Second, no matter what country in which they live Christians have a responsibility to make better their communities and their countries. Our focus is the Kingdom message of the Christian gospel. Christians believe that God is doing something radically new through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We offer the gospel, the news that the crucified Christ has been raised from death to life and that he offers life to all who will come to him in faith. We speak the words of life, but we also act in ways that allow human beings to flourish in our congregations, in our communities, in our cities and states. We speak and act on behalf of the poor. We desire that human dignity apply to all in the human family no matter their race, ethnicity, gender, or geography. We’re even foolish enough to care for others with whom we disagree.

Finally, we resist what Jacques Ellul described as “the political illusion” the idea that everything can be reduced to politics. The political illusion is rampant throughout American Christianity to the point that what I think of Joe Biden or Donald Trump is almost determinative of our faith. How we need a return to the Gospel. How we need to speak the words of life. How we need to act in ways that address the physical, social, and spiritual needs of our communities. How we need to foster human flourishing for all in our churches and in our communities.

Let’s make our churches far less political. Let’s drop the partisan politics. Let’s make sure that our churches are welcoming to people who are Democrats, Republicans, Independents, or whatever political group they identify with. No political endorsements from our pulpits. No letting politicians address our worship services. Instead let’s be gospel Christians, ones who tell others about our Lord Jesus Christ, who call them to repentance and faith, and desire to see everyone in our communities flourish where God has placed them.

Author: Bob Mayer

Bob Mayer is Senior Librarian and Associate Professor of Theological Bibliography at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He loves good books, especially the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Henri Nouwen, and C.S. Lewis. He also enjoys film, especially movies that cause him to reflect theologically and culturally on important themes and questions.