Christianity could be transformed into a cultural religion. Instead of attending to otherworldly concepts such as individual salvation and everlasting life, the church would focus upon this world. Moral pronouncements, social involvement, and political activism would become the work of the church. Such ‘cultural Protestantism,’ to use H. Richard Niebuhr’s term, came to dominate 19th-century Protestantism and continued as a major strain of 20th-century theology. . .
Gene Edward Veith, Jr.1
The American electoral process has become one of the most disappointing seasons to endure. The feelings inside can range from mere skepticism to outright fear for what a lack of character and the ability to lie about it can produce. It does not help to see those who know better, and themselves do better, back away from confrontation because support would be lost. Right and wrong is now decided by the majority and worse, by a sampling or poll of the majority. Nothing in history can be brought up, commented on or corrected because history (or what a politician said last month) is only a record, or text, of what happened and that is always skewed by the opposition.
Reading samplings of the Lincoln/Douglas debates is enlightening. It doesn’t take long to realize that there has been a dumbing-down of the electoral process in the last one hundred or so years. Today’s audiences could not follow the reasoning or muster the patience to stand for eight hours and listen. The biggest difference is that then it was a character issue. People were deciding upon a man’s honor and moral capability to meet whatever crisis may come. Lincoln proved to be a good choice.
Today’s campaigns are a choice between Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. Which one will give me the most gifts. If I have a list of ten ”issues” which will benefit me or take something away from me, I will vote for the one who gives me most things on my list. And I don’t care if it is Attila the Hun who can deliver. Character not only doesn’t matter, it may be that a lack of character can find a way to give me more than I could figure myself.
Vision and progressiveness is defined only in terms of what a candidate has done. A little success here, an increase there, and this must be the right way for the whole country. For those who dare to entertain a truly new idea, the press has trashed immediately as mean-spirited, divisive and hopelessly out of date with where we are already going.
Now the purpose of this paper (as well as my pulpit) has never been to bolster the political process. But I think that what I have just said about American politics is also a characterization of something else. That is American Christianity. Not just liberal or left-wing Christianity but fundamental and evangelical Christianity. It has been said that people will vote for the politician who is most like them. Christians will follow leaders and methodology that is most like them as well.
We have seen a time when the theology and methodology that itself produces immorality and avariciousness, has become the most popular belief system and is building the fastest growing churches. We have seen a time when musician after musician is caught (I would like to say ”admitted” but I can’t) in prolonged immorality only to become even more popular, much less have his/her music questioned or set aside. Is this not because Christians are, in reality, actually excusing themselves, as when a voter ignores the improprieties of a candidate?
Don’t think of building a church or a ministry on character (as Paul, ”I speak as a fool”). American Christianity has a wish-list and wants to know how much of it you will supply. Your theology and devotion matter little if you can produce the goods. Selfish desires have become the only theology we care about. ”How much will God give me back if I promise Him this much?” ”How long do I have to be faithful before God will put my family back together?” ”How many believers do we have to make before God will save our country?” And how many pastors are really asking, ”How spiritual must I become before God increases my results?”
Progress is defined by what others are doing and with what has made others become prominent and admired. ”This will double your attendance.” ”This will excite your people.” ”This will reach those who have no interest in spiritual things.” Then (can you believe it?) we incorporate it and call this bandwagon being ”progressive!” G.K. Chesterton said, ”Progress ought to be based on principle, while our modern progress is mostly based on precedent. We go, not by what may be affirmed in theory, but by what has been already admitted in practice.”2 We are pragmatic to the core. Our only principle is success.
I thought a progressive thinker might be a pastor who studies his generation in light of God’s truths, decides what will be best for them and gives them that regardless of their tastes. But that is an old mentality not in tune with today’s consumer mentality. Today, I must study my generation to see in what direction they are headed and move quickly to run in front of them, proclaiming myself to be a bold leader! To justify my ”progressive” vision, I can point to others who have done the same. In this way, I can promise people enjoyment, enthusiasm and, by all means, a lack of boredom.
Today’s national election is truly an election seen in a mirror. It is the American ethic. It is also American Christianity. We hate it but we can’t stop being it. We preach against it but practice it every Sunday. Chesterton also said, ”As is common in most discussions, the unmentionable thing is the pivot of the whole discussion.”3 The very answer to society’s ills is that of which the Church has refused to speak.Notes: 1. Gene Edward Veith, Jr., Modern Fascism (St. Louis: Concordia, 1993) pp. 54. 2. G.K. Chesteron, What’s Wrong With The World (San Francisco: Ignatious Press, 1994) p. 167. 3. Chesterton, p. 191.