The long experiment in American Christianity continues to yield interesting results.
As Stanley Hauerwas has noted (following historian Mark Noll), “America is a synthesis of evangelical Protestantism, republican political ideology, and commonsense moral reasoning.” This odd amalgam has been possible because Americans have made faith in God “indistinguishable from their loyalty to a country that assured them that they had the right to choose which god they would or would not believe in.”
Such a view is so commonplace that it goes unquestioned by politicians, pundits, preachers, and the rest of us — whether we’re conservative, moderate, or liberal; high-church, low-church, or no-church.
It is telling that the least controversial aspect of Saturday’s rally at the Lincoln Memorial was Glenn Beck’s insistent call that America “turn back to God.” His sympathizers welcomed it; many skeptics conceded: what’s the harm?
It’s the peculiar triumph of American Christianity that “God” names a vague, inocuous, content-less deity, one incapable of giving offense. This is why, as Hauerwas observes, America has never been able to produce interesting atheists: “The god most American say they believe in is just not interesting enough to deny.”
In fact, the American God — the one that Beck and others invoked on Saturday — is a cipher that can be filled in with the kind of content that affirms any number of tenets of our civil religion: American exceptionalism, the sacredness of free markets, honor in war, the American dream.
And if each of us gets to decide who and what God is “for ourselves,” then the Church is unnecessary for the practice of this piety. But that doesn’t seem quite right, so we’ve developed the idea that churches are vital for the maintenance of the democratic institutions to which we pledge our ultimate loyalty. Insofar as church membership/involvement produces good citizens, “organized religion” has done its duty for the state it’s meant to serve.
The problem, of course, is that the American God bears no resemblance to the God revealed through the people of Israel and through the life and death of a first-century Palestinian Jew executed by the most powerful nation on earth. And the American church-as-maker-of-model-citizens looks nothing like the ekklesia of early Christianity — the called-out people who understood themselves to be at odds with an Empire predicated on domination and death. The Pax Romana (like the Pax Americana) demanded ultimate allegiance and tolerated weird, upstart religions only so long as they made no claims on the power of the state.
The ease with which most Christians in America negotiate their relationship with the polis is evidence, Hauerwas says, of how Protestantism is dying of its own success. The experiment, we could say, has worked all too well. Protestant churches in America have “lost the ability to maintain the disciplines necessary to sustain a people capable of being an alternative to the world.”
I wonder how many people attending the “Restore Honor” rally on Saturday heard the gospel reading from Luke 14 on Sunday? The kind of honor Jesus is interested in “restoring” has nothing to do with patriotic pride or the valorization of death in war and everything to with humility and charity; with serving the poor; with standing alongside those who suffer; that is, with bearing witness — with our very bodies — to an alternative way of being in the world.
In our own context we might say that to take Jesus at his word here would mean that a gathering on the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial (or any other space or place) should look less like a Tea Party for the disgruntled and more like a banquet for “the the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (Luke 14:13).
This means, then, that Christians are those who see themselves as “alien citizens” of whatever country they live in. Which doesn’t mean that Christians must necessarily strike a hostile pose; it’s certainly possible — even desirable — to love one’s country. But Christians are those who struggle and hope to believe in a God who has confronted death and the death-dealing ways of the world and the death-dealing ways in ourselves. And so we register our inability to be at home in a polis where greed and waste and war are taken to be inescapable and necessary — where, indeed, such sins are twisted into virtues.
For all the sincerity on display at the Lincoln Memorial on Saturday, and amongst the large throngs of proud Americans, this God and these Christians were hard to spot.