6 self-inflicting wounds of American Christianity

By John D. Pierce, Executive Editor, Nurturing Faith Journal

6Each day seems to bring another sadly predictable episode in the ongoing self-destructive saga of American evangelicalism as it is increasingly known.

Therefore, my daily dilemma is whether to simply ignore these abuses of the Christian gospel or to provide some alternative, though lesser voice. When choosing the latter, it is for some good reasons.

These are not minor, excusable missteps that we all make in our imperfect efforts to live faithfully in the ways of Jesus. These are continuous, growing and damaging misrepresentations of the Gospel and the church called to live out the Way of Christ.

Here are six very destructive, self-inflicted wounds that misconstrue the Gospel message and do considerable harm to the perception of Christianity and to the effectiveness of the church’s mission.

 

ONE: PLAYING THE VICTIM

Most people know what persecution looks like and it doesn’t look like what fundamentalist American Christians claim for themselves so often.

Losing one’s long-held cultural dominance through increasing diversity doesn’t equate to being persecuted. No one is taking away the religious rights of Christian conservatives who seem to want government favoritism rather than real freedom.

Suffering, to many fundamentalist Christians, means having to play by the same rules as everyone else. Stop the whining!

Read that Bible you wave and claim to believe more than the rest of us and you will see how the most faithful lived in trying times that you can’t imagine.

If you can only be Christian when others do as you wish — even if coerced by government — then yours is a sadly fragile faith.

 

TWO: PROCLAIMING A FEAR-DRIVEN, FEAR-INDUCING MESSAGE

Chicken Little appears cool and calm in comparison to many American Christians today.

What part of Jesus’ “Fear not!” do you not understand? Where’s the Good News?

There is an unjustifiable defensiveness among many conservative Christians today who reflect more talk-show political rancor than the gospel message. They act out of fear and induce fear in their gullible followers.

Stop the doom and gloom every time society shifts away from your personal comfort. Remember how other changes you feared — such as racial and gender equality — didn’t bring the world to an end.

Change scares fundamentalists, but unfortunately it doesn’t scare the hell out of them. It causes them to act in more hellish ways.

 

THREE: YEARNING FOR ‘THE GOOD OLD DAYS’

We keep hearing calls from white, male Christian leaders for going back to a beloved time of spiritual bounty with no acknowledgment of the societal evils that existed.

It is offensive to the non-white, non-male, non-Protestants who didn’t share in such bounty — and to those of us sensitive to the realities of those times.

Southern Baptist editor Gerald Harris wrote an Independence Day editorial in The Christian Index, in which he played this idea to the hilt, writing that younger persons today “cannot possibly understand the spiritual bounty and blessings of life in America 50 years ago.”

There was no acknowledgment that a half-century ago: black students attending formerly all-white schools in Grenada, Miss., were attacked by a white mob with chains, pipes and clubs; interracial marriage was still illegal in Virginia, leading to the arrest of a couple wed elsewhere; women were excluded from attending most Ivy League schools; and many shelters and resources for abused women and children were yet to come along with the feminist movement.

Nothing is more out of touch with reality and the Christian gospel than for older, white, Southern male ministers to present as spiritually and biblically superior a time when they and their kind could succeed in a system stacked clearly in their favor.

And Harris blames the supposed and lamented fall of American civilization in recent decades on the removal of government-sponsored religious activities from public schools. He resurrects the nonsensical claims of Jerry Falwell, in the 1980s, who likewise ignored civil rights gains and other movements toward equality and justice for all, while romanticizing the ‘50s and ‘60s as times of wholesomeness and spiritual fervor.

Sadly, fundamentalism fears any future that doesn’t look like a comfortable past — even if an imagined past that was not so comfortable for everyone. “Bounty and blessings” for a favored few doesn’t equal “liberty and justice for all.”

It is far better to see the past for its mixed-bag reality and then to look ahead. There’s a helpful biblical word for that: hope.

 

FOUR: MAKING ‘RELIGIOUS LIBERTY’ INTO A WEAPON

The good term “religious liberty” is being snatched and redefined by fundamentalist Christians (widely regarded as “evangelicals” by media) as a license to discriminate. They are not satisfied with the constitutional guarantees afforded all Americans.

Their initial claim seems benign if not beneficial: to guarantee religious freedom.

But scratch the surface of current political actions (aimed at LBGT persons) and one finds that the focus is not on the freedom of some persecuted minority but their own licenses to discriminate.

Dig a little deeper and you’ll find a mean-spirited agenda that seeks punitive actions against those fundamentalists view as “sinners” and a threat. Which leads to the next self-inflicted wound.

 

FIVE: PORTRAYING CHRISTIANITY AS ‘GOOD GUYS’ VS. ‘BAD GUYS’

Fundamentalists create a divide among humanity in which everyone who is unlike them in belief and practice is portrayed as being in need of becoming like them.

They call it evangelism but, as noted above, it is judgment that should be reserved for God rather than a humble extension of “good news.”

Southern Baptist groups, for example, talk about the concentration of “lostness” in their targeted areas — though one can hardly find a good measuring stick for the conditions of individual hearts. Other stats and projections have to be employed.

This good-guy/bad-guy divide creates an arrogant and alienating message: “We believe the Bible; you do not. We love God; you do not. We are saved; you are lost.”

How is that working? Talk with those disengaged from church — especially Millennials — and you will discover a startling revelation:

They are kind and gracious people doing much good in the world. Yet they see the church as less loving, kind and gracious than they choose to live.

The irony is that the very church leaders who think non-church people need confession, repentance and conversion just might be the ones most in need of such life changes.

As has been said, “Fault finding is much like window washing; all the dirt seems to be on the other side.”

Don’t be surprised that a lot of salvation and Jesus-like living occurs beyond those who most loudly claim his name. All godly goodness is not corralled by those counting their sheep.

It’s time to face a harsh reality: Some people are too nice, too smart and too gracious to align with a group that labels them and/or many of their friends as the enemy and the targets of their faith.

 

SIX: OPPOSING SOCIETAL MOVES TOWARD JUSTICE AND EQUALITY

Is there any issue of human equality for which conservative Christianity has taken a leading role rather than one of resistance? I’m still thinking…

Whether something as heinous as owning and abusing other humans for one’s own economic benefits or pushing against equal rights without regard for race, gender or sexual orientation, it is predictable where more-conservative Christians take their stand: on the wrong side.

A tragic aspect of this approach is how the Bible is misused to support discrimination and even hostilities toward women and minorities. Yet humility never arises from the long history of being wrong in this approach.

Often the strength of their opposition is nowhere near equal to even the perceived threat. For example, gay and lesbian persons represent a tiny minority of Americans.

Listening to fundamentalist Christians, however, one would think those with same-sex attraction are some large, militant force threatening to burn down churches and recruit everyone to their sexual orientation. Such generalization is a false witness.

The reality is that gay and lesbian persons are more likely to be the kind, faithful members of their churches — if not pushed out by hatred — who simply want the same freedoms as other members and other Americans.

A great lie of Christian fundamentalism (and there are many) is that they “hate the sin yet love the sinner.” Those on the receiving end will tell you that only the hatred shows through.

Even the word “love” gets redefined beyond any reasonable definition. It is common to hear a fundamentalist preacher proclaim, “Nothing is more loving than to tell someone the truth.”

Such “love” is highly conditional — relying on the capitulation of their targets to the narrow beliefs of fundamentalism.

Despite their worst possible record regarding issues of equality and justice, it takes several generations and widespread social acceptance for more-conservative Christian leaders to get on board. If the move toward liberty and justice were a train, the U.S. military would be a driving engine and the white, evangelical church would be a dead-weighted caboose.

While admiring the romanticized past, please take note of how wrong the church has been on basic issues of human equality and justice — and try getting it right up front one time.

 

THE RESULT: Christianity and therefore the Christian church lose their treasured message and mission — and are unattractive when seen in such poor light.

Resulting resistance by many is not to the true demands of following Jesus — such as self-denial, generosity, peacemaking, care for the hurting — but to the arrogance and ugliness of Christianity as often portrayed in America.

Sadly, many good, kind, thoughtful and generous people want nothing to do with a religious identity revealed as petty, fearful, self-serving, mean-spirited and, in general, in contrast to the life and teachings of Jesus.

To tell someone today that you are a Christian is to expect them to assume that you are suspicious of other ethnic and religious groups, fearful of immigrants, unloving toward LGBT persons, eager to seek an upper hand when it comes to actual expressions of freedom, and close-minded to any possibility of being wrong about anything.

Such public perceptions are not the propaganda work of some outside sinister group. They are the makings of those American Christians who repeatedly inflict these six wounds on themselves and others associated with their claimed name.

 

 

14 Comments

  1. Good

  2. You’re a one-trick pony, John, whose only passion seems to be bashing fundamentalists. Not a pretty picture.

    Do you think fundamentalists read your blog? Doubtful. Given your likely audience and minimal readership, I can’t tell if your purpose in writing is preaching a brand of hate to your moderate/liberal choir, or an attempt at therapy as you pine for the 1970s SBC.

    If the latter, you’re probably due for a new type of therapy, because this one isn’t working. Time to move on.

    • I feel sad for you William Simpson. There is nothing Christian about you.

    • I don’t see any criticism of the actual content of the message, William, just criticism of the messenger.
      I assume we can take that to mean you don’t have any? At least, none that you can or are willing to express?
      I don’t want to fall into the same trap as you, of making negative, insulting and unsupportable assumptions about the writer, when the relevant and important thing is the topic. So I’ll just await your thoughtful and focused response to the ideas brought up in his essay.

  3. The bashing is not mine; these are self-inflicted wounds. I’m just pointing them out because they impact the witness of all Christians. And the last thing I want to do is go BACK to the SBC or anything else. That’s one of my points.

    • I’m an ordained Southern Baptist minister and former Ringgold resident. Nothing in your tone or content suggested bashing to me. Admonishment comes to mind rather than revilement. There was so much more you could have written but did not. My personal struggle has always been to enlighten fundamentalists while remaining mindful we are one in Christ, but it is very frustrating and difficult to write kindly about error. All we can do is speak out and disagree in a spirit of love. However, Mr. Simpson is probably right about fundamentalists not reading your blog, which is unfortunate, for God knows they need to get out more in their erudition. Thanks.

  4. Thanks for this well-written, frank commentary. I am fortunate to have friends with a variety of theological dispositions and I have shared this on Facebook in hopes that some will read. Even if a lot of minds are not changed, it encourages those of us who clearly see these behavior patterns (“it’s not just me”) and it lets “…many good, kind, thoughtful and generous people [who] want nothing to do with a religious identity revealed as petty, fearful, self-serving, mean-spirited…” know that even those tagged with the “Baptist” label can be intelligent, compassionate, articulate, and grounded in reality.

  5. Outstanding assessment. Well written and something that has needed to be said by someone of your stature for a long time!

  6. John, I grew up in the Church of God and other Evangelical churches. I am now an Episcopalian because I don’t see things the way I was brought up and think God is much more gracious and kind to us than the Evangelical church(es) would have the rest of us believe. The whole idea that we all have to believe exactly the same in order for God to love and save us doesn’t fit with “walk in the light as it is revealed to you”. But, that’s the least of problems I encounter with Fundamentalists today; primarily the Pharisaic spirit of self-righteousness and the hateful attacks on those they declare to be sinners. I’ve never seen hate bring a sinner to Christ but that’s the current approach by many.

    Thank you for your wonderfully-written article and keep up the good work. What I noticed already is that you have at least one already attacking you and minimizing your work because it got under his skin. Another indication of a self-righteous spirit. It’s so easy, I guess, for us to forget WHO has forgiven and redeemed us and that it was NOT OF OURSELVES but a GIFT OF GOD!

  7. To a person, you’ve all outed yourselves as fundamentalists who can only accept your particular take on Christianity as pure and righteous. Paul’s “there is nothing Christian about you” comment says it all.

    Acknowledging your own narrow-mindedness is the first step toward genuine dialogue and true unity. Which is a trait fundamentalists (as you define them) tend not to have. Welcome to their club.

    • William, the first step towards genuine dialogue is to focus on the topic of the dialogue, not on criticizing those who are engaging in it. I see only the latter in either of your messages. The same is even more strongly true if you sincerely seek unity. Do you have any constructive criticism you can offer to the ideas presented here?

  8. My first point is that narrow-minded people (regardless of what “side” of the argument they represent) aren’t capable of genuine dialogue because they can only see things from their side. This forum is a good example of fundamentalism, as John P and the follow-on comments in this discussion have clearly demonstrated. I’m happy to engage John P’s points, but they’ve all been made ad nauseam the last couple of years in this forum.

    In my estimation, John P has been in a rut in which his principal passion has become not “nurturing faith” but railing on other types of fundamentalists who disagree with his brand of Christian fundamentalism. Given that those other fundamentalists aren’t generally in his audience, what’s the point of doing so? To stir up the echo chamber to pat itself on the back at how pure its “real” Christianity is relative to the counterfeit brand he rails against? To inspire some sort of action perhaps? But by whom? Or, as I suspect, to simply vent (which he’s welcome to do since its his blog)?

    Look back through John’s commentaries the last couple of years, and you’ll see what I mean. A reasonable person would at least. That’s not an ad hominem attack to avoid engaging the points of his commentary (which was not my purpose). Rather, it’s an observation regarding the nature of fundamentalism as an attitude that applies regardless of content. Thus, this thread has been inherently fundamentalist in its rhetoric.

    If discussion continues, I’ll be happy to engage John P’s points. But what say you to mine?

  9. As I read it, the original comments are not theology (except about the grace of God which should be a common belief). Instead they are about the presentation of whatever theology you have to the world. My experience is that many young (and older) people are driven from the good news by the presentation and the presenters.

  10. I’ve just read your article and I appreciate having the opportunity to read it, though I disagree with its premise.

    I consider my self simply, a Christian. But, I still agree with fundamentalist views of the Bible, as well as some non-traditional ones. Why is it not ok to be “old fashioned”? For example, I don’t agree with same sex marriage but that doesn’t mean I hate anyone of the LGBT community. In fact, I am friends with them. Just because someone holds fundamentalist views, doesn’t mean they are wounding evangelism.

    I see things from the middle. Maybe fundamentalists should stop fear mongering, AND progressives should stop playing victims. Just my thought.

    Thank you again for your opinions.

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