Vanishing Christianity

by Rebecca Bynum (Oct. 2008)

Despite what seems to be incessant criticism of Christianity today, the reality is there is really very little real criticism of specific Christian doctrine, criticism that would help to correct the course of modern Christianity. Growing ranks of militant atheists rail against religion as a whole and call for its complete abandonment. Religionists in turn find themselves forced to defend religion in its entirety and are distracted from what might be profitable religious self-criticism. In addition, many Christian congregations have taken up social causes as they have gradually abandoned the cause of religion as such. Furthermore, the general decline of religion has led to an increase in superstition even among the highly educated and more than a few congregations are directly involved in fostering superstitious thought. 

Instead of feeding the Lord’s sheep in the spiritual sense, many churches justify their existence by pointing instead to their “good works.” Generally, these works involve “helping the less fortunate,” not spiritually, but materially. Spiritual ministry is either a secondary consideration or is being abandoned altogether and so many churches are becoming simply agencies of social reconstruction. Both the manner of this reconstruction and its goals go unexamined because the sanctity of the churches is involved. Most people assume their church wouldn’t be sponsoring this or that social program if it wasn’t “for the best,” and because these programs make so many people feel good about doing good, it is almost impossible to change the course of these programs or to question their goals.

In many cases, an extension of the church will transform itself into a “volag” or volunteer agency which can then receive remuneration from the government for its good works. In the case of refugee resettlement, these churches receive a cash payment on a per capita basis which creates a financial incentive for the church to sponsor as many refugees as possible. And though many churchgoers feel good about helping "the less fortunate" in this way, the overall effect of bringing large numbers of people often completely alien to our way of life and the effect that has on our cultural continuity and our own well being is ignored. The church is seen to be “ministering to the poor” and that’s what brings in donations.

Then there is the question of political affiliations. Churches are becoming more and more enmeshed in politics on both sides of the political spectrum. Many church leaders seem more comfortable speaking of politics than discussing religion. They often justify these entanglements with bits of self-serving scripture. As the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said the “Church has the responsibility and the capacity to ask some fundamental questions about political society and community,” and that is true, but speaking as Archbishop, Williams himself pontificates incessantly on political issues. He preaches a political morality with absolute assurance when, for example, he presumes to lecture Israel on the limits of its rights to self-preservation, but when he actually encounters the realities of an Islamic society, he is often surprised at how that society doesn’t conform to his expectation; thus, like President Bush, he reveals the full extent of his naiveté. In Pakistan, for example, he was “surprised by how the extremely small Christian minority there is perceived as so deeply threatening by an overwhelming Muslim majority which ought to be more confident and generous about its identity.”[1]

On the other side of the political spectrum, as is well known, American evangelical congregations frequently align themselves with the Republican Party. Indeed, Republican candidates must actively court the support of evangelical ministers like James Dobson, Pat Robertson and Franklin Graham. These churches are generally anti-abortion, anti-same sex marriage, for the reintroduction of school prayer, and for the teaching of divine creation in addition to natural selection in public schools. All of these stands concern social reconstruction, though they may be based on what is viewed, or interpreted, as spiritual renewal. Obviously, these churches are just as enmeshed in politics as those on the left-wing. Both sides have abandoned the primary mission of religion, the care and fostering of individual spiritual growth. Individual church members may take part in social and political life, but when churches themselves become involved as institutions, they are often reduced to being simply an arm of this or that political movement and are no longer really churches at all though they retain their tax-exempt status.

Many of these churches, because they are no longer actively involved in the refinement of religious doctrine, abandon their role as arbiters of religious truth and even become parties to the advancement of popular superstitions. This is especially evident in groups like Pat Robertson’s 700 Club that promote the idea that if viewers will only give “seed money” to their organization, the sum given will be multiplied tenfold and returned to the giver by miraculous agency. Each program is filled with “testimony” as to the effectiveness of this disguised voodoo and there is no doubt such a profitable charlatanry shamelessly preys on the most vulnerable.

Another popular superstition which has roots in the works of Mary Baker Eddy (Science And Health) right through the works of Norman Vincent Peale (The Power of Positive Thinking) and is now popularized by modern pop-religion writers such as Rhonda Byrne (The Secret), is the idea that because thought can change reality, simply by thinking the correct thoughts, health and prosperity will be drawn to the thinker like magic. Often this is kind of superstition is wrapped in scientific jargon and referred to as a “universal law,” like gravity. One would imagine that in such a scientifically based age, this kind of thinking would be discouraged, but such appears not to be the case. Surprisingly, it is not the scientifically-minded atheists, but conservative Christians who evince more resistance to magical thinking. Molly Ziegler Hemingway informs us,

"What Americans Really Believe," a comprehensive new study released by Baylor University yesterday, shows that traditional Christian religion greatly decreases belief in everything from the efficacy of palm readers to the usefulness of astrology. It also shows that the irreligious and the members of more liberal Protestant denominations, far from being resistant to superstition, tend to be much more likely to believe in the paranormal and in pseudoscience than evangelical Christians.

The Gallup Organization, under contract to Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion, asked American adults a series of questions to gauge credulity. Do dreams foretell the future? Did ancient advanced civilizations such as Atlantis exist? Can places be haunted? Is it possible to communicate with the dead? Will creatures like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster someday be discovered by science?

The answers were added up to create an index of belief in occult and the paranormal. While 31% of people who never worship expressed strong belief in these things, only 8% of people who attend a house of worship more than once a week did.

Even among Christians, there were disparities. While 36% of those belonging to the United Church of Christ, Sen. Barack Obama's former denomination, expressed strong beliefs in the paranormal, only 14% of those belonging to the Assemblies of God, Sarah Palin's former denomination, did. In fact, the more traditional and evangelical the respondent, the less likely he was to believe in, for instance, the possibility of communicating with people who are dead.

This is not a new finding. In his 1983 book "The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener," skeptic and science writer Martin Gardner cited the decline of traditional religious belief among the better educated as one of the causes for an increase in pseudoscience, cults and superstition. He referenced a 1980 study published in the magazine Skeptical Inquirer that showed irreligious college students to be by far the most likely to embrace paranormal beliefs, while born-again Christian college students were the least likely.

Surprisingly, while increased church attendance and membership in a conservative denomination has a powerful negative effect on paranormal beliefs, higher education doesn't. Two years ago two professors published another study in Skeptical Inquirer showing that, while less than one-quarter of college freshmen surveyed expressed a general belief in such superstitions as ghosts, psychic healing, haunted houses, demonic possession, clairvoyance and witches, the figure jumped to 31% of college seniors and 34% of graduate students.

We can't even count on self-described atheists to be strict rationalists. According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life's monumental "U.S. Religious Landscape Survey" that was issued in June, 21% of self-proclaimed atheists believe in either a personal God or an impersonal force. Ten percent of atheists pray at least weekly and 12% believe in heaven.
It could be that much of what we think of as religion occurs on an unconscious level. There are many people currently dedicated to the eradication of poverty, disease, or illiteracy who evince a truly religious zeal for their projects, even though their motives may be unrecognized as such. This unconscious manifestation of a religious drive is difficult to locate, let alone criticize. So rather than benefitting from honest criticism, religion is manifesting itself as an unexamined force which is changing our world in ways we do not always fathom.

The liberal arm of religion is also becoming increasingly focused on works rather than faith. Doctrine is murky and ill-defined. Never is this attitude made more plain than in Barack Obama’s speeches. It is clear he views Christianity primarily as a vehicle for social reform and not much else, as in this speech delivered in 2006 on religion:

After all, the problems of poverty and racism, the uninsured and the unemployed, are not simply technical problems in search of the perfect ten point plan. They are rooted in both societal indifference and individual callousness - in the imperfections of man.

Solving these problems will require changes in government policy, but it will also require changes in hearts and a change in minds. I believe in keeping guns out of our inner cities, and that our leaders must say so in the face of the gun manufacturers' lobby - but I also believe that when a gang-banger shoots indiscriminately into a crowd because he feels somebody disrespected him, we've got a moral problem. There's a hole in that young man's heart - a hole that the government alone cannot fix. 
But what I am suggesting is this - secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryant, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King - indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history - were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their "personal morality" into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Moreover, if we progressives shed some of these biases, we might recognize some overlapping values that both religious and secular people share when it comes to the moral and material direction of our country. We might recognize that the call to sacrifice on behalf of the next generation, the need to think in terms of "thou" and not just "I," resonates in religious congregations all across the country. And we might realize that we have the ability to reach out to the evangelical community and engage millions of religious Americans in the larger project of American renewal.

Some of this is already beginning to happen. Pastors, friends of mine like Rick Warren and T.D. Jakes are wielding their enormous influences to confront AIDS, Third World debt relief, and the genocide in Darfur. Religious thinkers and activists like our good friend Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo are lifting up the Biblical injunction to help the poor as a means of mobilizing Christians against budget cuts to social programs and growing inequality.

And by the way, we need Christians on Capitol Hill, Jews on Capitol Hill and Muslims on Capitol Hill talking about the estate tax. When you've got an estate tax debate that proposes a trillion dollars being taken out of social programs to go to a handful of folks who don't need and weren't even asking for it, you know that we need an injection of morality in our political debate.

Across the country, individual churches like my own and your own are sponsoring day care programs, building senior centers, helping ex-offenders reclaim their lives, and rebuilding our gulf coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
It was in this speech that Obama accused his listeners: “Folks haven’t been reading their Bibles,” implying that if we had, we would know what terrible things are contained in it and stop pointing fingers at the terrible things in the Qur’an. He also proclaimed America “no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers.” In response, Hugh Fitzgerald wrote:

As a nonbeliever, I am happy to withdraw any formal claim to the United States being a "nation of nonbelievers" if I must do so in order to prevent, in the slightest way, recognition being given to this nation being "also...a Muslim nation." And I suspect that many Jews, many Buddhists, many Hindus, would be happy to do the same.

In any case, as a matter of history -- and what is a nation if not that nation's history? -- the United States was founded by, settled by, developed by, Christians or those who thought of themselves, in some cases, as embodiments of the Hebrews, building Zion on a Hill in, of all places, the Massachusetts Bay Colony (for more on this, read Oscar Handlin). It is truthful to call this nation "Judeo-Christian" in its origins and its mental makeup; it is untruthful to claim otherwise.
Like Rowan Williams, Obama views Jesus as a social revolutionary, and earlier and more effective William Ayers or Saul Alinsky and calls the Sermon on the Mount “a passage that is so radical that it's doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application.” The Sermon on the Mount clearly discusses attitudes and reactions of the spirit and has nothing whatsoever to do with national defense. It seems Obama cannot comprehend what purely religious leadership entails; politics has to be involved, as witness his former pastor for twenty years, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

Jesus consistently focused on religion alone, not social, political or economic reform. But it seems those most committed to social reform are eager to use the Master's words to bolster their claims. In fact, Jesus seldom spoke in lecturing tones. His sermons were illustrative rather than informative: “The kingdom of heaven is like…” Often, he taught by asking questions. The Master's final instructions to Peter (who along with Paul is credited with forming the early Christian Church) are illuminating:

This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.

Jesus Reinstates Peter (Peter had thrice denied Jesus during his trials.)

15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?"
      "Yes, Lord," he said, "you know that I love you."
      Jesus said, "Feed my lambs."
 16 Again Jesus said, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me?"
      He answered, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you."
      Jesus said, "Take care of my sheep."
 17 The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"
      Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."
    Jesus said, "Feed my sheep.[5]

Neither politics, economics nor social reform were part of the Master’s explicit mandate for his followers. One can only hope that the churches which proudly bear his name, might humbly begin to comprehend his words and pay heed to his advice, leaving politics at the church door.

[1] “The Archbishop of Canterbury” interview with Sarah Joseph in Emel magazine Nov. 2007
[2] Hemingway, Molly Zeigler “Look Who’s Irrational Now” Wall Street Journal September 19, 2008
[3] Obama, Barack “Call to Renewal Keynote Address” Washington D.C. June 28, 2006
[4] Fitzgerald, Hugh “America Is Not ‘Also A Muslim Nation’” The Iconoclast, New English Review, June 24, 2008
[5] Bible, New International Version, John 21, 14-18

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