As liberals and conservatives battle for dominance American religion has been co-opted by both sides.
Conservatives want to shore up the mainstays of traditional American culture: a civil religion suitable for teaching in the public schools, limited government, a strong defense, personal (especially sexual) responsibility, and free enterprise.
Liberals want an open, inclusive society marked by free inquiry, a concern for the common good, and respect for religious, cultural and sexual diversity, and opportunity for all (not just the millionaires and the billionaires).
For obvious reasons, both armies in the culture war have enlisted variants of the Christian tradition.
Christians make crummy culture warriors because their lives are shaped by the Great Commission. We believe that all authority in earth and heaven has been given to Jesus, and it is therefore our goal to observe all things whatsoever Jesus has commanded us. If Jesus says we must love our enemies we will endeavor to do so. If Jesus counselled radical generosity, hospitality, forgiveness and inclusion, we will strive to be radically generous, hospitable, forgiving and inclusive.
Christians have the courage to believe that God is like Jesus. Following Jesus isn’t our way of earning our salvation; radical discipleship is what saves us from this sinful and corrupt generation. Jesus lived what he taught and it put him on a Roman cross. By raising Jesus from the dead God was saying, “This is my son, my beloved, listen to him.”
Does that sound like the American Christianity you have been exposed to? If not, it’s because most American religionists have been coopted by the culture war and, like I say, culture warriors make crummy Christians.
The form of civil religion conservative culture warriors defend beats up on “the least of these.”
Liberal culture warriors don’t want Jesus, or any other authority, telling them what to do. They prefer an interfaith brand of spirituality in which all religious traditions are equally valid. As a consequence, all religious communities are marginalized. By definition, Christians are people who let Jesus tell them what to do.
Don’t get me wrong, Christians aren’t trying to force the way of Jesus on anybody. Love and coercion are antithetical. Christians love those who disagree with them, even when the disagreement gets violent. That is the way of Jesus.
But the Christian church is not a debating society. We may disagree about what radical forgiveness, love, generosity, hospitality and inclusion look like, but these fundamental commitments are not negotiable. In the church, Jesus calls the shots.
The American culture war has been raging since the birth of the nation and it will still be raging when we are all dead and buried (or cremated, if that is your preference). Because our churches (conservative, moderate and liberal) are bristling with unrepentant culture warriors, preachers have developed ingenious methods for silencing Jesus.
Most of us choose to be non-combatants in the American culture war. A pox on both their houses, we say. Keep politics out of the pulpit, we say.
Would that it were so easy. The way of Jesus may transcend politics, but the gospel is fraught with political implications. We can’t celebrate radical hospitality without taking sides in the debate over immigration.
Talk about radical generosity from the pulpit and some will hear an assault on personal responsibility.
Get too precise about non-violence and people will see implications for the defense budget or the Second Amendment whether you address these issues or not.
This doesn’t mean that our preachers have ignored the teaching of Jesus altogether. So long as the discussion is confined to hearth and home, what Jesus says about forgiveness, hospitality, non-violence and inclusion appears to make sense. Marriage can’t survive without constant acts of forgiveness; conservatives and liberals get that. Men must eschew violence, especially violence aimed at women and children; we all get that too. And we all know that in the family, the congregation and the workplace, people can be unkind, cruel and irrational and we will be called to turn the other cheek. And that’s kind of like being persecuted for righteousness sake, right?
But get too deep into the prodigal son story and somebody will go all elder brother on you. Sure, welcome the kid back into the fold, but singing and dancing are inappropriate and a fatted calf is out of the question. How’s the kid going to learn responsibility if dad keeps bailing him out?
Enemy love isn’t a problem if your enemies live on the other side of a wall. When we are rarely forced to interact with people who don’t look like us, people who don’t vote like us, people who view us with suspicion, people who may even be plotting our destruction, the consequences of enemy love are lost on us.
Jesus doesn’t just want us to love these people; he calls us to seek them out so we can lavish acts of preemptive love upon them.
Jesus commands us to show special honor to those on the down side of town, people who, in our estimation, live by the wrong rules. We’re supposed to invite these folks to our parties and reconfigure our churches in accordance with their specific needs. in’t nobody got time for that!
Preachers are marketers and the teaching of Jesus isn’t marketable. It may be what we need, but it’s not what we want. We all come to the church house dragging baggage: political opinions and aversions to certain types of people and entertainment.
And we have our addictions. We are addicted to a standard of living, a quality of life, a suite of creature comforts and vacation spots. And we demand preachers who share and celebrate our baggage.
Successful preachers understand what is expected of them and they deliver. The trick is to lionize Jesus without listening to him. The Jesus of popular preaching saves us from our sins and asks nothing in return. He used to demand the tithe, but, in this enlightened age, even that requirement has gone by the board.
In short, we have invented a religion that suits us. People did that before we came along and they will be doing long after our bodies are a-moldering in the grave. Left to our devices, it’s what we do. But God loves us too much to abandon us to our own devices; that’s why he said, “This is my son, the beloved, listen to him.”
So, if we admit we’ve got a problem, what’s the solution?
Disciples make disciples. Only those who observe all things whatsoever Jesus has commanded them can call others to do the same. If Jesus’ teaching is unrealistic, we must be unrealistic. If Jesus was naïve, we must be naïve. If living like Jesus way is impossible, we must attempt the impossible. Either all power in earth and heaven has been given to Jesus or Christianity is a silly dream.
Some churches can make the shift. A few have already made it. But I suspect most American congregations, conservative, moderate and liberal, will stick with what’s marketable.
In that case, we will need to start new churches.
Tiny churches, most likely, but churches that spell out the cost of discipleship in gloriously explicit detail.
Churches that exchange an ungodly culture war for spiritual warfare.
Churches that swap the kingdoms of this world for the kingdom of our God and of his Christ.