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American Christianity in Crisis

The great divide
by Rick Rouse | August 31, 2022

Not since the Civil War have Americans been as divided as they are today. Just as the political climate in the nation has become increasingly polarized, so too those who claim the name Christian find themselves on either side of a chasm of ideology that grows wider every day. Theologian Marcus Borg offers the following observation: “We live in a time of a deeply divided Christianity. Unlike fifty or a hundred years ago, the divisions are not primarily denominational. Rather, the major division is between what I call ‘an earlier Christian paradigm’ and an ‘emerging Christian paradigm,’ between a belief-centered way of being Christian and a transformational-centered way of being Christian. To use conventional labels, the division is between conservative and progressive Christians.” (Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary)

This divide has been exacerbated by the marriage of the political right with Evangelical Christianity. It is frightening to witness how a political party has “weaponized religion” for the purpose of promoting a particular agenda and consolidation of power. The end game appears to be to overturn democracy and replace it with a theocracy or otherwise authoritarian system of governance.

A history of racism

Racism has permeated American Christianity. In his new book, Christianity Corrupted, The Scandal of White Supremacy, Dr. Jermaine Marshall recounts how the founders of America were European colonialists and enlightened thinkers who equated whiteness with perfection. This initial basis for white supremacy was the result of racial classifications of the 17th century that considered white Europeans as culturally and racially superior. Race was constructed to keep all other races subjected to one race through oppression. Race was a political construction, not a biological one. European culture and religion became associated with whiteness. Seen as superior to all other races, this led to the Doctrine of Discovery established by Pope Alexander in 1493 that gave European Explorers the right to claim and exploit any land and its people not inhabited by Christians. Marshall goes on to suggest that the real scandal of this Enlightenment theory of race was that its roots were to be found in Puritanism and Anglicanism. These Christian faith traditions became a major catalyst for white supremacy and white privilege. 

Michael Emerson writes about the evolution of this White Christianity for Sojourners Magazine: “In the U.S. today, an entire religion has developed around the worship of the dominance, centrality, privilege, and assumed universality of being white. ‘White is right,’ so this religion postulates, and it has developed a particular set of beliefs, practices (such as a highly selective use of biblical scriptures), and organizations to support, defend, and teach its ‘faith.’” 

The danger of White Christian Nationalism

White Christian Nationalism is an anti-democratic movement that will gain or retain power by any means. Since 2019, the American Baptist Commission on Religious Liberty has been warning about the dangers that Christian Nationalism poses to the future of both democracy and Christianity in this country. They have issued the following statement: “Christian nationalism seeks to merge Christian and American identities, distorting both the Christian faith and America’s constitutional democracy. Christian nationalism demands Christianity be privileged by the State and implies that to be a good American, one must be Christian. It often overlaps with and provides cover for white supremacy and racial subjugation. We reject this damaging political ideology and invite our Christian brothers and sisters to join us in opposing this threat to our faith and to our nation … Whether we worship at a church, mosque, synagogue, or temple, America has no second-class faiths. All are equal under the U.S. Constitution. As Christians, we must speak in one voice condemning Christian nationalism as a distortion of the gospel of Jesus and a threat to American democracy.” (ChristiansAgainstChristianNationalism.org) 

Conflicting images of God: what does it mean to follow Jesus?

Christianity in America is in crisis and facing a tipping point that will determine the future and influence of the Church in this country for years to come. Out of the great divide in American Christianity has come two very different visions or understandings of who God is and what it means to be a faithful Christian. On the one hand, it seems we have a vengeful God of judgment and a militant Jesus who calls people to take up arms if necessary to save our nation from a moral abyss. On the other hand, we have a God of grace and compassion and a Jesus who calls us to act with love and justice for all. One is a religion of exclusion that only includes those who live by God’s strict standards, the other is a religion of inclusion that boasts of a God with a wide embrace. The question is whether people of the Christian faith will continue to be deceived by myths and false prophets that promise power, prosperity, and greatness. Or will they return to their Gospel roots and follow Jesus in the way of love and humble service? Perhaps American Christians will remain hopelessly divided and the Gospel witness of grace and hope will be overshadowed—unless grace-filled believers speak out and help heal the divide.

Register for the author’s upcoming course: From Holy Rage to Holy Hope: The Pastor as Public Leader, & Congregations as Healing Communities

About the Author

Rick Rouse

Rev. Dr. Richard Rouse has served as a pastor and teacher in the ELCA for nearly fifty years. He was adjunct professor at Luther Seminary, teaching in the Doctor of Ministry program on Missional Leadership and also taught in the TEEM program at the Lutheran Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas. He is an author, spiritual director, and serves the Northwest Washington Synod as a parish consultant in the areas of leadership, visioning, and strategic planning.

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