Religion and Its Publics Co-Director Charles Mathewes recently contributed to the Washington Post with a piece entitled “White Christianity is in big trouble. And it’s its own biggest threat.” Read the full article below.
“White Christianity is in big trouble. And it’s its own biggest threat”
Charles Mathewes | December 19, 2017
It’s that time of year again, when we hear about the profanity of “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” and about Starbucks’ covert “war on Christmas,” run through their seasonal coffee cups. Inevitably, President Trump has intervened, insisting that stores everywhere “don’t have Merry Christmas. They don’t have Merry Christmas. I want them to say, ‘Merry Christmas, everybody.’” Once again, we are awakened to the terrible assaults on the Christian heritage of our nation.
This year, however, it’s increasingly difficult not to notice that the main threat to Christianity in America comes from American Christians themselves.
Earlier this month, the Supreme Court heard a case from a baker who argued his Christian convictions led him to refuse to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. Last week, we witnessed the spectacle of white Christians in Alabama who convinced themselves either that the man they hoped to elect as their senator was not so creepy around young girls as to get himself banned from a mall (fact check: he was), or that the behavior that got him banned is actually biblical in character, and therefore okay (exegesis check: it isn’t). In the end, 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Moore.
When we’ve reached a place where good Christian folk think it’s a matter of major theological principle not to sell pastries to gay people but are willing to give pedophiles a pass, I think it’s safe to say that American Christianity today — white American Christianity in particular — is in a pretty sorry state.
It’s not just that a vocal segment of white Christians can’t tell righteous leaders from sexual predators and overestimate the power of baked goods to communicate spiritual messages; our failures are wider and deeper and more foundational than that. We’re remarkably ignorant of the history and the current state of the world we inhabit, and no better with scientific knowledge either. We don’t believe the media, but we’ll believe the most incredible Twitter rumor or Facebook post, curated for us by Vladimir Putin. We are surprisingly ignorant about religion, not only other people’s, but even our own.
But perhaps most importantly, white Christians seem unwilling to be guided by the plain truth of our shared faith. Instead of forming judgments about how to live our lives based on how our religious convictions interact with real-life circumstances, we pass off irascible reactions as theological principles. White evangelical Christians like guns, for example, and do not especially likeimmigrants. Compared to other demographics, we’re excited about the death penalty, indifferent to those who are impoverished or infirm, and blind to racial and gender inequalities. We claim to read the Bible and hear Jesus’ teachings, but we think poor people deserve what they (don’t) get, and the inmates of our prisons deserve, if anything, worse than the horrors they already receive. For believers in a religion whose Scriptures teach compassion, we’re a breathtakingly cruel bunch.
Indeed it’s hard to know who we do feel pity toward, except ourselves — for we believe that we are the real victims in today’s world. Those among us who are evangelical Christians are especially paranoid: While Americans overall are twice as likely to say there is more discrimination against Muslims than against Christians, the numbers are almost reversed for white evangelical Protestants. And apparently things are getting worse: the percentage of evangelicals who said that religious freedom in the U.S. declined over the past decade rose from 60 percent in 2012 to 77 percent in 2015.
There are many factors — historical, social and political — that have helped shape white American Christianity into what it is today. But when it comes to keeping us away from the core truths of our faith, I suspect this one error is key: Christians today seem governed by fear. Theologians as well as psychologists will tell you that there is a spiritual peril in acting out of fear and a sense of danger. Fear drives us into patterns of “reasoning” that are far from reasonable, but more akin to reactionary patterns of cause-and-effect. And fear moves us away from the core of Christianity — love. “There is no fear in love; but perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love,” says the first epistle of John.
The tyranny of fear in white Christian life is especially visible among white evangelicals, who stand out in their opposition to pluralism in America. While all other religious groups, like Americans overall, oppose letting small business owners refuse to serve gay and lesbian people — by margins of roughly two to one — white evangelicals, by 56 percent to 39 percent, say shopkeepers should be allowed to so discriminate. And Christians’ defensiveness is increasing: in 2012, 54 percent of white evangelicals supported giving preference to “traditional Judeo-Christian values”; that number rose to 76 percent in 2015. What’s true of white evangelicals is a leading indicator for white Christians as a whole. The fear of the future makes us, in Jesus’ words, strain at gnats while we swallow camels (Mt 23:24).
This is disastrous because, from the perspective of hope, in many ways our age represents an unprecedented opportunity for Christians. The collapse of Christendom over the past few centuries has created a potentially more egalitarian, authentic and pluralistic religious world. Serious relationships with members of other religious traditions, as well as atheists, teaches believers more about their faith than we would ever have otherwise known. Religious and secular human rights activists uncover the depths of our world’s suffering and pain and display more of God’s care for the oppressed, the marginalized, and the abused. The incredible tumult among ordinary churchgoers increases theological literacy in the pews, so that 500 years after the Reformation, Luther’s dream of a “Priesthood of all believers” is potentially closer than ever.
Ironically, it may well be that it is Christians’ fears about losing control of the culture that have accelerated the rise of secularism itself. (This has been an open secret in the sociology of religion for almost two decades.) Consider the rise of the “Nones” in American public life — those adults, especially younger adults, who when asked about their religious affiliation, say “none.” For decades that number was very low, but then it began to increase rapidly in the 1980s. Why was that? It seems to be caused by the tight alliance of Christianity, especially conservative white Christianity, with conservative politics over the past several decades — an association itself driven by prophesies of a rising tide of godlessness in America after the 1960s. Those prophesies about the 1960s were wrong; but they fueled the alliance of white Christians with right-wing politics from the 1980s forward, and that alliance has repelled many younger people from religion out of a distaste at seeing religion so eagerly bend the knee to short-term political gain. That is to say, Christians’ response to a misperceived crisis have become, in fact, a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Pope John Paul II, who most American Christians (even Protestants like me) would allow was a pretty good Christian, said in his first homily as pope, “Do not be afraid!” This remains useful theological advice. If we are Christians, we must believe that we are safer in God’s hands than in our own. We should take no care for the morrow, but preach compassion and mercy to all, without distinction. If we do that, they’ll know we are Christians by our love — rather than our fear.
A response to this piece was posted by Hannah Schell, Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Monmouth College, entitled “Beyond ‘Warm and Fuzzy’ Mentoring” (January 15, 2018). Read Schell’s brief introduction to the response and find a link to the full response below:
“Shelli Poe’s recent post, “Using Religion? Higher Ed, Vocation, and Systemic Justice,” raises some serious questions that need to be considered by people engaged in the development and implementation of programs focused on the “vocational discernment” for undergraduates. For my response to Shelli’s blog, and for some thoughts about the implications on vocation-centered programs, please see my post at VocationMatters.org.”
December 11, 2017
Shelli M. Poe, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Millsaps College, explores the role of religion in millennials’ present vocational understanding — and how a new way forward is necessary to enact real systemic justice.
Millennials, it turns out, have been maligned. They’re not as politically and socially passive as they have been depicted; in fact, they believe in volunteering, and they want their employment to make a meaningful difference in the world. Yet, according to the Harvard Public Opinion Project Spring 2017 Survey, Millennials are less likely than previous generations to run for public office or engage in direct political action.
While I don’t put too much stock in such generalizations or appreciate stereotyping entire generations, such surveys can offer an opportunity for reflection on young people’s civic engagement. As the director of a vocational inquiry program at a small liberal arts institution, it’s especially important for me to help students link the academic work they are undertaking in preparation for their intended careers with their social responsibilities in the wider world. There are a number of ways to do that, through coursework, community engaged learning, internships, and co-curricular experiences.
Complicating the picture, however, we are also told that Millennials want to feel, or they do feel, special. To some degree, this desire spans generations. But its apparent prevalence among current college students can present a special set of opportunities or challenges for those engaged in vocational inquiry programs.
Some institutions of higher education, drawing on their histories, might take to religion as a way to both forge the connection between individual careers and social ethics, and to capitalize on Millennials’ desire for “the feels.” In this effort, they could employ a common (though not altogether nuanced) portrayal of Martin Luther, himself often presented as a singular hero of history, to tout the special calling of each unique individual: it is not only the priest, minister, or monk who has a call from God, but also the bus driver, the barkeep, the barista, and the business woman. Each person has work to do that, as John Cotton would say within an American context, in serving humanity will also serve God.
This much might just as well be true. But institutions of higher education sometimes go even further to assure students that, should they matriculate, the institution will help them find their true, God-given, unique calling, in just four years’ time.
My situation, both theologically and institutionally, is rather different. I study the work of Friedrich Schleiermacher, whose thought is not very amenable to drawing out the God-given vocations of individuals as individuals. For Schleiermacher, divine providence includes individuals only insofar as they are part of communities within the created nexus of life. The individual person—though invaluable in worth and dignity, and to be respected as such—is where she is, doing what she is doing, because of a great web of interconnections that, in so many ways, have nothing particularly to do with her. While Schleiermacher acknowledges that individuals have a feeling of partial freedom, he also has a very keen sense of the conditions and communities within which individuals exist and act.
Vocational inquiry, in this context, would not seem to be a situation that calls for individuals to engage, in a sentimental usage of Frederick Buechner’s work, in profound introspection about the meeting place of “my deep gladness” and “the world’s deep need”. Instead, vocational inquiry might look like a) a simple recognition that we—special as we may be—only exist and act in relation to others within certain structures of nature and society, b) a subsequent study of and engagement with those complex relations, and c) sustained, collective, systemic efforts toward the establishment of a just society.
In short, Schleiermacher’s way of thinking might encourage students to avoid individualistic characterizations of self and one’s relation to the world, and atomistic understandings of social forces. Individualism and atomism are ways of understanding self and world that can motivate students to engage in volunteering efforts and help them feel that they are making a difference, but these efforts and feelings are not likely to have a lasting or transformative impact on the structures of society.
The mismatch between Schleiermacher’s thought and the desires of Millennial students to hear in institutions of higher education about their unique and irreplaceable calling might seem unfortunate. Because of this mismatch, I am not able to tell my students that I will use my research interests to help them intellectually frame and then find that one thing that only they can do, which will visibly make a monumental difference in the world, and be accompanied by all the gravitas that God-talk can summon. I am not able to capitalize on their desire to feel especially called-out, unique, and important.
The great advantage of the mismatch, however, is that I can ask my students to consider their involvement in the world as one piece of humanity’s collaborative work. This might lead me to say (or at least think) things like, “Your deep gladness, discerned in your prayer closet, is probably not all that important to your future employers.” And, “The ‘world’s deep need’ is so unfathomably complex that you will not be able to diagnose any portion of it properly until you are much older, if at all; and even then you will not be able to satisfy that need by yourself.” And even, “God isn’t going to intervene in your life on account of the deepest desires of your heart, placing opportunities in front of you that will become your existential fulfillment.” Admittedly, none of these remarks are warm and fuzzy. I have no “feels.”
But the earlier students can understand that identifying the confluence of their “deep gladness” and the world’s “deep need” is exceedingly difficult and has nothing to do with being adequately equipped for a career within that confluence, the better. And the more they come to see themselves as part of a landscape over which they have limited control or influence, the less they might feel the weight of the world on their shoulders, as though its salvation depends on them alone. Hopefully, they may come to simply open their eyes to the world around them and begin to investigate the complexity of the structures within which they live. They might find structures that need challenging or further development, and this, in turn, might lead to actions that make systemic, rather than ad hoc, change.
Will this perspective on vocational inquiry help institutions of higher education form Millennials and future generations of students who will become politically engaged in more ways than posting on social media? Will it lead to responsible entrepreneurship rather than simply volunteering after-hours? Will it get them out of the chaplain’s office (fine as that might be, for a time) and into the lab? Perhaps, at least, it could help students’ educators and mentors avoid using religion to keep students’ insulating and isolating blinders on, and get them engaged in systemic efforts toward justice.
Shelli M. Poe is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Director of Vocation, Ethics, and Society and the Director of the Initiative of Vocational Inquiry at Millsaps College.