We, Americans, can be quite ethnocentric. This is especially true of the many Americans who profess to be Christians.
To better understand how far off track much of Americanized Christianity has wandered — especially white Christians who identify largely as evangelical — it helps to hear from fellow believers who share those faith commitments but aren’t Americans.
As part of a global movement, there are many evangelicals who seek to faithfully follow Jesus — but do so without the confusion and burden of some fantasized version of American exceptionalism.
Now I just lost many Americanized Christians because they can’t imagine being Christian without being American — because both of those identities have been merged into a singular one.
And that’s the problem.
Aussie Michael Bird, a theologian and New Testament scholar who teaches at Ridley College in Melbourne as well as at Houston Baptist University, hosted an insightful conversation with historian and religion scholar John Stackhouse about this topic recently.
Stackhouse is a native Canadian who was raised in both England and Ontario. He studied with Mark Noll at Wheaton College and with Martin Marty at the University of Chicago — and “speaks fluent American.”
While acknowledging its wider, global presence and impact, the two focused primarily on how evangelicalism in the U.S. differs from its counterparts in Canada, Australia and the U.K.
Here’s what Stackhouse, who currently teaches at the Crandall University in Canada, noted: “This huge, big sibling of ours in the U.S. is the odd one out.”
Specially, he noted, “There is a linkage between evangelicalism and national identity, and white identity.” He added that while American evangelicals choose to not see or acknowledge this reality, “the rest of us notice.”
Stackhouse, a historian, pointed to how evangelicalism swept across the American frontier and established itself as a dominant religious presence in many parts of the U.S. — leading to both a melding of identities and an appetite for power.
“In America, evangelicals can think they either run the country — or they should,” he said. “Nowhere else do evangelicals think that.”
This fear of losing cultural dominance drives American evangelicalism in ways unfamiliar to global evangelicals, he said. The driving fear is that “the whole thing is going down the sewer if we don’t dig in.”
While global evangelicals likewise believe the Bible to be “true and trustworthy,” American evangelicals uniquely weaponize it for controlling purposes, the two men asserted.
“Inerrancy is an unfortunate term,” said Stackhouse, “because it’s a double negative: not errant.” He prefers Bird’s use of “veracity” to describe the truthfulness of the scriptures.
“The Bible is not an information book; it’s a transformation book,” said Stackhouse. “The plot is the salvation story, not who’s right.”
American evangelicals often use the concept of biblical inerrancy “to do a lot of enforcement of group boundaries,” said Bird. “If there’s someone in your tribe you don’t like, you just get the inerrancy charge out against them.”
This kind of theological sledgehammering married to tribalized fear and nationalistic fervor has created what Stackhouse calls an “ongoing circus” among U.S. evangelicals.
Bird uses even stronger terminology: “It can lead to what I’ll call, controversially, the ‘talibanization’ of American conservative evangelicalism.”
Stackhouse plays out his broader understanding of evangelicalism and the oddity of its U.S. relative in an upcoming book, Evangelicalism: A Very Short Introduction, to be released this spring from Oxford University Press.
English-speaking evangelicals in Canada, Australia and the U.K. have their own idols, he confessed. “Our idol is comfort” — not wanting to be disturbed.
“But our American friends have a much more dramatic problem,” said Stackhouse. “And that is their idolatry of their nation getting mixed with their Christianity.”
And that idolatry, he said, “needs to be named and confronted.”
“How do we make evangelicalism great again in America?” Bird wryly queried.
Stackhouse offered a solution: “If they could let America be, and focus on Jesus and our mission, they would instantly come to their senses.”
However, that would be very difficult for American evangelicals to do at this stage, he admits. Perhaps it can happen with the next generation, Bird surmised.
Stackhouse advised not thinking of evangelicals exclusively as conservatives, noting that familiar evangelical marks such as being Bible-centric, trinitarian and evangelistic are joined by populism and pragmatism.
“Evangelicals are only selectively conservative,” he said, noting the innovation of using all kinds of media to get their messages out.
And, oddly, he notes, it’s evangelicals — those using biblical inerrancy as a test of faith — who “put the Bible into all kinds of contemporary forms with little regard for the text.”
The best way to think of evangelicalism, Stackhouse suggested, “is [as] a style of Christianity.”
Such insights from fellow believers beyond our nationalistic boundaries could be helpful to Americanized Christians who might have eyes to see and ears to hear — rather than quickly becoming defensive.
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.