The U.S. is as divided as it’s been in decades.
We’re divided politically and culturally. Geographically, we’re becoming increasingly divided into ever more concentrated conservative and liberal pockets.
We’re economically divided, too. The richest individuals are getting richer while most Americans struggle – or fail – to keep up. And our richest states and cities are getting richer, while the poorest areas of our country are increasingly left behind.
The more divided we become, the harder it is for Americans to agree on anything.
In the last few years, we’ve seen vehement, angry disagreement over issues of class, race, culture, sexuality and politics.
Economically, politically, culturally and socially the middle is disappearing. And as the middle disappears, our national ability to reach broad consensus on any issue becomes increasingly less likely.
But, according to new research released by the Barna Group, there is one thing Americans can agree on: eight in 10 Americans are concerned about the moral condition of our country.
In a nation as divided as ours, it’s remarkable that you can get 80 percent of Americans to agree on anything.
To summarize the report, the Barna team writes, “A majority of American adults across age group, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status and political ideology expresses concern about the nation’s moral condition.”
In other words, at least one issue seems to cut across all of the identity markers that are increasingly dividing us, and that issue is the moral condition of our country.
Even when allowing for an undeniable bias toward the present – every election is the most important of our lifetimes and the current moment always seems to be the defining moment of a generation – we are at a significant point in American history.
Eighty percent of Americans feel some sense that the moral status quo isn’t what’s needed for our future. The question then becomes, “What moral vision, if any, will guide us as a people going forward?”
For 35 years now, fundamentalist Christians have been fighting for a guiding ethic that has largely been rejected – and correctly so – as legalistic, judgmental, anti-intellectual and lacking in compassion toward marginalized minorities. This study – and others -reflects that rejection.
So what’s next? Was the fundamentalist incarnation of American Christianity the last gasp of the “Christian” worldview?
Or are there enough of us left who believe in the basic truths of Christianity and the guiding ethic of love of neighbor to create a 21st century moral framework that the majority of Americans can embrace?
While Americans overwhelmingly agree that the moral condition of our country is cause for concern, there’s less agreement about what to do about it.
Younger generations are more likely to call for a moral relativism that sounds a lot like the biblical lament in the days of the judges when everybody did what was right in their own eyes (Judges 17:6; 21:25).
Today, 74 percent of Millennials and a strong majority of Gen-Xers agree that “Whatever is right for your life or works best for you is the only truth you can know.”
I wonder if there’s still a chance for goodwill Christians to do the community-building – and perhaps even community-transforming – work of developing a shared understanding of truth and right.
Previous Christian attempts at this have regularly placed doctrine and ideology ahead of people.
We’ve used our own definitions of righteousness and our relative positions of privilege and power to exclude and demean.
And, we’ve uncompromisingly demanded that the world come to our positions without being willing to engage in substantive dialogue aimed at developing common ground.
In short, we’ve done all the things that Jesus dedicated his ministry to combating.
Throughout a strategic planning process in my congregation, one of the questions we’ve been asking is this: “Why does our community need a church like ours?”
There are lots and lots of churches in our county, many of them with larger footprints and broader reaches into the community than ours. So what makes us unique? What’s our niche? Why does God need us?
These are vital questions for all congregations to be asking.
Maybe God needs us to proclaim a Christian truth that stands as an alternative to both the rejected fundamentalist Christian worldview and the rising secular worldview that places individual fulfillment and relativistic truth ahead of foundational Christian principles like love of neighbor and self-sacrifice for the good of the community.
When Christ first shared his vision of what the world should look like and how society should be ordered, his vision was radical and counter-cultural. It still is.
If America is at a real moral turning point – and I think we may be – then we have a real opportunity to be a positive force for change in our culture.
But only if churches choose to use their voices to offer a clear moral alternative in our communities.
It won’t be easy. Offering a clear moral alternative often means proactively redefining what it means to be a Christian to our friends and neighbors who have seen the ugly side of fundamentalism and given up on the moral teachings of Christ altogether.
So it will take courage. To clearly speak love in an environment of fear always does. Ultimately, it means standing in the middle and taking fire from both sides.
But that’s what Jesus did. He stood between Romans and Pharisees, Gentiles and Jews, pagans and faithful believers, and offered an alternative vision (Matthew 23:36-40) somewhere between “whatever feels right for you” relativism (instead, love God) and the rigid dogmatism of religious fundamentalists (instead, love neighbor).
He called it the Kingdom of God and said its first characteristic was love. And then he asked us to follow him. Maybe now’s the time to take him up on his offer.
Matt Sapp is pastor of Central Baptist Church in Newnan, Georgia.