Pulitzer Prize winning author Jon Meacham recently said: “People don’t like being told they are wrong.”
Defensiveness often accompanies being proven wrong as well. Many prefer comfortable untruth to uncomfortable truth.
Since being told or proven to be wrong is not well received, perhaps a better approach is to equip ourselves to reach such understandings on our own.
Many Americanized Christians, in particular, seem to be on the defensive against any criticism. This is especially true when it comes to exposure of how those who profess the Christian faith have so often been on the wrong side of basic human rights.
That is an uncomfortable truth. Too often, there is a quick defense of one’s particular religious/political ideology by grabbing onto some false history or other efforts at justification.
Much of the misinformation spread within my social media feed and overheard in conversations could be remedied by familiarity with a few well-rooted concepts. Here are six that could be particularly helpful.
1. The Doctrine of Discovery
It may seem odd to go back to 1493, but the Papal Bull issued then by Pope Alexander VI still impacts perceptions today. It gave divine cover to the conquest of the New World.
Columbus and other explorers were empowered to take lands by any means from those considered unchristian. This idea fueled westward expansion across America and the horrific mistreatment of Indigenous people in many places.
2. Manifest Destiny
Similarly, a new phrase arose in the mid-19th century to further fuel the idea of “American exceptionalism.”
Again, God was recruited to endorse the domination of white settlers — by any means — over all others in the name of advancing Christianity and a superior cultural identity.
Injustices then and now get excused by the false notion that white supremacy is by God’s design.
3. Lost Cause ideology
In a recent column, I noted my own experience of being saturated in Lost Cause narratives.
This ideology seeks through revisionist (untrue) history to justify the Confederate rebellion against the United States. Well-constructed, oft-repeated false narratives seek to make heroes out of the treasonous and downplay the tragic defense of slavery — in which white churches were major players.
4. Ceremonial deism
This phrase is a jumping-off spot for a broader and needed understanding of civil religion (mixed allegiances) that can and does lead to the dangerous heresy of Christian nationalism.
Authoritatively delivered but ill-informed framings of how our nation was formed serve the needs of those who choose defensiveness over truth — and show no interest in actually learning from past mistakes and improving one’s own life and the lives of others.
“We’re a Christian nation” assertions spread like weeds in a new garden across social media and in other circles.
This defense often notes some vague reference to God by some early American leaders — despite the fact that the nation’s founders intentionally created the U.S. Constitution to be a secular (not a bad word) document that ensures equal religious liberty for all.
References to “the Almighty” or “Providence” — and the 1950s adoption of “In God We Trust” as the national motto and the insertion of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance — are considered so vague and merely ritualistic as to not violate church-state separation.
That is the conclusion the U.S. Supreme Court made in 1984, making use of the term “ceremonial deism” that (according to Wikipedia) was coined in 1962 by Yale Law School Dean Eugene Rostow.
Christians, however, do not worship a generic, ceremonial deity — but rather the God made known most fully in Jesus Christ. It is religious liberty for all (not favoritism for some) that has allowed this nation to be a place where faith can freely flourish.
5. Stages of culture shock
Even those who do not travel abroad or engage heavily with other cultures can benefit from learning and recognizing the stages of culture shock.
Tragically, many Americanized Christians are at the forefront of hostilities toward those with cultural differences, especially when migration changes a community.
Being aware of one’s ethnocentric tendencies — assuming that our ways are the right ways and that different is the same as wrong — is the first step in learning to live with compassion.
And, perhaps surprisingly, there is much to learn from cross-cultural engagement. And a lot of good food to discover.
These five understandings can help us to better grasp our changing culture without defaulting to defensiveness. They allow us to discern more truthfully what is culturally impactful and what is spiritually faithful.
But there is a sixth concept that we too often ignore.
6. An all-encompassing focus on the life and teachings of Jesus, which is the basis for GFM’s Jesus Worldview Initiative.
If we dare to bear the Christian label, then our commitment to following Jesus must rightly be the defining element for how we perceive our world and all who are in it — and how we act accordingly.
By doing so, we not only find truth but also the way of life that is abundant and free.
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.