Some questions arose in my mind recently — leading to a more troubling question that we seem to fear giving serious consideration.
But first, the lesser questions that launched this line of thinking: Does my gut reaction to “Christian” television match how many feel about Americanized Christianity in general? And to what degree are those negative reactions justified?
Overly defensive persons will retreat to the unhelpful perspective of claiming widespread misperceptions of their values and faith expressions — with some even presenting themselves as persecuted. The reality, however, is that many negative images of Americanized Christianity are tragically accurate and largely the results of self-inflicted wounds.
There’s a significant and notable difference between being humbly honest about human frailties (reflected in the ongoing failures to live up to our professions of faith) and arrogantly proclaiming a false rightness (or righteousness) based on self-serving ideologies that have been poorly baptized.
While channel surfing through the many options on a hotel TV recently, I noticed a pattern: My fingers went into high gear on the remote control when reaching a series of channels that proclaimed to be “Christian.”
I raced through those as quickly as the “news” channels known for hawking unfounded conspiracy theories that make the privileged feel fearful and deprived. My reaction, I noted, was more than just a lack of interest in a subject; it was repulsion.
Such reactions are not merely emotional responses to religious authoritarians with bad fashion styles and worse theology.
Some of the preachers/hosts are proven frauds, still milking the gullible. Others turn what should be an offering of God’s grace into a self-serving, scripture-twisting political perspective with no semblance to what Jesus said and did.
Sure, there are exceptions. But they are the lesser voices.
Witness is the result of both perception and reality. So, what about negative perceptions of Americanized Christianity at large today? Are they based in more reality than many want to admit?
When passing a church building, what can be assumed? Is it perceived as a place of welcome and care, or of condemnation and exclusion? Is it a political effort of self-preserved white power wrapped in religious garb?
Driving through a part of the country where fewer churches abound than in the Southeast, I took notice of my assumptions and reactions to those structures. What messages did I get — not only from church names and denominational identities, but also from the overt symbols displayed?
Does the prominent American flag that flies steeple high (or higher) mean the church has a greater nationalistic allegiance than one to the boundary-less kingdom of God?
And why are the Ten Commandments displayed on a large placard visible from the street? What motivates a Christian congregation to display these ancient Jewish laws rather than what Christ said are the two greatest commandments that fulfill all the laws and prophets?
Can one rightly assume that a political statement is being made rather than an affirmation of seeking to — and inviting others to — follow Jesus? Are these signals being given intentionally or just habitually, having not been well thought out?
It is time for Americanized Christians to think more seriously about what public image is being conveyed — and how much of that identity comes from abandoning Jesus for lesser causes.
It’s risky, but necessary, to go down such a road even when it leads to the big question that is hardest to face: Is it possible, even likely, that church-going, Americanized Christians are not more Christ-like people — with an actual commitment to truth — than those outside of the institutional flock?
I’ll wait while all the curtains of defensiveness rise quickly in an effort to dismiss the seriousness of this question. But it is still there — waiting for an honest response.
The question is not about being more biblically literate or supportive of church causes. It’s not about attendance records or a baptismal experience.
It’s about whether there is real evidence of being Christ followers who reflect the life and teachings of Jesus.
The reality is that religious-based bigotry and authority-rooted abuse tend to get more deeply ingrained when those perspectives are presented as divinely sanctioned. Therefore, it becomes harder to let go of these harmful ways than those perspectives that are considered mere opinions open to change when new information arises.
Often, the hardest persons to convert are the so-called converted. When it comes to emerging truth, the most firmly entrenched are often those who embrace untruths disguised as divine truth.
Within Americanized Christianity there appears to be no higher commitment to truth than those outside this faith tradition — if by truth one means that which is factual.
Whether looking at recent surveys or just reading social media posts from family and friends, we see the large degree to which white American evangelicals embrace conspiracy theories and outright, easily disprovable lies; oppose compassionate responses to refugees, immigrants and others in need; and support political efforts to retain cultural dominance even at the expense of basic principles of justice, equality and democracy.
Widespread perceptions of Americanized Christians as not holding to the values of Jesus are based in enough reality to create a poor, though accurate, image and, therefore, a negative witness. Even one that deserves repulsion.
It would be much easier to stay defensive and simply dismiss or ignore the most troubling but needed questions of the day that so few are willing to consider.
However, hopeful reformation and reclamation — whether called deconstruction and reconstruction or confession and conversion — require such an honest reckoning. It’s the only way to Jesus.
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.