A So-Called Christian Nation
Passages from "The Christian Paradox: How a faithful nation gets Jesus wrong" by Bill McKibben (Harper's Magazine):
Three quarters of Americans believe the Bible teaches that “God helps those who help themselves.” That is, three out of four Americans believe that this uber-American idea, a notion at the core of our current individualist politics and culture, which was in fact uttered by Ben Franklin, actually appears in Holy Scripture. The thing is, not only is Franklin’s wisdom not biblical; it’s counter-biblical. Few ideas could be further from the gospel message, with its radical summons to love of neighbor.
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In 2004, as a share of our economy, we ranked second to last, after Italy, among developed countries in government foreign aid. Per capita we each provide fifteen cents a day in official development assistance to poor countries. And it’s not because we were giving to private charities for relief work instead. Such funding increases our average daily donation by just six pennies, to twenty-one cents. It’s also not because Americans were too busy taking care of their own; nearly 18 percent of American children lived in poverty (compared with, say, 8 percent in Sweden). In fact, by pretty much any measure of caring for the least among us you want to propose—childhood nutrition, infant mortality, access to preschool—we come in nearly last among the rich nations, and often by a wide margin. The point is not just that (as everyone already knows) the American nation trails badly in all these categories; it’s that the overwhelmingly Christian American nation trails badly in all these categories, categories to which Jesus paid particular attention. And it’s not as if the numbers are getting better: the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported last year that the number of households that were “food insecure with hunger” had climbed more than 26 percent between 1999 and 2003.
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Are Americans hypocrites? Of course they are. But most people (me, for instance) are hypocrites. The more troubling explanation for this disconnect between belief and action, I think, is that most Americans—which means most believers—have replaced the Christianity of the Bible, with its call for deep sharing and personal sacrifice, with a competing creed.
In fact, there may be several competing creeds. For many Christians, deciphering a few passages of the Bible to figure out the schedule for the End Times has become a central task. You can log on to RaptureReady.com for a taste of how some of these believers view the world—at this writing the Rapture Index had declined three points to 152 because, despite an increase in the number of U.S. pagans, “Wal-Mart is falling behind in its plan to bar code all products with radio tags.” Other End-Timers are more interested in forcing the issue—they’re convinced that the way to coax the Lord back to earth is to “Christianize” our nation and then the world. Consider House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. At church one day he listened as the pastor, urging his flock to support the administration, declared that “the war between America and Iraq is the gateway to the Apocalypse.” DeLay rose to speak, not only to the congregation but to 225 Christian TV and radio stations. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “what has been spoken here tonight is the truth of God.”
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The apocalyptics, however, are the lesser problem. It is another competing (though sometimes overlapping) creed, this one straight from the sprawling megachurches of the new exurbs, that frightens me most. Its deviation is less obvious precisely because it looks so much like the rest of the culture. In fact, most of what gets preached in these palaces isn’t loony at all. It is disturbingly conventional. The pastors focus relentlessly on you and your individual needs. Their goal is to service consumers—not communities but individuals: “seekers” is the term of art, people who feel the need for some spirituality in their (or their children’s) lives but who aren’t tightly bound to any particular denomination or school of thought. The result is often a kind of soft-focus, comfortable, suburban faith.
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... Since the days of Constantine, emperors and rich men have sought to co-opt the teachings of Jesus. As in so many areas of our increasingly market-tested lives, the co-opters—the TV men, the politicians, the Christian “interest groups”—have found a way to make each of us complicit in that travesty, too. They have invited us to subvert the church of Jesus even as we celebrate it. With their help we have made golden calves of ourselves—become a nation of terrified, self-obsessed idols. It works, and it may well keep working for a long time to come. When Americans hunger for selfless love and are fed only love of self, they will remain hungry, and too often hungry people just come back for more of the same.