The State of Christendom in American Contemporary Culture, Part 4
By Andy Pope
Earlier I tried to convey that people in general aren’t very keenly aware of all the many words of wisdom the Bible has to offer us. These days, it appears to be used more as a political tool than anything else.
Similarly, people are confused as to what it means to be a Christian. Our culture does not present us with a consistent model for Christian behavior. To observe the behavior of professed Christians in our culture— especially as exacerbated by social media — one would not receive a definite idea of what it means to be a follower of Christ.
At one point recently, I was so taken by how differently I see the world than many people who identify as Christians, I sought to change my identification to something slightly different — such as “Christ Follower” — in order to stave off negative preconceptions about my character.
This ended when I saw a certain politician identifying himself as a “Christ Follower.” As I investigated his politics, I found he embraced every so-called “Christian” position I have come to abhor.
So, I returned to my simple identification as a “Christian,” despite being disturbed by the many abominations I saw being performed in the name of Christ. After all, I am still not ashamed of the Gospel itself, and it still provides the power of salvation (Romans 1:16).
But in observing the contrary behavior of many who believe that same Gospel, particularly of those who identify as “born again” or “evangelical,” one naturally wonders how they got that way, how I got this way, and what does this all have to with having been “born again?”
First, the experience associated with one’s having been “born again” into eternal zoe life is real. Not all Christians report such an experience, but many do. Many people in my age cohort had such an experience at an early stage in our adulthood. I myself was 30 at the time.
This was in the 80’s. At the time, a massive “revival” was spreading across the nation, and by 1980, when Ronald Reagan was elected, 35% of American voters identified as “born-again Christian.” And they were markedly more conservative than the average voter.
While our commitment to Christ was certainly genuine, many of us in our youth were entirely ignorant of the extent to which we were unwittingly sucked into an opportunistic Far Right political movement. We were too naive to realize that this crusade was taking advantage of the born-again population in order to pump right-wing propaganda into the pulpits. The infiltration and integration of this extremist movement into what would otherwise have been a reasonably conservative born-again Christianity went largely unnoticed.
To realize how this came about, we need to consider in our study of Scripture which applications are time-honored and universal, and which are only touted because of their relevance to topics of the present day.
If a teaching refers to a universal spiritual principle, e.g., ‘lie not to one another,” (Colossians 3:9), or “love your neighbor as yourself,” (Matthew 19:19, Galatians 5:14, etc.), then the reference is drawn clearly from the biblical text.
But if the teaching refers to a theme that is topical to the present day (e.g., abortion), we notice that the Scriptures evoked do not clearly reference that theme. Why would this be? For example Psalm 119:13-16:
“For You formed my inmost being; You knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Marvelous are Your works, and I know this very well. My frame was not hidden from You when I was made in secret, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all my days were written in Your book and ordained for me before one of them came to be.”
These are beautiful words of truth. However, they do not refer specifically or directly to the act of performing an abortion. In contrast, the references to lying and to the love of neighbor and self are specific and direct. What does this tell us?
It tells us that somewhere along the line, somebody was acting either to confirm a bias or to support an agenda—or both. They were consciously looking for a Scripture that could be used to support anti-abortion politics. That person or group of people already believed that abortion is murder. So, they were trying to find a Bible verse to support their extra-biblical view.
If this were not the case, the Scripture would have a direct reference to the act to which it alludes. “Love your neighbor as yourself” refers to love directly. I found those words first in the Bible, and secondly tried to behave accordingly.
What anti-abortionists do is to start with their own belief—that abortion is murder—and then try to document their position biblically. This is not how the Bible is to be apprehended and is in fact the very opposite of its proper application.
Now I want to make myself clear, so as not to be misunderstood. I am not making a blanket statement about abortion. I believe abortion is clearly murder in some cases, and in other cases this is not clear. In a just and sane society, we will not be forcing people to adhere to our own particular belief systems if those beliefs are not clearly true and are in fact clearly disputable.
It is worth noting that prior to the women’s right’s movement of the 60’s, leading up to the landmark decision of Roe v. Wade in 1973, the subject of abortion was left out of Bible studies, and if passages like the above one from Psalm 119 were cited, it was not in the context of abortion. Moreover, the official Southern Baptist position on abortion was actually pro-choice up until shortly after Roe v. Wade.
This theme is exemplary of a much larger and more insidious movement that involves the subjugation of women and the attempt to maintain a white male patriarchy in American society. The so-called Christian Right has gradually inveigled much of the born-again populace into embracing political policies — particularly with regards to the poor and to marginalized groups — that in many cases are the direct opposite of what the Bible teaches.
The upshot is that we have wound up with a mass of people who share legitimate personal Christian experiences one with another, and yet are oblivious to the extent to which they have been politically indoctrinated by a covert power structure that promotes patriarchal subjugation, Christian nationalism, and white supremacy, among other essentially non-Christian and anti-Christian movements.
However, in the same way that this right-wing infiltration was a reaction to Women’s Liberation and similar movements upholding the rights of oppressed peoples in the 60’s, the response of many in Christian denominations affiliated with the National Council of Churches was to inaugurate a new movement called the Christian Left. As a result, Christians who are aligned with my present political persuasions are drawn toward the ecumenical churches that comprise the NCC.
This leads to my personal quandary with Christendom in the present day. As I engage with evangelicals, I find we often share the experience of having been born again into new life in Jesus Christ. But when politics arise, I find I often disagree. So, I cannot identify with the Christian Right, and naturally I incline toward the Christian Left.
But among those in the Christian Left with whose politics I might agree, I find a much lesser saturation of people who identify with the born-again Christian experience, or who even associate that experience with partaking of the Resurrection Life of Jesus Christ.
What this tells me is that the confluence of reactions and responses to perceived threats that either conservatives or progressives have posed to the well-being of our culture has resulted in a state of division in contemporary Christianity that parallels the political and cultural division of the present day.
In effect, it is no longer politically sufficient for me to identify as a “Christian” alone, according to my New Testament identification in Christ. Instead, I must identify either as an “ecumenical” or an “evangelical” to convey on which side of the great division I stand.
Since I can neither identify fully with either camp nor fully disagree with either, I am placed in the position of defaulting to a more universal Christian identification, something that is unqualified by the cultural trends of the time.
And I’m fine with that. For me personally, my faith is not shaken if I continue, day by day, to turn to Christ. I will also be very vocal about my identification because I would like to see the name of Jesus Christ begin to be held in the great repute that is His due—irrespective of the corruption of this age.
Read parts one, two and three of this series.
Andy Pope is a freelance writer currently residing in Moscow, Idaho, where he is a member of Moscow First Presbyterian Church. His work on social justice has appeared in Classism Exposed in Boston, Berkeleyside in Berkeley, California, and also in the Bay Area newspaper Street Spirit, where his regular column, Homeless No More, encourages those making the transition from homelessness to housing. An accomplished pianist and lifelong musical theatre person, Andy is also the author of “Eden in Babylon,” a musical about youth homelessness in urban America.
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