Let me begin by saying that some of my best friends are Christian. I really have nothing against the religion but it’s just so confusing—some Christians like the current President; other despise him. Some embrace hatred and violence; others are pacifists and preach love. What is with American Christians? Are they good for America? Bad? There’s so many of them and they have been around so long, it is impossible to say that they have had no impact on American history and society.
The easy route would be to do what many Christians do to other religions: lump all adherents together and generalize about the tradition. Like with Islam, for instance. All Muslims are terrorists, is what many American Christians believe. So, the easiest thing to do if you’re a non-Christian is just use stereotypes based on the actions of some adherents to represent the truth about all Christianity. All Christians are racists, might be one way to put it. Or how about: All Christians worship money.
Does either one of those statements capture the true essence of American Christianity? While it is easy to say that some white nationalist Christians are racists, or that some black and white Christians, and even the current president, follow a gospel of prosperity, neither one would really be a fair characterization of an entire religion, right? The fact is (if you believe in facts), American Christianity—like Islam, by the way, or Judaism, or Buddhism, and so on—is complex, nuanced, and shot through with differences. Some might even say that, when you think about it, there is no such a thing as a “Christian” when confronted with the profound diversity within that label. Heck, history is rife with Christians killing Christians, and I think it’s safe to say that today in America, Christians sure do still hate each other.
Perhaps it would be best for us as a nation dominated by Christians if we all paused for a moment and engaged in serious intellectual reflection and collective learned deliberations and ask: what has Christianity really done for our country?
Nah, just kidding. Rather than thinking and researching and pondering and intellectualizing (snooze fest, I know), let me try a series of sensational and simplistic bullet points:
-American Christianity has historically been dominated by white Protestant heterosexual males, who have pretty much been in positions of power from the get go.
-American Christians can be pretty cruel to each other—think the Civil War, or rampant anti-Catholicism in the 19th century, or the recent election.
-American Christians like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Cesar Chavez and Dorothy Day have led the way in promoting social justice and human rights.
-American Christians are obsessed with sexuality—not just intercourse mind you, but a whole gamut of issues associated with human sexuality, like reproduction, orientation and identity, gender, pleasure, family, celibacy, relationships, and so on. I hate to add another sentence to this bullet point, but: the white male heterosexual Protestants are especially obsessed with it and throughout American history have been “calling the shots” over what is or is not acceptable sexually (the short version is that husband and wife have sex to make babies, or so that is what they have claimed publicly; what they have done in private is another matter).
-American Christians have been fierce champions of religious liberty, though these days that ideal has been twisted by some into a strange legal strategy to protect American Christians’ right to discriminate.
-American Christians seem to both hate and love their neighbors, which points to an obvious though underlining theme throughout this piece: the teachings of Jesus for American Christians do not create solidarity and common cause, but radically differing interpretations of “WWJD”?
-I can think of many more bullets to fire but let me end here, with the future: the future of American Christianity will most definitely not look like its past (ok, please do a little research on current and projected demographic and immigration patterns and you’ll see what I mean).
And now what does all this mean? All of these contradictory, confusing, confounding, complicated statements about American Christianity point to the main takeaway I hope you are realizing: American Christianity is a mixed bag. It’s both horrible and terrific in terms of American history, and it is a much stranger animal than what is reported in the news or found on social media or articulated by our politicians. In short, it is a mixed bag of degradation and inspiration, hatred and compassion, ugliness and beauty. Kind of like most religions.
But as the largest slice of the American religious pie it is in everyone’s best interest to learn about the varieties of Christianities in American history. Why? Because to know something about the multiple and conflicted American Christian perspectives in the past and the present gives you the knowledge to see through the lies of individuals or groups who want to make claims about what a “real” Christian should think about the future of this country.