The illnesses of American Christianity

Some Protestant churches are too soft, and others too harsh and political in their theologies. Both approaches contribute to growing secularism in America.

In his important new magnum opus, A Thicker Jesus, my friend Glen Stassen suggests that Christianity is ill in America, but in two very different ways.

One form of Christianity is ill, according to Stassen, because it is essentially theologically and ethically vacuous and fails to make concrete demands of its adherents. These are churches that seek above all “to avoid offending any members, and to steer clear of controversial issues and confrontations.” The gospel is reduced to the private realm and ethics is reduced to general principles. “These churches fail to confront members in ways that provide the guidance we need in our lives, and they avoid addressing injustices and problems that threaten us.” They “lack the depth of commitment and the vigor they need to avoid the decline and decay that constitute a growing crisis” (all quotes, p. 6).

Though Glen doesn’t say it outright, I believe he is speaking here primarily of mainline liberal Protestantism, stuck in a spiral of decline and therefore desperate to avoid doing anything that might trigger further decline, but ironically creating further decline because of this fearful paralysis. Probably many readers are familiar with the type of churches that come into view with this analysis.

The other form of Christianity is ill, says Stassen, because it has responded to the dislocating social changes and religious diversity of our context by sliding into a “reactionary authoritarianism” that tries to find “solid ground” by identifying Christianity with various kinds of conservative ideology. He speaks of “authoritarian fundamentalism” that “co-opts the claim to speak for Christianity” (all quotes, p. 5) and then essentially collapses Christianity into various conservative and reactionary tropes and calls these Christianity. He doesn’t name all of those, but I know what he would say here because we have both routinely battled this problem: Christianity as American nationalism and national security idolatry, as laissez-faire economics, as thinly veiled racism, as patriarchal sexism, as demagogic homophobia, and so on.

The first kind of Christianity avoids reactionary authoritarianism but is often a therapeutic or vanilla mush that fails to ask anything of anybody out of fear of giving offense. The second kind of Christianity offers stern, clear moral directives that attract people seeking the “specific instruction, even confrontation that calls us to grow in discipleship” (p. 6), but disastrously embraces right-wing ideology and baptizes that as the content of Christianity.

Both of these versions of Christianity are so deeply flawed, says Stassen, that both are contributing to the alarming spread of secularism in the U.S. The first version of Christianity is so thin as to lack any particular reason why one would want to get out of bed on Sunday and go to church; the second is so reactionary as to drive thoughtful people into an anti-religious posture if they conclude that religion equals right-wing authoritarianism.

I believe this is a stark but actually quite accurate depiction of the primary problems afflicting the Protestantisms of the left and of the right in the current U.S. setting.

Readers of the book will discover that Glen’s normative proposal for resolving these ills carries the label “incarnational discipleship.” In other settings, I will unpack this proposal more thoroughly, but here I will summarize incarnational discipleship as a trinitarian ethic emphasizing God’s sovereignty over all of life, a “thick” Jesus whose actual teachings and life carry real authority to direct our own path, and a vital role for the Holy Spirit in convicting Christians of complicity with various ungodly ideologies and in keeping us independent from all powers and authorities.

Incarnational discipleship, which may be a new term but is not a new practice in historic Christianity, offers the promise of lancing the boils both of normless liberal Christianity and reactionary right-wing Christianity. It has theological and ethical concreteness and makes real demands on us just like Jesus did, but it avoids ideological entanglement and right-wing reaction.

I urge everyone to read the book and puzzle through its claims and implications. For now, I will simply say I believe it is an accurate diagnosis of the main ills of American Protestantism, and probably speaks to US Catholicism as well. And it speaks to our Baptist situation — I believe CBF Christianity too often seems afraid to demand anything of anyone, while SBC Christianity too often seems willing to embrace right-wing ideology as a large part of the content of Christian discipleship.

After five years as a regular ABP columnist, I am hanging up my pen here at the end of 2012 to meet other obligations and reduce my regular calendar of deadlines. I would like to thank the ABP team for hosting me on this page over these years, and wish all readers a happy Christmas season and a blessed 2013.

OPINION: Views expressed in ABPnews/Herald columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.