The State of American Religion
The religious makeup of American society today might be described as both robust and vacuous. On the positive side, belief in God is widespread. Seventy-three percent of individuals surveyed in a 2012 Pew Forum report self-identify as Christians.1 Although secularism has made advances, the United States is still a nation where the majority worship God, respect the Bible, and hold Christianity in relatively high esteem.
The picture gets a bit darker when we go beneath the surface to investigate what kind of belief many self-proclaimed Christians practice. It only barely resembles New Testament Christianity. The brand of Christianity a person exercises may be far more influenced by materialism or politics than by the Bible. This is particularly evident in Therapeutic Moral Deism, a belief in a God who supports and affirms individual worth but who requires virtually nothing. This customizable approach to faith is not confined to Christianity.
Religion in general is seen as a tool, a source of affirmation. This is none too different than other ways of looking at religion, regardless of the type. Religion has become an additive to life, sometimes no more impactful than what brand names a person purchases or where he spends his vacation. What was once seen as a fundamental aspect of life has become a mere component, which may be changed, modified, or discarded as one sees fit. It is a part of a person's identity, but not necessarily the most important one.
The Softer Side of Commitment
Long-term trends over the past four decades show that there is a slight downturn in religious commitment and an uptick in the rejection of religious affiliation. This seems to indicate a general softening of religious commitment in the United States. It has resulted in a vague spirituality becoming far more acceptable and desirable for people in general. Christians may hear this expressed frequently in the denunciation of religion but acceptance of spirituality. While Christians may assume the two are synonymous, they are used very differently. Religion is formal, organized, and—according to the unaffiliated—far too connected with peripheral matters. Spirituality is much more personal and attractive, perhaps because of its customizability. Spiritually-minded people may draw on a variety of faith traditions in assembling a custom-fit spirituality for themselves.
Commitment to Christ may soften, but it may also be distracted by outside concerns. This is evident when we look at the “nones” – a group that considers itself unaffiliated to any religion. While the unaffiliated may not be overtly hostile to religion, neither are they looking for a religion to embrace. Studies suggest that this group sees religion as far too connected to money, power, rule-keeping, and politics. It may be fair to say that a fixation on these peripheral concerns have soured the unaffiliated on religion in general and Christianity in particular.
The distaste for commitment has resulted, at least partially, from the demonization of committed believers not only in Christianity, but in other world religions. This often appears in the context of attacks on religious fundamentalists such as Islamic terrorists, faith traditions that eschew blood transfusions or other medical treatments in favor of prayer, or anyone who reads the Bible literally. We seem to live in a world where commitment has become a forgotten concept, whether it is loyalty to an employer, a marriage covenant made to a spouse, or faith placed in a God – whoever or whatever that deity may be.
The Disconnect Between Faith and Scripture
In addition to the softening of commitment, American religion is defined by tolerance and flexibility. It tends to view the scriptures of all faith traditions not as the charter of belief or as the pronouncements of deity, but rather as sources of helpful suggestions. As such, the texts of these traditions may be modified or reinterpreted, or simply mined for helpful spiritual nuggets. Authority has become internal rather than external – it is the believer who defines the religion, not the other way around.
The developments of the past few decades have been particularly troubling for Christianity. The New Testament writers clearly present Christian faith as governed by the biblical text and unalterable by believers (cf. Deuteronomy 5:23; Revelation 22:18-19). In the popular mind, however, Christianity should undergo a complete rewrite. Former Episcopalian bishop John Shelby Spong has renounced any biblical form of Christianity but still publishes widely on biblical topics. His book The Sins of Scripture could be a case study in the adoption of secular values by believers. In the book, he apologizes to secularists for the grievous failures of the last two thousand years of church history, in which he claims believers have gotten just about everything wrong. It is not totally their fault, of course, as the Bible itself is a flawed production filled with misogyny, anti-Semitism, and homophobia.
We might consider Spong to be one example of a believer who is flexible in his beliefs. By this, we mean that he and others reject a historical, orthodox understanding of Scripture in favor of one that allows more permissive interpretations. This is most evident in the denial of traditional biblical values and adoption of secular ones. This may be clearest in the area of social issues, particularly homosexuality.
Acceptance of homosexual marriage might be one of the greatest areas of concern for Christians in the 21st century. The movement to normalize same-sex relationships began in earnest in the late 20th century. The media depicted homosexual characters almost universally as friendly and likeable. They were presented early on in television shows and movies in such a way that the only reason for not accepting their choice of lifestyle would be their sexuality, an area labeled as private and outside the concern of anyone else. While careful students understand that Scripture labels homosexuality a sin (Leviticus 18:22; Romans 1:26-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9), others have tried to argue that monogamous homosexual relationships are permissible (see, e.g., Matthew Vine's recent book God and the Gay Christian). Various church fellowships have adopted an unbiblical view of human sexuality and marriage, going so far as to ordain homosexual clergy.
While Bible-believers want to remain relevant, they also want to retain their intellectual respectability. Those who adopt alternate interpretations of Scripture may present their viewpoint as an enlightened or informed choice, one that is respectful of—and permitted by—the biblical text. As tolerant as the religious environment may be, there is still something unseemly about abusing the text for the sake of personal opinion.
Biblical Christianity Upon the Horns of Dilemma
The state of religion in America is one that appears to be in constant flux. This can be a cause of concern for biblical Christians. On the one hand, believers do not want to appear judgmental, so they will make allowances in favor of secular values. On the other hand, they want to remain respectable, so they couch these variances in intellectual terms. Invoking Paul's statement about being like others in order to save some (1 Corinthians 9:22), some might be tempted to be like the world in order to win the world. Left unqualified, this statement is troubling. Does this mean that the individual is going to become a kind of spiritual shape-shifter? Does it mean negotiating fundamental biblical truths in order to cast a wider net?
The challenge for Christians today is to remain faithful to biblical truth. In the age where tolerance prevails, God's people will be pressed to adopt changes to their faith that will make it more permissive. Yet the apostle Paul makes it clear that no such negotiations are permitted. Using martial imagery, he speaks of going against the prevailing attitudes and beliefs of the world in order to pull them down. He depicts non-biblical thought as a stronghold needing conquering for Christ (2 Corinthians 10:4), not an equal power with whom believers make treaties.
If the Bible is indeed God's word, then to promote its truth is neither intolerant nor inflexible – it is genuinely loving, and should be motivated by a desire to see lost people saved. In a religious culture of tolerance and appeasement, the words of G. K. Chesterton are fitting: “Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”2
1. “Nones on the Rise. Online: http://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/ (9 October, 2012).
2. G. K. Chesterton, The Autobiography, vol. 16 of The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1988), 212.
Preach the Truth
Refusing to Keep Silent