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One Nation Under My God

Posted by Bob · April 20th, 2005 · No Comments

…indivisible with liberty and justice for all.

The one word that you would NOT use for today’s America is ‘indivisible’. In fact, if we have anything in common anymore, it’s that we’re divided and neatly sorted into groups. Red state, Blue state, Liberal, Conservative, Pro Bush, Anti Bush, Gay, Straight…Undecided.

Once America flourished on consensus built from diversity. But the great, legendary melting pot that was America has been influenced throughout history by one group more than any other — Christians. From the Founding Fathers to George W, Christianity has been at home in the White House.

Ironic, isn’t it? A nation built on religious tolerance is monopolized by a single religion.

And even more ironic is just how divided that one religion is.

Rick Horowitz is a Jew

Let me preface my intentions here. Rick Horowitz is my friend, as is Mark King. Rick Horowitz is a Jew and Mark King is an atheist. Never have I enjoyed discussions about politics and world affairs as I have with these two men, primarily because they are so intelligent, and not Christian. I claim to be the latter.

It has been my joy, my duty and sometimes my burden to enlighten them on why Christians do what they do. Often, I cannot put into words what I know in my heart and this is frustrating. So what I decided to do is to write a series of articles on my view of Christianity, and its profound effect on American and world politics today. Rick has, from time to time, been accused of ‘Christian bashing’ in his writing. Mark has also required his pound of flesh from my ‘Christian family’ but I thought I’d take a shot at explaining not the nuts and bolts of the religion, but the ins and significant outs of the Christian culture.

It is not my intent to offend, but if I do, so be it. I am quite sure that by the end of my writing, some ‘Christian’ will feel the need to attack me, but this time, it will be one of his / her own. My intent is to hold up a mirror, if your face is reflected back perhaps its time for further reflection.

a value or size of a series of values or sizes (as of money)
a religious organization uniting local congregations in a single legal and administrative body

Once upon a time, it was a compliment to be called a Christian. It implied a world view of tolerance and patience. Today, the word ‘Christian’ is often wielded as a weapon by Liberals and Conservatives alike. The greater shame of all this is that the those wielding the weapon are Christian and often their intended targets are Christian.

The death of Pope John Paul got me wondering how religion came to be the defining schism of contemporary American politics. And make no mistake, despite all the talk about culture and class war, religion — or, really, religiousness — is now the line in the chads that separates Republicans from Democrats. —
Dick Meyer, “The Devoutness Divide” (April 15, 2005) CBS News.

I understand that you don’t like George Bush, but there was this thing held back in November called an “election”……your side lost. Seems most of the country actually prefers someone with morals, who will laugh at silly ideas, who can stand up for himself and have dignity, and who doesn’t look the other way when we’re being attacked. Maybe you should find another country in which to live if you cannot find your way to be tolerant of the christian values and morals upon which ours was founded. GOD BLESS AMERICA!!
Posted by: Linda at April 13, 2005 03:54 PM

PITTSBURGH — An evangelical Christian talk show host who questioned the beliefs of the Catholic church and entertained a caller’s question about whether the late Pope John Paul II would go to heaven has been fired. — “Radio Host Fired For Wondering If Pope Went To Heaven” (April 14, 2005) Local6.com

These few examples demonstrate how religion, specifically Christianity, can act as a divider between people. The Red State / Blue State example is classic. Are we to really believe that conservative Christians dictated the election to Bush? Was it just that easy? Why didn’t anyone else think of it before?

The second and third examples demonstrate that there is substantial disagreement within the Christian religion itself on a plethora of issues. Homosexuality, abortion, the place of women on the altar, the place of Christianity in politics, all these are issues that cause separation between people of a common religion. But this is not new and the reasons for some of these historic separations are often seen as shallow by our modern standards. For example, in the 1800’s, an American Episcopal priest was denied the office of Bishop solely on his preference for gold candlestick holders on the altar. It was seen at the time to be a position that favored a “Roman Catholic” style of worship and the offended believers would have nothing of it.

H. Richard Niebuhr authored a book in 1956 called Christ and Culture. In it, Neibuhr sees the distinctions between Christian denominations as a matter of culture, specifically how those denominations interact with the culture of the modern world. He devised five positions that outlined a denomination’s attitudes and, even though no denomination purely exhibited a single attitude, it placed a denomination on a sliding scale from xenophobic to very accepting. In Neibuhr’s own words those positions are:

Christ Against Culture:

Answers of the first type emphasize the opposition between Christ and culture. Whatever may be the customs of the society in which the Christian lives, and whatever the human achievement it conserves, Christ is seen as opposed to them, so that he confronts men with the challenge of an “either-or” decision.

Christ & Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr, pg 40

This group emphasizes a withdrawal from the world. In medieval times, it caused some to lead a monastic life. In modern times, the call is the same, to abandon the “heathen society”. A common thread in this way of thinking is that “you’re for us or against us”. Sound familiar?

In my opinion, this group also has an almost obsessive interest in the ‘end times’, the time when Christ will return. There is also a movement that preaches that the end times are upon us and interpret current events as signs that Christ’s return is imminent.

Christ of Culture:

Recognition of a fundamental agreement between Christ and culture is typical of the answers offered by a second group. In them Jesus often appears as a great hero of human culture history; his life and teachings are regarded as the greatest human achievement; in him, it is believed, the aspirations of men toward their values are brought to a culmination. Moreover, he is a part of culture in the sense that he himself is part of the social heritage that must be transmitted and conserved.
ibid, pg 41

This culture tries to reconcile Christianity with the modern world. It sees culture as being moved by the Holy Spirit. Current events shape the church. Women priests, gay clergy, the latest theory of evolution are all in agreement with the church. (The explanation would be God created the world but evolution was the method).

In fact, followers of this school of thought can even go so far as to say that ALL religions that lead to God are good. It creates pluralism and, in its efforts to collect all people under its umbrella, it waters down Christian dogma. Religion becomes ‘humanist’ versus scriptural.

If you’ve ever wondered how a Christian nation like Germany could have become so convoluted as to accept Hitler, part of the reason is the church preached a humanist religion that accepted Christ AND Nazism.

When Hitler came to power in Germany, he wanted to unify all the Protestant churches into one national, German church; these so-called “German Christians” used Christianity to justify Nazism and anti-Semitism. A struggle ensued between the pro-Nazi “German Christians” and those who refused to comply. Perhaps one-tenth of Protestants resisted. Some Catholics were active in hiding Jews or helping them escape. One of the resistance movements was the “Confessing Church,” comprised of Lutheran, Reformed, and Union church pastors and lay people. The “Barmen Declaration” of 1934 stated that the church’s proclamation consists only in Jesus Christ, not in Nazism. Confessing Church people engaged in various forms of resistance, ranging from hiding Jews, to training pastors in an illegal seminary, to secret plots to assassinate Hitler. Leaders of the Confessing Church included theologians Martin Niemöller (1892-1984), Karl Barth, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor executed by the Nazis in 1945.

“The Confessing Church” (last visited April 20, 2005) Global Christianity.

C.S. Lewis sums it up.

“You know-Christianity and the Crisis, Christianity and the New Psychology, Christianity and the New Order, Christianity and Faith Healing, Christianity and Psychical Research, Christianity and Vegetarianism, Christianity and Spelling Reform. ”
C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, pg 115.

Christ Above Culture:

…true culture is not possible unless beyond all human achievement, all human search for values, all human society, Christ enters into life from above with gifts which human aspiration has not envisioned and which human effort cannot attain unless he relates men to a supernatural society and a new value-center.
Christ & Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr, pg 42

This is historically associated with the Roman Catholic church and it created traditions that follow us today. If you’ve ever seen a symphony orchestra concert, you’ve probably seen a stage filled with solemn musicians led by an even more solemn conductor. It was once thought that the only source of “good” music was the church and you performed church music in a very solemn, prayerful way. That tradition lives throughout “classical” music today. Listen to a DJ on a classical radio station. Does he or she sound like they’re having fun?

This thought tries to reconcile the previous two examples but does not dilute dogma. It does recognize culture as something worthy, however, that culture comes from Christ (the church).

The church will, on occasion, take a cultural or political stand and expect the body to abide with it. The cost of not complying with the church’s position can be excommunication – literally being ostracized from the church and the sacraments, a rare and drastic step. Modern politicians who disagree with the church’s position are sometimes threatened with this.

Some would argue that some of the greatest achievements in politics and human rights were cultivated from such a view.

“The greatest exponent of this view, Thomas Aquinas, held that the, church must be viewed as simultaneously in and beyond the world, leading people to salvation in heaven yet encouraging all that is best in this world’s culture. From this vision came the great ideas of general education and protective legislation for all citizens. In his Christian Aristotelianism, Aquinas held that the church must promote both people’s temporal goals and their eternal goals. He distinguished the natural law and cardinal virtues (Prudence, Temperance, Justice, and Fortitude) available to all mankind from the divine law, which includes the natural law but adds the superior motivation of the theological virtues (Faith, Hope and Charity), which are available only to Christians through grace.”

— Angus J. L. Menuge, “Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture Reexamined” (1999) Christ and Culture in Dialogue via Issues, Etc.

That mindset is found in this document:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Declaration of Independence

Christ and Culture in Paradox:

To those who answer the question in this way it appears that Christians throughout life are subject to the tension that accompanies obedience to two authorities who do not agree yet must be obeyed…Hence man is seen as subject to two moralities , and as a citizen of two worlds that are not only discontinous with each other but largely opposed. In the polarity and tension of Christ and culture life must be lived precarioulsy and sinfully in the hope of a justificaton which lies beyond history. Luther may be regarded as the greatest representitive of this type, yet many a Christian who is not otherwise a Lutheran finds himself compelled to solve the problem in this way.
Christ & Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr, pg 42-43

In this model, Christians are a part of two distinct worlds that seldom overlap. The Christian alone cannot reconcile this paradox and relies on God’s grace and mercy to forgive him for what he must do to survive in this world.

This balancing act will sometimes lead to paradox: as Christians under grace, we should not return harm for harm, but in time of war, we may rightly be ordered to take up arms, if it is the only way of limiting greater evil. Yet if a leader is wrong, in the sense of commanding us to do something contrary to God’s law, we are not bound to obey “for it is no one’s duty to do wrong; we must obey God (who desires the right) rather than men (Acts 5:29).”

— Angus J. L. Menuge, “Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture Reexamined” (1999) Christ and Culture in Dialogue via Issues, Etc.

The Christian is called to improve his world via the example given by Christ, however, the world often does not accept that behavior as satisfactory. Whether it be a king cajoling his army or a president rallying a nation to war, the Christian often has to dirty his hands in this world and hope for forgiveness in the next.

Christ the Transformer of Culture:

Finally, as the fifth type in the general series and as the third of the meditaing answers, there is the conversionist solution. Those who offer it understand with the members of the first and the fourth groups that human nature is fallen or perverted, and that this perversion not only appears in culture but is transmitted by it…Yet the antithesis does not lead either to Christian separation from the world as in the first group, or to mere endurance as in the fourth. Christ is seen as the converter of man in his culture and society, not apart from these, for there is no nature without culture and no turning of men from self and idols to God save in society. It was in Augustine that the great outlines of this answer seem to be offered; John Calvin makes it explicit; many others are associated with these two.
Christ & Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr, pg43

Of all the views, this is the most optimistic. Man alone cannot transform culture, but man’s efforts and God’s grace can. Culture is seen as a vehicle to spread the teachings of Christ. If culture is ‘infected’ with sin, then this group sees themselves as a ‘good infection’ to counter it.

One of the first to consider this theory was Augustine, who used Rome, previously the seat of a pagan empire turned into the seat of the church, as the shining example.

Through The Glass Darkly

It is my sincere hope that these examples help to bring some distinction to the broad religion known as ‘Christianity’ for you. Even life long Christians should find some worth to seeing their church examined under Niebuhr’s lens. As I stated before, no denomination will show one type to the exclusion of all others. Each denomination contains sub cultures that will feature traits that contradict those of the ‘mother’ church.

In my next article, I will examine the mesh between American politics and Christianity. Both the Conservative and Liberal sides will be skewered equally.

A good Christian is nothing if not fair :)~

Categories: Religion


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