Sunday Meditations: The Great American Panic

I had a nightmare last night about our upcoming presidential election.

Certainly, there’s enough fear and tension to go around in the world.  By contrast, the sorts of issues we hear brought up in America regarding the election seem almost silly.  In Indonesia, Christians and Muslims alike go to worship not knowing if an armed group will come in and kill everyone with guns and machetes.  In America, we are outraged that Starbucks won’t print “Merry Christmas” on their red cups.

As you look around at evangelicalism during this election, you can see a lot of fear, a lot of anger, and a lot of fight – especially that last bit.  There is a call to arms – to make a stand – to stop the worst things that could possibly happen to America and especially the Christians inside America.  Radio shows, televangelists, pulpits all over the country – “Rally to our cause!” they cry, “Or America as we know it will cease to be.”  It wasn’t long ago that I saw a YWAM video that explained the necessity of reaching youth for Jesus – not because of belonging to the kingdom or even escaping Hell, but so that they would vote according to Christian principles.  That was the sole point of the video.  America is in decline, and if we don’t get young people saved, they won’t vote correctly, and America will perish. (NOTE: This is not unique to YWAM and may not even be representative of the organization as a whole; they just happen to be a recent example for me.)

So much time, money, and energy is spent getting the wheels of evangelicalism to move the engine of American politics, and every time, we face the biggest threat Christians have ever faced at any time, and if we don’t throw all of our might behind getting the right laws passed and the right people elected and the right judges appointed, life as we know it will be eradicated.  Going to church will be illegal, and you’ll have to marry a gay person.

To the Christian church in other countries, I can only imagine all this hooting and hollering looks kind of silly.  I can only imagine how a small church of persecuted Eritreans whose leadership “disappears” from time to time into government camps thinks about Americans who label a baker being legally required to sell a cake to gay people as “persecution.”  We really have no sense of perspective, either globally or historically.

But even within the confines of Christianity in America, I think there are a few things that, if we really apprehended them, might cut down on our sense of fear and impending doom.

Christendom is Long Gone

I don’t think we could make the claim that America has ever been a Christian nation.

Yes, the Founding Fathers mentioned God, but if you were to have a conversation with them about their religion (deism, vaguely theistic humanism, etc.), you would not recognize it as evangelical Christianity, and you would also find a common, deep belief among the framers of the Constitution that allowing anyone’s religious belief to found American government would be a disaster.  You would not want any of these men to teach your Sunday School class.

And has there ever been a period of American history marked by widespread Christ-like living?  Whether we’re looking at the killing of the natives who lived here so we could fulfill our Manifest Destiny, or killing the British because we were being taxed without our consent, or owning slaves and all the physical, sexual, and economic oppression that went along with that, whether it was women and minorities being viewed as less than a person, whether it’s opiates, whether it’s rap/rock/country/folk/vaudeville music promoting worldliness… where is this Golden Age of America where the American people at large were a model of Christ in the world?  Every generation preaches that the generation after it is the most sinful generation that ever lived and the generation before it was godly and pure.

So, I would argue that what so many people are fighting for, we never had in the first place.

What we did have perhaps was a period where, once we had killed everyone else, European Christian ethics were a reasonably common social framework.  What people did in private was another matter, altogether, but at least in public, you could expect that American society generally held vaguely to how Christians would espouse their own ethics at that time.  Keep in mind that “Christian ethics” included slavery and, later, segregation.  One of the most disturbing instances of “Christian America” was Bob Jones U. in the 60s protesting racial integration.

What has possibly happened over time is not that America has become more sinful, but that there is less difference between private lives and public fronts.  Generations do not become more sinful, but they do become more transparent, and with this comes a loss of shame and a discarding of the social conventions that produced that shame.  They have to hide it less and they see, perhaps accurately in some cases, that it’s pointless to have social structures in place to make it necessary to hide it.

I believe that, when most people pine for the days when America was “Christian,” what they mean is that they pine for the days when most people in America were making an effort to pretend to be morally what they thought was expected of them socially.

You may disagree with that, and for the purposes of this point, that’s fine.  Maybe you think Americans were, at one point, genuinely much more moral and Christian, and now they’re not.  But either way, the society you have in your head has been in the rear view mirror a long time.  If it ever existed in the first place, it has been gone for decades, if not longer, and here’s the important thing: it isn’t coming back.

No matter how much evangelicals fight to “reclaim” that Golden Age, it isn’t coming back.  You can’t elect enough Christians.  You can’t get enough conservative Supreme Court justices.  No matter what you do, you will never create or re-create an America where Christianity is the functional law of the land and the coin of public discourse.  Europe came to grips with this a long time ago, and their churches and Christ-following movements are adjusting.  Our time would be much better spent embracing our reality and defining ourselves in the present landscape than fighting with our dying breath to have a different landscape that nobody else wants and perhaps we never had.

God is More Powerful than Anything

There was a time when an entire nation worshiped the God of the Bible.  No other religions were permitted.  The Law as present in the Old Testament was the functional law of the land.  That nation was ancient Israel.

And do you know what problem they ran into, politically?  A whole ‘nother empire conquered them and dispersed them.  Babylon in the north, Assyria in the south.  They didn’t just come out sideways in an election; an actual foreign army invaded their country, destroyed their Temple, and scattered them – an outcome far, far worse than electing a miscreant as President.

Did that stop God in the world?

Hundreds of years later, there was another Empire that also had a state religion, and if you raised your head against this Empire, they beat you down in no uncertain terms.  In the middle of this Empire, a man claimed to be sent from God to start the true kingdom of God in the midst of that Empire.  He rallied many to his cause.  Ultimately, this Empire executed him as a criminal.  It was the worst thing that could have happened politically to this group.  That Empire was Rome, and that man was Jesus.

Did that stop God in the world?

Decades after the Worst Thing, the group’s main presence came under attack by their own religion, leading pogroms against these believers arresting and them and killing them, backed by Rome’s power.  Saul, who became Paul, led some of these.

Did that stop God in the world?

Decades after that, Roman emperors would rise up wary of this group of believers that, somehow, continued to flourish.  They blamed these people for all of Rome’s problems.  They made false accusations.  They turned their own people against them.  They lit their highways with crucified Christians set on fire.  They threw them to lions.  They put them in furnaces.  They drew and quartered them.  They crucified them upside down.  At times, the whole wrath of the Empire was brought to bear against these Christ followers.

Did that stop God in the world?

Far, far worse has happened to the people of God than electing the wrong person or living in a nation where the wrong laws were passed or the wrong person ended up in the Supreme Court.  And every time, God wins.  God wins, not through elections and politicians and maneuvering, but by the faithful witness of His people living with Jesus as lord no matter what happens, no matter where it happens.  For every Christian that fell, a dozen new ones sprung up because of the faithfulness of that witness.  The power of the Spirit kept this community flourishing even in the midst of the very worst efforts to stamp it out.

They did not survive and grow because they made the right allies or were appointed to the right places of power or convinced the Senate that Judeo-Christian values were the best way to run a nation.  They grew because they lived as faithful communities, and those communities were swords against the Beast, and so effective was this “plan” that the day came when Caesar confessed Jesus as the true Lord.

And we are worried about an election.  Truly, if the Son of Man came to America, would he find faith?