You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. – Matthew 5:14
For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. – John Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity,” 1630
The “City on a Hill” is part of America’s founding myth, a formational narrative that gives meaning and purpose to American identity. As a political analogy, the City on a Hill has meant that America aspires to be a beacon of light for the entire world as it watches our experiment in liberty, inspiring other nations toward similar liberal ideals. As a religious analogy, the light of the City on a Hill was understood as the light of Christian faith and the freedom to practice it. America stood before the world as a shining city where Christian people had the freedom to worship and bear witness to the goodness of God. As with all founding narratives, there are truths and oversimplifications and convenient deletions in this narrative. But it has given Americans in general and American Christians in particular a shared sense that the world is watching and that God is leading.
President Reagan called famously referenced the “shining” city, and described it as “a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind swept, God blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace – a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors, and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.” That vision seems more distant than ever at this moment in US history, days after supporters of President Trump rioted at the Capitol with his encouragement.
The lights of the shining city have been flickering for a long time now. Yesterday they went out.
Politically, the lights quickly began to flicker again. Congress reconvened to certify Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’ election to the presidency and vice presidency, and the Constitution seems to have withstood its assault.
Religiously, however, I believe the light has ceased to shine in the darkness. The lights have been flickering for years, and it will be difficult to fan the embers back to life. As radicalized rioters overtook the Capitol on January 6th, I saw a bright yellow flag emblazoned with “Jesus Saves” waving from the Capitol balcony, and a “Jesus 2020” banner flung across a railing. Such displays seal the perception that American Christians are much more concerned about gaining and retaining political power than they are “declaring the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9).
How did American Christianity get here?
How did American Christianity get here? To be more precise, how did American white evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity get here? As a theologian and historian, I have been asking this question for years. I have watched with alarm as Christian Nationalism became mainstream, as Christians excused violence and immorality, as they abandoned long-held commitments to justice and peace. What we are witnessing now is the culmination of complex matrix of factors that have slowly eroded core Christian convictions and made American Christians uniquely receptive to political extremism. No, not all evangelical and fundamentalist Christians have been politically radicalized. No, not everyone who stormed the Capitol on January 6th calls themselves Christian. But there is enough overlap to raise alarms.
How did American Christianity get here? Let me count the ways. This is an initial and incomplete examination of the vast matrix of ideas that contribute to evangelical and fundamentalist Christians participating in, justifying, supporting, and ignoring religio-political extremism. I hope it will spark self-examination and further study. I hope it will also be received as a hopeful exhortation, rooted in love, from one follower of Jesus Christ to others.
Christian Nationalism is itself a system of overlapping beliefs and identities. Many of the factors I’ll examine below contribute to it. Christian Nationalism is idea that Christianity is intrinsic to American identity. People who are not Christian, therefore, cannot be “real” Americans (cf. false claims that President Obama is Muslim). Christian values and morals should form the basis of American values and morals, both culturally and legally. Christian Nationalists are driven by the need to rise up, violently, if necessary, and take America back for God. I’ve written more about Christian Nationalism here and here and here. I also recommend the books The Power Worshipers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism by Katherine Stewart and Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States by Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry.
For Christians, freedom means freedom from sin. When we are set free from sin, we are liberated from self-seeking so that we can be for others, following the model of the sacrificial love of Christ. In American politics, freedom means individual autonomy and the liberty to do what I want as long as it doesn’t harm others. It is freedom from restrictions so we can be for ourselves. For too many Christians the political definition has eclipsed the Christian definition. Freedom as personal autonomy has been sacralized so thoroughly that Christians use the Bible to justify their elevation of self-interest above self-sacrifice. Limits to personal autonomy are resisted with the Bible in one hand and a gun in the other. If you watch interviews with people who were storming the Capitol you will hear this theme again and again. I’ve written more about this problem here and here.
American evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity has a white supremacy problem. It goes back at least as far as the colonizers, who were Anglo (white) and Christian in contrast to Native and African peoples who practiced other religions. English settlers saw themselves as intellectually, morally, and spiritually superior, which allowed them to justify all sorts of atrocities on religious grounds. White supremacy is often subtle in predominantly white churches and institutions, which allows white people to excuse ourselves (e.g. I have Black friends, I treat everyone the same, I don’t see skin color, etc.). But if we have the ears to hear the prophetic witness of Black Christians, we will learn that white supremacy doesn’t always look like burning crosses and boys marching with tiki torches. There is a reason the vast majority of people at the Capitol, both rioters and peaceful demonstrators, were white. To understand this dynamic, I recommend reading The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism by Jemar Tisby, I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith.
One of the most important contributions of Protestant Christianity is the emphasis on a personal faith, a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, a sense that Jesus lived and died and rose again for my salvation, not only for a generic salvation of the world. But for too many evangelical and fundamentalist Christians this personalization of faith devolves into individualistic faith. In the United States, personal faith combined with rugged individualism to form a type of Christianity that is all about me. Sin is conceptualized in solely individual terms, leading some to reject the very concept of systemic or communal sin (I’ve written more about that here). Salvation is conceptualized in solely individual terms, leading some Christians to reject any atonement theory besides penal substitution no matter how biblically or historically grounded other theories are. The Christian life is conceptualized in solely individual terms: I go to the church that does what I like, worship beside people with whom I agree, and no one can judge me or my choices except God, who generally does whatever I want God to do. I can be a church of one, read the Bible (or at least the parts I like) as a book about me, and be the sole arbiter of what the Holy Spirit says. Combine individualism with the redefinition of freedom as autonomy and you get Christians who have little sense of civic responsibility or communal witness, and who are willing to fight to preserve their individual rights, whether the fight is against a church board or the US government. I recommend reading Misreading Scripture through Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon O’Brien and several of the contributions in Evangelicals: Who They Have Been, Are Now, and Could Be edited by Noll, Bebbington, and Marsden to understand the development and influence of individualism.
American evangelicalism has a long history of anti-intellectualism, going back to the Great Awakenings of the 17th and 18th centuries when revivalist preachers criticized the heady sermons of the established clergy and saw theological education as a threat to heartfelt faith. I have a great deal of respect and appreciation for revivalism and I think it is a good and necessary corrective to reducing Christianity to a set of theological assertions. As a Methodist, revivalism is my heritage and I value the revivalist tradition a great deal. However, the revivalist emphasis on personal experience has its drawbacks, and suspicion of education is one of them. Anti-intellectualism often manifests as a rejection of the idea that one person’s expertise could outweigh another person’s gut feeling, in matters of faith or other arenas. It causes knee-jerk reactions against logic and evidence and builds silos that entrench confirmation bias. This contributes to a widespread suspicion of experts in any field, which we’ve seen in Christians denying the reality of the Covid-19 pandemic, for example. This has also made evangelical and fundamentalist Christians susceptible to conspiracy theories and to the worst kinds of populism, both of which were on full display at the Capitol. I recommend reading Christianity Today’s examination of QAnon and also The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind by Mark Noll.
Christianity is not a moral system. It has serious moral implications for absolutely every area of a Christian’s life, but it is not primarily a moral system. But Christianity is easy to reduce to a moral system, and moral behavior is easier to police and proscribe than convictions are. In church, moralism looks like a focus on behavior instead of convictions or discernment. For example, those of us who grew up with “Purity Culture” learned a lot about “how far is too far” but very little about the theological and biblical basis for Christian sexual ethics. The moral issues of the day change over time – is it immoral for women to wear pants, for men to have long hair, to drink alcohol, to dance, to smoke, to date, to divorce, etc. Christians become preoccupied with these questions, and too often abandon the more grueling work of discipleship in the process. In the public sphere, Christian “values” usually means specific moral positions that can be legislated, such as marriage or abortion. When you add legislative shifts away from “traditional” Christian values to Christianity being reduced to a moral system, the result is that legislative changes are perceived as attacks on Christianity itself. Combine that with Christian Nationalism and the sacralization of personal autonomy and you get Christians rising up, even violently, to fight for the legal establishment of Christian values. This is the heart of the Culture Wars, which are all about morals and nothing about making disciples of Jesus Christ. I recommend reading Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics by R. Marie Griffith and anything on the history of the Moral Majority and Religious Right by Randall Balmer.
One manifestation of moralism is the elevation of abortion and same-sex marriage as the two most pressing issues in American politics. Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians are prone to emphasizing these two issues at the expense of all others, and to such a degree that they can justify and excuse nearly any other policy position or behavior as long as the candidate has the “right” position on these two issues. We have witnessed this very clearly during Donald Trump’s presidency. Some Christians have been willing to justify and ignore inhumane policies and deeply troubling behavior because they consider President Trump to be the “most pro-life president ever.” But holding the “right” position on one or two issues should not be treated as a free pass to ignore other issues that also cost people their lives. Just the other day I saw a Christian downplay the Covid-19 pandemic by saying we should be more concerned about the number of abortions that took place in 2020. Can we not do both? Can we not love our neighbors who are dying alone in nursing homes and dying in their mother’s wombs? When we decide God only cares about one or two issues, we can justify nearly anything to, including things that violate Christian convictions, for the sake of those few issues. This undermines our Christian witness and makes us susceptible to radicalization. To learn more about how the Religious Right and Moral Majority came to care about these issues and leverage them for political power, read this article by Randall Balmer. This article about the prolife movement is also insightful.
The first Christians were persecuted. Stephen was stoned to death (Acts 7:54-8:2), James (as in Jesus’ brother and writer of “James” in the New Testament) was run off a cliff, Peter and Paul were both martyred in Rome, and the first 300 years of Christian history are filled with accounts of Christians bravely going to their deaths rather than recanting their faith in Jesus Christ. Persecution is part of what it means to be a Christian. Or it was, until Christianity became tolerated, politically and socially beneficial, officially established, and legally protected. What is a Christian to do when she or he is not persecuted? Since Christianity has always been the majority faith in the United States and has always been legally protected, American Christians do not face persecution in any widespread form that poses an existential threat. Since persecution is a marker of faithfulness, American Christians find ways to perceive persecution and feel as if they are being persecuted. This is the American Christian persecution complex. It equates a lack of power or cultural favor or majority influence with persecution. It allows Christians to feel persecuted, and to enjoy the self-righteousness that comes with standing strong against persecution, without having to give up anything (power, money, safety, status) in the process. Most importantly for the current political crisis, it claims legislation that doesn’t promote Christianity must be suppressing Christianity. Christians suffering a persecution complex will fight – legislatively, but also violently – to protect their own power (I’ve written more on that here). Religious liberty matters. It is worth preserving and fighting for in the courts. But the persecution complex engenders a level of anger and aggrievement that undermines Christian witness. Whereas “the blood of the martyrs [was] seed” for the rapid growth of the early church, the persecution complex may very well contribute to the darkness under which the American church is withering. To learn more about the persecution complex, read this and this. To learn about persecution and martyrdom in the early church, read Resilient Faith: How the Early Christian Third Way Changed the World by Gerald Sittser and also read his blog.
Authoritarianism and Masculinity
What evangelical and fundamentalist Christians call “traditional” gender roles are a relatively recent invention, with potent influence American Christianity. These gender roles reinforce patriarchalism and subordination, and equate masculinity with power – physical, political, economic, and spiritual power. This contributes to militarism, gun culture, and a bent toward political authoritarianism, all of which played out visibly at the Capitol on January 6th. You need to read Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Kobes du Mez and check out resources related to the book here.
Search Me, Oh God!
I have not given up on the Christian faith because I believe it is Truth. I have not given up on the Church, because I cannot leave the Body of Christ any more than I can leave my own body. The above may read like run down of everything wrong with American Christianity. In a way, it is. Insurrectionists waving “Jesus Saves” flags is the apotheosis of the multiple diseases infecting American Christianity. The diseases can develop along different trajectories and can kill us in multiple ways. And because we are all in the process of being sanctified, different individuals, churches, and denominations are at different stages of disease progression or remission. The good news, indeed the Good News of Jesus Christ, is that there is a cure. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit brings to light the darkness of our sin and can fan into flame a pure love for God and neighbor that leaves no room for the above ailments. But we must invite the Holy Spirit to do that work in us and respond by living out the results of that work in the world, including in our political engagement. I think the light is under a bushel right now for American evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity as a whole, but it does not need to be dark in your soul or your church. Search us, Oh God, and test our hearts. Try us and know our ways. See if there is any sinful way within us, and lead us to life everlasting. (Psalm 135:23-24)