King's Evangelical Divinity School

27 February 2010

Blog From America 9 (Christian Culture and Politics in the U.S.)

I’ve been asked for my take on faith in the U.S. Having spent a lot of time here over the years (I first came to America in 1972 as a child and was amazed at the large, modern and exciting church we visited in New York) I can’t really do this justice in a short blog post. Nevertheless, here are some brief thoughts based on my observations over the years.

First, Christian faith is ubiquitous and strongly-represented here. I’m currently in Toledo, Ohio, and it’s almost as if there’s a church on every street corner (which on a grid system means an awful lot of churches!). They’re everywhere and they’re highly active. And I’m not even in the Bible Belt. In places like the Dallas - Fort Worth area of Texas the churches are even more numerous and tend to have much larger congregations, many running into the thousands of members. Some of the largest megachurches are located across the Bible Belt. Thus, faith is strongly-represented across the U.S, though it should be noted that there are areas where Christianity is less prominent, notably the liberal heartlands of parts of New England. During a visit to Massachusetts some years ago I was struck by how fewer (and smaller) churches there were.

Next, Christian faith in the U.S. is not homogenous, despite what the European media would have us believe. Yes, the Evangelical right is well-represented, but there is also a growing and highly vocal Evangelical left here. Meanwhile, while Pentecostal and Charismatic churches are well-represented, other movements and denominations enjoy a widespread presence and large churches. The various Baptist denominations (ranging from ultra-conservative and fundamentalist to ultra-liberal) are strong across the 'States. Interestingly, in this country you will also find strongly Evangelical groups within historic denominations which in Europe have tended over the years to swing away from conservatism to a more liberal persuasion. So for example, where I am now one is not hard-pressed to find solid Evangelical Methodist or Lutheran churches which do a fine job. Neither are these small congregations, running into several hundreds of members. One also finds large liberal Protestant churches across parts of the country, and clearly church attendance here is important (whereas in the UK liberal protestant churches seem to be dying out).

One further point concerning the non-homogenous nature of American Christianity. In light of some of the fads, fashions and indeed at times sheer lunacy emanating in the U.S. and making its way across the pond to influence European Christianity, it is easy to stereotype U.S. Christianity as either wacky or business-driven. Both these have some truth to them. Depending on the church, there are instances of over-professionalisation and commercialisation of faith (though in the UK perhaps it wouldn’t do some of our churches any harm to be a little more organised in their activities; turning on the heating is always a good start). But it would be wrong to categorise all of U.S. Christianity as business-driven. Neither are all of them wacky. Far from it. Yes, there are some real strange doctrines and groups here, but there is also plenty of sanity and lucidity among the many churches I’ve visited over the years. I would say a considerable chunk of U.S. churches are not into the negative doctrines and practices we hear so much about.

Another characteristic of U.S. Christianity is that it is incredibly active. Aside from church services, churches often have weekly programmes which bring them into regular contact with outsiders, such as child daycare centres, sports programmes and other social programmes. Churches also hold various events which bring their members together, such as dinners, sports events, and so on. Sunday School is usually held before the main Sunday morning service and is aimed at member of all ages (so you’ll have a teenager class, a young couples class, children’s class, senior citizens' class, and so on). Churches tend to be very modern, nicely-furnished, warm and inviting places. Some churches are involved in radio and television production, and the airwaves are replete with Christian programme, much of it awful, some of it rather good. Depending on the region, faith is also something which is lived and practiced openly. In restaurants you will frequently see families saying grace together before eating, while nobody at the next table bats an eyelid. In the Bible Belt I’ve seen people stand and say grace together (after Sunday service church member all over the country often go out for lunch together). Once I even saw six men, clearly a pastoral team, stand, hold hands around the circular table and sing grace together (personally I think that was going a bit too far - I half expected them to start waltzing around the table). Conversely, in Massachusetts (the liberal heartlands of America where Christians are fewer) I was once with some people who were quite embarrassed to say grace in public. Thus, whether churches, programmes, billboard advertising, Christian businesses, open demonstrations of faith, or whatever, Christianity throughout much of the U.S. is highly active and visible. I am reminded of the University of Stirling scholar David Bebbington's quadrilateral setting out the central features of Evangelicalism: biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism and activism.

A final observation relates to this visible and active expression of Christianity in the U.S. The European media has made a great deal of how the Evangelical right can swing elections. Now it is true that Evangelicalism is strong, is vocal on moral issues and lifestyle, and when it is united behind a candidate it can make a difference to election results. But I suggest (there are scholars in this field who are far better qualified to discuss this issue) this perception of U.S. Evangelicalism is rather overplayed. When it comes to politics I think Evangelicals are sometimes divided over who to back, many choose not to vote, while the election of Obama suggests Evangelicals do not automatically vote en bloc against someone they perceive may challenge their worldview. Another problem, I think, with this European perception is that it regards U.S. Evangelicals as incredibly politically proactive. Some are, of course, but others are rather more passive. They have opinions and will vote according to their worldview, but they are not necessarily out on the streets or on the airwaves engaging in political campaigning. Rather, given the strength and activity of American Christianity, not just Evangelicalism, politicians across the spectrum seek to court (or at the very least not alienate) the Christian vote. So faith and politics in the U.S. is not just about the Religious Right or Christian political campaigning. Thus, understanding faith and politics here requires more a more nuanced approach than we sometimes see in the European media.
Anyway, some brief thoughts on faith in the U.S. for what they’re worth. I hope you find them useful. Please do comment if you have anything to add, disagree with or can shed further light on any issue I’ve raised, or whatever. I comment as an outsider looking in; American Christians of course will have their own take on how they see themselves.

1 comment:

Stuart said...

Thank you Calvin. The Lord only knows how you maanaged to give us such a rich flavour of Christianity in the US, in such a short period of time.