August 09, 2005

"Christian" country?

When some people claim that the US is a "Christian" country, they may have a point. In the August 2005 issue of the invaluable Harper's Magazine, Bill McKibben provides some statistics that indicate that the US is "among the most spiritually homogeneous rich nations on earth. Depending on which poll you look at and how the question is asked, somewhere around 85 percent of us call ourselves Christian. Israel, by way of comparison, is 77 percent Jewish." McKibben also reports that 75 percent claim they actually pray to God on a daily basis, but only 33 percent say that they go to church every week.

But the interesting point about McKibben's article The Christian Paradox: How a faithful nation gets Jesus wrong is that what all these believers mean by being "Christian" may not bear much resemblance to what Jesus actually preached. In fact, what is conspicuous is the widespread ignorance about the religion and the leader they purport to follow.

For example, he points out that "[o]nly 40 percent of Americans can name more than four of the Ten Commandments, and a scant half can cite any of the four authors of the Gospels" (my emphasis). And 12 percent believe that Joan of Arc was Noah's wife! (I have long had the impression that there is no proposition, however idiotic, that you cannot find at least 10 percent, often 20 percent, to agree to on such nationwide surveys.)

What McKibben's article asserts is what I have long suspected, that the "Christianity" that is genuflected to in the US bears only a slight resemblance to the message actually preached by Jesus as recorded in the Gospels. As McKibben (a Sunday School teacher at his local church) points out, if one breaks down the essentials of Jesus' teaching, it was very socially oriented, emphasizing the need for us to look out for each other. Jesus' summary (Matthew 25: 32-46) of what distinguished a righteous person from the damned was whether they'd fed the hungry, slaked the thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, and visited the sick and the prisoner. (The last requirement should be particularly easy to carry out since the US has six to seven times the number of prisoners of other rich nations.)

This social message has been replaced by a personal, individualistic, self-empowerment, 'feel good' one, that looks on personal wealth and well-being as signs of God's favor. Consider Jesus' advice (Matthew 19:16-24) to a rich man who had asked him what he should do to gain eternal life. He told him to sell everything he add and give it all to the poor, following that with this aside to his disciples: "Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." This is not a message, one suspects, that is preached in the modern mega-churches which feature drive-through latte stands, Krispy Kreme doughnuts at services, and sermons on how to reach professional goals and invest your money.

Perhaps the most telling symptom of this deviation from the Gospel message is the fact that three out of four American "Christians" believe that the saying "God helps those who helps themselves" comes from the Bible. It was actually said by Benjamin Franklin and is directly opposite to the message of interdependency preached in the Gospels. But it fits in nicely with a political message that favors tax cuts for the rich, cutting welfare benefits for the poor, and reductions of foreign aid.

What we seem to have in the US (at least among the Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson crowd and their followers) is a religion that is based on the Bible except for the teaching of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels. It seems to be something cobbled together from pieces of the old testament, some of Paul's letters, and the book of Revelations. What should this hollowed out religion be called? I have so far put the name "Christian" in quotes since this commonly used label hardly seems appropriate for a belief structure that ignores the essentials of Christ's teachings. It seems clear that "Christianity" doesn't fit. What alternative name might be suitable? Any ideas?


I have never understood why people buy bottled water if you don't happen to live in a country where tap water is contaminated. As this article points out, in the US itself, where there is every indication that tap water is in fact better than bottled water, people spend vast amounts of money for what they could get free. The author says that bottled water has become seen as a lifestyle choice, rather than as something that is necessary, and he goes on:

Clean water could be provided to everyone on earth for an outlay of $1.7 billion a year beyond current spending on water projects, according to the International Water Management Institute. Improving sanitation, which is just as important, would cost a further $9.3 billion per year. This is less than a quarter of global annual spending on bottled water.

I drink the bottled water that is now routinely provided at meetings. But I don't spend my own money to buy it, except for the gallon or two I keep for emergencies.


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I've seen people refer to the political wing of the religious movement you describe as "Christianist" - implying that the doctrine is not that Christ is king but that Christianity is king ;).

As for bottled water, my main reason for buying it is that I don't always have a container on hand when I want to have a glass of water. Once purchased, I do keep the bottles around to reuse (which means there are probably around a dozen bottles filled with tap water in my lab fridge). Another reason people buy water, in those big 5-gallon drums, is that some people's home water tastes kind of gross. My future in-laws have well water and theirs has a high sulfur content - it's OK to cook with, but its taste when drinking, or even brushing your teeth, is a little unpalatable. Brita filters serve the same purpose but are inconvenient in some ways because they aren't large, meaning you can't easily serve lots of guests at once. You're right, in any case, that it's a lifestyle choice in that it is a symptom of wealth; in water-poor countries I imagine the taste of water is not a pressing concern...

Posted by Erin on August 9, 2005 09:46 AM

If Christ's teachings are no longer a part of "Christianity," then I propose the revised moniker of "Ianity." It has fewer pesky syllables, and is so much easier for the kids to key in on their cell phones. ;-)

Posted by Mike Pirnat on August 9, 2005 09:55 AM

Clever, Mike... a bit *too* clever... because you just know that some of those kids are going to misspell it as "Inanity."

Posted by Erin on August 9, 2005 10:14 AM

Given that "Christ" is a theological term that has nothing to do with how one ought to live one's life and comes from a language that Jesus most likely did not speak, I prefer "Christian" for the religion that seems to prevail in our country. It seems that something like "Jesusist," awkward as it is, would be a better description of people who prefer to focus on the gospels.And do you mean to imply that Joan of Arc wasn't Noah's wife? :-)

Posted by John on August 9, 2005 10:35 AM

"Christianist" is an interesting coinage, because it reminds me of a distinction that a lot of Muslims make between "Islamic" and "Islamist", where the former means "of the Muslim faith" and the latter refers to the political movements that would impose Islam on all. In that respect, "Christianist" seems exactly right for some of the more hateful figures in the religious movement.

Posted by eldan on August 9, 2005 05:41 PM

"Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." This is not a message, one suspects, that is preached in the modern mega-churches which feature drive-through latte stands, Krispy Kreme doughnuts at services, and sermons on how to reach professional goals and invest your money.

Now, now, I grew up in a church that frequently had sermons on that topic, and we had cookies/donuts and coffee every Sunday, too. Then again, we were a church who focused a lot of attention on ways in which we could improve the lives of others around us, rather than complaining about how the government was singling us out as Christians.

I've been asking myself for ages how it is that people who call themselves Christians can manage to hold beliefs so far from Christ's teachings. As you pointed out, they seem to give the gospels a miss as they go through and rewrite the Bible to their own ideals. (Or should I be honest with myself and admit that these people don't look at the Bible at all?)

I'd like to blame the Joan of Arc thing on the U.S. educational system and their denial of anything important occurring prior to the Revolutionary War. But I'd be kidding myself. A little bit.

Posted by Nicole Sharp on August 9, 2005 11:32 PM

mckibben's article was one of my favorite things i've read in a while.

Posted by joshua on August 10, 2005 01:55 AM

What about Americanity?

Posted by Christop on October 11, 2005 12:48 AM

If they would teach real history in the schools instead of the politally corrected watered down version then kids would be eager to learn. The real story about Joan of Arc is so remarkable that kids would love to learn about her life. Send the one's that think she was married to Noah to
Joan of Arc - to learn the real story about her amazing life.

Posted by emily on November 29, 2007 02:27 PM

I'm new here, just wanted to say hello and introduce myself.

Posted by intemineallef on August 15, 2008 02:24 PM