In “Godless America,” host Ira Glass delves into what he calls “Christian activists trying to push the country toward more Biblical values.” He speaks with several of those in the “movement” about their concerns, hearing about the setbacks for Christians in our country like the denial of prayer and scripture from the classroom, the removal the the 10 commandments from courtrooms, and (as the episode describes in detail) the denial of a song choice by a graduating highschool senior because, as Bill Carrico says, ” it had the mere reference to God in the song.” (the song, we find out, was titled “The Prayer,” which sounds a little more than a reference to me…but who am I to decide.)
There are two aspects of the narrative of Christian persecution that intrigue me. First, that anyone would believe it exists in the first place seems strange. Ira Glass picks up on this as well, as he discusses numbers about religiosity in America. He tells a conservative pastor in Ohio “84% of Americans identify themselves as Christian. 6 out of 10 Americans say religion is very important in their lives. Only 16% of Americans say religion isn’t important. Christians have Christmas off. It’s sanctioned by the state. There’s no mail service on Sunday.” With those kind of numbers, who can actually make the argument that Christians are facing persecution?
The answer is conservative Christians who site court rulings in the 1960’s that outlawed prayer and scripture readings in classrooms, and even Roe v. Wade. The last few decades, they argue, have seen the erosion of what was once a Christian nation, based on biblical values.
What’s intriguing about this narrative, and what brings me to the second aspect I’m fascinated by, is that it isn’t historically inaccurate and yet, still effective. In the second part of the Act, Ira welcomes Isaac Kramnick, a Cornell professor who has extensively studied religion in the U.S. He writes
…what’s fascinating is that Barton and DeLay and Falwell and Ralph Reed have a story. And their story goes like this. The founders set up a Christian government which persisted until the 1960s. And then in the 1960s, a sort of subversive cabal of secularists, liberals, eroded and subverted this government which was supposedly to serve God’s purpose.
In fact, the story, ironically, is just the opposite, which is the Constitution– 1787 until the 1950s, the David Bartons and the Tom DeLays of the country were angry that the Constitution was secular, calling it a godless Constitution. And then in the 1950s, it’s just the opposite. The secular foundation of government is, in fact, eroded because of the Cold War. In the Cold War, America came to define itself as godly people, of course, fighting godless, atheistic Communism.
So it’s in the 1950s that you get the first presidential prayer breakfasts. You get the first congressional prayer rooms. And you get Eisenhower saying, we are a nation of believers. And perhaps even more important, the insertion of God into the Pledge of Allegiance.
What conservative Christian activists have been able to do is craft a narrative that expresses an urgency about the situation for Christians in America. So urgent that people who identify as Christian, who believe that America is/should be a Christian nation, rally behind the same cause: the recovery of Christian America.
Leaving aside all of the historical inconstancies of the conservative Christian movement in America, what is it about their narrative that attracts so much momentum? And what would it means for a more progressive Christian movement to take root in America?
As we prepare to enter lent, the lectionary gives preachers everywhere this odd verse from Romans, about an old Adam and a new Adam, the latter identified by Christ. This passage probably reminds most who read it about original sin, the doctrine so many have been taught as a reason for why they are bad and need to repent.
For the conservative Christians movement, this sin has taken on a collective life, as we all turn away from the new Adam. The less able we are to express our faith in public forums, the more likely it is that our country face the wrath of a spiteful God.
Only, I don’t see that happening in this verse. What strikes me every time I read Paul is the emphasis on the agency and sovereignty of God. He writes “for if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many.” When talking about creation, about sin and redemption, and about the work of God through Jesus Paul almost always emphasizes that we are the recipients of God’s grace, not through our own actions, but through “the free gift in the grace of one man, Jesus Christ.”
This is especially visible when placed along side the conservative Christian movement, for whom the work of salvation is something we do as humans. It doesn’t seem to be effective, after all, if the works of Christ followers aren’t viewable by everyone in every arena of life.
Lent is about of reflection. In the Gospels, it’s the time when Jesus leaves the world behind for 40 days to fast and pray. In the church, it’s a time when most people give something up with the intent of growing closer to God. There is something about lent that stands in stark contrast to the need for a public religion. Rather than make sure Christian-speak is present in every possible place, the emphasis of the season is on a turn inward, to reflect on the work of Christ, the “New Adam” as Paul puts it.
This is the movement: a spiritual life that realizes if we’re really reflecting on the work of God, we understand that it’s not about what we’ve done or can do; it’s always about what God is doing.
This lent, rather than push for a “Christian” America, let’s become a people who appreciate the great work of God that is already happening in and through creation.