Christian Identity in America
Fundamentalist. Evangelical. Mainline. Methodist. Baptist. Presbyterian. Liberal. Conservative. Catholic. Protestant. Followers of Christ. Christian identity in the United States of America has never been static. In the conversation you’ll read here, three Covenant College professors reflect on religious history, the current cultural climate, and their own lives to explore what it means to be a Christian in today’s America. Enjoy the following discussion between Dr. Jay Green, professor of history; Dr. Alicia Jackson, associate professor of history; and Dr. Steve Kaufmann ’69, professor of education.
Growing Up in the Church
Kaufmann: I was raised in a fundamentalist church, and I appreciate so much about that. We heard the gospel early and often, and my parents were godly people. But we also spent a lot of time defining the things we didn’t do—we didn’t smoke or drink or go to movies. That was a big part of my identity coming into college. When I was a student at Covenant, that urge to define myself by what I didn’t do was broken and I started to think more positively about what my faith could mean and how I could engage and influence culture as a Christian.
Green: Sociologist Robert Wuthnow has observed that before World War II, American Christians tied their identities to denominations. They were Episcopalian, Baptist, Presbyterian, or Methodist. But over time, those identities faded and what mattered more was, regardless of denominational identity, whether a person identified as “conservative” or “liberal.” That observation rings true in my experience. I grew up in a mainline United Methodist church. I was cognizant that there was a war going on for the soul of the Methodist church between liberals and conservatives. We seemed to understand that those in leadership were the untrusted liberal elites, and we in the pews were the traditional, biblical Christians. At least that’s how we saw it. I think we’re seeing a full-flowering of this kind of thinking in America today. Similar to Steve’s experience, my take on the situation was broadened and challenged once I went off to college. By the time I graduated, I had developed a greater tolerance for complexity.
Jackson: My experience was a bit different from Jay and Steve. I grew up attending an all-black church. Of course, the black church is not monolithic, but in the church I grew up in, Easter was a big thing—everyone wore a hat. In many ways, I have some nostalgia for that time, and I look back on it fondly. It’s sad for me to see some people looking down at the black church and the black experience and theology, as if it’s deficient in some way. This kind of disdain can come from people within the black community or outside the community. That’s a painful thing to hear as someone who grew up in that church community. It’s my hope that conversations like this will encourage and invigorate people to seek out and join these churches.
Where We Come From: Perpetual Flux
Green: I think we tend to derive some comfort from imagining a past that had stability and a quietness associated with it. I think we need to recognize that the flux we’re experiencing as Christians in America today is something that has always existed. The dynamics of how it is happening right now are unique, and some of the circumstances are genuinely new, but what we’re dealing with right now is far from unprecedented.
“I think we need to recognize that the flux we’re experiencing as Christians in America today is something that has always existed.”
Kaufmann: I was thinking this morning of the Antebellum Period, when an influx of Irish immigrants came to the United States and experienced a lot of backlash in American culture. The kind of turbulence that we see today is not new. It’s been part of our experience, and Christians have participated in both sides of tensions from the beginning.
Jackson: My work focuses on the Reconstruction Period and particularly on African-American churches established during this era. In the late 1860s, freed people of color in the Southern Methodist church experienced a tremendous amount of racial violence. As a result of their experiences under slavery and oppression experienced after emancipation, they came to a point where they could no longer worship with Southern Methodists, so they founded the Colored Methodist Episcopal (CME) church.
Today, African Americans are effecting a slow exodus from majority churches and communities because they feel as if the issues they are dealing with, be it contaminated drinking water, mass incarceration, or racial profiling, are set aside as unimportant issues. I would argue that the experiences of Christians of color today are reminiscent of what many experienced during Reconstruction. During these years, African Americans worked to navigate the waters between the economic and political constraints of white churches and the practice of their faith as individuals in a growing community.
Green: I think that white American Christianity has always been pretty intent on policing its boundaries and navigating the “threats” that exist from within. One of the dominant stories of the 19th century was policing against the threats of Roman Catholicism. Much of the language we hear about the threat of immigrants today can be found throughout the 19th century regarding the Irish and other European immigrants who were perceived as threatening American jobs and as undermining the Republic and the idea of liberty itself. A sense of embattlement and threat has always been present in American life.
Kaufmann: Richard Niebuhr once compared 17th century Christians with 19th century Christians, saying that in the 17th century, Puritans were asking, “Oh, Lord, what is your will for us? What can we do to serve you?” In the 19th century, Christians turned that on its head and instead saw God as there to serve their own agendas. There is a blending in the 19th century of Christianity and American initiatives.
“There is a blending in the 19th century of Christianity and American initiatives.”
Green: Nathan Hatch’s book Democratization of American Christianity is a nice survey of some of the ways in which a lot of what we take for granted as “Christian” has been leavened by good, old-fashioned, 19th-century American individualism. When I learned about Christianity as a kid, I absorbed a brand of Christianity that came pre-formed with expressions of American, democratic, even populist norms. Because we don’t always have an historical awareness of how this came to be, we’re less suited theologically to disentangle it now.
Not all of this is bad. One of the amazing things about Christianity is that it is culturally adaptive. But sometimes we take the expression of Christianity we’re most familiar with, and accept it as “Thus saith the Lord.” Doing so creates problems for us when we bump up against variant strains of Christianity that don’t look like the version we’re familiar with or when theological norms ask us to critically engage, and maybe even push back on, some impulses of American life.
Jackson: Among African Americans, the church has been for many years a safe haven from external challenges and oppression. Since many black Christians have perceived the politics and economics of the world outside of their churches and communities as somewhat hostile to them, I don’t think they are at all surprised at where we are politically and socially today.
I think, in many ways, the movie Get Out (2017) is the black nightmare that has come true. It’s the story of opening yourself up in vulnerability to someone and to a community and then finding out that you can’t trust that community. What has happened in the last two or three years in the African-American community is a realization of, “Oh, we really are not fully embraced as being part of this community. We’re still seen as the ‘other.’”
Where We Are Now: Evangelicalism in Transition
Kaufmann: There are elements of evangelicalism that I think are biblical: the conversion experience, the relationship to Jesus Christ, the belief that the Bible is the word of God. These beliefs are at the heart of evangelicalism, and I’d hate for it to be the case that evangelical leaders’ present diversion from these beliefs would cause us to lose our way. I want to see us come back to these basic tenets of evangelicalism.
Green: At the same time, I do think there are some features of evangelicalism that are genuinely problematic. Evangelicalism often displays a low or non-existent view of the church, making us especially vulnerable to the culture of celebrity. Evangelicalism also has a tendency toward sentimentalism and nostalgia. So I do think there are some things baked into evangelicalism that we ought to be concerned with—not because the term is bad, but because the culture of evangelicalism opens itself up to these issues.
Jackson: I also think it’s good to remember to ask who the term “evangelical” includes. Growing up in the black church, I never thought of myself as evangelical. I just thought of myself as “Christian.” My pastor always emphasized the unity of the body and how we are a family with different first names (Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian), but all having the same last name in Christ.
Kaufmann: One other wrinkle for evangelicalism is that we don’t have a robust social theory. Roman Catholics are far more developed than we are in that area. So, we get to a point in history like where we are now and I’m not sure we have the weight of ideas and categories to handle it. I think that may be why a number of evangelical leaders are reverting to pragmatism instead of a body of work that says, “Here is what justice looks like.”
Jackson: I was recently reading John 19 in my devotions: Jesus is brought before Pilate, and the high priests essentially say, “Our only authority is Rome.” I thought, “yes, this is what we’re experiencing today.” Individuals who are supposed to be spiritual leaders have given allegiance to Caesar and not to the iron sharpening iron of Scripture. That is one of the things that I really grieve over. We are not living out the very things we espouse as Christians, and we need to be about our Father’s business and about the truth of the Word.
Kaufmann: There really should be a certain edginess today around Christians—recognizing the gap between where we are and where we ought to be. If we as Christians forget that and just turn pragmatic and put our morality in the corner so that we can enjoy power for a season, I think we’ll regret it.
Jackson: This generation has such a desire for authenticity, and when young people start seeing people putting their faith to the side, something becomes clear to them: This isn’t real, is it? It’s just convenient.
Green: Ten to fifteen years ago, I thought that evangelicals in the United States were adapting successfully to the notion that we were going to have to figure out what life was going to be like on the margins, as a minority voice with diminished cultural power. There was some good writing that came out at that time about trying to re-discover what must have been like for the early church to live under oppression and the threat of extinction. Doing so in those circumstances shaped the faithfulness of those early Christians. But over the past few years, I’ve realized that we are not as comfortable with that idea as I thought we were. Instead, there has been a doubling down on the search for and reassertion of power. I have been shocked by this turn. It turns out we’re nowhere near being ready to live life on the margins of a post-Christian culture.
Jackson: You know, I think that reveals that we have forgotten that this world is not our home. That’s a big theme in the African-American church: We’re just passing through and only here for a little while. As a larger community of faith, we have become far too comfortable. We want to make our lives here easy, and while we may send missionaries to other parts of the world, we want to be comfortable here. That is so unfortunate and I think all of us need to meditate on the fact that this is not our home.
“We have become far too comfortable. We want to make our lives here easy, and while we may send missionaries to other parts of the world, we want to be comfortable here.”
Kaufmann: Amen. We are in danger of becoming just another group that is willing to do whatever we can to protect ourselves—even create unholy alliances—because we’re forgetting that this world is not our home. We’re also forgetting that we’re called to love our neighbor, no matter who that is: the immigrant, the person on welfare, the inmate. Christians should be the ones who are tending to these needs, not simply trying to save our brand.
Where We’re Going: The Global Church Will Lead the Way
Jackson: It’s easy to want to throw everything out and start over, but we are told over and over in Scripture to remember the past. When the Israelites were led out of Egypt, they were told to remember the past. On the flip side, we are also really big idol makers, so we can make the past an idol and hold it up in nostalgia. I think the church has to be mindful of both of these things. And in all of this, we need to be wary of pride. It is so easy to put other people below us and look down on and disparage them. Those of us in Reformed circles need to be mindful of all these things. We need to be wary of pride, refuse to idolize the past, but also not discard or dismiss the past.
Kaufmann: Several years ago, I went to a lecture given by Richard John Newhouse about the rise of faith in New York City. Before World War II, the question was whether Christianity would even survive in the city. After the war, when the world started coming to New York City, they brought vibrant faith with them. The same is true today. The Holy Spirit is moving in the Southern Hemisphere. Where is the PCA? Where is Covenant College? I think if we could mirror the dynamics in New York City, we would be amazed at what that might mean. Christianity is a global religion. I think we need to listen to and read things from Christians who are living outside of our own spheres.
Green: Interestingly enough, over the last few years, I’ve actually become more patriotic. I think I took some of our founding principles, governing systems, and institutional norms for granted. Now that they are under threat, I desperately want to protect them. I think in some ways I’ve made an idol of the comfort I’ve experienced within our functioning democratic institutions. Then I start to think about all of our brothers and sisters around the world who live under constant threat and despotism and I realize that I am hankering for a kind of comfort of government stability that I may never experience again. Maybe I need to be OK with that.
Kaufmann: That resonates with me. I also think this is a good place where Christians can speak into American values and culture. You cannot have the common good without robust institutions. Christians should be the ones who are advocating for the three-level view of society, with institutions operating between the individual and the state. We should be pro-family, pro-community, and supporting our schools and other institutions. Christians should be able to speak into these things and able to articulate why they’re so important.
Jackson: I do think that life in the margins will be a purifying experience. We’ll have to face the question of whether we will still profess our beliefs if they mean that we will suffer in difficult circumstances. I also think that in times of suffering, all of our labels and divisions mean less. I had an experience in a place where there was a significant amount of hostility toward believers, and the dividing line became as simple as: Do you know Jesus and do you love God? The answer to that one question united us. Sometimes unity can only come through hostility and suffering.
“Sometimes unity can only come through hostility and suffering.”
Kaufmann: I’ve had the opportunity to teach in a few different countries. It was humbling to be with fellow believers in China. These believers, materially speaking, had nothing. But they were sold out to Jesus Christ. There are many experiences of vibrant belief, the Spirit at work around the world, in believers who are oppressed.
Green: I think it’s worth noting that, right now, Christians’ pursuit of power has led to greater legal and political ease for some believers and for Christian institutions in the United States. But at what cost? I want faith-based institutions like Covenant to exist for a long time, but I also want the voices of Christians to have integrity and real moral authority.
There are voices of moral authority outside of Christianity that are making bold, challenging critiques on issues including the treatment of African Americans by the police, mass incarceration, sexual harassment, and sexual violence. It grieves me that people do not associate that kind of moral courage and discourse with biblical Christianity. I think ceding that kind of moral authority to others harms our witness.
“I want faith-based institutions like Covenant to exist for a long time, but I also want the voices of Christians to have integrity and real moral authority.”
Kaufmann: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).