For many years, the state of Christianity in America has been called into question. This is a big (and loaded) topic with many intricacies, so forgive any over-generalizations. It seems that there are three likely conclusions:
• First, that Christianity has succeeded in America and we are a genuinely Christian nation. Maybe there are minor shortcomings, but at its core, America is fundamentally and necessarily Christian.
• Second, the idea that Christianity was once successful in America and has since failed. This position holds that we have abandoned Christianity in genuinely significant ways.
• Third, that Christianity has never taken root in this country.
I would like to address these one by one.
The conclusion that Christianity has succeeded in America and that we are a genuinely Christian nation doesn’t seem descriptive of the American landscape for two reasons. First, we are aware of far too many injustices and we are lacking collective resolve to address them, which doesn’t make Christianity seem to be our most core value. Secondly, we have to consider how we go about the business of addressing issues. Our national-level methodology seems born less of Christian charity than political maneuvering and heated, uncharitable and even untruthful debate.
The idea that Christianity was once successful but has since failed is perhaps the most commonly held view. The term “post-Christian” has been used to describe our society for several decades. There does seem to be some substance to this idea. Stores previously closed on Sundays and the language of “prayer” and “God” was more socially acceptable. Religious practice was understood to be part of what nearly everyone did. Does this warrant the conclusion that Christianity was successful? Does Christian social expression excuse or negate the many social sins that we have been involved in through commission or omission? Were we living out the vision of Christianity in decades past?
Regarding the idea that Christianity has never been successful in America, I’m going to let the Greek Orthodox theologian, David Bentley Hart, express this position: “Let me put it this way: Christianity never succeeded in America. Most Americans think of themselves as Christians. However, the only religion in America that ever flourished was America. And it twists everything into its own image.” Hart goes on to observe that American religion “is about civil order, prosperity, capitalism, [and] a moral code that is not premised on forgiveness so much as upon judgement.” There seems to be something to Hart’s provocative and perhaps poignant words.
What value does this line of questioning have for us as Christians? As an exercise, it is worth pondering because it can help us explicate our perspectives about the history of our country, our expectations of the relationship between Church and state, and our conceptions about relationships among many religious traditions in our nation.
All of these ideas are worth fleshing out. In fact, doing so can help us more readily understand the position that others might hold and help us develop empathy that is useful for dialogue. However, the question of the “success” of Christianity in America is fraught as well as flawed.
It is probably true that, in some ways, Christianity has been successful in America, but in other ways, it has not. What would it mean for Christianity to be “successful?” What would that look like? If we have any wish for Christianity to be successful in America, it will require a great deal of care in determining what we mean by success.
Admittedly, that is a complicated process. Arriving at adequate notions of success requires a great deal of personal transformation in the form of daily conversion to Christ. Love of country and love of God go together, and loving the latter necessitates a loving, even affectionate, critique of the former. It might be worth abandoning the language of “success” anyways. After all, the meaning implied by the term is in many ways distant from “take up your cross and follow me.”
(Patrick Schmadeke is Director of Evangelization for the Diocese of Davenport.)