Friday, August 19, 2005

Some Thoughts on American Protestantism

I encountered William Stringfellow some years ago. I think it was in my first year at seminary. I begin with him because his interpretation of the Powers and of Revelation were directed towards the United States. The US was Babylon not the City set on a hill. It isn't that for Strigfellow that the US was intrinsically evil but it was a power like any other spiritual power bent on self interest and self preservation reluctant to submit itself to the one above all names and powers. I found his insights compelling and certainly made sense of so much: slavery, racism, America's love of money etc. Yet, I had trouble fitting this radical Biblical and symbolic interpretation of the US with the American self image of being an example to the world of what is good and true, a City set on the hill. I knew that evangelical Christians considered this nation to be a Christian nation that had fallen or was falling from its calling. America had done much good, we have a free society and where the influence of America goes so goes the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It was America's destiny to spread freedom and the Gospel. Yet, I had to admit that in the wake of following this "destiny" America left a swath of death and destruction that looked very much like what Babylon has always accomplished. Is free market capitalism really more compatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ than Communism and Socialism? If so, what of the communistic elements of the Jerusalem Church immediately after the Resurection of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit? Stringfellow provided me with the ability to read the signs of our time with the symbolic hermenuetics of Revelation but there remained historical questions. Martin Marty's Righteous Empire: The Protestant Experience in America interestingly enough provides the historical reason why it took a lone theological voice outside of the Theological establishment to name America just another imperial power, Babylon, and explains why Stringfellows insights remain known only to a few.
I do not know recall if Stringfellow ever said this (as I have said it has been several years since I read him), but Christianity in America has been in a long captivity and Babylonian Captivity. This captivity predates Bush and the Religious Right. A friend of mine saw me on the train with Marty's book and thought the title was prescient given our current administration and the rise of the Religious Right. Yet it is not so much that Marty had any great insight into what was to come(in fact he concludes his book assuming the waning of the attitudes described in the book) as much as having a clear eye for what simply had been for most of the history of the United States. The title seems current because the Bush administration and the Religious Right are not an aberration. Bush and the Religious Right make sense to me now as being part of what America is and always has been. On one hand Bush and the Religious right represent what has been on the other the extremism of their position shows how the agreement they are seeking to enforce has broken down. As this nation began there was a civil and religious settlement that ended legal establishment in exchange for de facto establishment. This settlement was achieved at a high price: tieing the future and destiny of America to the future of Protestantism( and to some extent Christianity) in America. Though there has been ripples of protest of this agreement of de facto establishment, my focus is not on this dissent but how this agreement has compromised Protestantism and Christianity in American in creating American Protestantism
The founders of the United States even those who were in some type of Protestant did not set out to establish a Protestant nation, they did use God to support their ideas and saw divine destiny in the colonies breaking away from Great Britain. America was destined to bring Freedom to the world. And it took time before Protestantism began to articulate the expansion of America with the spread of the Gospel. But soon representatives of American Protestantism like Lyman Beecher not only identified American expansion with the spread of the Gospel but identified America as a new Israel, God's new chosen people as a truly Protestant people. (Righteous Empire, pp 46 ff.) This identification took so deeply that even someone at the fringes of the Protestant establishment like Melvile could say without controversy "We American are the peculiar, chosen people--the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world." (pg. 46) Christians in this country not only didn't protest this near heresy if not out right heresy, but in fact encouraged it. The spread of Freedom and the Spread of the Gospel become conflated and the future of Protestantism and Christianity become tied to the destiny and success of American democracy and way of life.
The ability to so easily and unequivocally identify Protestant Christianity with the United States and its "destiny" became complicated as the American Protestant story becomes one of the gradual bifurcation, articulated as a divide between the social Gospel and personal salvation. But this complication only reinforces the Protestant identification with America as secular interpretations of American destiny and mythology begin to reassert themselves in the twentieth century. Slowly though over history societally minded Protestants parted ways with the personal salvation Protestants. However, appeals whether for reform or revival were usually couched in Patriotism. Revival returned God's chosen people to God. Reform ensured that the city set on a hill kept its light bright, and "preserved the ark of liberties". Marty tries to give an account of the slow divide between revival and reform- personal salvation and social gospel. However, the reason for the divide need not detain us here. What is key for the moment is to recognize that the underlying impetus and mythology for both was this identifying Americanism (however interpreted) with the Gospel. Both parties retained and retain this conviction that American is Israel and not Babylon, that America is chosen to lead the world into some new era. Whether American Protestants seek to save peoples souls or rid America and the world of injustice, behind it there is this mythology of a chosen people a grand American "destiny", that is bound to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
In the end, what I conclude in reflecting on and thinking further than Righteous Empire is that the fundamental eerrorof American Protestantism is this belief in an American destinty, that in one way or another we are God's chosen people, and that it is our duty as a Nation to spread the Gospel or Freedom or Americanism or all three to the world. The eerrorin this is that there has only been one nation ever chosen by God for such a cosmic purpose and that was Israel, and there will be no other nation ever so chosen by God again! And now there is only one "Chosen people" and it is the Church because the Church is those called out from every nation including Israel, to serve as witness (not accomplishers) of God's saving work in the world the Jesus Christ. Now lest I am misunderstood "witnessing" as I understand it is not a passive activity, but it is a watchful activity that means following after God. There is no nor has tthere ever been an American destiny, we are not nor have we ever been a City set on a hill.
Thus I think it is appropriate for us to begin talking about the Babylonian Captivity of Protestantism in America. The degree to which our faith is bound to patriotism, or democracy, or freedom, or American Destinay, is the degree to which we are then held captive to the Powers of this world. American Protestantism has in countless ways been lead to equate this or that form of Americanism with the Gospel. An emphasis on the life of faith and personal change and responcibility ties into the American sense that faith is a private matter and that what really matters is ones character. An emphasis on social ills and the belief that God in Jesus came to the poor and outcasts leads to a Gospel of rights and freedom and talk of structural and societal injustice but little sense of personal sin. This Babylonian Captivity of Protestantism in America cuts accross all lines and boundaries, it is bound up in our belief that America is destined to spread freedom and justice, that not only should we as Christians seek to see peoples lives transformed and the world transformed by God's justice and mercy, but that we do these things because it is the American thing to do, and that if the Government or a politician or church leader does not live up to those ideas than they are first and formost un-American. The Gospel gets lost behind patriotism of the left and the right. The way out of this captivity is to remember that God calls us out of the nations into the Church he does not call a nation to be the church or to acomplish God's salvific purposes. A nation is Christian because it follows the Church not because the church follows the nation. If Marty is right since the American Revolution Protestants have been doing all in their power to attach themselves to American "destiny" and success, and it seems it is the great temptation of all Christians in this country to in one way or another come to see American freedom and the freedom of the Gospel as the same thing. This equation is our captivity, I pray God breaks these chains that have bound us to the American dream.