I started a series last week called The Naked Emperor. It is one man’s look at the empty shell of evangelicalism. I said that I have been intimately involved in what I call the “evangelical circus” for way too long. And while others have said, “What lovely clothes the emperor is wearing,” I have seen this “emperor” as naked but have been afraid to say so. Now I am saying so. Now I am saying that the emperor has no clothes. Evangelicalism, at least on the whole, is void of depth. It is smoke and mirrors designed to bring people under the tent to enjoy a good show. But all it has to feed these people is cotton candy.
Today I want to look at one of three tentpoles erected to prop up the evangelical circus big-top, the Americanization of God.
The Americanization of God is not a new phenomenon. Its roots go back to one of the greatest of American theologians and philosophers, Jonathan Edwards. It was his writings and sermons that proclaimed that revivalism in the New World would usher in the Kingdom of God. Edwards was an early proponent of the idea that one must have a personal relationship with God in order to know he was saved. And being very American, Edward’s God—with whom one was to have a relationship—took on distinctive American qualities. Independence and self-reliance were among the most important of these.
Americans became very parochial, especially right after the Revolutionary War. We were the new chosen people, elected by God to lead the way in the world. There existed a “manifest destiny” to which we were called to take over lands from those who were ignorant, those who didn’t follow the same God we did. If we saw it and liked it, then it was right for us to make it ours.
Alexis de Tocqueville observed this “American exceptionalism” in his Democracy In America:
The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one. Their strictly Puritanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit, which seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts, the proximity of Europe, which allows them to neglect these pursuits without relapsing into barbarism, a thousand special causes, of which I have only been able to point out the most important, have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects. His passions, his wants, his education, and everything about him seem to unite in drawing the native of the United States earthward; his religion alone bids him turn, from time to time, a transient and distracted glance to heaven.
This brief glance to heaven found Americans staring into the face of a God made in their own image. God became an American, applauding the pioneer spirit, a “go get ‘em” attitude, and above all, capitalism. Religion and Americanism went hand-in-hand to the point where if you were an American, it was assumed you were a Christian. And if you were a Christian, you were following an American God who was very personal—not the stodgy old European God who was only found in sacraments and traditions.
Personal experience was elevated to the same level as deep theological study. God loved the common man and his commonsense. Every American had access to a Bible and could make of it as he wanted. This attitude of independence in one’s religion was cool with God who, after all, shared our same thoughts.
Churches soon began to function as capitalistic enterprises themselves. If a town had a church that was relatively full on Sundays, then it seemed to make sense for someone to start a new church in that same town. This new church would offer a better menu of services to attract the churchgoing crowd, the same way a new restaurant would offer a better menu to draw in the patrons of existing restaurants. It was not much of a leap for churches to begin acting like a business would—for that was the American way of the American God.
This growth in individualism in American religion led Pope Leo XIII in the 1890s to respond to what he called “Americanist Heresy.” He cited four aspects to this heresy that concerned him greatly:
- Undue insistence on individual initiative in the spiritual life, as this leads to disobedience
- Attacks on religious vows, and the questioning of religious orders in the modern world
- Reducing the importance of Catholic doctrine
- Minimizing the importance of spiritual direction
The response among Catholics to this indictment from the Pope was slight; but non-Catholics used it as just one more reason they wanted nothing to do with Rome. The American God served them so much better. There was no need for authority in churches directed by someone in another country.
I could cite many more examples of how we got to where we are, but let me conclude the history lesson portion of this with a snippet from Ronald Reagan’s farewell speech to the nation in January of 1989. In it he makes reference to Puritan preacher John Winthrop’s idea that the New World was to become a “shining city on a hill.”
I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it and see it still…
Just how has the American gung-ho attitude shaped the evangelical church of today? I see it in several ways.
Lack of authority
American evangelicals have rejected not only the authority of the Pope, but most any hierarchy in the church—at least in form. In function, we now have a lot of individual popes overseeing one large church or, increasingly, multiple franchises of a church. The entrepreneurial spirit pervades among church leaders in our capitalistic society. Mark Batterson, a church leader outside of Washington, DC, said this when he opened his sixth church site:
Lord willing, I want to pastor one church for life. But I have an entrepreneurial itch that needs to be scratched. Multi-site does that. You never stand still. It never gets boring. And I think it keeps you focused on what’s next.
Craig Groeschel’s Life Church has fourteen campuses spreading from Oklahoma to Tennessee to Florida to New York. More than 25,000 gather on Sundays to watch Groeschel preach on video transmitted from the main campus in Edmond, Oklahoma. Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church currently has ten campuses, with two more about to open. Seacoast Church has twelve locations in North and South Carolina and Georgia. The tens of thousands of people who gather to hear messages from their “pastor” in these multi-site churches would vehemently deny that they have a pope leading them. They are individuals with a personal relationship with God. But is that how it really works in their lives?
Because God is an American in the evangelical mindset, he must want us to spread American Christianity to the rest of the world. Unfortunately, we have become very good at that. Look at the number of “prosperity” churches that are growing in South America and Africa. The idea that God is here to meet our every need just when we need him is now pervasive wherever we have had a strong missionary presence. In our American way of thinking, suffering is insufferable. Anyone who lacks anything needs to find a way to meet that lack and end the suffering. Fortunately, we have a benevolent government that does not want anyone (at least, any voter) to suffer. This idea is now part of evangelicalism, and we’ve exported it to other nations. Suffering is taught as something brought by the devil; God would never allow suffering. Get active. Increase your faith. Give (to the missions organization) so God can give to you. Lift yourself up by your own bootstraps. It’s the American God’s way—and it needs to be the way in any nation that wants God’s blessings.
My way is the right way
One last aspect of the Americanization of God is this. My way is always the right way. I have a personal faith, and thus what I believe must be right. If I believe that the handing out of money to those I deem able to work is wrong, then it must be wrong in God’s eyes as well. If I think that we need to bomb some country into oblivion, then obviously God does as well. We tend to gather with other Christians who agree with us, thus making whole communities of people whose ideas are completely right and godly. And if our ideas are right, then yours must be wrong. If you are not part of our community, then you must be a bleeding-heart liberal or a compassionless conservative. God is on my side, not yours. If you want to be a “real Christian,” you’ll change your thinking to be like mine. And if you don’t, well, good luck come judgment day.
The making of God into an American in our own image has helped strip the evangelical emperor buck naked. But very few are willing to say this out loud. I just did. Your thoughts?
Next tentpole: The marketing of the church.