Thursday, July 13, 2006

Can a Good Christian be a Good American?

Can a good Christian be a good American? (Some cringe when citizens of the U.S. use 'American' to describe themselves and themselves alone. America, they say, includes all of North, Central and South America. With all due respect, they seem not to have considered the possibility that 'American' is ambiguous. It means either an inhabitant of the United States or an inhabitant of the greater continent of which the U.S. is part. I mean the former.)

American Christians, at least those of an Evangelical bent, are likely to say 'Of course a good Christian can be a good American'. Indeed they're likely to say good Christians make the best Americans, that the ideals of Christianity and of Americanism are not only compatible but serve to reinforce one another. (This is no doubt part of what's claimed when Evangelicals say that this is a Christian nation. They mean not only that America was founded on Christian ideals but that those ideals, if followed, make one a good American. Evangelicals seem on the whole quite patriotic, quite nationalistic, for they believe that in the U.S. Christianity fares best.)

I deny this. Good Christians most certainly cannot be good Americans. For consider an ideal at the core of Americanism, the ideal of self-reliance. It is part of what makes us distinctive as a people, and even when we fall short of it we still project it as a ideal. We are the people who do not need help, who do not rely upon help. Indeed we think that help corrupts. It makes us lazy, it makes us dependent. Better to eschew all help even if one fails without it, we say.

Who do we admire most here in the U.S.? The scrappy young boxer from a broken family who fights his way to the top. The child of poverty who, against all odds, manages to get an education and then begins a business that she makes successful through sheer grit. We're all told to be like these, to go out into the world and follow our dream. (Evangelicals often criticize Hollywood for its anti-Christian bent. But Hollywood still pushes the 'follow your dream' message hard. Consistency demands that Evangelicals commend Hollywood for that.) We're not told to sit back and let the dream come to us. We're not told to attach ourselves to another who will realize our dream for us. No, not that. We're told to go out and ourselves realize our dream.

Note just how deeply individualistic is this ideal. It's the individual that is told to go out into the world and make his way there. Whatever success he meets is his alone; whatever failure he suffers is his alone. He owes neither success or failure to anyone or any group outside himself. It is all his and his alone. It is a lonely ideal, an ideal that posits only the individual and a world to be conquered. It has no use for group or for origin. Indeed it is deeply suspicious of talk of such things. On the ideal of self-reliance, talk of group-membership or of origin can easily turn into an excuse not to work, not to better oneself or one's station. Better to put talk of such things to the side and get on with the work at hand.

This ideal of self-reliance is fundamentally at odds with Christianity. Christianity is a religion of non-self-reliance. It is a religion of reliance upon another. The other is of course Christ. Whatever strength we have comes from him. Whatever in us is good has him as its source.

Does this mean that we do no work? Of course not. Does this mean that we set not goals? Of course not. Rather it means that we must recognize in all we do that it is not we who achieve some good but rather Christ through us. Self-reliance is a myth. Christ-reliance is the only truth. Pride in the fruits of our own labor is always misplaced. Gratitude to Christ for what he works through us is always required.

Moreover Christianity is a religion in which the group is of fundamental importance. It is a religion that demands we set aside the individualism proper to Americanism and submit ourselves to serve the body of Christ here on Earth, the Christian church. The Christian is at bottom not one set out to conquer the world. He is rather one of many, and his very identity is wrapped up in his place within the Church. He is who is he because of that place.

This seems to me a fundamental incoherence in the Evangelical world-view. I suspect that Evangelical's keep their adherence to the ideals of Americanism and of Christianity separate. They do not allow they to come into contact, for if they did the psychic strain of their inconsistency would force them to give up one or the other. I submit to them that they should consider the two ideals together.

One last point. The incompatibility of the ideals of Christianity and Americanism should lead Evangelicals to rethink their oft-made claim that the United States is a Christian nation. If they mean by this that the ideals that animate the two are fully consistent and indeed serve to reinforce one another (and no doubt this is part of what's meant) they're dead wrong, and if one's fundamental loyalty is to Christ one must work to rid American of the myth of self-reliance.

10 comments:

Dave Reiter said...

Franklin, your comments are very insightful. I think especially your comments on the nature of Christian faith are excellent. I will offer a comment on this line:

"The incompatibility of the ideals of Christianity and Americanism should lead Evangelicals to rethink their oft-made claim that the United States is a Christian nation."

I think that for many evangelicals, the claim that the U.S. is a Christian nation is to a large extent a historical claim (about the religious commitment of the founders and the founding documents). To the extent that this is understood as an historical claim, it seems to me to that extent the purported incompatibility of ideals you are speaking of is irrelevant to whether the claim should be re-thought.

Franklin Mason said...

On reflection, I'd guess that you're largely right when you say how evangelicals are likely to understand the claim that the U.S. is a Christian nation.

But I'd still like the press the issue. It seems to me that Evangelicals don't mean to make a claim of purely historical interest. Rather they mean to say something about the character the U.S. has, or at least should have, at present. It is to this claim that my post is addressed. Perhaps I should have put it this way: though perhaps in a certain way the U.S. is a Christian nation, in a certain other highly salient sense it is not.

Dave Reiter said...

You are certainly right--the historical claim is understood to have implications for the present character of the nation, or as you put it, what sort of character this nation ought to have. The historical "was" is taken to imply an "ought," perhaps?

Doctor Logic said...

Oh, snap!

Nice post, Franklin!

Franklin Mason said...

Thanks, good doctor. I've meant for some time now to make my way over to your little corner of blogdom. I find your posts quite articulate and insightful, if almost always false (at least when they're philosophical in nature). ;-)

The Rowdy One said...

(((This ideal of self-reliance is fundamentally at odds with Christianity.)))

This has been something that I have been grappling with lately. Everytime I hear/read a Christian use some variety of the phrase, "believe in yourself" I shudder just a bit. This occurred most recently when reading Pat Williams' very good book "Coaching Your Kids To Be Leaders". Because so much of the book puts forth ideas and concepts that I believe were based on sound biblical principles, I find myself wanting to "excuse" this phrase -- or mentally add ... "believe in yourself ... and the unique giftings the Lord has given you."

It does seem to me that there may be a healthy way to "believe in yourself" if that belief falls under the foundational belief that all you do you do to the glory of God ... and that when you say "believe in yourself" what you are really thinking is "believe in your abilities and giftings because they come from the creator of the universe." But I don't think that's what most Chirstians mean when they say it.

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Anonymous said...

I think about this often.