Christianity in the United States: Back to the Roots

Everyone, Christians and non-Christians alike, need to become conscious of the histories of excluding other religions, and to take note when we see others practicing such exclusions.
By: Ira Allen

"They got a prerogative. This here's a Christian country. They need to know they can't come over here and build temples to worship Buddha and such!" Woah! What? These are the words of a popular minister I interviewed in an attractive Midwestern college town. To protect his anonymity, I'll refer to him here as Pastor George.

He was erudite, sophisticated, and generally well-spoken. After both a B.A. and an M.A. from a prestigious university, he had followed the call to the ministry, and his (Pentecostal) congregation had grown rapidly, attracting the upstanding and the down-and-out alike. His attitudes on many social issues were more progressive than those of most charismatic preachers (On women's rights: "Anywhere that has different rules for men and women - well, there's something dysfunctional about that!"), and his congregation was by far the most racially mixed in town.

And yet, about an hour and a half into the interview, Pastor George launched into one of the most offensive and surprisingly forthright tirades I'd ever heard about the importance of intolerance in America. The United States, he explained, was fundamentally Christian, and all of its laws should uphold that. He felt that churches needed to band together (more than they already do) to lobby the federal legislature for a state-supported religion. Along with Pat Robertson, he suspected that the hurricane in New Orleans was God's punishment to Americans for allowing homosexuality in their midst, and for not striking down the temples erected by "foreigners" to "false gods and idols."

What happened here? How did we get from intelligent, pleasant, and progressive to intolerant, closed-minded, and blind to history? These are serious questions, because they fit many spiritual directions along the Christian Right in the United States. How is it that good people who are following the words of the most tolerant person of all time (from the Christian perspective)? How can the man who is considered by many to be intelligent, friendly, funny and socially conscious, suddenly turn into a nationalist, racist xenophobe?

Perhaps the answer has something to do with the darker histories of both the United States and Christianity. Like any state (and any religion), both established themselves as institutions through the denial and exclusion of others. In the United States, this meant―at the worst level―slavery and―at a somewhat more innocuous, or at least common level―caps on how many immigrants could enter the country. For Christianity, this included the Crusades, and also years and years of witch-burning (check out the German Maleficus Maleficorum for a catalog of the varieties of witchcraft to be sought and punished) and Inquisitions, as well as numerous other moments of persecution and exclusion - the religious wars in Europe in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, Papal wars of dominance in Italy and elsewhere throughout the Middle Ages, and so forth.

Unfortunately, as author William Faulkner tells us, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." And as Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis explains, the development of the human mind is such that nothing is ever quite lost. Rather, it's pushed to the side, submerged, foreclosed; but everything and everyone we have ever been, either as individuals or as cultures, can always again reappear. So, from one perspective, it's important to understand that the histories of exclusion that make the founding of institutions and collectivities possible never really go away (and, again, I want to stress that this is not just Christianity; the same is true for any other religion or grand institution). They are always maintained in the cultural consciousness, and as such can always re-emerge.

Does that make people like Pastor George bad to be shunned, or even punished? Of course not. That's not a solution for anything (but rather just more of the same)! Instead, it suggests that all of us, Christians and non-Christians alike, need to become conscious of our own histories of exclusion, and to take note when we see others practicing such exclusions. So, in the case of Pastor George, what is the solution?

Well, from a Christian perspective, it's actually quite simple. If to be Christian is to be Christ-like, it's to be both understanding of human frailty and unafraid to call a spade a spade. So, to be a Christian in Pastor George's congregation means taking the courageous step of talking with openness, and a readiness to understand about his attitudes toward non-Christians and non-U.S. citizens. It means asking him why he feels the way he does, encouraging him to adopt a broader perspective, accepting him in his flawed humanity, and at the same time, gently but firmly insisting that true agape is not contained within the borders of any nation or religion.