The Soul of the Church

Much has been written about the political struggle for “the soul of the nation”, and I do not dissent one minute from this assessment. That struggle can be framed, using the most generous self-description of each cohort of citizens, as between the patriotic, religious, and law-abiding people of the Republican Party versus the educated, hospitable, and hard-working people of the Democratic Party. The issues are abortion, health care, immigration, race, law, and the role of the government at all levels. Regardless of who wins the presidential and other electoral contests this fall, the struggle is far from over.


But I am much more concerned with the struggle for “the soul of the church”.


Not a week goes by that some friend or acquaintance of mine speaks some version of this: “What is being done today in the name of Christianity, makes me sick. If that is what it means to be a Christian, count me out.”


The most recent prod in this direction is the success of the “Christian” crowd sourcing site, GiveSendGo. They have raised $479,328 to support the legal defense (and other things) of the 17-year-old gun-wielding vigilante who left his home in Illinois to “protect the streets” of Kenosha, Wisconsin. In the process, he killed two people and wounded another. He was arrested and charged with murder.


How this young white man, Kyle Rittenhouse, became a symbol of what these Republicanized Christians value is but a shadow of the larger mystery: now Donald J. Trump became an agent of what they believe God is doing in the world today.


According to them, God is using Trump to roll back decades of invasive and immoral federal intrusion into the lives of the American people. God is using Trump to re-establish the Christian religion and its teaching of sexual-restraint and self-reliance as the public and private norm for American society.


According to us, though, Trump is using them—these Republicanized Christians—to remain in power, undermine the rule of law, and accumulate as much wealth and influence as possible for himself, his family, and his followers. Much like a dictator. Much like the dictators he admires around the world.


It is not unusual for dictators to enjoy the support of religious people. Examples include Russia, Saudi Araba, Israel, and Brazil. It is not unusual for dictators to curry the favor of religious authorities, especially by a policy of promoting and protecting religious practice of a particular sort.


This marriage of Republican politics and Christian persuasion has produced a dis-functional government and a diseased religion. While we need be alarmed about the former, it is the latter that trouble me most. The version of Christianity associated with this President and his fervent followers bears little if any resemblance to either the faith and practice of Jesus of Nazareth or of the values and habits of my own Christian profession.


This judgment echoes the words written long ago by Frederick Douglass: “… between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest, possible difference….to be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other….” He was speaking, of course, of the slave-holding, slavery-defending practices of the American church; I am referring to the more-subtle but equally pervasive racist religion of those who long for the return to prominence of white Christian culture.


This is what they mean when they don their caps that plead, MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.


We fought a great war over this difference: white only versus whosoever will. The South lost that war; but the South has risen again with this misplaced marriage of religion and politics known as White Christian America. They seek to dominate our country and deter us from providing justice, liberty, opportunity, prosperity, and safety to all people regardless of color, creed, ethnic identity, national origin, or sexual orientation.


It is not just the soul of the country that is on trial, it is the soul of the church.


Will we Christians succumb to the temptations of nationalistic xenophobia, fearful of all of God’s people who are any shade of brown or black, resentful of any body that does not look like us or think like us? Will we continue to give our endorsement to this tidal wave of white pushback against the browning of America, all in the name of Jesus?


Or will we embrace the vision of Abraham, to bless all the peoples of the world? the prophecy of Isaiah, to open the house of God for prayer for all peoples? the teaching of Jesus, that God so loved all the people of the world? the revelation of Peter, not to call unclean those whom God has declared clean? or the statement of John, that God redeemed the saints from every tribe and language and people and nation?


It is this expansive and generous hospitality that sits at the center of our religion. It is this virtue, this practice that is the soul of true Christian faith and practice. Whether this kind of Christianity will survive the onslaught of the self-serving, power-grasping, white-loving rebellion remains to be seen.


The soul of the  nation is threatened but so is the soul of the church.



(September 2929)