America's God Is Dying


My friend Nathan Swenson-Reinhold  tweeted this article by Stanley Hauerwas some time ago, and it just kept rolling around in my mind, so I decided to take another look at it. I had never heard a perspective like that espoused by Hauerwas.  As I waded into this piece, the first statement that really caught my eye was this one: 

For Americans, faith in God is indistinguishable from loyalty to their country.

Hauerwas goes on to explain:

Protestantism came to America to make America Protestant. But in the process the church in America became American - or, as Noll puts it, "because the churches had done so much to make America, they could not escape living with what they had made."

As a result Americans continue to maintain a stubborn belief in a god, but the god they believe in turns out to be the American god. To know or worship that god does not require that a church exist because that god is known through the providential establishment of a free people. This is a presumption shared by the religious right as well as the religious left in America. Both assume that America is the church. American Protestants do not have to believe in God because they believe in belief.

What a fascinating thought.  Because America was founded as a place where Protestant religion could flourish, over time, people came to see America as the promised land, the land of God’s blessing.  Soon, love of country began to substitute for love of God. 

As I dwell on these statements, many strange things in our American culture begin to make sense.  Why do we have a flag in our sanctuaries?  I know pastors who feel this is inappropriate--we should salute God in our churches, not the American flag.  Yet when they try to remove the flag, people throw down.  Which God are we worshiping?

A significant number of Christians in this country will only elect a person to office if he or she holds the life of an unborn sacred, and therefore opposes abortion.  Yet some of these same conservative politicians seem to have no regard for the millions of children in our country who don’t have health care.  We want children to be born, but don’t care if they languish in poverty or hunger or homelessness.  How do we reconcile those conflicting views with Jesus’ teaching?  We don’t even try.  God bless America.

Hauerwas goes on to make the following point:

America is the great experiment in Protestant social thought, but the society Protestants created now threatens to make Protestantism unintelligible to itself. Put as directly as I can, I believe we may be living at a time when we are watching Protestantism, at least the kind of Protestantism we have in America, come to an end. It is dying of its own success.

The great irony is that the almost pathological fervency with which the religious right in America tries to sustain faith as a necessary condition for democracy is the surest formula for insuring that the faith that is sustained is not the Christian faith.

Perhaps this is why I’ve felt like a stranger in a strange land in the Protestant church these 30 years since I was baptized.  I have wondered why the church didn’t look more like the church in Acts, why so few seem to believe the promises Jesus gives us in the Bible, why so few seem to transform their lives in response to grace or seem to have a heart for the unchurched, the least the last and the lost.  When I look through the lens that Hauerwas offers, these things seem to make much more sense.

He challenges our assumptions in many ways.  He looks to our propensity to go to church as compared to the rest of the world, and he hits the nail on the head:

More Americans may go to church than their counterparts in Europe, but the churches to which they go do little to challenge the secular presumptions that form their lives or the lives of the churches to which they go. For the church is assumed to exist to reinforce the presumption that those that go to church have done so freely.

I heard the old saying long ago that the pastor’s job in the sermon is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”  I have seen precious few sermons in the Lutheran church that afflict the comfortable.  Indeed, the leadership of many churches I’ve seen is comprised of the most affluent and successful business people. 

Sadly, only 10 percent of pastors in a large survey self-identified as visionary leaders, so many without that gift are quite intimidated by the business leaders. A conspiracy of silence seems to develop that looks like this.  The pastor doesn’t challenge the lack of involvement in a faith journey by business leaders beyond writing a check, and the business leaders don’t challenge the lack of leadership or vision coming from the pulpit. 

Hauerwas puts it this way:

It is impossible to avoid the fact that American Christianity is far less than it should have been just to the extent that the church has failed to make clear that America's god is not the God that Christians worship.

He returns to his title in his conclusion. 

We are now facing the end of Protestantism. America's god is dying. Hopefully, that will leave the church in America in a position where it has nothing to lose. And when you have nothing to lose, all you have left is the truth. So I am hopeful that God may yet make the church faithful - even in America.

Yet rather than leaving me depressed, this article gives me hope.  I do believe he is correct is his assertion that the kind of Protestantism we have in America is dying.  In Richard Foster's latest book, Life with God: Reading the Bible for Spiritual Transformation, the author tells of a vision from God.  In his prayer time, Foster looked over at a dozen roses that had been given to him by his hosts at an event.  The roses had started to wilt from lack of water.  God’s message to Foster was that the American church was like those roses, still some beauty left, but they have been cut off from their roots, and the roots are prayer.  In a further word, Foster heard from God, “Yet I will rebuild my American church, but first we must regrow its roots.”  May it be so.