Be Aware of Christian Identity in the United States
Updated: Oct 29
What we know and perceive to be Christianity is often off-base from what might be considered an authentic faith.
There can be big, big difference between a deep, affecting religious life, faith, and spirituality and the actual church culture in which you were raised or find yourself. Knowing this can help you start separating the bad religion you may have experienced from the good you know is there.
I am not the first to say that what we know and perceive to be Christianity is sometimes off-base from what might be considered true religion, which of course becomes a matter of definitions as well.
Interestingly enough, many thinkers and communicators in today's religious marketplace will make this argument about religion. The problem is, however, their answer is often the "get back to the basics" or "more Jesus less religion" approach. At least in the common version you'll hear, this approach says that we need a purer, more original theology, mostly likely grace oriented. Jesus never meant to start a religion of rules, but to make disciples who would preach personal salvation and forgiveness of sins. Just get back to these basic themes, and be careful of letting the social club aspect of church, or church rules, carry you away.
This type of back to the basics approach is what you might call doublespeak. That is, stop paying attention to one set of rules, that are presumably the seasoned work of a dedicated community of believers, and pay attention to another set of rules, which by the way you can discover on your own by simply reading the Bible or thinking about Jesus. Don't worry about what anyone else says, just learn these core rules for yourself. It's a classic maneuver some make, and I'd argue especially Christians in the US. It flies in the face of the fact that we can't really do faith by ourselves. We need each other.
Religious life in the US has always, always been deeply imprinted with the do it yourself attitude. If you've watched television in the last twenty years, it's not a stretch to imagine that this DIY attitude is a huge part of who we are in the US. What few of us often don't realize is that it's also a big part of our religious identity.
If you want a good archetypal example of this dynamic in our religious identity, nothing has ever impacted me more, than the debate between John Winthrop, third governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and Anne Hutchinson, charismatic leader in that colony. As the story goes, the early Puritans came to North America to experience religious freedom, even to set up a church-founded state, what Winthrop is now famously known for calling "a city on a hill". As time went on, however, the colony had to create rules, governance, and along with that came strict ideas on religious assembly and leadership. Hutchinson, meanwhile, had established her own prayer meeting, where the handed-down rules could be eschewed. It was an ironic turn of events. The very people who wanted that DIY religious independence were cracking down on it within their own ranks, and especially on a woman who was doing it. There's an amazing, still-relevant PBS documentary on this called God in America. See the first episode.
Now this is where things get a little tricky. This do-it-yourself mindset became part of institutionalized Christianity in the US, especially with the diverse (not surprisingly) group called evangelicals. It's indeed a bit of a paradox: be independent but also create uniform community. It was certainly a paradox in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and amazingly we are still imprinted with this paradox today. It does explain, however, why faith in the US can be so fractious, so prone to splits and arguments.
Finally, being aware of your Christian identity, educating yourself about it, gaining some objective distance from it, is going to be vital to helping you overcome the problematic parts of it, for example, American exceptionalism, whiteness, patriarchy, and more.
Education is a constant theme you'll hear from me. Find resources that dig deeper, study religion in general, find different points of view. I'll work to provide more resources here. Stay tuned.