Speaking “American,” Speaking “Christian”

Posted: December 7, 2010 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , ,

Theologian Marcus Borg’s interview with Sojourners included a great indictment of the designation of the U.S. as a “Christian” nation:

What do you say to those who claim the United States is a “Christian” nation?

The negative side of the ambiguity of faith is that religions have often endorsed extraordinary cruelty and violence. For example, when cultural conventions said slavery was OK, Christians accepted slavery. You can make your own list  — segregation, wars, heterosexism, patriarchy, vast differences between rich and poor, and so forth. On the positive side, Christianity and other religions have also been protests against the way things are and [have affirmed] another possibility. The United States is statistically the most Christian country in the world in terms of [the] percentage of the population who will identify as Christian and in absolute numbers. Yet, the church is the only large institution in the United States where hate speech is still OK. This hate speech is directed mostly against LGBT people, but also against other religions, especially Islam. Can you imagine any corporation allowing its leaders to make statements about gay and lesbian people that are routinely said within the church?

Borg goes on to describe his idea of religious pluralism with a great analogy: religion as a kind of language.

One of my definitions of what it means to be Christian is, “a Christian is someone who lives their life with God within the framework of the Christian tradition.”…I really like the analogy of religions, in an important respect, being like languages. To be Christian, means [to speak] Christian, to be Jewish means [to speak]  Jewish, and so forth. Obviously, I’m not talking about speaking the ancient languages of the tradition but knowing and understanding the stories and vocabulary of your tradition. So being a Christian in a pluralized society, means to live deeply within the Christian tradition while being able to recognize the riches and saints of other traditions.

This analogy really helps crystallize a feeling of unease I’ve had towards “The Church” over the last several months.

Thinking of religion as a language opens up an analogous relationship–thinking of what it means to be “American.” There are a lot of people in the U.S. who speak “American,” or American English. Yet only a much smaller subset of these American English speakers are actually dyed-in-the-wool “Americans” in the sense that they are deeply committed to the values set forth in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. There’s a lot of folks who fly flags in their front yards, say the Pledge of Allegiance or who will slap a “Support the Troops” or an “America, Love It or Leave It” bumper sticker on their car, but often these are the folks most contemptuous of American values like free speech or civilian control of the military.

In the same way, there are a lot of people who speak “Christian” in the U.S.  They go to church every Sunday (or run churches every Sunday) but seem to have escaped any deep convictions derived from Jesus’ teachings. In fact, a good portion of the education they give and receive is designed to get them out of any obligation to the plain meaning of Jesus’ words. And like the “ugly American” tourists, these folks often set the impression about what a “Christian” is.

The funny thing is, the people who speak “American” but don’t absorb the values and the people who speak “Christian” but don’t absorb the values are often the same people.


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