Good Life

Clergy Column

The election of 2016 is already upon us. All of us have many months to look forward to messages and mailings from candidates and PACs, but I’ve already started thinking about one particular message we will be hearing from both major parties: The United States is a “Christian Nation.”

I listened to a podcast recently, “Fresh Air,” in which the author Kevin Kruse was interviewed about his new book, “One Nation Under God.” Kruse talked about how his book explores the growth of the idea of the United States as a “Christian Nation,” beginning in the 1930s.

At the time, many industrialists and business groups were reeling from the New Deal; from the empowerment of labor and the regulation of business by the government. In response, business launched a PR campaign to sell the merits of free market capitalism, which failed badly at first, likely due to the public’s awful experiences of the Great Depression.

And then business hit upon a winning strategy: entice some American clergy to broaden their message, to include not just Christian ideals but free enterprise ideals, to preach that they are very similar and overlapping.

Under this version of Christianity, if you are good, you go to heaven, and if you are bad, you go to hell. And in business, if you are good, you make a profit, and if you are bad, you fail.

And the New Deal violates not only the free market, but also the Ten Commandments, making an idol of the government, making the poor covet the wealthy, etc.

Now to be sure, the business lobby did not invent this dovetailing of Christianity and capitalism. From the beginning of our nation, there have been voices supporting this combining of belief systems. And also, at the time and since, there were and still are many voices in Christianity saying the Gospel is not the same as capitalism. But the efforts and funding of the business lobby helped push these combined ideals into the mainstream.

And today, to be clear, there is not some business/Christian conspiracy out there. Soon after this lobbying effort, the amalgamation took on a life of its own and drew in more concepts. It grew probably in response to the Cold War, a conflict with Soviet Communism, an economic, political and anti-religious system. This naturally lead to a response of a kind of “circling the wagons” ideologically in the U.S., around not only democracy, but also capitalism and Christianity.

From the inside of the wagons looking out, who is going to split hairs and draws distinctions between politics, economics and religion?

And then this blending of ideals grew, leading to a National Prayer Breakfast, putting “In God we Trust” on our paper money, adding “... under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, and even the tradition of presidents ending speeches with, “God bless America”; all coming about since the 1950s, if not later.

A few years back, I read a book called, “The Myth of a Christian Nation.” Beyond its provocative title, at its core it merely argued that no human nation can or should be called “Christian”: All human governments have to operated by coercion, making people behave the rules, by threats, fines, force, etc. The term Greg Boyd, the author, uses is “power over.”

But Christianity operates on a totally different framework (at least it is supposed to). Christianity works by “power under”; not by making people behave, but by transforming them into the type of people who live a certain way, by their very nature.

For sure, Christianity has had a large and significant influence on our nation, from its founding to today. But, any adhesion of extra beliefs to the gospel, whether capitalism or even democracy, should give us pause and be considered carefully.

Bluntly, it can drag God down to the level of human goals; it can take divine ideals and puts them in service of petty, manipulative people.

And that is bad for both a nation and a religion. And we should watch for those voices pursuing it, and consider why they are doing this, what interests and incentives do they have to do this.