American Christianity and Violence: Longtime Bedfellows
After yet another mass shooting, I find it interesting how over and over again I see those who fetishize firearms make the claim that the reason we have so many mass shootings is that our country is not "Christian" enough.
Since the US is far more religious than any other advanced country and the overwhelming majority of those who describe themselves as religious name Christianity as their religion, then should we not ask if American Christianity is to blame?
Those countries like Korea, Japan, and Norway who have very, very low religious participation also have the lowest rates of murder.
Therefore, if we posit that Christianity as taught by Jesus of Nazareth is a religion of peace and love, then we must ask if the brand of “Christianity" popular in America today is the real problem. Perhaps it is not there are too few who practice this religion that is (at best) a distant derivative of the message taught by Jesus; but rather the religion itself might be the root of the problem.
The simple fact is that we need to look closely into why the dominant religion in America leads to violence and hate rather than love and brotherhood. Only those who have a vested interest in protecting this status quo deny something is deeply wrong with the nature of American Christianity.
Why is this?
I would suggest the starting point in this question should be when the USA severed its relationship with the Church of England in 1776.
Even as the Revolutionary War was going on, something extraordinary was happening in American church life. For the first time since the Roman Emperor Constantine took over the fledgling Universal (Catholic) Church; individual congregations and their clergy were free from the threat of punishment for disputing the “official” version of Christianity.
The ensuing explosion of “The American Religion” led first to a market place competition between denominational traditions; then within a few decades, there appeared more new versions of Christianity than had been seen since the “official church” began putting doctrinal deviants to the sword. Not surprisingly, these new brands of Christianity owed as much to liberal enlightenment thought as they did to Anglican, Lutheran, Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian traditions from which the many forms of American Christianity took shape. For the last century, even the most virulently conservative churches fight tooth and nail to preserve their autonomy and internal democratic traditions.
The flame of religious fervor that followed American independence is normally referred to as the Second Great Awakening. The leading figure of this movement was a man named Charles Finney. He and his followers took very seriously the idea that the true Christian life is dedicated to bringing the benevolence and justice of the Kingdom of God to the new nation. A new idea was born and animated this great religious revival: Social Justice. It was believed that a Christian who does not commit his life to righting the wrongs in society, is no Christian at all. To Finny and the others of that first generation of American Christians, the key concept was “Faith without works is dead.”
One of the most glaring examples of social injustice at the turn of the 19th century was the practice of slavery. The widespread acceptance of slavery by “Christian” leaders was especially galling to those swept up in this revival since St. Paul made it clear that Christians should not keep “brothers in Christ” enslaved. Thus the abolitionist movement was the forerunner of all subsequent social justice movements to this day.
There was a problem though. In the rich cities of New York and Boston, the wealth of the bankers and international traders was predicated on the enslavement of black Christians. Even worse, in the South, virtually all political and financial power was held by slave owners. In the first decades of the 19th Century, slave holders began to be reviled in both the north and south. There was a strong movement to denounce slave owners and to exclude them from church membership all across the country. While in the north, this was contentious and led to some wealthy churches openly defying the revivalist; in the South, the rich and powerful fought back decisively. In the decade between 1830 & 1840, the course of American Christianity was forever altered.
In the South, those men in power, saw to it that the Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterian denominations were all split from their national organizations that were condemning them for their sin. At the time they were not coy about their reason for this ecclesiastical secession (as with political secession from the USA forty years later). They did not want to be told their wealth built upon a mountain of bloody sin, was sinful. (to be clear, there was a further split among Methodists with those who would not whitewash the evils of slavery becoming the Wesleyans).
In time, these new Southern denominations adopted a group of doctrines to justify the evils they openly practiced. In the 20th century those who adhere to these doctrines nearly all believe that all “real” Christians have always believed them. Yet the historical truth is that the core doctrines of Premillennialism, Dispensationalism and the method of “proof texting” were all adopted by conservative Southern “Christians” as a direct effort to repudiate the Second Great Awakening’s call to social justice and to justify the manifest evils of slavery and later of Jim Crow.
Thus was born the counterfeit religion that today masks as mainstream Christianity in the USA.
Often I’ve heard people who question the orthodoxy of modern evangelicalism ask: “Why don’t I hear about the teachings of Jesus at church or on my “Christian” radio or TV station?”
The answer is in this history of what is now nearly universally called “Christian” in our country. No one involved with the evils of the slave trade wanted to hear the words of Jesus that so plainly condemned them. While as early as the 1850’s there were efforts to systematize a form of Jesus-Free Christianity; it took until the height of the Jim Crow era to fully synthesize a new religion that used Christian forms, but utterly denied virtually every word Jesus spoke. The final version that became the blueprint for 20th Century Conservative Evangelicalism was penned by a former officer in the Confederate Army, C.I. Scofield.
For most of the 20th century, millions of his Schofield Reference Bible were in the hands of pastors across the country. His notes acted as the defacto doctrinal text book for his denomination (The Southern Baptists) and for a range of groups that had their origins in the post Great Awakening split of American Christianity. Schofield, explicitly stated that the words of Jesus are not applicable to the current “Church Age.” According to the doctrine of dispensationalism that is the backbone of most conservative versions of evangelicalism today, “Christians” need not heed any of those inconvenient teachings by Jesus; like “Love thy Neighbor as thyself.” Hence this brand of so-called Christianity, is freed from following the words of Jesus in their entirety. While few “pew-sitters” are ever told this explicitly, young ministers in training are. I was taught this at my fundamentalist college.
During the middle of the 20th Century, what I call “Jim Crow Christianity.” spread out of the deep South and into the West and Mid-West. As it did, so did the idea that Jesus is not the guiding light of Christianity. With this counterfeit Christianity, a deep-seated ideology of selfishness as a virtue, took over large segments of the US. While it might seem that the unvarnished worship of selfishness of the Trump movement appears to have come out of nowhere; it is in truth, simply the culmination of over a century of displacement of the teachings of Jesus with an ideology that is quite literally the opposite of Christianity.
The very fact the USA is both the most religious and the most violent of all advanced nations is not an aberration and should not be a mystery. What has happened is that the last vestiges of actual Christianity have been eradicated within the mainstream of American Christianity by this counterfeit religion. A religion that was founded to justify enslavement, rape and murder on a grand scale will never, ever yield anything but violence and death.
Yet in all this we need not despair. There are groups of actual followers of Jesus who have not been silenced. People like Tony Campolo or organizations like the Red Letter Christians are growing and, if history is a guide, it is only a matter of time before there is a new Reformation movement. Though no one can tell how long that will take or how much blood will be spilled by those who refused to turn from their false religion to follow Jesus, I must hold on to the hope and belief it will come one day.