Lacking A Christian Voice

“For several centuries now, secularism has been defining and constructing the world,” says John Milbank, an English theologian, in his opening statement in Radical Orthodoxy.  Counting from The Enlightenment in the 1700s, it is true that secularism has dominated the mainstream culture in Europe for over three centuries; however, American history followed a different path.  In fact, the 18th and the 19th centuries were prominent eras of Christianity on this side of the world.  We had two “Great Awakenings” that produced historical figures and religious movements that are still influencing how we understand Christianity till today.  Even with the challenge of liberalism in the 20th century, response from conservatism gave birth to great theological debates at the time that stirred up quite a bit of passion and legacies.  But, after the 70s in the post-Vietnam war period, secularism finally seeped in and gradually replaced Christianity in the mainstream culture, resulting in lacking a Christian voice in the American society in the past fifty years.  Of course, this assessment has not included the solidary protest against abortion and gay marriage in the recent years.  These actions do reflect a certain mindset of the church but fall outside of the scope of this article.  The nature of the “Christian voice” being discussed here does not pertain to activism but to mean organized thoughts that rise above merely quoting fragmented scriptural verses to support one’s actions.  Organized Christian thoughts are theology but more than theology.  They are both the process and the product of interaction between the understanding of God and the interpretation of the culture that may not only respond to but also turn around to infiltrate and, therefore, shape the culture.  The result will be the formation of a generation and the  guidance of our society.  The theme of this article is to discuss how Christianity has lost her voice in (1) economy, (2) politics, (3) science, (4) art, (5) philosophy, and (6) psychology, therefore rendering Christianity irrelevant in today’s world.

I began to become interested in this topic when I noticed Christianity in north America has become more and more “other-worldly”.  Part of the reason of this phenomenon may have come from the church being captured by fundamentalism that generated a spirit of separatism.  As a result, Christians often focus on personal morality and look towards heaven but lack interest in what is happening in the world.  In this sense, our gospel almost demands those whom we want to evangelize to leave their context in order for our message to be the “good news”!  Ultimately, we have reduced our faith to an abstract concept that it becomes an option to reincarnation or like ideologies, forfeiting its original intention to be the guiding light of our lives.  My experience with the Chinese churches in north America in particular, is that they are more interested in understanding the scriptures than they are of the context of their world.  The six subjects mentioned above are the contexts-of-interest in this article.

On Economy

The 20th century is arguably a hundred year conflict between capitalism and communism.  With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, communism has also turned to its last chapter.  If one has any more doubts, the Economic Reform initiated by Deng Xiao Ping in the 1980s rendered the beginning of a China to be communist by name only.  Almost over night, there remains only one system to run a nation’s economy – capitalism. That is why the former chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan called the collapse of the Soviet Union a seminal economic event.  During the Cold War, President Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union “the evil empire”.  Communism was not only an economic system.  To the Americans, it represented anti-American, anti-freedom, and anti-Christianity.  On the other hand, the United States of America stood for a Christian nation that represents freedom and justice.  At such times, one’s mindset easily fell into a kind of dualism that if one was against communism then one must be for capitalism.  Conversely, if one began to challenge capitalism then one must be a communist sympathizer.  Therefore, pro-capitalism was not only being realistic, it’s also patriotic.  After all, there was, perhaps still is not a better system.  From then on, we have embraced capitalism without reservation.  We believe in the self-governing of the free market to the point that it has become omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent.  As long as we let it run itself, it will bring us happiness and blessings.  And, we kept believing that until the financial tsunami hit us in 2007.

Capitalism is not only an economic system.  It is a form of value and a way of life.  Capitalism And Freedom, written by Milton Friedman, a 20th century economist, sold over half a million copy and translated into eighteen different languages, influenced an entire generation.  Friedman argues in his book that capitalism brings political freedom.  Of course, economy cannot be the only element.  Fascism and Nazism once took away political freedom in Italy and Germany while private enterprise was prominent in the two nations.  However, Friedman insists that capitalism must be the foundation of a political free country.  But, what is “political freedom”?  If the citizens of a country must spend ten percent of their income to buy into a government-run retirement program, or the residents of a certain state need to have a government certified license in order to do a certain trade, then they have lost some of their political freedom.  To people like us who have been living in a free world, these examples hardly mean anything.  However, history reveals that humanity have been living under the oppression of tyranny in most of our memories.  Friedman explains that there are two ways to mobilize another person to do something:  coercion and mutual benefits.  The latter describes the power of the free market.  In this realm, the role of the government is limited to maintaining the competitiveness of the market, that everybody plays by the rule; thereby preventing any form of coercion.  When the free market controls the power of the economy, the system will form a check-and-balance with those who wield political power.

Friedman not only believes this system gives political freedom, he further argues it will resolve other social issues like racial discrimination.  He explains that the free market concerns only with efficiency and not irrelevant factors.  To the consumer who buys a loaf of bread from the grocery store, it won’t concern him if the wheat to make the bread is grown by a white man or a black man.  Likewise, if the owner of the grocery store has a preference of hiring based on anything other than productivity, ultimately he would be at a disadvantage.  Therefore, Friedman believes the power of the market is more efficient than government intervention.  He expounds on this point by expanding on the same illustration by showing the effect of regulative intervention.  He says if the owner hires a black man because of government regulation, and assume hypothetically that his store locates in a community that racially discriminate against black people, the consumers in that area may choose not to patronize that grocery store, which may result in the closing of the business.  Ultimately, the reduction of competition in the area will drive up the price, rendering the consumers to reap their choice of actions.

Ayn Rand was a Russian-born American novelist and philosopher who belonged to the same period of Milton Friedman.  Like Friedman, she was also a strong advocate for capitalism.  The influence of her view on the American mindset may be observed even today.  Accordingly, congressman Paul Ryan once required all his staffers to read works by Rand.  She claims that “Capitalism is a social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned (Capitalism, p.22).” In other words, capitalism confirms the western view of individualism, which is the core value of western civilization.  The right of the “person” must be respected and protected.  Therefore, capitalism, again, is not only an economic system.  It is not one of the choices to be picked.  From the western perspective on existentialism, there is no other choice!  From Friedman to Rand, whether one approaches from pragmatism or philosophy, capitalism is far more than just a ‘system’ to Americans.  If we call it a ‘system’, then this system represents how we understand the world and ourselves, because it represents values like freedom, justice, and what it means to be a ‘person’.  American Christians have largely embraced this view up until 2007, when the financial tsunami finally shook our faith in the free market.

In less than thirty years – the gap of merely one generation – after the collapse of communism, we have actually come to the point of re-examining our position on capitalism.  While the end of communism connected to the collapse of the Soviet Union, capitalism brought on a global catastrophe.  Ironically, the first to point out that this is a spiritual issue was not the church but the secular world.  Rev. Jim Wallis of the Sojourner magazine was invited in 2009 to speak at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos.  Tony Blair, the former Prime Minister of England was also there.  He told Wallis that were it not for this deep crisis, Davos wouldn’t be having such a discussion and wouldn’t have included somebody like him (a religious leader).  Wallis published a book titled Rediscovering Values based on the content of that forum.  He begins by saying that we have misplaced our trust.  We have blindly believed the market, thinking that it will make everything right.  We didn’t think that we needed to give it integrity or goodness.  As a result, capitalism did not bring us what it has promised.  CNN was present at the WEF asking one CEO after another the same question: “When will this crisis be over?” Wallis suggests that CNN was asking the wrong question.  Instead, he challenged the CEOs and heads of state a much more important question:  “How will this crisis change us?” Ayn Rand says in Capitalism that every social system is based on some theory of ethics, and the notion of “the common good” often serves as the moral justification of most social systems.  However, this “common good” has never been well defined.  Therefore, her conclusion is that “common good” is a meaningless concept.  Rather, the focus should be on the individuals!  Wallis says “the invisible hand (of the market) has let go of some crucial ideals – like “the common good.” He reminds us that the greed that focuses on our personal needs may not be the best driving force of our world.

Among Christian leaders, the one who gave the harshest critique to capitalism is the head of all Roman Catholics.  In the 2013 Apostolic Exhortation, Pope Francis blasted this economic system with almost an entire chapter.  Although he didn’t use the actual word “capitalism”, everybody knows the “trickle-down” theory refers to how Ronald Reagan described his economic strategy in the 80s.  And, the fact that the pope compares the sins of the system to that mentioned in the Ten Commandments is perhaps evident that he abhors the unjust and inequality produced, which he witnesses firsthand being a Latin.  It is in this context that he proclaims that mankind has created a new idol of money.  He continues to explain that this is a worldwide crisis because finance and economy lack real concern for human beings.  The pope succinctly points out that “man is reduced to one of his needs alone:  consumption.”  While he understands the income of the poor is much improved because of capitalism, he also realizes the gap between the rich and the poor has grown to an alarming level.  The role of government as the guardian to the common good is replaced.  Now, its only purpose is to maintain the autonomy and the speculative nature of the financial system; thereby, giving us a new form of tyranny.  He says a system that rules instead of serves is one that is against ethics and God, because “ethics leads to a God who calls for a committed response which is outside the categories of the marketplace.” This God can only be seen as “uncontrollable, unmanageable, even dangerous, since he calls human beings to their full realization and to freedom from all forms of enslavement.”  As for ethics, it will make possible “to bring about balance and a more humane social order.

Before Pope Francis, Christians were never alarmed with what capitalism instructs.  Perhaps we are still not.  As much as we do not need to agree with either the Apostolic Exhortation or Wallis’s Rediscovering Values, we need at least to acknowledge there are still the model of Jesus and biblical teachings on the church’s role in speaking for the poor and being a guiding light to the world.  Conversely, the lifestyle of most Christians in America shows that we have largely embraced what capitalism tells us on how now we shall live.  A most obvious evidence can be seen in how we raise our children.  Parents in Chinese churches often aspire for their children to go to prestigious universities, believing that a good education will ultimately help them to land with a good occupation with an admirable income.  While there is nothing wrong with that, the aspiration often stops there.  In the parents’ mind, the handsome income or the prestigious position will somehow fulfill the life goal of their Christian children.  This kind of mindset begins with high school.  While the parents may not show particular interest if their children wish to serve God or their neighbors, they often make much efforts to connect them to participate in certain numbers of hours of community service – a biblical application required by the secular world – in order for them to put that experience down on their college application.  After they get in the school desired, “community service” is never mentioned again.  The message is clear:  “We are doing this so you can get in college.”  Like Ayn Rand suggests, these children have no sense of the “common good” but perceive very well that their private properties and knowledge need to be respected, forming a generation of winners in the game of capitalism, who do not provide this system with reflection or critique.

Although reflection and critique are important elements of needing a Christian voice in the mainstream culture, the more serious phenomenon in lacking of such is that todays’s Christianity has not provided an option on how now we shall live.  We can point to our doctrines and creeds when need to explain what we believe; however, we are just as lost as others when come to explaining the purpose of life.  Do we believe in a God who is greater than capitalism that he will bring greater blessings than that described by Friedman and Rand?  Or, do we believe in a God who calls us to live a sacrificial life?  Are we merely the steward of the money we have made, commissioned to spend them on the work of God?  (Do we live like stewards?)  Or, may be God doesn’t even care about blessing us with wealth because true values dwell in love, joy, peace, and other virtues that come from the Spirit?  If we believe in God because of his love, then what drives our economic system cannot be accumulation and consumption.  We often proclaim “Believe in Jesus and you shall have eternal life”, but till this day we cannot explain what this eternal life look like.  We believe in Jesus, but we often follow capitalism.  “Serving God” often looks like the footnote in our lives.    It doesn’t form the main body of our essay.  People have to look at the fragments in our lives to realize that we are Christians.  When we have lost a Christian voice on the platform of economy, it means we have lost a voice on the platform to guide the culture.  This is our first battle.

On Politics

In the past one hundred years, American politics and Christianity have been tangled in a muddy relationship.  They started off by distancing from each other because of a distorted view of “state-church separation” but ended up in a slow dance for the past 40 years with the political evangelicals edging to the radical right.  Despite the polarized shift of position of the religious conservatives, the process often lacked in-depth Christian thoughts.   Past battles on Prop 8 and abortion exemplified this point.  Although collective Christian values were present in the public debate, the way religious figures engaged with the issues gave a strong impression that Christianity does not exist as a voice outside the politics as a reference point of wisdom or spirituality.  Rather, it appears more like one of the many voices in a cacophony of squabbling – either as a pawn of the politicians or a politician of a new category.  In the end, the church failed to form or shape the culture through political vision; instead, politicians were able to infiltrate the church and imprinted us with their values.

The founding fathers of this country believed in state-church separation because they witnessed the battle between Catholicism and Protestantism in Europe.  They understood well that religion and politics can engage in shady affairs for political gains.  The well-known cocktail “Bloody Mary” refers to the daughter of Henry VIII, Mary Tudor, who won herself the title through massacres of countless Protestants in her time.  Her successor Elizabeth, in turn, killed as many Catholics for similar political reasons during her reign.  To ensure our country from going down this path, the founding fathers upheld religious freedom and decided that there will be no state religion.  With the cultural invasion of modernity in the 20th century, secularism distorted the intended meaning of state-church separation and successfully removed Christianity from the larger society.  The one within the church who helped to make this happen was fundamentalism.

Fundamentalism is an American product from the 1920s.  The publishing of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species in 1859 formed the backdrop of a new era that will eventually threaten the traditional Christian worldview, beginning with the trial of the supernatural elements of the Bible in the age of reason. Religious liberalism arose out of this context in the attempt to remove supernaturalism within Christian beliefs.  Under this endeavor, Jesus became a moralist or a revolutionist.  Miracles were explained away by science, and the Bible was reduced to another ancient text, written for the purpose of urging mankind to do good.  Facing a series of theological onslaught, conservative Christians formed a new camp that we call today fundamentalism.  Ironically, fundamentalists generally do not like to be labeled as such.  Rather, they often refer to themselves as simply “Christians.”  However, their beliefs do not always represent the entirety of Christianity, so there exists a “technical difficulty” at times to discern who is, in fact, a fundamentalist.

Evangelical historian George Marsden provides us with a “tongue-in-cheek” definition of a fundamentalist that he is “an evangelical Christian who is angry about something.” Theologically, fundamentalists insist on inerrancy and six-day creation. However, it is their view on eschatology that gives the biggest impact on politics.  The Book of Revelation speaks of the Second Coming of Jesus, and that he will reign for a thousand-year on earth (millennium).  Accompanied with the idea of the millennium is the seven years of tribulation.  Nevertheless, there is no consensus within Christianity on the timeline of the events.  Before the two world wars, the majority position was that the tribulation will come after the millennium (post-millennialism), which coincided with the general sense of optimism in that generation.  Along with the Industrial Revolution and the advancement of science and technology, life was becoming better and better.  The general belief was that the peak of human civilization will mark the point of Christ’s return.  The two world wars largely destroyed this optimistic mindset.  Humankind became more aware of their self-destructive nature, and pre-millennialism replaced the popularity enjoyed by the previous position.  This new eschatological view sees that tribulation must come before the millennium.  Battles and natural disasters will occur more and more frequently until they become unbearable, then Christ will return.  Most fundamentalists believe in pre-millennialism and  are followers of dispensationalism.

Since pre-millennialism believes this world would end before the coming of Christ, the logic follows that one should not waste time with the matter of the present world.  It was out of this context that the fundamentalists chose to focus on spiritual matters like moral discipline, which led to the expression of faith in “separatism.”  Furthermore, the social gospel movement at the time began to affiliate with religious liberalism.  Given that fundamentalism was birthed out of a reaction to confront with the liberals, they naturally rid themselves from involving with anything that has to do with social issues.  This continued until the eighties.  A sidebar that worth mentioned at this point is that the evangelist Billy Graham started out as a fundamentalist.  But, his ministry direction eventually shifted to engaging with the world and cooperating with various denominations.  Ultimately, he was condemned by the fundamentalists over his New York City crusade in 1957, marking an important milestone for the rise of neo-evangelicalism.  This leads to the saying:  “If you like Billy Graham, you’re an evangelical; if you think he’s a liberal, you’re a fundamentalist.”

As a movement, neo-evangelicalism never reached the level of success as fundamentalism did.  The latter still command the mindset of most conservative Christians in the US.  The resulting notion of separatism rendered Christianity irrelevant in the mainstream culture; coupled with the church removing herself from cultural matters, secularism dominated the platforms on sexual revolution, the abortion debate, and education.  When the church finally felt the threat of the cultural invasion, she re-entered the political arena under the leadership of Jerry Falwell of Moral Majority, James Dobson of Focus On The Family, and Pat Robertson of 700 Club.  Robertson even ran for  the Presidency of the US in 1988 but lost to George H. W. Bush in the primary election.  When these people decided to regain Christian influence in the society, they knew they needed to make “compromise”, and they did that by leaning closer to the more cultural conservative Republican Party.  Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner are conservative Christians who served under the  administration of George W. Bush.  In City of Man, the book which they co-authored, they point out the religious right successfully slowed down the pace of the attempt of secularism to liberalize this country.  Even though abortion and gay marriage are both legalized, the public debate on these matters is ongoing largely because of the effort of the conservative.  On the other hand, how they engage with the matters has created much concern.  They quote Jerry Falwell on his comment on comparing how liberal America treated evangelical Christians to how Nazi Germany treated the Jews.  In 1994, Falwell associated President Bill Clinton with drug dealing and murder.  Gerson and Wehner point out that this kind of language may be good for fundraising but stop short on having any kind of civil political dialogue.  Furthermore, political agenda adopted by the fundamentalists sometimes lack the consistency of Christian values.  “During the 1980s, the Christian Voice issued report cards measuring candidates’ views not only on school prayer and abortion but also on support for an American defense treaty with Taiwan and opposition to a national Department of Education; there were no categories concerning the relief of poverty or racial equality (Kindle location 819-836).”  The authors conclude that the movement “was less an independent voice than a tool of a specific political ideology.” The negative impact of this mindset rendered many Christians to believe that if they voted Republican, they voted Christian.  And, anything that has to do with the Democrat Party belongs to the anti-Christ.  This black-and-white labeling created much confusion.  Few years ago when Rick Warren, the founding pastor of Saddleback Church, partnered with the Obama administration to minister to AIDS patients.  And, he was criticized by fellow Christians because this ministry involved the Democrat President!  When an equal sign is put between Republicans and Christianity, some Christians begin to embrace the full package of the Republican agenda with no reservation.  When they voice out to oppose gun-control, they only sound like a Republican but with no Christian values in their argument.

The last and also the biggest mistake of the religious right is beyond their tone and strategy.  It is their theology.  Gerson and Wehner point out these conservative Christians often think of America as the new Israel.  Under this mindset, they believe God and the US have a special relationship.  If the people of this country obey the law of God, God will bless this country; otherwise, the wrath of God will come and punish those who disobey.  When the special covenant between God and ancient Israel is generally applied to the US, people ended up hearing some of the most ridiculous things.  After the 9/11 attack, Pat Roberson and Jerry Falwell held a televised conversation when they said the terrorist attack was an act of punishment from God.  Falwell went on to say that the ACLU should take a lot of blame because they helped the abortionists, feminists, gay and lesbian, and they threw God out of the court and school.  The authors comment that this is not only wrong but downright distasteful.  “In Christian belief, God’s ultimate goal is to bring men and women into communion with Himself.  His dealings with the world serve that purpose.  And God’s purpose is often advanced through preemptive suffering, which is not a punishment, but a mystery and a method of grace (Kindle location 873).”

The methodology adopted by the fundamentalist as described above is to first join a political party, then attempt to Christianize the larger society through the power of that political party.  However, the entangled relationship between Christianity and the political party leads to the many complications described.  In terms of methodology, this author must point out that neither fundamentalism nor evangelicalism prepare well for the engagement with politics.  H. Richard Niebuhr in the 40s suggested five methods for Christianity to approach culture:  (1) Christ against culture, (2) the Christ of culture, (3) Christ above culture, (4) Christ and culture in paradox, and (5) Christ the transformer of culture.  Till this day, the church still has not come up with a newer insight.

Ronald Sider is the president of Evangelicals For Social Action (ESA).  In the anthology Toward An Evangelical Public Policy, he points to three areas that Christians involved with politics need to pay attention: namely justice, human rights, and government.  Some of the big questions he believes that must be answered include:

  1. What is the ultimate source of justice, human rights, and governmental authority?
  2. Is justice exclusively or primarily procedural (e.g., fair courts), or is it also concerned with fair distribution?
  3. Are valid human rights primarily or exclusively civil/political (freedom of speech, religion, etc.) or also socioeconomic (right to food, job, etc.)?
  4. Is the primary or exclusive role of government to restrain evil and set procedural rules (very limited government), or is it also to promote the common good by nurturing fair distribution (a more activist government)?

From a biblical and theological exercise, Sider concludes that justice and human rights must begin from the premise that mankind is created in the image of God, and that the ultimate authority of the government does not come from the people but from God (John 19:11; Rom 13:1).  The theological conclusion does not intend to denounce democracy.  As a matter of course, the government is elected by the people. However, the recognition of God being the source of the governmental power implies that decisions casted by the majority vote do not guarantee them being right.  Neither the government nor the people are ever granted the authority to do whatever they will.  And, this is where the voice and the power of the church come in, for the church is the conscience of the society.  The 20th century theologian Emil Brunner says that “the more healthy a society, the more nongovernmental institutions (like family or church) will be able to handle problems without government intervention.  On the other hand, the greater the moral decay, the more government must act.”  One good example would the collapse of the family system leads to the greater need of government involvement to care for abandoned children.  In this way, Sider concludes that the government bears a role to execute fair resource distribution (like food and education) to promote common good (respecting the image of God).  Unfortunately, we do not see today’s church has prepared herself in organizing thoughts like this.  Rather, the church has handed the job to politicians.  Therefore, the subject of anti-abortion becomes a Republican agenda.  The resulting respect for the image of God (or to human rights) limits to the life of the unborn fetus, but the plight of the poor or the sufferings of the uninsured seem to be completely lacking in the minds of the Pro-lifers.  On the other hand, helping the poor and the pursuit of equality somehow become the job of the Democrats, who often advocate “rights” but with no concept of “responsibility”; thereby, rendering justice and love strangers to each other.

When the church voices her opinion with only fragments of scriptures that sounded more like slogans but lacking organized Christian thoughts, the world may still tolerate us but will not seriously consider us as a possible option.  This is how we have lost our cultural ground.spelling grammar check