I’ve said many times that I’d have no problems with most Christians if the majority actually practiced what they preach, but unfortunately those sorts tend to be the exceptions to the rule. Ironically not only do most Christians not understand or follow the tenets of their professed faith, but a good majority of the ones who don’t get it think they’re the only ones who have gotten it right. Bill McKibben is another one of those exceptions as he demonstrates with an essay he originally wrote this past August titled The Christian Paradox – How a faithful nation gets Jesus wrong. It’s a long, but well written essay that lays out how the most Christian nation on the planet acts in a manner that’s very unChrist-like.
Ours is among the most spiritually homogenous rich nations on earth. Depending on which poll you look at and how the question is asked, somewhere around 85 percent of us call ourselves Christian. Israel, by way of comparison, is 77 percent Jewish. It is true that a smaller number of Americans—about 75 percent—claim they actually pray to God on a daily basis, and only 33 percent say they manage to get to church every week. Still, even if that 85 percent overstates actual practice, it clearly represents aspiration. In fact, there is nothing else that unites more than four fifths of America. Every other statistic one can cite about American behavior is essentially also a measure of the behavior of professed Christians. That’s what America is: a place saturated in Christian identity.
But is it Christian? This is not a matter of angels dancing on the heads of pins. Christ was pretty specific about what he had in mind for his followers. What if we chose some simple criterion—say, giving aid to the poorest people—as a reasonable proxy for Christian behavior? After all, in the days before his crucifixion, when Jesus summed up his message for his disciples, he said the way you could tell the righteous from the damned was by whether they’d fed the hungry, slaked the thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, and visited the prisoner. What would we find then?
In answering this question the first part of Bill’s essay sounds a lot like the recent study which showed that high religious belief is bad for society:
In 2004, as a share of our economy, we ranked second to last, after Italy, among developed countries in government foreign aid. Per capita we each provide fifteen cents a day in official development assistance to poor countries. And it’s not because we were giving to private charities for relief work instead. Such funding increases our average daily donation by just six pennies, to twenty-one cents. It’s also not because Americans were too busy taking care of their own; nearly 18 percent of American children lived in poverty (compared with, say, 8 percent in Sweden). In fact, by pretty much any measure of caring for the least among us you want to propose—childhood nutrition, infant mortality, access to preschool—we come in nearly last among the rich nations, and often by a wide margin. The point is not just that (as everyone already knows) the American nation trails badly in all these categories; it’s that the overwhelmingly Christian American nation trails badly in all these categories, categories to which Jesus paid particular attention. And it’s not as if the numbers are getting better: the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported last year that the number of households that were “food insecure with hunger” had climbed more than 26 percent between 1999 and 2003.
This Christian nation also tends to make personal, as opposed to political, choices that the Bible would seem to frown upon. Despite the Sixth Commandment, we are, of course, the most violent rich nation on earth, with a murder rate four or five times that of our European peers. We have prison populations greater by a factor of six or seven than other rich nations (which at least should give us plenty of opportunity for visiting the prisoners). Having been told to turn the other cheek, we’re the only Western democracy left that executes its citizens, mostly in those states where Christianity is theoretically strongest. Despite Jesus’ strong declarations against divorce, our marriages break up at a rate—just over half—that compares poorly with the European Union’s average of about four in ten. That average may be held down by the fact that Europeans marry less frequently, and by countries, like Italy, where divorce is difficult; still, compare our success with, say, that of the godless Dutch, whose divorce rate is just over 37 percent. Teenage pregnancy? We’re at the top of the charts. Personal self-discipline—like, say, keeping your weight under control? Buying on credit? Running government deficits? Do you need to ask?
From there Bill goes on to offer his theories on what the nature of the problem happens to be: That most American Christians have replaced the Christianity of the Bible with several competing creeds that tend to be focused more on themselves as opposed to their neighbors. After all, as Bill points out, when asked by the Pharisees what the core of the law was Jesus replied with:
- You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
The focus is first on God and then on your neighbor, not on yourself. This is not the sort of Christianity most Christians seem to be practicing. Not surprisingly either as it’s a very difficult way to live your life, but then the Bible says that Jesus said as much at the time. I may not believe in Gods or that the history presented in the Bible is literal truth, but the core messages therein aren’t bad ideas. It’s just a shame so few Christians seem willing to even try to practice what’s in the Bible they profess to follow. Who knows? If more of them did the world might actually end up a better place after all.