The Future of Christianity in America, Part III
What is this situation? It’s a comfortable one, I think. As we saw in the first article, most of America considers itself Christian, even if the majority might not understand, or even care, exactly what that entails. In any case, Christians are viewed warmly by much of the country. Muslims and atheists, though they may occupy a large part of our imagination and media coverage, both remain relatively disliked minorities. Perhaps Christ-confessing Christians are a minority, too. Even if we are, though, this country is open and welcoming to us in a way that no other group enjoys. As we saw in the second part of the series, there is some pushback against Christianity’s cultural dominance in the States, but it’s hard to justify the fear that there is a deliberate, systematic movement against the faith in this country.
If I may affect Paul’s language for a moment: What shall we say then? Are we to continue in comfort because Christianity abounds? By no means! Whether minority or majority, whether persecuted or celebrated, the same fight is laid before us all, and its magnitude is in no way diminished by our safe position in society. The average American Christian’s enemy is unlikely to be atheists, Muslims, mainstream media, big government, secularism, liberal academia, or whatever the bogeyman du jour happens to be. Even if such things pose some tangible threat, they are all too often far away to make any sort of difference in our lives. We must—and this is an emphatic must—be on guard against the threats that lurk much closer to home.
Make no mistake, there are dragons to be slain; this enemy, however, lies within us, not without. The United States of America might be the most accommodating place for Christians this side of the eschaton, but we are still dogged by an enemy that cannot be beaten in court, shouted down by a heated Twitter campaign, or even shot with a rifle. Our enemy is the inherent sinfulness of man. (Or, for my Orthodox friends, the inherent brokenness of man.) This is the enemy of whom we must be continuously cognizant, against whom we must be ever vigilant. This is the enemy never named in the headlines.
As our Lord said, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). While Christians may certainly be called to battle tangible evils, we must first and foremost recognize that the most incredible battle of good and evil in our lives will very likely be the one fought in our own hearts. When we come to Christ, we come as sinners and rebels ourselves; we come as enemies of God. Before we cast our crowns at his feet, we throw down our weapons. We surrender and say, “There is still something in me that must be put to death, but I have no power to do it.” True enough, the only blade strong enough to slay the dragon, to put our sin to death, is a blood-soaked nail of the cross. Christ took our sins upon himself and had them crucified with him. Each strike of the hammer at Calvary was a fatal blow to our enemy. God defeated death with death, subverting the enemy’s ultimate weapon for the good of all men.
This is the story of every confessing Christian, and it serves us well to remember it when we turn on network news or hop on Twitter. It’s easy to picture ourselves as part of a grand campaign against this or that evil, to get caught up in the narrative of righteous struggle. All the while, the most crucial battle—the battle for our soul—is neglected. We see the dangers of abortion and ISIS and secularization, but fail to see a more familiar and intimate enemy sneaking up behind us. Gossip, jealousy, greed, anger, and many more—these things, seemingly so small, are what cause a gulf between us and God. Death and sin may be defeated, but their effects linger. Authentic Christians can and will still give ear to these evils. We must be dutiful and disciplined in guarding against them.
It may be disappointing to read all the way through this series to only hear, “Christians in America are fine and cozy, we just need to practice the basics.” However, it cannot be overstated how dire the call to “practice the basics” is. The original sin was not rape or genocide or a massive Ponzi scheme. The first trespass, the decision to say no to God, was so mundane that each of us might do such a thing a dozen times a day. That is precisely why it was so dreadful; to take arms against the Being who sustains the universe is so easy for mankind that it is almost negligible.
There will be times when Christians are called to fight evil, whether by charitable service, taking up the pen, or even—on a rare occasion—throwing a fist. Indeed, in my previous article, I warned of the foe that is American individualism. That is something we will certainly struggle with, in others and in ourselves. The more immediate battle, though, is not for the soul of the world, or even America. It is the battle waged by God for our own individual soul, and this is the battle to which we must first attend. It’s not that God does not call us to struggle against external evils—he absolutely does. However, he calls us to come whole and repaired, the dragons within us already slain at the cross.
We won’t do much good otherwise.
Photo: “The Cadet Chapel” at the US Military Academy, West Point, NY. By John St John at Flickr Creative Commons. Used under (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).