Like a true child of the nineties, I went through a brief obsession with these optical illusion books called “Magic Eye”. You may remember them: On each page, there is an image that looks like a strange, colorful pattern, with no apparent focus or meaning. However, hidden in the details of the pattern is actually a 3D image which becomes visible when one stands back and widens his vision, almost to the point of a blank stare, until the shapes come into focus. Once you see it, the picture is not only right there in your face, it’s virtually impossible to “unsee”. The emergence of this new image changes the meaning of the picture completely.
For a hot second in the nineties, people liked them so much, they put them on the walls of their houses like works of art. As a nine year old lying on the floor of the La Habra library, staring into the deep abyss of “Magic Eye”, I certainly imagined my own home someday would be covered in them. Fortunately, a visit to my house reveals that I grew out of that stage, but these puzzles came rushing back into my memory recently, and for an unexpected reason: American Christianity.
I recently began reading a book by Kevin Kruse called “One Nation Under God – How Corporate America Created Christian America”. I’ve read exactly one chapter, and my mind is already so brimming with thoughts that I need to start with a blog post even though I’m sure more revelations will come as I swim deeper into the turbulent waters of this book.
I feel a burden – a responsibility, almost – to share it with you, because I spent the first 25 years of my life without a shred of understanding from where American Christianity has come. Although, having spent my entire life in church, I did make plenty of observations. Here’s a little timeline that demonstrates the types of conclusions I reached about Christianity at milestone ages. These are within the Christian circle in general – not only from my own church, but from a variety of people from all over, including media and politics.
Age 4: Christians go to church. Then we go to Sizzler after church. We love Jesus.
Age 8: Christians pray a lot. We dress up for church. We are “pro-life”. We say “Merry Christmas”, not “Happy Holidays”.
Age 12: Christians love America. We love our freedom because our founding fathers were all Christians. We know America was formed because they couldn’t be Christians in England.
Age 16: Christians boycott stores when they hire homosexuals. We see America’s morals “going down the drain”. We pray that God will save our nation before it falls to ruin.
Age 20: Christians are republicans. We appreciate soldiers. We like safety and comfort and guns and fourth of July. We are capitalists, because “The American Dream” is God’s plan for us.
How did the groundbreaking story of a homeless, middle-eastern carpenter and vagabond whose audacious, revolutionary love for humanity ended in the ultimate sacrifice of His life, turn into something… else? How has such a huge percentage become a wealthy, Sunday-best wearing, gun-toting, potluck-loving, anti-welfare, American flag waving conglomerate of middle-class ultra-conservatives?
I’m going to attempt to squeeze 100 pages into a few paragraphs, so if you want the full details, you should read the book that’s spawned my writing. But here are the basics: The individualistic, capitalistic, patriotic, brand of Christianity present in most churches today is a carefully crafted product of the 1940s, created to combat a shift in American ideals as a result of the New Deal.
In 1934, as America fought to rise out of the depression, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) created an organization that would work to bring free enterprise back into the good graces of Americans. It was called The American Liberty League. It wished to “teach the necessity of respect for the rights of persons and property” and went directly against FDR’s call for such “egregious” social programs as social security and veteran’s benefits. Roosevelt had long taken jabs at the Liberty League. He was quoted saying, “It has been said that there are two great commandments – one is to love God, and the other to love your neighbor. The two particular tenets of this new organization say you shall love God and then forget your neighbor.” At that time, the league did a poor job of its originally intended purpose of revitalizing free enterprise with the public, because everyone could clearly see that the big wigs were behind it.
When FDR used scripture like those above in his public addresses (something he did constantly, to my surprise), and referenced that social programs and taking care of one’s brother were “the Christian thing to do”, the NAM and heads of corporations with the most to lose decided that two could play that game, and at the failing of the American Liberty League, they decided to launch their most aggressive campaign yet.
The book states: “In a forceful rejection of the Social Gospel, they (NAM) argued that the central tenet of Christianity remained the salvation of the individual. If any political and economic system fit with the religious teachings of Christ, it would have to be rooted in a similarly individualistic ethos. Nothing better exemplified this, they insisted, than the capitalist system of free enterprise.”
In 1940, the biggest names in industry (titans from General Motors, General Electric, Standard Oil, Sears & Roebuck) gathered at their annual convention at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel to strategize. Enter Minister James W. Fifield Jr.: a charismatic, well-spoken, Jimmy Stewart lookalike, armed with a plan that would put the American public back on the side of capitalism. Fifield stood in front of these titans and delivered a “passionate defense of the American system of free enterprise and with erring assault on its perceived enemies in government.” In short, his plan was to hide the corporate motivation of the free enterprise movement where no one would suspect it: the church. Those gathered at the hotel that day were left enthralled, jumping to their feet in thunderous applause.
Fifield’s plan was set in motion immediately. The foot soldiers were to be America’s pastors, ministers and Rabbis, and they would deliver its message to the millions of Americans in their churches and synagogues – not because they were paid to do so, but because they were strategically wooed into the belief that capitalism and free enterprise were inseparable ideals and integral to God’s plan for America. Fifield and the other tycoons were so set on doing this, they created yet another organization, called Spiritual Mobilization. It was intended “to arouse the ministers of all denominations in America to check the trends toward pagan stateism which would destroy our basic freedom and spiritual ideals.” Fifield began taking his own politically charged sermons and distributing them via mail and newspaper to ministers all over the country.
Spiritual Mobilization quickly began to work. Ministers were taking hold of NAM’s ideals and were delivering them in the form of political sermons of their own. The focus was the individual and his freedoms, and took the emphasis off the dreaded social programs, and placed it back on personal property and personal freedoms, where they felt it belonged.
This mindset certainly fit perfectly with Fifield’s own life. An early version of Joel Osteen, he pastored First Congregational Church in Los Angeles, and although the church was deeply in debt when he took it over, he went on an immediate spending spree to advance its programs of bible school, paid choirs, orchestras and organists, and dozens of other programs and draws. Within a few years, the church had paid back all its incurred debt and was turning a profit. It had quickly become California’s first “mega church” and was home to celebrities, film-makers and industrial tycoons. Fifield was staunchly conservative politically, but surprisingly liberal theologically. He believed God’s blessings on him were meant to be enjoyed, and soon had purchased a mansion nestled in the hills, complete with wait staff, butler and chauffeur. And he was the motor driving the movement of America into what he felt was her capitalistic destiny.
That’s what I’ve read so far.
I already know that waiting for me is hundreds more pages of the Eisenhower administration and America’s obsession with Fourth of July and “freedom under God”. I know that I’ll learn that the phrases “One Nation Under God” were added to our currency and pledge in the 1950s as a further push to marry our government with our faith. I know that Reaganomics and the Moral Majority and Jerry Falwell all lay ahead, but I’ve read enough to form some initial, and I would say, important conclusions:
- Christianity is not American.
- Christianity is not capitalistic.
- Nor is it necessarily socialistic.
- Nor does it subscribe to any particular set of political ideals.
- Contorting the gospel of Jesus to fit it into one’s political views, regardless of the “side”, is not just immoral, but also pointless. Spirituality could never be placed into as small a box as politics.
- Number 5 is not an excuse to ignore politics, hide away, put one’s head in the sand or stop voting.
- Number 6 is not an invitation to choose one party, accept its ideals and stay with it until you die.
- Our reasoning minds are a gift from God and they are intended to be used to discern, to measure against the character of God and His son Christ, and then act accordingly.
That last one really gets me thinking about Jesus. He’s this sneaky guy who finds a way to challenge every person, regardless of what “side” they’re on in a situation. His ministry is full of scenarios in which an obviously sinful person is caught in their sin and is given boundless grace instead of impending judgment. Then it switches up and a person who would have been regarded as holy or upstanding gets put in their place. Jesus leaves behind him a long trail of challenging the cultural norm.
So where does this leave us? Is the American dream of capitalism and wealth a farce? Is socialism the only way to help our brothers and sisters in the name of Christ? No, and no. I believe in man’s right to build for himself wealth, a name, and a legacy as so many have done in this great country. Just don’t call it Christianity. I also believe in helping those who need it through programs put in place to improve their status. Just don’t call it Christianity.
Although I know this chapter is just one gear of the massive, complicated machine that is the marriage of politics and religion in our country, I’m already angry. I’m angry that so many good people, with love in their hearts have been force-fed and then happily digested the message of MINE.“My salvation is MINE. My property is also MINE. You can’t take MY guns away. You can’t make MY country accept gays. You can’t use MY money for someone else’s survival. You can’t put refugees on MY home turf. If I am moved to help others, I should be the one to choose when and how to do that, and no one should force ME to give of what I rightfully EARNED.” Does this sound familiar to you? We as the general public have gobbled up the comfort and ease of this message, because it plays into an ever-present part of our psyche that will never fully go away: greed and selfishness.
While I have no problem with someone taking on the “mine” viewpoint, I have a SERIOUS problem with them associating it in any way with what Jesus calls us to. Jesus does not call us to a God-scented version of the American Dream. For it is this push on individualism that paves the way for Christians to look at another’s problem and say, “That has nothing to do with me.” It gives an excuse to separate ourselves from the world, claim moral superiority, and seal off the doors of churches as we conduct our own special meetings in our own special clubs. It creates a place to say, “My safety, comfort and way of life are more important than love.”
But we can’t do better until we KNOW better. After all, for 80 years, we have been taught by very rich, very influential, intelligent, cunning, law-creating people: “OF COURSE God doesn’t mind if Christians are incredibly rich and keep nearly all that wealth for themselves and hoard their freedoms, property and land!” This is precisely why I write today. Because, as Brooke Fraser beautifully states in her song, Albertine, “Now that I have seen, I am responsible.”
“American Dream Christianity” is how many of us were brought up to believe, yet we claim to follow and attempt to emulate a man who said, “The foxes have holes and the birds of the heaven have nests, but the Son of Man does not have a place where He may lay His head”.
While we are busy trying to protect what we feel so strongly is rightfully OURS, Jesus’ voice calls out through the mayhem: “My child. I am yours. I am all you need. Your wealth is found in ME. Your freedoms are found in ME. Your right is the kingdom of Heaven and I, in my deep love, have given it to YOU.” Jesus shows up in our lives in the form of the friendless, the weird, the ugly, the disenfranchised and the down and out. If it’s going to be about Him, it must in turn be about our fellow man.
Long ago, the black sand of individualism was poured into the white sand of Christ’s message. Today, it’s difficult to see anything but grey. Still, the toil of picking out the white, grain by tedious grain, is well worth it, for the end result will not be tarnished with the agenda of enterprising men, but the pure religion to which Christ calls us.
Try as I might to step back into the blissful ignorance of the fuzzy, meaningless pattern through which I’ve viewed my faith thus far, a 3D image has come into view. It is the image of a political movement which has taken up costly residence in the American church and in my own greedy heart. I can never “unsee”. The meaning of the entire picture has changed. Now that I have seen, I am responsible.