Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
May 17, 1982
NUMBER 3, PAGE 2,11b-12a

America's Dominant Religion Is Not The Christian Faith

D. N. Kinsey

The above phrase is the title of an article written by John R. Hendricks and appearing in a periodical published by the Presbyterian Church. Mr. Hendricks is a regular contributor to this denominational publication.

This article though directed to members of the Presbyterian Church, has application to those in the Lord's church as well. You have but to read this article to see the application and the salient truth therein.

I urge your careful reading and consideration of article and make the application not only to the liberal-minded brethren among us but also to those who consider themselves loyal to the Word of God.

America's Dominant Religion Is Not The Christian Faith

John R. Hendricks, Austin, Texas Americans are not an irreligious people. We are, in fact, very religious, but our dominant religion is not the Christian Faith. Our living faith is what Will Herberg has more accurately called "the American religion." This commonly held system of belief is diffused throughout every section of our nation and is embraced by most Americans whether they are Jews, Catholics, or Protestants.

In the American religion not one but several gods are reverenced. We have national and regional deities and not a few household idols. According to Cornelius Lowe (Modern Rivals to the Christian Faith), three deities stand out above all others in the American Pantheon: Science, Democracy, and the nation. However, it would be wrong to think that followers of the American religion deny the reality of the God revealed in the Hebrew-Christian scriptures. Rather the God of the Bible is placed alongside these other gods and is worshipped dutifully. He is our "official" God.

Yet when one is aware that one's god is that which has the greatest effect on one's daily conduct, one's basic attitudes, one's life goals and one's ultimate security, it is difficult to conclude that the God and Father of Jesus Christ is the supreme deity of our land.

With this polytheistic religion of America, the Christian faith is basically incompatible, Yet there is an observable tendency for many Christians to embrace the gods and the beliefs of the American religion as well as those of the Christian faith. This is very similar to a situation' described in the Old Testament (1 Kings 18:17.) "here we read of the intrusion of the Caananite religion (Baal worship) into the life and thought of the Hebrew people: Just as the Israelites served God and Baal side by side and did not feel that the two religions were contradictory or mutually exclusive, so today we see many Christians confessing allegiance to the one true God, but also embracing the gods of the land. It is frightening to see these two conflicting religions coexisting in many Christian congregations without anyone's sensing the adulterous impropriety of the relationship.

For a religious system as diverse as the American religion to hang together it must have some cohesive beliefs which cause it to adhere. There are two such beliefs. An examination of these will serve to identify the religion of America in its relationship to the Christian faith and to illustrate the way in which this paganism is flourishing in the churches of our land.

The first major characteristic of the American religion is its broad tolerance of all religious opinions. This is based on the View that every sincerely held conviction is valid and true. The idea, according to William Lee Miller, is that "all religious beliefs are on a plane and do not matter one way or the other, or are wholly matters of taste and background without any firm basis either in reason or objective reality."

Striking testimony is borne to this in Edward R. Murrow's This I Believe'. In this volume are gathered statements of personal belief from a richly diverse group of our fellow citizens. It has been appropriately observed that these statements contain plenty of "believe" and quite a bit of "I" but not very much of "this". The thesis of Murrow's book which is shared by many Americans is that all men ought to have faith whether the object of that faith be one's self, one's nation or faith itself. The first article in the creed of the American religion is a broad tolerance in regard to all religious beliefs.

In contrast to the broadminded view that one god or one religious belief is as good as another, the Christian faith appears quite narrow. To us American Christians it may sound hyperorthodox, but Jesus did say, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me" (John 14:6 R.S V.); and Peter did proclaim of Jesus "There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved." (Acts 4:12 R.S.V.) Traditional Christianity has always held that in Jesus of Nazareth God uniquely revealed Himself and His purpose for mankind. As Protestant Christians we accord every person the right to believe what he pleases; however, we do not think that every person's views, even if sincerely affirmed, are true. If this sounds scandalous to you, it is, perhaps, an indication of how the American religion has begun to color your own thinking.

The broad tolerance of the American religion has made a deep impression upon our church life. Laxity in the reception of church members is one indication of this. Numerous instances either observed by or reported, to the writer indicate that many a session has long since ceased to be seriously concerned about what or in whom a candidate for baptism believes. The perfunctory questions are given mechanical answers and forthwith there is produced water for baptism. The real question implicit in the reception of many church members is 'Whatever you believe, do you believe it sincerely?" If by chance the object of the candidate's faith should be questioned, someone will likely relieve the embarrassment of the situation by observing with grave piety, "It doesn't matter so much what you believe, we are all trying to go to the same place anyway." Such indifference can only be understood as a victory of the American religion over the Christian faith and that in the very heart of the congregation. Little wonder that a Jewish journalist, Harry Golden, could write: "If I were faced today with the decision my ancestors faced — become a Christian or die — I would pick a church fast. There is nothing to offend me in the modern church."

The second all-pervading characteristic of the American religion is that it is unabashedly man-centered. Americans seem ready to support anything so long as it is of some practical benefit either nationally or personally. One reason that the churches in America are enjoying such halcyon days is that many Americans feel that the Christian religion is quite useful. Our chief executive urges us to attend church because it will make us spiritually strong enough to win the 'struggle with atheistic Communism. Our chief law enforcement officer urges all children to attend Sunday school because it will help us stamp out juvenile delinquency.

In the American religion "God (and His church are) mobilized and made to serve man and his purposes — whether these purposes be economic prosperity, free enterprise, social reform, happiness, security or peace of mind — God is conceived as man's omnipotent servant." (Will Herberg) Stanley High put all of this in its simple crudity when he wrote "I go to church for the same reason I go to the theater, because I get something out of it: " We are ruthlessly self-centered. If any one of our gods, the nation, science, or even Jesus Christ was felt to be detrimental to our best interest, it is safe to assume that we would cease worshipping at his shrine. Not God, but man is the beginning and end of the American religion.

In the sharpest possible contrast to this stands the Christian faith with its insistence that man is the servant of the all-powerful God. The austere God-centeredness of the Christian faith is nowhere so evident as in these words of John Calvin: "We are not our own; therefore neither our reason nor our will should predominate in our deliberations and actions. We are not our own; therefore, let us not presuppose it as our end to seek what may be expedient for us according to the flesh. We are not our own; therefore let us, as far as possible, forget ourselves and all things that are ours. On the contrary, we are God's; to Him, therefore, let us live and die. We are God's; therefore, let His wisdom and will preside in all our actions. We are God's; toward Him, therefore, as our only legitimate end, let every part of our lives be directed." Man is placed in this world to serve God, even if that service be like Job's "for nought."

Despite this God-centered focus of the Christian faith, the man-centeredness of the American religion is flourishing in our Christian churches. After an informal survey of contemporary American preaching during the summer of 1958, Dr. Leonard J. Trinterud observed that the theme of most sermons he heard was "religion will help you." Slogans placarded on billboards all over our country have read "Church going families are happy families"; this year the line is "Find the strength for your life — worship together this week." The evangelism literature used by many Protestant churches urges lay visitors to seek to win men to the church by appealing, among other things, to their love of home and family, their eagerness for a better world, their desire for freedom from anxiety and perplexity and their yearning for life after death. It would seem that the church is ready to meet the public demand for a religion that satisfies all man's needs. By assiduously catering to its market, the church has built a booming business in contemporary America. By these and other means the church is fostering and deepening the egocentric drives and concerns of men. The only thing that might stand in the way of our cornering the whole market is that someone should recall the New Testament words about cross bearing, self-denial and self-sacrifice.

If America ever was a Christian nation, it is doubtful that it can be considered such now. To glimpse, even in a tentative way, the omnipresence of the American religion in our society and church is to realize that we live in a land seething with pagan belief. We live in darkest America.

For the church this presents a grave danger and a great opportunity. The danger is that the church should cease to be the church and become instead the mouthpiece of American religion. This is, as we have seen, not only a future possibility, it is in many congregations a present reality. The opportunity is that the church in America is now able to understand that one lives in a mission field. Our task in this situation is to proclaim the news that God loves idolaters, understanding, of course, that this is first of all a word addressed to the American church.

— Lake Jackson, Texas