American Christians Are Deeply Divided

The United States has more Christians than any country in the world, both in numbers and as a per cent of our population. Roughly 80% of Americans identify themselves as Christian. Only about half are actively involved in the life of a church, but this is still a large number. But are we a Christian nation?

I leave unaddressed whether a nation can (or should) be Christian. Instead, I point to a deep division among American Christians about what it means to be Christian.

On one side of the divide are what might be called “absolutist” Christians – those who believe that Christianity is the one absolute revelation of God and the only way of salvation. Commonly, this view is accompanied with belief in biblical (or papal) infallibility, a literalistic interpretation of the Bible, and a right-wing political orientation. This is the most publicly visible form of Christianity in our time.

On the other side are Christians who see their faith as one of the world’s great religions, but not as the only adequate revelation of God. Rather, all of the enduring religions are seen as culturally-shaped responses to the experience of the sacred. These Christians commonly see the Bible as the ancient testimony of our spiritual ancestors to God and life with God, recognize that much of the language of the Bible is symbolic and metaphorical, and affirm religious pluralism. Politically, they tend to be moderate or progressive.

And, of course, there are many Christians “in the middle.” Some are unaware of or undecided about this conflict. Or they may be leaning one way or the other, but not passionately committed to either side.

So are we a Christian nation? No. Rather, we are a nation in which there is a struggle going on between Christians for the heart and soul of Christianity – about what it means to be Christian, and about what it means to be an American Christian.

Originally posted on The Washington Post website.

11 Comments

11 Comments

  1. The division between the two types of Christianity described above is of course a conflict that can occur within a person’s close circle of friends or even within one’s own family. Like most of us who enjoy this website, my beliefs are in line with the emerging form of Christianity. Specifically, I do not believe that the Bible is the absolute word of God (I believe it is a human product) and I do not believe that Christianity is the only way to know God. I have been in a debate (close to arguing) with someone very close to me who believes the opposite; the Bible is the word of God and it reflects absolute truth and if you don’t believe in Jesus, you may not have a blessed afterlife. All religions except for Christianity would be considered false.

    Question: how do you reason with good people that believe that the world is only 6,000 years old and believe that nearly every word in the Bible was divinely inspired by God? When I try to explain something in the context in which it was written or try and get them to use their sense of reason, I get a response like “God expects us to believe in things that are hard to understand or you have to have Faith”. We basically end of agreeing to disagree and of course pray for each other. How have others handled these situations?

    • I was sent to a religious boarding school (Anglican – or Episcopalian in the US), and received a good education in Christianity. But I was puzzled by simple questions which, as an ignorant farm boy, I thought I was too dumb to understand. Questions like: If the central belief is that we are saved by Christ’s crucifiction, then what was he preaching in the 10 years before he was crucified? If only Christians can be saved, then isn’t God a rather capricious character – considering many people are born and die without the opportunity to ever hear of Christianity? And noticing that (in New Zealand’s secular society) “belief” was not always positively correlated with good behaviour, I wondered why do people think that what you believe is more important than what sort of quality of character you have? Also I wondered how our own practice of Christianity is compared to how it was practiced in the middle ages, or 300 years after Christ , or even during his lifetime? Such questions were initially fraught with anxiety, but once allowed to enter the thinking, then intellectual honesty meant they could not be dismissed lightly.
      As I matured and became more capable of expressing these thoughts I found many others also shared them. Some turned from religion, and some found ways to incorporate their faith into their lives – but none became the bible fanatics that seem to be so vocal in the US. The US fundamentalist we see on TV in NZ are truly as frightening as crazed Islamists. The tragedy is that ‘Belief’ (blind belief) has usurped the experience “knowing within” (experience of conscience, or inner guidance) and this is not something that can be taught, but something that gently grows and is nourished by humility and an attitude of integrity to oneself and to life. But it is smothered and replaced by the false Gods of self righteousness and disdain for others by the hectoring style of preaching so characteristic of US fundamentalist preachers.
      But how to reconcile the opposites if those who “believe” think it sinful to reason about the consequences and details of their beliefs? This is very difficult for many reasons: Often those with such desperately rigid ideologies hold them as a protection against the strength of their own passions or temptations, or the dark despair of the abyss of nihilism, or an ego that is too insecure to cope with ambiguity, or the confusion that grows out of allying God and the State which says if you don’t believe this you not a good American. And no doubt there are more, but they are all reasons that are not fundamentally related to Faith. Rather they are related to individual psychology. Unfortunately, commitment to something ‘out there’ is a good distraction to looking ‘inside here’.
      Sorry to ultimately have no truly helpful comment, but perhaps the fact that you are talking and maintaining an amicable relationship will provide the catalyst to enable this person to consider in quietness – at some stage – the issues that you present. As a wise man once told his followers, “Do not try to bring people to Faith by persuasion; rather invite them by your conduct.”

  2. I don’t think that there is any way to “convert” someone who sincerely holds the conservative/evangelical Christian point of view to the point of view of the progressive Christian. I grew up in an evangelical household and while I currently hold the “progressive Christian” perspective, I intuitively understand the conservative perspective.

    Conservative Christians are often viewed as intolerant, dumb, backward, or mean-spirited – in fact, for the most part, none of this is true. Consider this – you are taught from a young age (and accept) the fact that God sent Jesus into the world to die for your sins. When humans die, they go to heaven or hell. The factor that determines which outcome occurs is a belief (or lack thereof) in Jesus. Further, you also are taught about original sin and that you will be constantly tempted throughout your life to commit “external” immoral acts (harming others, selfish behavior, sexual immorality, etc…) as well as “internal” immoral acts (doubting Jesus and your faith in the midst of a whole world of competing ideas you may find appealing). Now imagine a progressive Christian coming along and saying that other religions are also valid. What do you think? You see this as a temptation: claiming that other religions are also valid is the “easy way out” – it frees you of social condemnation and of the burden and backlash of telling someone that s/he is wrong. Of course, you know deep down that it’s wrong and it’s just another temptation for you to abandon the truth. What would you do in that position? We all grow up being told we should do the right thing even when it is difficult. Why would this situation be any different?

    Further, for evangelicals, truth is absolute. For them, to claim that there are “multiple religious truths” or that “religions are cultural products” is really just a watered down way of saying that there is no such thing as a “true” religion. If the Bible (or other religious text) is interpreted differently by each reader, then we don’t have God’s words – we have our interpretation of God’s words – so we don’t have the truth at all and thus Christianity becomes worthless because it’s impossible to validate as true. I have many non-believer friends who think this way: “Christianity is obviously a cultural product and a human invention – it is not from God – therefore it is just pre-enlightenment nonsense that we need not consider further.” Evangelicals are concerned with facts – we can either know what God thinks – in which case we should obey him – or we can’t know what he thinks – and thus there is no such thing as morality (or at least we can’t know what is moral and what isn’t).

    Finally, while progressives typically frown on telling others they are going to hell, conservatives don’t have a problem with this at all. For conservatives, telling someone of another religion that they won’t go to hell is like telling someone if they jump off a 10 story building they’re not going to die. It’s just plain factually wrong. The fact that the jumper doesn’t believe in gravity doesn’t mean he won’t fall. Similarly, the fact that someone of another religion doesn’t believe in Jesus doesn’t mean he won’t go to hell.

    Just some things to think about. I hope this provides some perspective and I would greatly enjoy Dr. Borg’s thoughts on this.

  3. There are only two religious systems. They are mutually exclusive and usually oppositional.

    One uses religious belief as the means by which the leaders strive to control the thoughts and actions of the faithful followers. By necessity, this religious system suppresses discussion and debate, favoring blind faith over knowledge and obedience over questions. It survives by creating an environment of justice as condemnation and reward/retribution and inclusion/exclusion and us/them and here/there – of who is in and who is out. This is not the Good News. It and science are oppositional.

    The other uses religious belief to provide freedom from oppression, seeks justice as restoration, strives to improve human relations and the quality of life, and welcomes questions, discussions, debates, and increased knowledge. It survives by creating an environment of grace and universal inclusion. This is the Good News. It and science are synergistic.

  4. The religious systems are mutually exclusive, but I don’t think the conservative version lacks “good news.” The good news is simply different. For us, the good news refers to following Jesus on the way towards non-violence, peace, and justice. For conservatives, the good news is that our existence will not end with death – we will experience eternal bliss in heaven. Quite frankly, I would prefer the good news of the conservatives (eternal happiness is obviously much better than merely living 80 years in a nonviolent and peaceful world), but my lack of belief in an afterlife is what forces me to conclude that either (1) Jesus was wrong about heaven or (2) Jesus’ message wasn’t about going to heaven. I can’t say I know for certain which is true, but I take scholars that argue for (2) seriously and hope that they are right. If not, we’re still creating a better world – but to say that conservatives don’t promote good news is wrong. It’s just that we don’t believe that their good news is grounded in reality.

  5. I ran across some of Dr. Borg’s ideas in the series “Living The Questions 2.0″ and wanted to pose a question to Dr. Borg. So, I’ll try here and see how it goes.

    Dr. Borg introduced the idea of 3 phases of theological thinking: pre-critical naivete, critical thinking and post-critical naivete. He specifically mentions that many people get stuck at the critical thinking phase, which he posits is very corrosive to faith and theological thinking because it demands facts and evidence to support beliefs. This was a revelation to me, it explained several things I have experienced, including some of what Jimmy Gillman discusses above.

    What I want to ask is the validity of the following: when someone is stuck in the critical thinking phase, they could pass on to the post-critical naivete phase, or they could go on to another phase that I would call they “buy in” phase. In the buy in phase, someone would apply the characteristics of the critical thinking phase and either reject Christian beliefs (i.e. buy into atheism) because of a lack of supporting evidence, or they would become a conservative/ fundamentalist Christian based on “facts” from a literal, inerrant view of Scripture. That factual view of Scripture would reinforce the all-or-nothing characteristic of conservative/ fundamentalist theology and would lead to such ideas as Creationism or Intelligent Design, where scientific thinking or evidence is used inappropriately to validate those beliefs.

    • It doesn’t seem to me to be valid from my own experience. The 3 phases of theological thinking also seem to me to be inaccurate. Pascal said, “It is difficult for men to think humbly of humility, or chastely of chastity, or skeptically of skepticism.” I may have gotten that quote out of order but the point is well taken I think. The phase of critical thinking seldom has much to do with critical thinking when done by either a fundamentalist or a progressive. It is hard, nearly impossible, to be critically aware of one’s own tendencies and biases, for the progressive as well as the fundamentalist. My experience with the two groups leads me to suspect that a lot of what passes for critical thinking is just wishful thinking. I have seen it in the fundamentalist scheme to reduce the gospel to patriotism and the American way, and I think I see it in the progressive scheme to reduce the gospel to a westernized eastern religious system.
      It is not critical thinking or not that makes the difference in where one ends up. It is the presuppositions one starts with, and I mean the presuppositions about Jesus. I begin consciously with the presupposition of faith, that is that Jesus was approximately what the New Testament and the apostles claimed, and then I try to understand it more deeply. It seems to me that the fundamentalists I know begin with the presupposition that America is a Christian nation and then they expend all their energy trying to make Jesus and the Bible fit into that vision, ignoring whatever in Scripture doesn’t fit. The progressives I know begin with the presupposition that the New Testament and the apostles were naive, ignorant, politically motivated, or self-seeking and that their words cannot be believed. They are critical about everything except their own presuppositions. Both fundamentalists and progressives seem to begin with a presupposition of unbelief, though in different ways.

  6. Thanks to all who have commented on this issue. This topic is actually touched upon in Marcus Borg’s new novel. Without revealing the story for those who have not read it, I think what he’s suggesting is that this conversation continues in the quest of trying to understand each other’s viewpoint. For most of us here, it would be trying to sincerely understand the fundamentalist view and to understand why it is so important to them. For me, I believe its because they have much at stake in their beliefs and convictions. For them, its about salvation; having an afterlife that includes heaven. I think that’s what salvation means to a fundamentalist. If you don’t have the right beliefs (as outlined in the New Testament), you can not have a blessed afterlife. So, I think its about understanding that viewpoint and then “gently” explaining to them why we think differently. Not an easy task if you’re talking to an adult who has held to the fundamentalist doctrine most of their life.

  7. I am joining this conversation late and so I am not quite sure how to get into it. I want to register myself as a “none of the above” person. I think to a “progressive” Christian I would look like a fundamentalist in that I believe the Bible is true and that Christianity is exclusive in a certain sense. On the other hand, I know I am not a fundamentalist because my fundamentalist friends all call me a liberal (or worse). I don’t think the dichotomy that is assumed in the preceding discussion is all there is. It is not a choice between a fundamentalist and a progressive viewpoint. I at least cannot join either one. Both alternatives seem to me to be a failure of faith in some sense. I realize that statement could be offensive, and I don’t want to be, but I am puzzled how to engage in the conversation without some risk of offense. I am a rational person who believes the Bible in a rational way and does not find rationally that it is tied to a conservative political viewpoint, or a creationist viewpoint, or to an American viewpoint (or is even consistent with them).
    There are too many complex questions in this discussion for me to address them coherently. The one thing I might say is that as a “fundamentalist” Christian, I believe that people are saved by grace. That would mean that people are not saved by knowledge. It is not knowing particular bits of theological data that saves a person, and therefore a person who is not ostensibly a Christian may very well be saved because God is gracious. Even so, with or without knowledge, when a person is saved he or she is saved by Jesus.
    To be saved, I suppose, must be connected to the idea of an afterlife. That is not a problem for me to believe in. But to me to be saved primarily and essentially means being saved from myself, from my own worst tendencies and desires, from what I would inevitably tend to become if left to my own devices, and instead being healed. I want to be a “good person” in a deeper sense than I can yet imagine, and to be saved means to be hopeful that that is my destiny.
    I am truly sorry if I have said anything out of the way, here.

  8. Catherine Uffen

    <>

    Dr. Borg, you’re a nation in which there are struggles going on within the communities of each of the Peoples of The Book: between Christians, between Muslims, and between Jews and probably between the faithful of other religions – about what it means to be a Christian, Muslim or Jew and about what it means to be an American Christian, Muslim or Jew.

    And the division isn’t as simple as the two-way split you’ve described. You don’t have to over simplify for your audience. This either or thinking in America is desperately and critically harming the thinking of your nation and the creativity of your people.

    There is a spectrum of orthodoxy and orthopraxy among believers of each religion that stretches from (and I’m not using the terms here as they’re all loaded politically)
    a) those who believe that their holy texts are literally true, that they are infallible as first propagated, and in the God-given authority of their religious leaders who interpret those texts and their practices; some see the authority as emerging from familial connection to Jesus or Abraham or Mohammed, others from inspired leaders recognized by the community;
    b) to those who believe that their holy texts are holy but need interpretation, and who believe that their leaders have set themselves aside for God, but are not infallible;
    c) to those who believe that their holy texts are in a process of on-going construction and interpretation that is visited by God, and who believe that their leaders have set themselves aside for God and the tasks of interpretation and leading; and
    d) to those who believe that that the texts are the work of human beings trying to share experiences of spiritualities deep in individuals and communities.

    Where is the global perspective here? The US is almost universally considered to be a state whose primary engine is the military industrial complex: all spheres of the lives of its citizens are coopted by that engine – driven by it even. The divisions among Christians in the US are very similar to divisions between Muslims and Jews in their various countries. The desire by those believers for a Christian, Muslim or Jewish “nation” or state creates serious problems, spiritual, political, economic, environmental, for all within their borders and for those nations who are succeeding, like Canada, in creating and maintaining themselves as multicultural, secular states. We’re not atheistic states, we’re not irreligious states – we’re just an elastic form of government that allows people of no faith, uncommitted people and people on the entire spectrum of many faiths to find ways to live together in peace.

    I think that it would be more fruitful for Christians to see themselves as belonging to a Church, the global Body of Christ, that is a spectrum of light. Everyone on the spectrum who says that Jesus is Lord is a Christian.

  9. Dr. Borg: I would like to thank you for your commitment and many books you have written. I especially liked your last two books, Putting Away Childish Things and Speaking Christian which have helped me understand the differences between Christians today. I am not a scholar but a retired Engineering Manager entering the last phase of life trying to make sense of his Christian religion. I am in the less than 50% of Christians as you describe that do not believe the Bible is inerrant and should be read in a historical – metaphorical method.

    You describe the differences between the pre-Enlightment and post-Enlightment periods and the resulting difficulties that Christians today are struggling with. However, I am wondering if these same differences existed much further back in history?

    One purpose of the Council of Nicaea was to resolve disagreements over the nature of Jesus in relationship to “God the Father”. Was Jesus the literal Son of God or a figurative son? If the followers of Arianism took the 2nd position I wonder what percent of total Christians they represented? Would it have been around 50% as it is today? I have also wondered if all 1800 invited Bishops would have attended instead of approximately 300, would the vote have turned out totally different and thus “Enlightment” would have been established much earlier thus minimizing the Heaven-Hell impact over the past hundreds of years saving untold number of lives.

    Sorry if these are elementary comments, but historically speaking they have raised questions for me and other Christians. Thank you for reading and I wish you continued success.