“O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
And foolish notion.”
Robert Burns, To a Louse
Burns, the 18th century Scottish poet, allegedly was inspired to write this while sitting in church behind a finely-attired lady on the back of whose well-coiffed head a louse was crawling.
I believe we all need to attempt to “see oursels as others see us,” even though we may not like it, if we are to be salt and light. There are two recent books, written by those who make no claim to Christianity, one which I have read, the other which I am presently reading, which have helped me.
The first book is THE TRANSFORMATION OF AMERICAN RELIGION by Alan Wolfe, Free Press, 2003. Wolfe makes his (non-) position very clear. “I do not write about religion out of religious conviction … I am not, and never have been, a person of faith” (pg vii). He tells us he is Jewish, but non-practicing married to a non-practicing Christian. Yet he assures us at the same time that he is not hostile to religion. He attempts to be objective as a good sociologist and his writing bears this out. If anything, rather than hostility, I almost sense a sympathy, not with God, but with religious people, and again, not because he feels that we are going the wrong way, but more that we don’t seem to know which way we are going. While he writes about most of the various religious groups in America, he devotes most of his material to evangelical Christians.
Some of his statements (pgs. 2, 3): “ … in the United States culture has transformed Christ, as well as all other religions found within these shores. In every aspect of the religious life, American faith has met American culture – and American culture has triumphed.” “More Americans than ever proclaim themselves born again in Christ, but the lord to whom they turn rarely gets angry and frequently strengthens self-esteem.”
He discusses our worship, our doctrine, our morality, even our identity and finds us to be more or less simply becoming more and more a part of a homogeneous culture. He attempts to be non-judgmental, but sometimes almost seems a little worried. Sadly, I found myself amening to much of what he said.
The last chapter, his conclusion, is entitled, “Is Democracy Safe from Religion?” Fortunately (or unfortunately), his answer appears to be yes. Liberals are wrong. Religious people are no threat to the American way. In fact religious people, especially evangelical Christians are in a sense, the epitome of the American way. Somehow, I did not find this book comforting.
The second book is AMERICAN THEOCRACY by Kevin Phillips, Viking, 2006. Phillips is a former Republican strategist, and has become something of a modern-day Cassandra (You remember her: she was the Trojan prophetess who kept warning that there’s something suspicious about that horse.).
Phillips sees three great dangers which are threatening America, and of which the Republican party has “become the vehicle.” They are what he calls “a fusion of petroleum-defined national security; a crusading, simplistic Christianity; and a reckless credit-feeding financial complex.”
Because he marshals so much data, and presents such a strong argument for the existence of the first and the third threats, it would seem that he needs to be at least paid attention to on the second. And again, I sometimes found myself amening.
I know that many would simply ignore these books as the rantings of “the world” or the “far left” or just plain kooks, but if we want to see ourselves as others see us, I believe books like these and their arguments should be considered.
But these guys seem so far apart in their judgments of us. We need to ask, are they both totally wrong? Are they both partially right? Does the truth lie somewhere in between? Or in some synthesis? Certainly, they can’t both be right, can they? After all, we’re just talking about perception anyway. Or is there actually a louse crawling on the back of our collective head?
If Mr. Wolfe is correct, we are perceived as no threat because we have been nearly absorbed by the culture. The American way is the Christian way and vice versa. Certainly statistics would bear this out, as more and greater numbers of Americans profess to be born again, yet we see no great changes for the better in our culture. The “culture wars” are over. We’ve lost.
If Mr. Phillips is correct, we are perceived as a threat because we are attempting to influence the culture by force or at least by legislation. We are gradually forcing our views of evolution, abortion, homosexuality, etc. on America. We are winning the “culture wars” and have become a danger to our country.
Perhaps there’s some truth in both of these perceptions and one influences the other. We are so assimilated into the American culture that we live lives very little different from those around us. As has been said, “we worship our work, work at our play, and play at our worship.” We have little if any influence on our American culture. So as we see our culture going down the tubes, we want to influence it by force, to legislate morality, and morality of a particular kind. Thus, we scare those around us!
But we are to be an influence on our culture, not by our politics, but by our imitation of Christ. “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:35). We are to be different from our culture, not in a legalistic way, not by forcing them to conform to us, but by our refusing to conform to them. “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect“ (Romans 12:2).
If we speak against what we perceive as the sin of this country, it should not be primarily to get people to stop sinning but to point them to their need for Christ. “But sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame” (1 Peter 3:15, 16).