Religious Nationalism, Revivalism Rising on the world stage


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By Joe LaGuardia

Every election year, we see the influence of a demographic voting block, often pitched as a uniform, monolithic movement, called “evangelicalism”.

Evangelicalism, a loosely-defined subculture in American Christianity, rose to political prominence under the Christian Coalition in the late 1970s and has championed major reforms and legislation that transcend partisanship.

Now, nearly 40 years later, evangelicalism appears to be the national faith of the United States. For all the folks declaring that we’ve strayed from our Judeo-Christian origins as a nation, we still are one of the most religious countries in the world.

Some claim this is unique to our place and time — no other religion aside from Islam plays such an influential role in politics.  This myth reinforces the idea that America is morally exceptional, anchored in biblical values, and divinely blessed.

As times change and the global economy limps along, however, this no longer rings sincere or true.  In fact, a variety of nationalist religions are on the rise in other nations, and we are experiencing none other than a global revival of religion, as it were.

In Japan, for example, the government has been quietly pushing for the revival of Shintoism, an indigenous polytheistic religion of the island nation.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a faithful Shinto disciple, is making the religion a central part of governance and social life, not only supporting Shinto shrines with tax dollars but also incorporating ideologies into his political philosophy and promoting the inclusion of its tenets in public education.

According to Michael Holtz, writing for The Christian Monitor, the emphasis on Shintoism resulted from a growing sense of national pride and a concern over “economic stagnation, materialism, and the rise of China.”

Shintoism has always had a precarious place in Japanese culture, but has historically provided the nation with a sense of power and security.  After the Second World War, the government exchanged Shintoism for a more pacifist, secular platform that emphasized industrialism and cultural growth.

Even now, fears exist that a return to Shintoism will influence broader militaristic fervor and lead to regional conflicts and Japanese aggression.

Russia is yet another nation instilling a religious awakening with nationalist pride among the populace.  The Russian government has increased its support of the Russian Orthodox Church.

This program of national spirituality, which dangerously aligns church and state, contends that Russia’s religious and cultural way of life dominates what it perceives to be the West’s evil imperialism, according to Wallace Daniel with The Christian Century.

According to Daniel, the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow recently “argued that Western nations had ‘abandoned their Christian identity,'” claiming that “both liberal democracy and secularism as enemies of Orthodoxy and envisioned a ‘clash of civilization’ in which Russian Orthodox values stood against those of the secular West.”

Against Kirill’s wishes, the government brokered a historic meeting between Kirill and Pope Francis in Havana, Cuba.  It was the first time the two figureheads met in over 1000 years of church history, and conversation centered on political, economic, and religious aims between the East and West.

For some, the meeting was productive and reflected a religious commitment to greater cooperation; for others, it was a sign that a third World War, entrenched in both political and religious ideologies, is eminent.  With tensions rising between East and West in hotbeds like Ukraine and Syria, these hyperbolic claims may be well-founded.

The fact remains: As economies stall and the world shrinks in the wake of increasing regional tensions, people will turn to religions that reinforce tribal pride, quail fears regarding economic inequality, and promote the interests of nation-states bent on building the capital and leverage needed to elbow their way onto the global stage.

Getting back to Christian Basics

bargraphBy Joe LaGuardia

There has been much discussion over a recent study from the Pew Research Center.  It reveals a rise of people of no faith (“the unaffiliated”) and the demise of Christianity in our nation.

The percentage of “unaffiliated” people rose from 16% to over 23% in the last seven years, while the percentage of Christians has steadily decreased.

Some say the decline is a result of the lack of institutional loyalty, while others blame a loss of “traditional values” in the public sector.  Many argue that these trends are regional and the statistics should be taken with a grain of salt: Christianity represents the largest religion in the world, and it is actually growing in continents located in the southern hemisphere of our planet.  Christianity is flourishing, just not the way we westerners are accustomed.

Diagnosticians like Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, see it differently: He contends that Christianity is not dying, but “jettisoning” a type of faith too liberal to be called as such, one that promotes atheism in disguise.

“We do not have more atheists in America; we have more honest atheists in America,” he wrote.

Also, the percentage of evangelical Christians, who tend to be more conservative, are stable if not in decline.  The number of evangelicals only decreased by less than 1%, which seems to support Moore’s assessment.

The devil, as they say, is in the details.  For one, evangelicals have remained steady not because of growth (decline is decline whether it is 1% or 3%), but because evangelicals retain more children than other Christian subcultures.

Second, a growing population of immigrants and minorities, who err on the side of conservatism, helps fill pews otherwise empty in evangelical churches.

Third, more mainline churches now consider themselves “evangelical,” as denominations fracture over liberal and conservative fault lines.

Fourth, studies show that growing churches tend to be evangelical megachurches with founding pastors.  Saying that the decline of mainline churches is due to theological liberalism is actually beside the point because all small churches are declining rapidly, not to mention that the Southern Baptist Convention has experienced decline in the past decade.

No matter who is providing an assessment on the Pew Research results, I think that the truth is somewhere in the middle.  I agree with Moore that Christians who are, in his words, “almost-Christian,” have rarely helped Christ’s cause in our nation.  I just disagree with Moore’s caricature of theology as the reason for decline.

mosaicChristian liberalism did not add to the faith’s decline; rather, it failed to bring out the best of what Christianity had to offer in the last century of our nation’s history.  In the first four centuries of the Christian church, the population of Christians grew from a few hundred people to millions–as many as half the population of the Roman Empire by some estimates.  Christianity grew not because is was more traditional or conservative, but because Christians readily adapted to a culture in need of radical hospitality.

According to Roman pagan philosophers, Christianity’s hospitality was too liberal to take seriously: Churches were egalitarian in outreach and leadership.  They did not enjoy prestige or privilege.  They included people normally marginalized in the ancient world–a liberal value if there ever was one.

Christians in the first century did not refuse to provide pizzas or wedding cakes to people; rather, Christians opened their doors to all people, and it often got them in trouble with the authorities.

The wave of Christian decline shouldn’t cause Christians of different theologies to turn on each other.  A large percentage of Americans view all Christians, no matter the denomination, as hostile, exclusive, prejudiced, and out of touch with the rest of the world.  This is the reason for decline.

We Christians have a choice to make.  We can circle the wagons and blame each other for our faith’s decline or we can take a look at our own failures.  It is time to overcome our differences, and develop a fuller outreach program that is surprisingly inclusive, vibrant, creative, and grace filled in a culture that longs for the type of belonging only churches can provide.

Spiritual Deficit, Culture Wars turning away entire generation

A political argument states that federal deficits are harmful because it forces others–presumably our children and grandchildren–to pay the bills.  It’s a good argument, so perhaps we Christians should think about a different kind of deficit that is mounting: The spiritual deficit that is growing among young people in our nation.

If we are not intentional about how we share the Good News of the Gospel and live our lives for Jesus now, we may leave a vast deficit for future generations to come.  We threaten to leave clergy and churches that come after us to foot the bills garnered by the culture wars we evangelicals have waged over the past four decades.

And the deficit is growing every day:  Polls show that fewer young people–ages 18 – 29–are attending church.  As many as 80% have never darkened the door of a church whatsoever.  When non-Christians were asked what words come to mind when they think of Christians, they answered with labels such as “hypocritical” and “judgmental.”

In one poll cited by David Kinnaman, author of “UnChristian”, the first word that comes to mind for 91% of non-Christians was “homophobic.”

I can only echo a sentiment by author Rachel Evans who wondered whether Christianity’s zeal in winning culture wars has also caused us to lose an entire generation. The collateral damage of this war has been vast, deep and wide.  Future Christians will be left wondering how to get their generation back to the table.

At least one evangelical agrees with this assessment.  James Merritt, author of the newly published, “A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars,” argues that this age group has already moved out of the organized church, apart from partisan politics, and beyond the cultural divide in order to find spiritualities that are more inclusive and experiential, ways of living a faith that honors civility and a comprehensive, compassionate ethic.

Meanwhile, Christianity is suffering from this shortfall.  So the question isn’t whether churches will compromise their convictions and values when it comes to hot-bed issues such as same-sex marriages or abortion; rather, the burning question is whether churches can salvage any Good News while not hindering people from hearing the Gospel in the first place.

Some Christians are not helping. Last week, a North Carolina pastor was arguing in favor of Amendment One when his rant bordered on abusive.  He instructed his congregation to “crack that wrist” and “give a good punch” to any child who behaves contrary to expected gender norms.  Although he issued an apology and retraction, the damage had been done within hours of delivering the sermon.

Some folks may claim that vitriolic words are biblical because God used harsh language in the Old Testament; but, frankly, that matters little when, more than likely, the only ones left listening are already saved or already agree.  An entire generation has tuned out, and those of us who actually want to reach the lost by being inclusive struggle just to get a word in edgewise.

We don’t need people who agree with us to come to our churches; we need people who need to hear the Gospel for the very first time.  The challenge before us, therefore, is how to get this generation to tune back in and hear the Good News of a Gospel unhindered by the insensitivity of the few.  That is the spiritual deficit I am inheriting from over 30 years of culture wars that, in Merritt’s words, have failed the nation in bringing about a more civil union and a unified church body.

Jesus was right: In trying to gain the world by forcing cultural change, we have forfeited our very souls (Matthew 16:26).

It’s okay to agree to disagree at times without having to exclude one another from denominations, associations, or churches.  It’s okay to have relationships in the church that may be tenuous at times.  It’s okay to let people think critically about faith and ask questions.  It’s okay to welcome others to the table even if they make you uncomfortable.

It’s okay because only by reclaiming compassionate hospitality and committing to listen to others will we begin to chip away at that spiritual deficit growing in our midst.  Future generations may just be depending on it.