I grow weary of the increasing cultural divide in America. When I turn on the TV, scroll through my Facebook feed, see signs in the city streets, and now even when I watch sports, I am forced to see my fellow Americans harass and berate each other. The left criticizes conservatives for being uneducated and bigoted, while the religious right demands the whole country to observe some manifest moral standard. We don’t listen to each other anymore… we just meme, yell, mock, and ridicule.
I especially dislike how religion is discussed in America. The media fails to provide the public with dialogue that is informing and insightful. More often than not, the likes of CNN and FOX News portray the most extreme of religious sects of Islam and Christianity as representative of their whole faiths. If the merits and criticisms of religion are not fairly discussed, then community between religious people of different faiths and non-religious people will never be built. Prejudice will only continue.
As someone who comes from a theologically fundamentalist background, I want to contribute to the effort of discussing religion fairly. From my own life studies and experiences with religion, I have come to grasp Christianity in America pretty well. Perhaps, my thoughts shall give some insights to those who are not extremely religious.
Before I elaborate on some of my thoughts on Christianity, let me discuss a little bit about fundamentalism and my religious journey to where I am today.
To people outside the US, Americans often come across as overly religious in a very strange, irrational, and even sometimes dangerous way. They often think of the grandma in the grocery store who asks a stranger if he knows Jesus or a couple who goes around the neighborhood inviting people to their church. While these Christians might be sincere and genuine, visitors to the US would feel uneasy. For all they know, these religious people could be one of those fundamentalists they have read about in the news.
Fundamentalists are infamous in America. Both liberals and moderates perceive their behavior as extreme. For many of them, fundamentalists are the very adversaries of Church and State, enemies of women’s rights, persecutors of the LGBTQ community, women-haters who protest outside of abortion clinics, misogynists who demand women to submit to their husbands, bigots who hate homosexuals, extremists who welcome Armageddon, and ignorant fanatics who take the Bible too literally.
Fundamentalist reputation is probably well-deserved. One prominent scholar on fundamentalism in America, George Marsen, author of Militant Christians, defined fundamentalists as, “Evangelical Christians who are angry about something.” For about a century, American fundamentalists have opposed cultural modernity. They have made it a priority to denounce Hollywood movies, ban the study of evolution from public schools, prohibit the selling of alcohol, protest abortion, and vehemently oppose gay marriage. Unfortunately for them, fundamentalists have only succeeded in letting society know that they are angry with a lot of people and their lifestyle choices.
If people are to understand fundamentalists, they must understand their obsession—religious orthodoxy. Before becoming a reactionary movement in America, fundamentalists were known for their theologically conservative commitment to the Bible. During the rise of Darwinism in the 1880s, liberal theologians began rejecting the central tenants of traditional Christianity. For example, the doctrine of Sola Scriptura or “scripture alone” was no longer a tenant universally held by all Protestant Christians. In light of modern science and historical evidence, the authenticity and accuracy of the Bible came into question. The only thing that gave Christianity its authority and meaning was no longer the book, but the figure of Christ. Whether he existed or not is beside the point. In response to the many attacks on Orthodox Christianity, Conservative theologians from 1905-1910 compiled a volume of ninety essays entitled The Fundamentals: The Testimony to Truth where they reaffirmed core beliefs of Christianity with the supremacy of scripture being the focus. Without the belief that God’s Word is divinely inspired and without error, Christian faith is useless.
I am not going to lie, I used to think that way too. That is, until got exposed to more than just fundamentalism…
For an American to meet that many people from different denominational backgrounds is not abnormal. America is not just an ethnic melting pot, but a religious one as well! Being born in America has given me the opportunity to interact with all sorts of Christians. Pentecostals, Baptists, Presbyterians, Amish, Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians, Anglicans, Coptics… there are few denominations with him I have not interacted. While I did not always agree with their religious beliefs, I think each conversation I had with people who came from a different denominational than me helped me grow. It is meeting these people that makes my faith for what it is today.
It was not until university, however, that I began to see my faith for what it is. I have come to understand that my view of Christianity was narrow, cultural, traditional, and very different from other views held by other believers around the world. Though my idea of being a Christian is held by tens of millions of Americans, the world at large finds it… odd. To them, it is too dogmatic and exclusive. I became more self-aware and open-minded about my faith during my time at Oxford University and travels across Western Europe.
I discussed religion with numerous people during my time across the pond. Because of my likeability and nationality, many Europeans found conversations with me interesting and even tolerated my inquiries about their own religious beliefs (my faith dictates I be nosy about other people’s personal beliefs). I quickly found that many people who would strongly disagree with me on what it means to be Christian. To them, what it means to be “Christian” was largely up to individual interpretation. They told me that I had a very “American” view of Christianity. “What does that supposed to mean?” I thought.
The more Christians I meet outside of my conservative circle, the more I learned how ambiguous the word “Christian” really is. What exactly does it mean when someone calls themselves a Christian? Many people identify as Christian, but is being a Christian a core part of their identity? Do their religious beliefs dictate how they behave each day? Are they concerned about converting people to their religion? Do they go to church? Do they believe that faith in Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven? Do they believe in a hell? Do they believe that the Bible came from God? Many Christians disagree with me on not just the answers, but also the importance of these questions. What seemed so simple soon became so complex to me. What does it mean to be a Christian?
Nearly everyone disagreed with me on the essential beliefs necessary for being a Christian. When I tried showing them from the Bible how to have a personal relationship with Christ, people frequently told me that I was simply more “religious” than they were. Though I heard that word all the time as an adolescent, and indeed as a young man in college, I never really thought about what being religious actually meant until I went to Europe. Basically, these people believed that being religious was for individuals who took their religion a lot more seriously than normal people. Religious people are not necessarily more right or wrong, people just care a lot more than your average Joe.
Up until my time in Oxford, I always prided myself as more right than other when it came to my religious beliefs. I had read the Bible several times and I knew what it said. As far as the content of the Bible, I knew it all. I had the truth and it was my responsibility to share it with people.
But after meeting more liberal Christians from more educated backgrounds than even myself, I began to doubt. I did not question my faith altogether, just my understanding of the Bible. I had to ask myself, “Did I really know the true meaning behind the text?” Did I waste my whole education going to a church university just to learn one very particular branch of Christianity? Was what I understood about the Bible the truth…?
My time in Europe taught me that deep down inside I was disappointed with my education. While I always thoroughly enjoyed my Bible classes, I always felt like something was missing. Now I realize that what I sought in my education was to learn what other Christians believed and the reasons for their beliefs. I wanted to think for myself…
Now that I have done some relearning and rereading of my faith, I believe I can discuss my religion in a way that is more insightful, thoughtful, and fair. I have discussed a little bit about fundamentalism in America and my own religious journey. Now, here are some further thoughts on fundamentalism, evangelicalism, and Christianity in general.
1. Jesus Christ alone unites Christians.
There is a reason why when you google “how many Christians are there in the world?” you get results saying there are about 2 billion members of the faith. When surveyors you ask someone if they are a Christian, they kind of have to take people at their word. There is no coherent set of doctrines that unites or excludes people from the faith. Sure, if you ask a fundamentalist Christian if a Catholic or a Greek Orthodox is a Christian, they would say no. In their eyes, Catholics and the Greek Orthodox are part of cults because they believe the wrong things. If you ask a fundamentalist could a Catholic of a Greek Orthodox go to heaven, they will be hesitant and suggest if they could go to heaven its but then they are not really Catholics or Greek Orthodox. The criteria for what makes someone a true Christian is dependent on who you ask. The only thing that really unites “Christians” is their belief that Jesus Christ is the ideal person to derive one’s religious beliefs and from whom they model their lives.One thing is certain, not everyone who thinks they are a Christian is a Christian. Christ says in Matthew 7:21 that “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” There are a lot of “Christians” who thought they were going to heaven that just not. Whether that be .1 Billion or 1.9 Billion of “Christians” today no one knows. Only God knows.
2. Too Many Fundamentalists Are Care More about Orthodoxy than Orthopraxy.
Too many fundamentalist Christians care more about an individual’s theology than living a life that is praiseworthy and good. This attitude is nothing new in the church. During the first millennia, a Christian answering “Does the Holy Spirit descend from just the Father or the Father AND the Son?” wrong could have had their head on a pike. Likewise, I think fundamentalists in America care too much about correct theology. Fundamentalists need to be more content that someone wants to follow Jesus rather than antagonize them on issues such as whether they believe women should be pastors in a church. Likewise, fundamentalists need to develop loving relationships with homosexuals, transgenders, atheists, and people of other faiths and share Christ with them before making denunciations on their lifestyles and religious beliefs.
3. Fundamentalists Need to Stop Using Relying On “Prove” The Bible’s God’s Word. Sure, I think based on scholarly research and the vast number of ancient copies humanity has of the Bible makes the argument that the Bible is close to the originals religious texts convincing. However, just because an individual like myself reads book like I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist by Frank Turek or visits the Creation Museum Ark in Ohio does not mean I can go around untenably asserting that historical evidence and science proves that God wrote the book. No amount of evidence someone provides can prove that.
Say the Apostle Paul’s physician, Luke, actually wrote the books of Luke and Acts. How do we know the author actually spoke with eyewitnesses? How do we know he didn’t just make up what he wrote? How do we know he didn’t just conveniently match up events in the life of Jesus so to match Old Testament prophecies? At the end of the day, the Christian must resolve that he walks by faith, not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). The Bible is God’s Word because it says its God’s Word. He relies to circular reasoning.
4. All Christians Believes in Heresies.
A lot of Christians around the world whether they be Catholics, Greek Orthodox, or Protestants are quick to points out the heresies in other people’s faiths. While it is bad to believe in heresy… everyone is a heretic to a certain extent. A heretic is simply someone who holds beliefs that are contrary to the Christian faith. However, which Christian faith has their theology completely right? The Catholics? The Greek Orthodox? The Protestants? Who the heretics are is dependent on which Christian you ask? Personally, I think you are Whether it be beliefs regarding the Church, the Bible, or the Trinity, every Christian has some belief not in accordance to true Christianity, everyone’s wrong about something. I have studied enough Christian Theology to know that my flawed human reasoning cannot possibly interpret the Bible exactly the way apostles intended.
Not even the first Christians understood everything the apostles wrote to them. For example, when writing to various church in the Asian Minor, the Apostle Peter stated that:
“Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” 2 Peter 3: 15-16
If even the early Christians could not understand everything that the apostles wrote, who are Christians today to say they completely understand the scriptures?
5. Christians Need to Stop Pretending the Sexual Ethics of the Bible Makes Sense.
Books have been written on this subject, but I’ll do my best in explaining my thoughts in a few paragraphs. Most of the Old Testament I can stomach without much remorse. I am totally okay with God pronouncing whole entire people groups to be wiped off the earth.
In Christianity Theology everyone deserves death. Heaven is just a gift that God can give to whomever he chooses to give it to. God is God. Whatever He does is by definition just because He is just. I get that. But what is up with all the polygamy, concubines, and virgin grabbing? All these actions are tolerated and even promoted in the Old Testament. The greatest example of marriage that is given is in the book of Ecclesiastes which portrays the Israelite King Solomon, one of the most polygamous men who ever lived, and a black woman. Christians are to model their marriages after a polygamous man. Also, God called Solomon’s father, King David, a man after his own heart. The man had a harem. He essentially owned more women for his pleasure than most Christian men know in a sexual manner. It would be great if fundamentalist Christians stop slut shaming women for premarital sex when some of the greatest examples of devotion and wisdom the Bible has to offer are man-whore Kings. Man-whore kings who could afford purchasing the women who suited their fancy.
As someone who reads the Bible very literally, I do not see how a plain reading of the Old and New Testament texts do not still allow for polygamy, concubines, and making captured virgins your prizes after battle. Unlike divorce, Jesus nor his apostles recognize these sexual acts as passed sins needed of repentance.
Personally, the greatest persuasions that homosexuality and polygamy are practices condemned by God is the fact that since the founding of religion these sexual behaviors were not tolerated by Christians. Only in the past century have these practices been questioned as actually sinful. The preacher or even the Bible Professor who says, “This happened in the Old Testament, so it does not apply to us today.” is not a convincing enough argument to me anymore.
6. Evangelicals… Just Really Religious Christians?
I have read tons of academic literature and professors about what evangelicals actually are. There is no real consensus. I would describe evangelicals as just really religious Christians. Evangelicals are people who believe they have experienced a “new birth” of sorts after coming to “know” Jesus personally and really want to convert people to their religion. They also see the Bible as divinely inspired in one way or another. These evangelicals transcend denomination. Catholics, Protestants, and Greek Orthodox could be an evangelical. However, most evangelicals are protestants. Whether they are fundamental or liberal in their theology is more of a spectrum than an either-or answer. There are evangelicals who practice gay marriage and other evangelicals that believe the world is only 10,000 years old. If the individual says they love Jesus, love God’s Word, believes they are “born again”, and really wants to share their religion with you, they are probably evangelical Christians.
7. America Is a Religious Nation, But Not Every Christian in America Is Evangelical or Fundamental.
While close to 20% of the nation do not describe to any organized religion, America could be rightly described as a religious nation. 9/10 Americans believe there is one God and many people who do not describe themselves to organized religion still consider themselves “spiritual”. We are not a nation of agnostics and atheist. We are a predominantly Christian nation that tolerates other religions.
But of these Christians few take their faith seriously like me. Evangelicals only make up about 20-25% of the population. Of the 20-25%, only about 5-10% of these evangelicals would describe themselves as fundamentalists. Most Americans are not Bible thumpers.
Author: Zane Merkle
Zane Merkle currently studies Political Science and has worked as a Research assistant at a Fundamental Christian University called Cedarville. He identifies as an evangelical conservative and plans on commissioning as a marine officer in the United States military after graduating in 2019.