Why is it so hard for the demographic group labeled “Christian” to have intra-group conversations about political and social issues? Why is it that Christians do not all hold the same worldview and live by the same values? How does it happen that Christians who celebrated the Hobby Lobby decision as a victory for religious liberty are being excoriated by Christians who consider that decision to be an invasion of every woman’s bedroom by her employer?
Recently I was researching the demographics of an African nation. I was surprised to see the statistics for Christian church membership. Taking all Christian denominations into account, the country is more than 90% Christian. Yet primitive ethnic practices dominate the culture, and most Christians happily blend ethnic traditions with Christian faith. The culture and politics are much more profoundly shaped by ancient tribal practices than by the Sermon on the Mount.
It is not too different in the USA. Even though membership in Christian churches is declining, Christians still outnumber any other religious group by a dramatic majority. At least 75% of US citizens self-identify as Christians. However, when people who call themselves Christians were asked by surveyors about their worldview, the answers were startling. Among all the people surveyed, only 19% of those who self-identified as Christians held a Christian worldview. 81% of the people who called themselves Christians disagreed with at least one fundamental principle of Christianity, as expressed in the following list:
- Absolute moral truth exists
- The Bible is totally accurate in all of the principles it teaches
- Satan is a real being, not merely symbolic
- A person cannot earn entry into Heaven by being good or doing good works
- Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth
- God is the all-knowing, all-powerful creator of the world who still rules the universe today
Many Christians would want to add things to this list, but this list is quite adequate for this conversation. After all respondents to the survey were polled on all six of these points, the outcome was a picture that might shock many of the churches of the USA. Only 9% of all American adults agreed that all six points are true. When the statistic is limited to those who self-identify as Christian, the result is still startling. Only 19% of all who called themselves Christian agreed that all six points are true. The study that reported these statistics was completed in March of 2009. There is nothing in the news of the past five years to make anyone think that the results would be different if the same study were repeated today.
This means that Christians in the USA have the same problem as Christians in a faraway African nation: many US Christians take the name but not the worldview of Christ. Do not interpret this as an editorial indictment of other people’s state of grace. It would be presumptious in the extreme to use a statistical study like this to declare judgment on individuals. Rather, this study points out the reason that a great many things in the culture dismay people who think they know what Christians believe. It is completely credible to discover that a Christian who agrees with all six points in the study will have different view of the definition of marriage than a Christian who believes that the Bible is not authoritative and accurate in everything it teaches. A Christian who agrees with all six principles will necessarily have a different view of the ethics of open borders than a Christian who believes that there is no absolute moral truth. A Christian who believes that Satan is real will have a completely different view of crime and law enforcement than one who believes that evil, like good, is a concept shaped by each person’s individual experience.
The fact that a demographic Christian could possibly disagree with every principle in the list and with many others that orthodox Christians hold dear explains why some Christians are reeling from back-to-back-to-back cultural and political changes that do not make any sense to them. In a culture where Christianity is the dominant religion, Christian principles do not shape the dominant worldview.
In the current dispute over border control and immigration policy, for one example, there are devout Christians along the whole spectrum of opinion about the problem. Devout Christians hold the view that illegal immigrants should be summarily turned around and sent home. Deported. No matter what their age. No matter why they came. Those Christians believe that illegals should go home. Equally devout Christians hold the view that children and needy people of all ages are all human, and there is no such thing as an illegal human being. Hence, they believe the human flood across the Rio Grande should be welcomed with open arms and with an array of benefits to assure their health, happiness and freedom from hunger in this country.
It quickly becomes clear that depth of devotion does not determine the shape of a worldview. A devout Christian might not hold a Christian worldview.
When people vote for candidates, they hope that their vote will put someone in office to do the things that need doing in the culture. If a voter’s worldview sees human beings as needy victims of blind fate and greedy capitalists, the voter will choose candidates who promise to take care of the victims and pay for that care by punishing the greedy. If a voter’s worldview sees human beings as free individuals who choose their own way and accomplish what they are willing to work for, the voter will choose candidates who promise to get out of the way. It might be a lot more convenient for political analysts and for Christians in general if all Christians had the same view, but they most profoundly do not.
The history of the country suggests that in 1776, the Christians in the British colonies that became the United States of America had a much more consistent worldview. There were moral and social differences, most notably over slavery, but in general, the Christian demographic, which was dominant, held a much more uniform view of human beings and their place in nature than do Christians of today. If there had been complete agreement that the slaves were human beings, it would have been easier to deal with the problem, because the Christian worldview was quite consistent about the rights and responsibilities of human beings. Only a willingness to consider slaves less than human allowed some Christians to tolerate or even participate in the practice. It can be argued that Christians should have clearly agreed that the slaves were human, but they didn’t. It is no more possible for one Christian to know what all Christians should believe than it is possible for one politician to know the amount of income every human being has a right to. In today’s world, proponents of all sorts of political agendas believe that every real Christian should agree, which simply points up what the Barna study demonstrated: Christians as a demographic do not exhibit much internal agreement.
How should Christians approach this problem?
If they all agreed that the Bible is the God-given guide for faith and life, then it would be easier. The disagreement would be limited to their differences over biblical interpretation. However, a significant bud on the tree of Christianity believes that the Bible is old and humans have outgrown it. Progressive Christians are not shy about looking to other sources for guidance on both faith and life.
One thing most Christians seem to agree on is that it is a good idea to treat other people the way you would like to be treated. This agreement is probably due to the fact that even those who reject the Bible’s authority appreciate the fact that it includes a teaching that is palatable to most non-Christians, a teaching that crops up in various forms across numerous religions and self-help manuals. Whether or not a person calls this idea “The Golden Rule,” it is an attractive concept. What’s more, it embodies common courtesy. Christians who consider the Bible their most authoritative guide will still be able to show this common courtesy to other Christians and to non-Christians as well.
To speak with one another in this fashion does not necessarily lead to agreement, but it does help to stave off cruel words and thoughtless insults. It encourages the kindest interpretation of the words of others, and promotes gracious word choices in one’s own speech. It allows citizens to continue to live side by side in harmony, even when the political realities are uncomfortable.
For Christians who swallow the whole enchilada, those who espouse a statistically validated Christian worldview, it does something else. It encourages them to additional moves that serve to build faith and may actually build greater harmony in the culture. Common courtesy promotes a view of the other person that encourages prayer and an attitude of blessing toward the other side of the discussion. It encourages the understanding of the situation as a discussion and not a guerilla action. It most of all encourages the remembrance of God’s truth that we actually all are his children. That fact does not require us to agree and has no bearing on our potential to achieve agreement, but it does require us to respect one another. Even when our disagreements are so deep that they truly are intractable, we can still respect the fact that God impressed his image in each of us. If Nazi Christians could have viewed Jews as human beings created in God’s image, not one could even have been forced to work as a guard or administrator at Auschwitz. In political and social disputation, a sense on all sides that all are human beings created in God’s image could preclude a great deal of the vile and contemptuous behavior that clogs the airwaves in the name of news.
One of the reasons that so few self-proclaimed Christians have a Christian worldview is that it is personally challenging to sustain that view. If someone really believes that God is in charge of the universe, he must, therefore, submit to God in his words and deeds. Most people don’t much like that idea. If a person believes that there is absolute moral truth, it means that playing around with truth, trying to reshape it or hide some of it for your own benefit, is not allowed. A recognition that the Bible teaches what is right and what is wrong is a constant judgment on a person’s daily life. It would be a good thing if all the people who claim to hold a Christian worldview would make it their business to live according to that worldview, even in defeat. Jesus said that would be the real test of faith – to stand strong and overcome, even when everything is against you. Read Revelation 2 and 3 and look at all the challenges those churches faced. Jesus made it plain that they would not win all the political and cultural battles they faced. The war they most needed to win was the war against self that wants to rise up and get what it wants and hurt somebody when it doesn’t win. Jesus said that in the political and cultural wars we all face, we must cling to him and show him to the world, even when we don’t get what we want. The most basic act of discipleship is to deny self and go do what Christ does in the world. (Luke 9:23) In Revelation, it is those who overcome self-worship and put Christ first who win all the prizes, culminating in this one: “To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne.” (Revelation 3:21) It would probably look more virtuous if people behaved respectably without the necessity of rewards, but it doesn’t hurt to contemplate the rewards waiting for people who can be Christ-like even when the votes go against them.