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The Christian Gospel and the American Way of Life

by David E. Roberts

At the time of his death in 1984, James F. Hopewell was Professor of Religion and the Church and Director of the Rollins Center for Church Ministries at the Candler School of theology, Emory University. This article appeared in the March 1952 issue of Christianity and Crisis. Copyright by Christianity and Crisis, used by permission. This article was prepared for Religion Online by John R. Bushell.


When I was in Germany in the early 1930's I became acquainted with a New Testament scholar who was at the same time a Nazi. As a student fresh from the halls of Union Seminary, I was completely baffled by the mentality of this man. His knowledge of the New Testament was not only technically competent; it was accompanied by religious passion and theological sincerity. Yet I could not fathom how anyone could be so intensely devoted to the gospel and be a Nazi at the same time.

In my memory he stands as a vivid illustration of the fact that what a man allows the Bible to say to him is profoundly influenced by the situation in which he finds himself. A powerful ideology had taken control of the consciousness of Germany. This man was cut off from other ideas. He could have lost his job and been thrown into a concentration camp for defending an unpopular point of view.

Therefore, something more compelling than his own scholarship easily dictated what he was able to think and say. Circumstances had arisen where it was almost impossible for him to allow himself to grasp the real import of the New Testament, because that would have been too dangerous.

Surely the predicament of this German scholar illustrates a principle which goes far beyond his own situation. In a sense, it is always too dangerous for men to grasp the real import of the New Testament -- any time, anywhere, in any society. This is because the gospel always lays bare elements of tyranny which society regards as necessary for its own security. It lays bare the hollowness of every quest for earthly power, prosperity, and triumph. It gives the lie to our feverish boast that we are "only trying to defend justice." It debunks every human virtue which falls short of the humility of love. In a stubborn, inconvenient way, the New Testament holds out against all ordinary definitions of power, success, and righteousness.

Therefore, it is a dangerous thing for anyone to try to look at American life in the light of the gospel. To be sure, men do not get thrown into jail here very often just for preaching. But in cynical moments one might suspect that this is partly due to

The Christian Gospel

The fact that we preachers have failed to make clear the real nature of the book we have on our hands. The New Testament is a highly subversive document. If it is taken seriously, it prevents people from giving unqualified devotion to current definitions of the American way of life. And precisely because the pulpit is still so free, even a comparatively timid preacher is without excuse if he tries to conceal this fact.

We can best manifest our loyalty to American traditions of religious and political liberty by exercising the God-given right of looking at ourselves in the light of his Word. Let us pass over, as too familiar, the reflections which come to mind when we tally up the newspaper accounts: dope-addiction among adolescents, bribery of college athletes, the power of organized crime, the corruption of government officials. I agree with those who declare that the only long-range remedy for such moral disintegration is a return to faith in God. But I get weary of hearing the declaration repeated because there is so little likelihood of increasing our national understanding of the gospel by representing it as a sort of emergency supplement to the police force.

Certainly the extent of our moral disintegration is connected with a religious disintegration but we cannot even come in sight of a radical religious recovery until the churches and the people of this country begin to do penance for the way we have tried to pour the new wine of the gospel into some peculiarly American bottles.

Many of the proposed alliances between Christian ideals and American ideals that we hear about today are actually a threat to both, for they fit perfectly into the pattern of all fanaticism. The fanatic knows, at some level, that he is living a lie. And because his case cannot bear scrutiny in open debate, he is compelled to ward off the threat of exposure by means of catch-phrases, righteous indignation, and sanctions. Indeed, within one set of premises many of our home-grown fanatics are virtually irrefutable, and they possess specialized forms of information and power which can make their total case seem plausible. If you grant that the greatness of our nation is to be judged primarily in terms of its standard of living, its efficiency, its military power, then everything else follows. So long as moral and religious considerations are left out, their case is consistent and impregnable. Strangely enough, however, most Americans are not crass enough to leave out such considerations -- at least when they are speaking in public. That is where the inconsistency enters in; and that is where the defensive rationalization has to begin. The advocates of a case which makes sense in terms of pure power. politics want at the same time to claim that they are following faith in God and preserving the ethical foundations of democracy.

A recent letter in The New York Times reads, in part, as follows:

"Our nation was founded and brought to greatness by men who had an unquestioning faith in Go...[But] signs of a collapse of conscience in these United States are to be found everywhere_.If we are to survive as a great nation we must turn again toward the ideals and the simple faith that made us great. We must reaffirm our faith in the dignity of man and in the rightness of our democratic way of life under God."

So far, so good. But then the writer continues:

"I do not propose to offer a solution to the vast problem now confronting our country. But I do suggest that a start in the right direction might be made in our schools and colleges Today an entirely false concept of academic freedom is turning our colleges into booby traps for young and impressionable minds. Evil and alien influences are brought to bear upon youths who lack the maturity

and understanding to discriminate between philosophies, and to winnow the good from the bad. Too often today the American way of life -- from a belief in free enterprise to faith in democracy -- is belittled by our professors. The time has come to have done with such corroding nonsense."

Precisely because this letter is by no means fanatical in tone, it well illustrates the conjunction of ideas which is so widespread -- and so dangerous. The author begins by talking about faith in God, the dignity of man, and the rightness of our democratic way of life. But he ends by attacking those methods whereby alone young men can learn to discriminate between good and evil philosophies. Undoubtedly he is not aware of any inconsistency. Yet how can faith in the dignity of man be expressed by choking the growth of critical intelligence and independent judgment? How can confidence in the superiority of free enterprise be expressed by shutting off open debate? Above all, how can religious faith be restored by associating it with national pride instead of with Christian penitence and forgiveness? The letter as a whole makes one feel that the author is a sincere man of high principles. That is part of the tragedy of our country and our churches today. So many fine people have fallen unconsciously into forms of religious confusion and moral duplicity which are just as bad as those they are trying to fight.

Nevertheless the fact remains that there can be no return to faith in God so long as he is regarded as a sort of confirmatory appendage to the American way of life. Actually we are confronted with a clear-cut choice. Either the New Testament is to be supreme, and we are to judge our nation in the light of its standards of righteousness and spiritual greatness, or the so-called American way of life is to be our substitute religion, and the church is to be its mouthpiece. In the latter case, our situation is not unlike that of the Nazi professor, where men hear only those portions of the gospel which seemingly confirm their national aims and assumptions.

The mentality we have been examining, then, is not really an ally of Christian ideals. Neither is it an ally of the democratic way of life. Those who proclaim their allegiance most loudly are seldom to be found in the forefront of movements which implement democratic principles in racial and economic relations. On the contrary, they regard such movements as dangerously liberal, and then they lump liberalism with communism.

In the recent book, Civil Liberties Under Attack, one of the authors mentions the case of a government official with an impeccable record who was placed under charges because unidentified informers asserted he "advocated the Communist Party line, such as favoring peace and civil liberties," and "his convictions concerning equal rights for all races and classes extend slightly beyond the normal feelings of the average individual"1

Now why do we find this widespread panic, this unconscious dread of genuine democracy, among those who claim to be its guardians? There is no single nor simple explanation. Perhaps our actual situation in the world is precarious enough to drive some people -- especially those with extensive possessions to lose -- into a defensive form of hysteria and a search for scapegoats. But why the need for scapegoats? Part of the answer is that many of our one-hundred-per-cent-American patterns of life are flatly incompatible with democracy, and we don't want to admit it.

Democracy stands or falls on the attitude toward the person. The question is not merely whether he is free, in a technical sense, to vote, to work, to speak and to worship. The question is also whether he is looked upon as a responsible, spiritual being instead of a cog in a social machine. Who could read the recent article in Life magazine about corporation wives without seeing in it an example of how the genuinely personal gets stifled? Here the suitability of a man's home life, his wife and his children must be judged in terms of how efficiently they function in tooling him up for another day's work. The wife is to engage in "reading and music and that kind of stuff" so that she will seem cultured when she meets her husband's associates. The suburb they choose to live in, the size of their car, and their circle of friends must properly reflect his status; and they must change, with exquisite timing, as he moves up the ladder. The article goes on to say that "roughly half of the companies on which Fortune has data, have made wife-screening a regular practice and many others seem about ready to do so. 'Successes here,' says one official, 'are guys who eat and sleep the company. If a man's first interest is his wife and family, more power to him -- but we don't want him.' 'We've got quite an equity in the man,' another explains, 'and it's only prudence to protect it by bringing the wife into the picture.' "2

Surely we miss the point if we simply rant against the corporation. The corporation is, willy-nilly, part of a wider pattern. And the wider pattern is nothing less than a creeping, totalitarian religion. It is a religion because it dictates how a person shall find security, self-esteem, standards of value, and reasons for living. It is totalitarian because, although one has some mobility within the pattern, one has lost the basic freedom of departing from the pattern itself. All of us are caught in it to some extent; that is why so many of us have to disguise its real character by talking about individualism, free enterprise, and democracy; and that is why so many of us have to go looking for scapegoats. We don't dare look at how standardized, collectivized, and conformist we are. If we can find a scapegoat, we are spared having to face ourselves.

Yet this substitute religion -- which is the most potent factor in the lives of many Americans -- is not only irreconcilable with Christianity, it is not even a worthy form of humanism. It undercuts all the valid reasons for "reading and music and that sort of stuff." It destroys the basis for real friendship by making uncalculating appreciation of others almost impossible. It forces men who are presumably capable of having respect and affection for their wives and children as persons, to view their loved ones as economic functions.

Significantly enough, the article in Life says nothing whatever about the young executive, or the young wife, who might have convictions which run counter to prevailing views on economic and political questions. And I am quite ready to believe that they no longer exist. Yet what has happened to the bold iconoclasm on which the democracy of this country was founded? What has happened to the independent thinking of the individual? In business, in the entertainment field, in journalism, young men will tell you that their exercise of independent judgment and their advocacy of "democracy" must fall within prescribed channels, it must be associated with "safe" political and economic doctrine -- or else. Or else they might just as well look for some other sort of work. The same thing is becoming increasingly true in our colleges. Are the churches next on the list?

In the light of all this, we should be profoundly afraid for the welfare of our country. But we should be more angry than afraid, and more resolved than angry. It is not too late to win the battle against a creeping, totalitarian religion which has arisen within the most respectable centers of our national life. We must wage the struggle as strenuously as we fight against communism and all other external threats to liberty, and for precisely the same reason. What is at stake is not simply the welfare of America, but the hope of the human spirit throughout the world. Thank God, there are still plenty of people who really believe that the integrity of personality comes first in a definition of democracy and that the rightness of our economic and political policies must be judged by this standard.

But if the strength of this ethical conviction is to be restored, it must be based upon a recovery of the core of our religious heritage. That means we must disentangle the Christian gospel from every attempt to ally it with economic selfishness or national pride. The church can play its part in keeping alive freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and freedom of worship only if it uses them to the hilt. It must care more about truth than about expediency, and it must fear God instead of men. Are we not embarrassed, as Christians, that the armed forces have moved faster than the churches toward solving the problem of racial segregation? We are truly ludicrous when we run behind secular agencies, instead of ahead of them, in the struggle for democracy. If we love our country, if we care deeply about its potentialities for true greatness and service, we must oppose at the political level and by political means those who are ruining it while they stridently claim to be defending it. And at the religious level, if we love the church, we must oppose every movement which tries to interfuse its teachings with hatred, self-righteousness, and reaction. Everything precious in Protestantism is threatened wherever liberty itself is threatened. We are thoroughly aware of the enemies outside the gates. But if we are slain, it is just as likely to be by enemies within, who profess allegiance not to Stalin or the Pope, but to "Christian, i.e., American-way-of-life, freedom."

Surely the words of Lincoln are applicable to our situation: "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew_.[For] we shall nobly save or meanly lose, the last, best hope of earth."3

 

FOOTNOTES

1. Saturday Review of Literature, Jan. 12, 1952, p. 8.

2. Life, Jan. 7, 1952, pp. 32 if.

3. Abraham Lincoln, Annual Message of Dec., 1862.


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