The American Religion by Michael S. HortonThe American Religion
© 1996 White Horse Inn
I suppose that ever since the Fall, when Adam shifted the blame to Eve and Eve to the serpent, we have been pointing fingers. In our own day, the blame-game is really heating up, especially in the light of the upcoming elections. While conservative Christians are often caricatured as nutty extremists, they often return the favor with conspiracy theories about the nation somehow being hijacked by an evil culture elite. And yet, isn't it possible that Friederich Nietzsche, who announced the supposed death of God, might actually be right on this point: that it was the church that ushered in modern secularism? "You have caged God, tamed him, domesticated him," Nietzsche wrote, "and the priests have pliantly lent their aid. The roaring bull has become a listless ox. You have gelded God!"
But what does it mean to domesticate God? We all know what it's like to domesticate a wild animal. By confining the beast to prescribed limits and a routine that serves the owner's schedule, the once free and roaming animal has become an obedient pet. Now, of course, God is God whether we realize it or not. He cannot actually be tamed by us, but when enough people think they've done that, it is just as if we had turned the Maker of Heaven and Earth into a mascot for our own private or corporate games.
In America, we have accomplished this domestication of God, at least in the idol-factory of our imagination, by first emancipating ourselves from the creeds, confessions, worship and dogmas of the Old World. Refusing to be told what to believe or how to live, the American was going to chart his own course to the fabled Ithycan harbor. The Enlightenment in full swing, it was now up to the New World to usher in the kingdom at last. While the Puritans had envisioned New England as "a shining city upon a hill" because of their intention to practice the Reformed Faith in freedom, an example to all nations, their great grandchildren were intoxicated with the heavy spirits of Enlightenment rationalism. Puritan New England had been the bastion not only of Christian orthodoxy, but of eminent learning, and they were far from their caricature. In fact, as C. S. Lewis observed, "Whatever they were, they were not sour, gloomy, or severe, nor did their enemies bring such charges against them." In fact, according to a sainted defender of Roman Catholicism, Puritans were "drunk of the new mist of lewd lightness of mind and a vain gladness of heart," one who joined the Reformation because it "spiced all the poison with liberty." In fact, the Puritans often led the advances of the so-called "Golden Age" in England, in literature, the arts and sciences, politics, and were fond of beer, rum and tobacco. As Lewis put it, "Bishops, not beer, was their problem."
The Puritans pursued a vision of a democratic republic in England and America not because they wanted to free the world from God's Word, but precisely because they were suspicious of anyone who claimed authority reserved for God alone. It wasn't always bright and cheery in the New World, however. Although the Puritans were, generally speaking, fair and charitable toward the Native Americans and lived peaceably among them, they had less tolerance for different persuasions among professing Christians. Although he was a fellow Calvinist minister in other respects, Roger Williams was banished from Mass. for being a Baptist and one of the Puritan patriarchs recommended, probably only in jest, that Quakers be sold to the West Indies in exchange for rum.
By 1662, New England's Puritan Commonwealth began to undergo serious spiritual decline just as Arminianism--the heresy that undermined the biblical doctrine of grace--landed in Boston harbor. While Harvard had been founded to create a learned Reformed clergy and scholars in the various branches, with every student being trained in Calvin's Institutes as well as Homer and Aristotle, by the early 1700s orthodox Calvinists began suspecting the school of tolerating Arminian sympathies. As Yale's Peter Gay described it, "Calvinism was softened and then replaced with Arminian views consisting of gentle instruction designed to lead sinful men toward a reform of their lives." A celebrated case in 1735, when a Harvard graduate was examined by his area pastors and was found to hold Arminian views, led to outrage among the orthodox and Yale was founded for the advancement of biblical Christianity. Before long, their suspicions were confirmed, as Harvard explicitly embraced Unitarianism, the logical end of Arminianism. In 1757, The Rev. Samuel Webster, a Harvard graduate, wrote, A Winter-Evening's Conversation upon the Doctrine of Original Sin, launching the opening salvo in New England's own revolutionary war against Reformation orthodoxy by rejecting total depravity of the human race. Gone, therefore, was also the substitutionary atonement, for if Adam's sin relates to us as nothing more than a bad example, Christ's obedience serves as a good example. That meant that Christ was merely a good moral example and not the God-Man proclaimed in Scripture.
Just as New England was retreating from biblical Christianity, Jonathan Edwards, pastor and later president of Princeton College, began preaching a series of sermons on the sovereignty of God and justification by faith alone. Suddenly, whole congregations were awakened to the immediate threat of God's wrath and the beauty of God's grace in Christ. Churches that had become little more than Rotary clubs, softened by moralistic sentimentalism, were now filled with young people who had discovered the imputed righteousness of Christ, and the Awakening spread to the Middle Colonies, reaching all the way to Georgia to the south. Joined by George Whitefield, an Anglican Calvinist, Edwards not only proclaimed these forgotten truths, but wrote the most sophisticated philosophical and theological defenses of biblical orthodoxy ever penned in this country. The Awakening, like the Reformation itself, led to a host of changes in the social landscape. For the first time, slavery, which has become a big business with the advance of secular moralism, was challenged publicly and families--which had also suffered from the moral breakdown of the society--were reunited in a common bond of saving truth. Do you notice the irony in all of this? Calvinism was overthrown in New England, in part, because it was said to insufficiently interested in morality and the light of nature. And yet, Arminian and Unitarian moralism had only left the colonies without any sound framework and a revival of Reformation truth that did not set out to reform society ended up producing these results as a by-product.
However, the revival fires quickly turned toward Arminianism again and in his old age Edwards watched as his students advocated a Second Great Awakening based on the rejection of original sin, the substitutionary atonement, divine sovereignty, and justification. By 1776, many of the founding fathers had moved even beyond Arminianism to Deism, the belief that God is not only not sovereign, but that he is removed from the day-to-day affairs of nature. By the end of the century, only 13% of the new nation's citizens were active churchgoers.
It was Charles Finney, who lived from 1792 to 1875, who carried out the Arminian revivalism that has come to characterize American Protestantism, both liberal and evangelical. Attacking Reformation doctrine and even universally-accepted doctrines of original sin and Christ's vicarious atonement, Finney said, "Religion is not a miracle or dependent upon a miracle in any sense. It is simply the philosophical result of the right use of means." "When men become religious," the evangelist said, "it is not that they have a power that they did not possess before, but that they are persuaded to exercise it in a different direction." In fact, Finney said, the reason why traditional Protestant beliefs were so repugnant to reason was that they made Christ's obedience rather than the sinner's obedience the basis of salvation. Finney was a moralist. He was as much of a naturalist in religion as Darwin was in science.
But Finney got results and his so-called "New Measures" were based on his belief that all sinners needed were "excitements sufficient to awaken their dormant moral powers." He invented the "anxious bench," forerunner of the modern "altar call," and Finney's methods altered forever the landscape of American churches. Since the evangelist had replaced God, his methods had replaced God's means of grace. Word and sacrament were no longer viewed as sufficiently "exciting," so revivals took the form of entertaining spectacles that attracted thousands. Reports of barking, laughing, and stomping on the devil, reached far and wide and moral crusades for the prohibition of alcohol and tobacco and the closing of saloons became a central concern of revivalism's social reforms.
The Reformation Christianity that dominated American churches was disappearing with each so-called revival, even in churches that were officially committed to the Confessions and Catechisms of the Reformation. If, as historians of nearly every stripe argue, Arminianism's triumph in colonial New England led to secularization prior to the Great Awakening, isn't it just as possible that its triumph in American evangelicalism is at least partly responsible for the secularism we see all around us today? You see, it is not that America was stolen from basically good and sound Christians, but that American Christianity itself has married the spirit of the age, that perpetual Adamic craving to be gods and to find our own path to the Tree of Life by our own willing and running.
The "How-To" Gospel
Ours is a society that is fascinated with the trinkets of technology. Like children in a toy shop, we are often heard asking the clerk, "How does this work?" That is part of the American genius and the material progress that has staggered the modern world. But it has its down-side, too, especially when it becomes not merely a way of inventing useful machines, but of viewing all of life. Pragmatism has created a whole culture whose chief question is not, "Is it true, good or beautiful?", but, "Will it work?" We are obsessed with technology and techniques. "How To Build Your Own Kitchen," "How To Make A Million Dollars," "How To Raise Kids," "How To Have A Positive Mental Attitude," are such examples.
All of this preoccupation with the practical, technical, or methodological has its philosophical nativity in the school of thought known as "pragmatism." Harvard philosopher William James, a turn of the century preacher's kid, argued that test of truth is its "cash-value in experiential terms." In his book titled Pragmatism, James said the following concerning religion: "On pragmatic principles, if the hypothesis of God works satisfactorily in the widest sense of the word, it is true." "You see," he wrote, "pragmatism has to postpone dogmatic answer, for we do not yet know certainly which type of religion is going to work best in the long run." This relativistic view of truth was championed by James's friend John Dewey, the father of modern theories of education. But before we conservatives lay another stripe on Dewey's back, let us remember that this is precisely the justification that Charles Finney and his successors had often employed for their unorthodox beliefs and methods. Whether in religion or in politics, in evangelism or advertising, the question of truth takes a back seat to the question, "Will it work?"
But for our evangelistic efforts to work, we have to show our fellow pragmatists that Christianity works as well, and that it works better than any other plan out there.
The verification of God's existence, then, is His usefulness. Like a new invention of bug spray, God has to pass the test of utility for admission into the marketplace. It would not have been surprising to have found a "Try God!" bumper sticker on the back of his buggy. How does God help me get what I want quickly, easily, and with minimal cost? Furthermore, James tells us religion can get along with pragmatism fine, just as long as it tolerates pluralism (i.e., the existence of numerous possibilities--for we do not always know what will work best at any given time) and does not make dogmatic assertions. Therefore, a cardinal sin of pragmatism is to seek justification for a belief on the basis of a transcendent absolute. One can have working hypotheses (as long as they do indeed work), but never convictions.
Allen Bloom, in his Closing of the American Mind, is among a growing chorus of secular intellectuals charging that even higher education has succumbed to pragmatism. In fact, where previous generations of students might have chosen a college and a major as an effort to become knowledgeable, now they are unashamed to confess that the main question is, "Will it get be a job?" Careerism is turning even Ivy League schools into vo-tech institutes, places that equip students in "how to" jobs rather than forming the nation's intellectual class. "Even the life of reason is often unappealing" today, Bloom writes, "and useless knowledge--that is, knowledge that is not obviously useful for a career, has no place in the student's vision of the curriculum."
Now before we conservatives applaud Bloom too loudly, just imagine the same criticisms being made of the church today. Sermons must be "practical"--that is, they must provide me with useful insight into my daily life and experience. And any theological point or doctrine that doesn't have, in James's words, "cash-value in experiential terms," is unworthy of my time. How will an understanding of the Trinity give me self-esteem? How can sermons on sin and grace help me handle stress at work? We hear the same gobbledy-gook from many of our brothers and sisters who are among the very ones who issue the loudest laments concerning America's demise into relativism.
A number of historians have argued that this pragmatic orientation that has undermined a belief in absolute truth has actually been fostered, ironically, by the same community that laments its effects most today. Richard Hofstadter, for instance, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, argues that it was the shift in American Christianity from truth to pragmatism that led to changes in the larger secular culture. Mark Hofstadter's description: "The feeling that ideas should above all be made to work, the disdain for doctrine and for refinements in ideas, the subordination of men of ideas to men of emotional power or manipulative skill are hardly innovations of the 20th century; they are inheritances from American Protestantism."
We have already seen how evangelist Charles Finney rejected classical Christian beliefs in order to make the Faith more "user-friendly." Salvation is man's accomplishment, Finney said, not a gift of God. "It is simply the philosophical result of the right use of means." Finney also wrote that the only justification for a particular method was "its usefulness for converting sinners." On the revival frontier, it was not truth, but experience, that mattered most; not the objective content of the Gospel, but the practical techniques that would guarantee results. As D. L. Moody expressed it, "It makes no difference how you get a man to God, provided you get him there." By the turn-of-the century, evangelist Billy Sunday was claiming that he was the most efficient evangelist around, guaranteeing results at $2 per soul. There's no business like soul business in America.
So the institutional church, with its creeds and liturgies, its doctrines and sacraments, was now considered by many evangelists to be ill-equipped to meet the demands of a new era of pragmatism. If churches were going to stay in business, they would have to adapt the principles of corporate America, including sophisticated marketing. And yet, it is usually secular observers who point out the dangers ahead these days. The prestigious research group Oxford Analytica predicts, "As American religion is exploited for its functional usefulness, it will be vulnerable to deformation, involving a subtler change than the virtual collapse of European religion." Even as pragmatic forms of evangelicalism and pentecostalism are winning millions of adherents around the world, one wonders how much of it will still be Christian by the time we're finished. Our Lord reminds us that it is possible to gain the whole world and to lose our soul. It is this pragmatism that guides the ministry of someone like Robert Schuller, who defends New Age meditation on no other ground than this: "Don't try to understand it. Just start to enjoy it! It's true. It works. I tried it."
Just imagine a first-century Christian hearing an average "testimony" in a modern church. Here's someone who has lost his job and has been imprisoned for believing that Jesus Christ is the only Savior and King. He may also be fed to lions or turned into a lamp for Nero's garden. And this first-century believer is sitting in one of our meetings listening to a well-meaning brother or sister saying something along these lines: "Since Jesus came into my heart, it's been one blessing after another. I got a new job and I've claimed prosperity and healing in all areas of my life. It fixed my marriage and made me feel good about myself for the first time in my life. So what do you have to lose? Try God! Give Jesus a chance! He'll turn your scars into stars and your sorrows into stepping stones." How do you think your first-century Christian friend would react to such a display of uniquely American religious pragmatism?
We do not find a single instance of conversion in the New Testament based on the usefulness of Christianity vs. other religions. Instead, the issue is always objective truth. Either Jesus did or did not rise from the dead. Either he was God incarnate saving sinners by his life and death, or he was a deluded impostor. So what if it "works" for you! Mormonism has worked for millions, as have other cults, sects and non-Christian religions. False religion is very good for people in this life, but the end thereof is death. And yet, it was in more than one church and on more than one occasion that I heard the preacher offer this familiar apology for Christianity just prior to the invitation to receive Christ: "You know, even if Christianity is not true and it's the biggest lie ever told, have you lost anything by following Christ? Why, you will have lived a happier, cleaner, safer, and more meaningful life than you would have otherwise!" This "you've-got-nothing-to-lose" defense of the faith falls short of St. Paul's assertion that "If Christ is not risen, our faith is in vain....If we have only been able to trust Christ in this life, we are of all men the most to be pitied" (1 Cor.15:18). The Apostle, for one, saw the validation for Christianity in the truth of the Resurrection as a historical fact, not in the utility of Christianity for living a jollier and fuller life.
"Have I Got a God For You..."
19th century American money-mogul Andrew Carnegie once said, "The business of America is business." It is that entrepreneurial spirit that has brought unparalleled wealth and offered almost limitless opportunities for anyone, regardless of station, education, race, creed, or circumstances of birth. In America, newlyweds look forward to starting a small business, while parents hope that their children will be even better off. This "American Dream" works for a lot of people--not for everybody, of course--but for enough people that it has not only become a political and economic cry, but has increasingly shaped the whole American character.
Historian Jackson Lears reports that "to thrive and spread, a consumer culture required more than a national apparatus of marketing and distribution; it also needed a favorable moral climate." In other words, part of the success of America's fabulous selling machine is due to the spiritual and moral world in which it was born. Before we salute ourselves for giving birth to American success, let's not forget what Lears is saying here. It's one thing to have consumers, and quite another to live in a consumer-culture. The factors that made America a great producer nation--thrift, savings, industry, traits that are often identified as the so-called Protestant work ethic--were increasingly undermined not only by the revivalism that undercut sound theology, but by the emerging forces of the modern world.
Instead of producers, Americans became consumers. Leading the world in new products and services, we now have become the largest debtor-nation in the world. And where are we spending all this money? On entertainment, goods and services, that offer therapeutic satisfaction. That's why New York University professor Neil Postman says Americans are amusing themselves to death, and that includes religion.
In fact, religion is often the first package to be marketed. That's the way it was even in the very beginning. Do you remember Eve's rationale for eating the forbidden fruit? "When she saw that the tree was beautiful to the eyes and desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate." In other words, the packaging was all there. It was attractive and it promised something that Eve thought she simply couldn't live without. In fact, denying herself this treasure was so unthinkable that she would even risk her soul.
Today, however, this religion is called "appealing to felt needs." The assumption is that we are born into this world consumers rather than enemies of God. After all, doesn't the bumper sticker say, "Born to shop"? So and essential part of the American religion that is now exported around the world is religious consumerism. We see this especially at home, where we talk about being church families, but watch people join and leave about as if it were a health club. Most don't even join, but that's OK, we're told, because that's just the way Boomers are. Our mammas told us we'd better shop around.
And now, we consume everything. As David Wells has observed, we consume relationships, we consume our experiences, and we even consume God. Instead of losing our religion, perhaps our lead song could be, "Consuming my religion." And this is an important difference, for to approach God as sinners in need of reconciliation is quite different from approaching him as consumers in need of a new product. Having been raised in mainstream conservative Christianity in America, I recall countless testimonies from people who had either been just converted or had rededicated their lives after wandering for a while. Not unlike a diet plan, there were the "before" and "after" shots of the person. Before, they used to do bad things, but now they do good things. Before, they used to be unhappy, but now they are happy in Jesus. Before, they were in debt and unemployed, but now they are successful in life.
Now please hear what I'm saying and not saying. I'm not saying that we should ignore the wonderful promises in Scripture guaranteeing new life in Christ. Nor am I saying that this new life that often secures many wonderful immediate changes in one's outlook, attitude, and lifestyle should not be explained to unbelievers as a great benefit of Christ's atoning death. Many addicted to drugs and alcohol have been released from even the temptation to go back to their slavery; many have been so suddenly converted that they immediately lost a desire for promiscuous relationships and found a wife for life. These examples ought to be occasions for great joy, but in a consumer culture, they become commercials for a product rather than examples of God's saving grace.
What happens when the marriage that you expected to be fixed by becoming a Christian falls apart? What happens when, after an initial three weeks of blissful relief, you find yourself on the streets again looking for a fix or in your room cradling a bottle of cheap bourbon you've just emptied? Well, we know what happens when products don't satisfy our consumer demands. We find another one. Bumper stickers like, "Try God" or "Give Jesus A Chance" sound like the money-back guarantee on a tube of tooth-paste: "And if you're teeth aren't whiter and brighter, simply return the unused portion for a full refund." And in America especially, where we are pampered by goods and services that appeal to our selfishness and greed, we are very good at coming up with the most trivial problems and treating them as if they were the end of the world. My worst problem I face is not that I'm having a "bad hair day."
You see, all of this fails to come to grips with the reality of our problem and God's solution. In other words, it's impossible to have the biblical Gospel if we are looking for answers to problems that somehow are more important than the one addressed by that Gospel announcement. If our greatest problem is a lack of fulfillment or self-esteem, broken relationships, child-rearing, national morality, then the Gospel can only be an answer to these felt needs. But if our greatest problem is that we are enemies of God from birth, helpless to save ourselves, stripped of all righteousness and covered with guilt from top to bottom, and under God's eternal wrath, the Gospel finally makes sense. The bad news may be worse than we ever imagined, but the good news is that much better. Our felt needs, you see, our consumer needs, are utterly trivial. If God said, "OK, I'll fix 3 things in your life. Tell me your 3 wishes," we'd undoubtedly pick the dumbest things. Our felt needs are shaped by our sinful nature, but God demands the right to tell us what our real needs are.
Our real issue is that we are sinners in need of God's favor, not that we are consumers in need of a new product.
The Cleaning of America: Legalism
As we've been considering the American Religion, we've been seeing the contrast with Reformation Christianity. The pragmatism, consumer and marketing orientation; the individualism and mysticism of the American Religion is diametrically opposed to a biblical religion that is centered on objective, historical, redemptive facts that concern a certain Jewish rabbi who rose from the dead. It behooves us therefore, to take a look at another feature of the American Religion that continues to be somewhat controversial in Christian circles: The legalistic tendency.
First, we ought to define legalism. It can usually mean one of two things: either the confusion of the Gospel with the Law, as though justification could be obtained by works. But there is another form of legalism. It occurs when justification is clearly affirmed in theory, but denied in practice; when non-biblical taboos are made measures of genuine faith and godliness. While this type of legalism isn't quite as bad as the former, it's bad enough. It isn't enough to believe in justification while denying Christian liberty. That's why Calvin called the believer's liberty in "things indifferent" "an appendix to justification."
God hates legalism of either type. Throughout the OT, he condemns adding to his Word. In fact, the first act of disobedience in Eden was not Eve's biting into the forbidden fruit, but was her addition to God's Word. Satan wanted Eve to feel hemmed in by God so that she would conclude that God was a harsh tyrant against whom one ought to rebel. Legalism and lawlessness go hand-in-hand. That's why scores of psychological studies have found that people raised in legalistic backgrounds end up having the highest percentage of alcoholism, sexual promiscuity and related obsessions.
Jesus was an enemy of legalism, too. "To what then can I compare this generation?", Jesus asked, "and what are they like?" "For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, 'He has a demon.' The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, 'Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!" (Lk.7:31-33). He pronounced a curse on the Pharisees who, he said, "tie men down with burdens they cannot bear." "Your teachings are nothing more than the rules of men," he charged.
Throughout the Middle Ages the church was forever improving on Scripture, adding prohibitions to the list. If you really wanted to be a holy, victorious Christian, the only life was that of a monk. Escaping the world, the monk thought he had therefore escaped sin. With a low view of sin, of course, that misunderstanding is quite sensible. If sin is one's environment, and not the evil that clings to the heart of the best Christian, there are two choices: either separate from the world and build a Christian subculture or attempt to turn the secular society into a monastery.
When the Reformers came with God's true Law, suddenly there was a new sense of what sin really was and that it was a condition into which all people were born and from which they never were wholly free in this life. But that's where the Gospel came in. Restoring the free grace of God to its apostolic lustre, the Reformation revolutionized the believer's view of himself and his place in the world. Now, Christians were free again to pursue their secular callings and to participate positively in this world.
Maybe that's why the Reformers and the Puritans after them took Christian liberty so seriously. They knew that it cost God the life of his Son and such gifts were not to be so easily despised by people who think they are wiser or more spiritual than God himself. Liberty meant not only that Christians were free to use God's gifts of creation, but that they were also free to abstain if they chose.
In the American Religion, however, Christian liberty has once again been set aside in favor of man-made taboos. Even many Christians today who would say that the Bible is not very clear on issues that it labors to make plain place a great deal of emphasis on things that are not found in Scripture at all. They will say, "I only believe the Bible," but they will separate from their brothers or hold them in contempt as second-class Christians if they seem them participate in worldly activities that they deem sinful apart from any biblical warrant. In fact, they will insist upon these positions in spite of the fact that God commends these gifts to his people and our Lord freely indulged in them himself. Like the medieval monks, these brothers and sisters will either bury themselves in an evangelical subculture or attempt to turn the whole society into their idea of a Christian Nation.
This was actually attempted in the last century. We've been focusing quite a bit on the last century because that's where the seeds of our destruction in all the areas we've been considering were sown. And once more our story takes us back to that famous evangelist, Charles Finney, who said that the chief object of conversion was to create a new breed of social reformers and that the main mission of the church was to be a source of moral reform in the nation.
Finney was a founding father of Prohibitionism--that is, the movement to outlaw alcohol. The last century was teaming with pragmatic social reformers like Finney who wanted to make sure Americans were eating, drinking and doing the right things. The Cumberland Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church was excommunicated for embracing Finney's message. Soon they adopted the slogan, "Save America to save the world," and with that came a platform against the use of liquor, tobacco, dancing, gambling, and card playing. In fact, coffee and tea were added to the list of many of these groups and many of the sects that broke off of biblical Christianity at this time--such as the Adventists and Mormons--made these lists officially binding. Kellogg and Graham, famous for their cereals and crackers, were among Finney's flank of moral dietitians. The Finneyite philanthropist Arthur Tappan offered churches up to $1,000 for adopting a position that made one's support of prohibition a condition of receiving Communion and additional money to churches that promised to discipline members involved in "the use, traffic or manufacture of ardent spirits" (Cross, p. 213). If you can't beat 'em, buy 'em.
Then, when we come to the fundamentalist-modernist fight in the 1920s, we see the hand of Finney in both groups. It was the modernists who first championed Prohibition. While they were down-playing doctrine and uniting to form a Christian coalition to save America, the modernists had pushed Christ into the background.
J. Gresham Machen, Princeton professor and founder of Westminster Seminary, stood almost alone, defending orthodox Christian truth against the legalism of fundamentalists and modernists alike. According to D. G. Hart, Machen "bristled under mainstream Protestantism's moral code, rejected its cheery estimate of human nature and the universe, and opposed its bid to Christianize American society" (p.8). Charles Eerdman, who would oppose Machen, was an ardent defender of Prohibition on the grounds of the Bible's principles of "personal hygiene." "The Bible," he said, "is, in fact, the first great book of hygiene, and should be read, at times, with this feature in view." He declared, "World-wide prohibition would make for the world-wide proclamation of the Gospel of Christ." Attacking the orthodox Calvinists, Macartney sneered, "The object of your association is bad enough, but that it should be carried out under the guise of defending human liberty is unspeakable. What is the 'personal liberty' of dress suit cynics and club loungers compared with the peace and happiness of the great number of the people?" Machen was broken-hearted as he saw so many of his former friends grow increasingly murky on doctrine while they became increasingly strident on legalistic morality. Notice the two religions at work here again: Biblical Christianity always worries that the worst thing that can befall the world is for the church to stop preaching the Cross as God's way of saving sinners; but the American Religion always worries that the worst thing is for the church to stop preaching morality as God's way of Christianizing the nation.
Not everybody, of course, liked these ambitious plans. Among the critics were Lutherans and Calvinists like Machen who enjoyed their adult beverages and tobacco. In fact, while they abhorred excess, the Puritans received these as tokens of God's liberal graciousness to his covenant people. But far more important than the gifts themselves was the principle at stake, the principle of Christian liberty.
There is no way of getting around it: The American Religion is not Christianity. I'm not saying that Reformation Christians are the only people we'll see in Heaven, but I am saying that the American Religion is sub-Christian in many of the facets we've been considering over these past several weeks. And there's a common thread running through it all: Man-centeredness instead of God-centeredness; a theology of glory rather than a theology of the Cross; moralism instead of Christ; sentimentalism and pragmatism instead of the Gospel; marketing instead of truth. From Charles Finney to Robert Schuller, the American Religion is a false religion and represents departures from the Faith that, in some ways, make Rome look almost attractive. May God grant us the grace to discern and the courage to stand against this tide.
Founder of "The Young Reformers League," Martin Neimoller struggled with the "Germanization" of Christianity in his church during the time just before the second world war. Eventually, he would become Adolph Hitler's own "personal prisoner."
Writing from his prison camp in Dachau, Neimoller explains: "I did not fight [merely] for the Lutheran theologumena but for the church of our Lord Jesus Christ, for the attacks today are not [merely] against Luther; and if Calvinism is decried nowadays, then it is not Calvin who is meant but the Lord Jesus Christ." Apparently the God of Luther and Calvin was just too big to be Hitler's mascot. But Neimoller goes on to ask, "Will the salt lose its savor? This is our real question. Will the evangelical church become a German church? Will the Gospel of Christ become the Gospel of Germany?" This is the question we must ask in our own day. Has the salt of the American church lost its savor? God grant us the grace to answer that question aright.