Are American Christians Bad Christians?

Following a link provided by dokeo kago grapho soi kratistos Theophilos, I read this article, entitled “The Christian Paradox, How a Faithful Nation Gets Jesus Wrong.” The point of the article appears to be that although America is predominantly Christian, American Christians are bad Christians.

The author of the article, Bill McKibben, is a writer for Mother Jones and appears to be coming from a political rather than a religious perspective. He begins by noting that although many Americans claim to be religious, only about one-third of Americans attend church on a weekly basis. That is a fair enough criticism. I too wish more American “Christians” regularly attended services. But it seems like something of a concession that Christianity has lost, not gained, influence in America. As we will see, however, McKibben nevertheless seems to lay the blame for most of America's ills at American Christianity's doorstep. He never seems to consider the possibility that many of the social ills he identifies may be a result of a lack of American Christianity rather than its presence.

In any event, McKibben sets forth his criteria for what makes someone a real or a good Christian:

Christ was pretty specific about what he had in mind for his followers. What if we chose some simple criterion—say, giving aid to the poorest people—as a reasonable proxy for Christian behavior? After all, in the days before his crucifixion, when Jesus summed up his message for his disciples, he said the way you could tell the righteous from the damned was by whether they’d fed the hungry, slaked the thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, and visited the prisoner. What would we find then?

Here is the scripture to which McKibben refers but does not cite:

Then the King will say to those on His right, 'Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 'For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.' "Then the righteous will answer Him, 'Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? 'And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? 'When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?' The King will answer and say to them, 'Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.' Matthew 25:34-40

I agree that Jesus here is teaching that part of being a Christian is to provide for the poor and the downtrodden. But the core flaw in McKibben’s indictment of American Christians is that he takes Jesus to mean something other than what he said. Jesus said that his followers should give to the poor, but nowhere in the excerpted article does McKibben ever explore how much American Christians are giving. Instead he beats the long dead horse of the American government’s supposedly stingy foreign aid. McKibbens states, “In 2004, as a share of our economy, we ranked second to last, after Italy, among developed countries in government foreign aid.”

There are many flaws in using the relative amount of government foreign aid as an indicia of how Christian are American Christians. The most basic flaw is that government foreign aid does not measure how much money American Christians are giving. In fact, it does not measure how much money any Americans are giving. It only purports to measure how much foreign aid the U.S. government provides.

Of course, many Americans are suspicious of government aid in general, not because they are stingy but because they are skeptical that it is effective. Speaking only for myself, I believe that much foreign aid is funneled to and/or through corrupt and/or incompetent government or NGO entities that do not actually help the people that are intended to be helped. I also think that foreign aid can sometimes have the unintended consequence of discouraging economic development and/or crowding out private charity. I might be empirically wrong about this, but my skepticism is not born out of a lack of charity. Just the opposite in fact.

Furthermore, as mentioned above, it is fallacious to equate supporting a certain level of government giving with personal giving. Jesus told his followers that they were to give to the poor, not that they were to take self-righteous satisfaction in taking other people’s money and giving it to the poor. Confusing the latter with the former seems to run afoul of Jesus’ teachings on giving: “But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.” Matthew 6:3-4.

Remember, as a practical matter, a small minority of Americans pay the vast majority of the taxes. 1% of American wage earners pays over 33% of all taxes. The top 50% of American wage earners pays 97% of the taxes. So, the fact is that there is little if any self-sacrifice on the part of most people advocating greater foreign aid. Even setting aside the effectiveness of government aid versus the effectiveness of charity, the sacrifice and personal involvement of the latter was exactly what Jesus spoke of.

We should also consider that there is persuasive evidence that the more government social spending one supports the less likely one is to give to charity. In a study by a Professor Brooks discussed more fully below, he shows how increased government involvement in social welfare actually can discourage chritable giving. In Europe, it appears to have done just that.

Additionally, measurements of U.S. “foreign aid” are misleading. The fact remains that the United States government gives more money in foreign aid than any other nation. More to the point, private charitable giving in the United States for overseas assistance is double that of U.S. foreign aid. McKibben is dismissive of this fact, but surely this is the point. It is what the Christians themselves that are giving which is the best measurement of their fidelity to Jesus’ teaching. “Most developed countries in Europe lag far behind the United States when it comes to charitable giving by individuals. Philanthropy Magazine reported a German study that found the average American contributing around seven times what the average German contributes.”

Also, the definition of “foreign aid” is underinclusive and especially slanted against real U.S. contrinbutions to combating poverty and international lawlessness. For example, when the tsunami in the Indian Ocean killed hundreds of thousands and left millions homeless and vulnerable, the United States provided the most immediate practical assistance of any nation by sending more than 20,000 soldiers and sailors, including a Naval fleet, to help. That fleet included(s) the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln (a nuclear-powered Nimitz Class aircraft carrier), the hospital ship U.S.S. Mercy, and the U.S.S. Essex (a helicopter aircraft carrier). The U.S. Pacific Command delivered over 24 million pounds of relief supplies, flew almost 4,000 missions including delivery of supplies and damage assessment recon, provided thousands of gallons of drinking water, thousands of tons of food, and medical care for thousands of victims. How much does this assistance add to the off-cited calculations of of U.S. foreign aid? Not a dime. And when the United States under President Clinton’s leadership lead NATO in its military intervention to stop genocide in the former Yugoslavia at a cost of billions, how much of that counted as foreign aid? Not a dime. In fact, whatever one may think of the U.S. intervention in Iraq, the fact is that the U.S. uses its military, at a high cost of treasure and lives, in peacekeeping and nation building efforts throughout the world.

The rest of McKibben's assault on American Christianity is similarly flawed. He claims that America does not care for its needy, but again focuses only on government social welfare programs. The fact is that American Christians are tremendously generous in giving their own money to charities. A study by Professor Arthur Brooks of Syracuse University reveals that 91 percent of religious Americans donated money to charities whereas only 66 percent of secular Americans did so. When it comes to volunteering time for charitable efforts, 67 percent of religious Americans did so and only 44 % of secular Americans did. They also gave more. Average annual giving among the religious is over $2,200, whereas for secular Americans it is less than $650.

When we compare the level of charitable giving in the United States to a more secular country, say Spain, the results are revealing. Spaniards give half as much to charity per capita and volunteer their time 1/5th of the time. And, tellingly, “Spain has the highest level of charitable giving per capita in Western Europe (and has church attendance rates that are among the highest as well).” Yet when the most religious and charitable Western European nation’s charitable giving is compared to that of the United States, there is no contest. American Christians, therefore, are head and shoulders above the rest of the West in their following of Jesus’ teachings on the poor. This is not to say that they give enough, or as much and in the ways that Jesus would like, but it does show the shallowness of McKibben’s assault.

McKibben next claims that America is the most “violent rich nation on earth.” This is oft stated but seldom examined closely. And, of course, McKibben does not show that it is American Christians comitting the crime. And in reality, America’s violent crime rates have declined dramatically while other Western nations are seeing surges in increases in such crimes.

In a 2001 study, the British Home Office (the equivalent of the U.S. Department of Justice) found violent and property crime increased in the late 1990s in every wealthy country except the United States. American property crime rates have been lower than those in Britain, Canada, and France since the early 1990s, and violent crime rates throughout the E.U., Australia, and Canada have recently begun to equal and even surpass those in the United States. Even Sweden, once the epitome of cosmopolitan socialist prosperity, now has a crime victimization rate 20 percent higher than the United States.

Americans, on the other hand, have become much safer. Preliminary 2001 crime statistics from the FBI show America's tenth consecutive year of declines in crime. While our homicide rate is still substantially higher than most in Europe, it has sunk to levels unseen here since the early 1960s. And overall crime rates in this country are now 40 percent below the all-time highs of the early 1970s. In 1973, nearly 60 percent of American households fell victim to property crimes. In 2000 (the most recent data available), only about 20 percent did. Among the economically powerful democracies in the Group of Seven, only the Japanese now have a lower victimization rate than the United States.

Additionally, this argument ignores the fact that America’s increase in violent crime in the 60s and 70s came about as religion was losing ground and secularism increasing. In other words, the less Christian America has become, the more violent it has become.

I do not take seriously the notion that the United States is not a Christian nation because it has a prison population. At most this is related to America’s higher crime rates which we discussed above. I do find it ironic that McKibben snidely refers to having more opportunity to visit prisoners in the U.S., while he completely ignores the fact that there are many American Christians who do just that (most notably, Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship Ministries).

McKibben also brings up the fact that the United States still executes first degree murderers, but he cannot manage to bring up any saying of Jesus forbidding governments from using this form of punishment. Indeed, opposition to capital punishment per se has not been a significant part of Christian teaching. To the contrary, Christians have long recognized that the government is God’s instrument on earth to impose justice on evil doers: “For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.” Romans 13:3-4.

McKibben’s best point is the divorce rate in America. But even here his analysis is lacking. While it is true that the divorce rate in America is higher than most European nations, it is also true that the American marriage rate is much higher than the European one. In Europe, more and more couples simply live together and never get married, whereas in America, some of those couples get married and then divorced. Still, this is one of the greatest areas of hypocrisy in the American church and I do not want to minimize how problematic is the situation.

Finally, McKibben overlooks other areas of Christian morality with which American Christians often concern themselves. American Christians are particularly Pro Life and active in opposing abortion on demand. This is in accord with longstanding Christian advocacy for the unborn. Christians are also active in opposing redefining marriage to include same-sex unions. Christians have also been particuarly active in spreading the word about slavery and civil rights abuses of minorities in Africa. American Christians also strongly oppose anti-Semitism and support the nation of Israel. Nor does he mention Christian efforts to allow for more government support of faith-based initiatives to help the poor and downtrodden. Perhaps McKibben does not mention such efforts because he does not share their political goals. Fair enough, but that is not the issue. These efforts and attitudes are tied to Christian morality and teachings. McKibben cannot bring himself to give any credit to these Christian efforts by American Christians.

All in all, McKibben’s points are the usual shallow ones made to score political points. Which is unfortunate. American Christianity has it faults and certainly has need of reform. It is far from what I am sure Jesus wants it to be. But it is not as far down in the gutter as McKibben would have us believe. Nor is it somehow responsible for the negative effects McKibben highlights. In fact, when it comes to his main argument – the supposed stinginess of American Christians – he stands utterly refuted.

Disclaimer: Any political views expressed are strictly my own and do not reflect those of the Cadre. Specifically, just as I do not think that my skepticism of the efficacy of government social welfare programs is unChristian, I do not think that faith in such programs is unChristian. This is an empirical question, not a spiritual one. Also specifically, I do not mean to imply that some Christians are not prompted by their faith to oppose capital punishment. My point was only that opposition to it is not strongly attested by the history of Christian teaching.


Michael said…
Thanks for your insight. I had used that "Christian Paradox" article as an example of "progressive Christianity" and why it's bad. I updated my post to include your fine rebuttal.

My post is here.
Layman said…
Ships passing in the night. I just left a Comment on your blog before coming here.

Thanks for the mention and substance on McKibben's piece.
Anonymous said…
While I agree where you point out the political motivations of this author, it seems that you are yet unwilling to question your own.

For instance, he may indeed be wrong about the existence a greed particular to American Christians. On the other hand, he is essentially philosophically correct- insofar as materialism in general is grossly incompatible with the teachings of Christ.

It's all well and good to quibble over who gives a dime instead of a nickel; however, ultimately we will, for the most part, be comparatively wealthy men trying to drive our SUVs and giant televisions past tens of thousands of children starving daily in this world, and right on into heaven.

(Myself among them.)
We have been called upon to be humble; to face the fact that none of us gets close to the life that Christ said we must lead in order to be his followers.
With all due respect, I do not find it honest to reduce this into defensive bickering over how many pennies it will take from our relatively sizable fortunes to save our souls.
(Relative to the world that is, and not to the wealthy minorities in Sweden or Germany.)

Furthermore, responses like "well other countries may be becoming as violent as our own" miss the point in much the same way. Should we be striving to cure social ills, or justifying ours by pointing out similar rates elsewhere.

Why are you afraid to take a truly principled stand? Should we be proud of the current state of decadence and inequality?
Layman said…
Let's just say that I think honesty and truth is also a Christian value and we do not try to promote the other ones by sacrificing those two.

McKibbens is trying to prove, apparently, that Christianity in America has made it worse than other countries. I have shown that Christianity in America is responsible for many of America's best features and is not responsible for the ones McKibben's complains about.

I was clear that American Christianity has its ills, and that it is not where it should be. However, I do no not think that because it could be better that you accept every ill-founded criticism someone decides to hurl its way.

Finally, I'm not sure which principled stand I am supposedly not taking. And failing to take a stand is not something of which I am typically accused.

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