What Did You Expect?
When evangelical Christianity became a consumer religion focused on heaven as a commodity, it lost its soul. I suppose it might have been inevitable, since American Christianity never got off on the right foot. From the beginning, when it was equated with the Puritan work ethic, American evangelicalism was focused on religion as a transaction. Work hard, and you will receive your just reward.
From there it wasn’t hard to move toward a world in which Christianity became inextricably attached to our consumer culture, peddling heaven as the ultimate prize, purchased by our work ethic, church attendance, tithes, volunteer hours and the sacrifice of our savior to a demanding God.
Given that reality, should we be surprised when American Christianity fails to fight for the underprivileged? Conservative pundits say, “Why should we fight for a group that just won’t pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, like we did.” Of course what “we did” was often accomplished through opportunities not available to others. Turns out if we were white, male, straight, and from the right side of town, reaching for our bootstraps didn’t require much effort.
When the basic focus of religion is to save yourself from hell, your religion will be self-centered. Years ago I asked one of my employers, “What if we all go to heaven?” My employer’s answer was telling, “Then why would I bother being a Christian? What motivation would I have?” I imagine his reply would be more nuanced nowadays, but it would still have the same self-centered essence.
Evangelicalism failed to understand Christianity is a religion of transformation, not transaction. It failed to see Christianity as a way of life, not a system of beliefs. It did not realize Christianity does not exist for itself. It exists for the common good.
I have a unique position from which to understand the impact of this self-centered form of Christianity. I was a white male, unaware of the privilege granted to me by a religion that does not allow women into leadership. I was able to soar in my career, in part because half of the population had been removed from the equation.
Now I am a female who routinely makes her way through the world without being identified as transgender. Privilege remains, but it is noticeably less than what I experienced previously. And if I returned to evangelicalism, it would be worse. I would be denied my greatest joy – preaching. But I am still privileged. I am white, college-educated and live on the right side of town. Plus, I undeniably brought some of my male privilege with me.
But there is one more layer to my reality. When it comes time to look for work, it is necessary for me to reveal I am transgender. A cursory search of the Internet will turn up that information within 10 seconds, so I really have no choice. And that is when my privilege pretty much disappears. The Puritan work ethic will get me absolutely nothing in today’s polarized society. Not many people want a transgender pastor, church consultant or pastoral counselor.
Of course the problem is not just within evangelicalism. It permeates our culture. A white male, well educated, can work hard and become a success. A woman can work harder and still be hindered by a glass ceiling. A transgender person can work as hard as she wants, but not much is going to happen. A transgender person of color does not stand a chance.
American Christianity should be the solution to this problem, but instead it has become one of the major contributors. It begins with the Puritan work ethic, with its white male patriarchal privilege. And in today’s political environment in which rights are being rescinded faster than 45 can tweet, the church’s silence is staggering.
I do wish I could go back and right the wrongs from earlier in my life, when I had the kind of power to bring about change more rapidly than I can bring it about today. But we only know what we know when we know it, and there is little to be gained by denying oneself grace.
I am worried about the evangelical church. I love it so much, but it has moved so far from the message of Jesus that it might not be able to regain its soul. Maybe a new kind of Christian must rise from the ashes, embodying the message of Jesus, that everything begins and ends in love.
And so it goes.