How Not to be Christian

Kyle Childress at The Christian Century reviews a book on the history of Christianity in Texas that I really want to read.

Robert Wuthnow’s Rough Country: How Texas Became America’s Most Powerful Bible-Belt State focuses on the harsh land and fairly unforgiving climate (and political position) of early American Texas and how that shaped the way the Christian faith was lived out in what became the Lone Star State.

Sociologist Robert Wuthnow seeks to show how living in such an unforgiving and challenging land has shaped the perspective of its people and especially its religion. This rough country has been observed and experienced and often written about in letters and diaries by the settlers of the Texas frontier; in it, Wuthnow says, “nearly everything is rough: the land is rough, earning a living is rough, the people are rough, even the preachers are rough.” He goes on, “What to make of this roughness, and how to overcome it, are the most basic questions of everyday life.”

The whites who settled Texas — and eventually broke it away from Mexico — lived in almost constant fear. Fear of disorder and chaos caused by slave rebellion, Mexicans, drought, and anything else that might disturb the tenuous order brought to a rough frontier. The Methodist and Baptist flavors of Christianity brought both order and comfort as settlers — and later citizens — made life work in that difficult land.

It was, however, an order brutally imposed. There would no mercy and little kindness. As I saw from my short time in Texas in late 2013, it was a place where not even white people were particularly good to each other.

Alongside and mixed in with the generalized civil religion were the more particular Baptist and Methodist types with emphasis on the spiritual: individual sin and salvation, personal morality and regeneration. And as long as all this religion along with other social institutions were all going in the same direction of civilizing the rough world and fighting evil, liberty of conscience was carefully observed. Clergy kept to preaching on the spiritual life which undergirded the schools, organizations, and institutions that built society. The problem arose when society and the churches felt threatened.

What is interesting is what was considered threatening and what was not. Racism was not. Wuthnow says that from the black perspective, religion gave hope and courage in the face of extraordinary hardship and indescribable violence, but for whites, religion supported the racist status quo. Wuthnow tells shocking stories of lynchings, often witnessed by hundreds, sometimes thousands of local townsfolk, most of whom were active churchgoers. Often the lynchings were privately criticized by clergy, who rarely condemned the actions publicly. Indeed, many white clergy felt that though lynching was regrettable, it served the interest of law and order.

The Texas described here is as odd American creation — deeply individualistic, it is also deeply conformist. Essentially, the individual is free to conform, to make the “right” choices about what to believe and how to live. (Both whites and blacks had this kind of “freedom.”) Any other choices put the individual — and quite possibly the entire community — at risk because they put the social order at risk. And that order guarantees the well-being of the entire community.

Childress writes, “According to Wuthnow, religion was preeminent in affirming the social order and combating evil.” And that is this kind of religion’s problem. It may be one of the great social roles of religion is to organize a community and give it some kind of meaning, but that approach to faith — or that focus on faith — is to make it the foundation of the cruelty used to make a society work under such harsh conditions. It places social order, and the abstract (and alleged) well-being of the many, above the very concrete well-being of individual human beings.

It is also a faith that knows no meaning and can gain no meaning — except the promise of eternal bliss — in failure. If there is a foundational difference between Islam, on the one hand, and Judaism and Christianity on the other, it is that the experience of God’s people in defeat, conquest and exile is contrasted with the initial promises God makes to those people — a land, many descendants, and to be a blessing to the world. Muslims still struggle with finding meaning in defeat and conquest. This isn’t to say Christians and Jews don’t embrace a theology of glory — Christendom and the State of Israel surely presume a God more active in human power and success — but the Bible itself is a lengthy conversation of what it means to be the people of God given a history of defeat. The Qur’an is not.

And the faith of a place like Texas is clearly a faith of glory and power which sees no deep meaning, or no divine presence, in weakness, poverty, and defeat. The people of God triumph by conquering, by ruling, by being rich. Perhaps this makes sense in a harsh land, but it is not the Gospel.