Strongholds of the American Way of Life

I have been under the weather today, battling what Jennifer thinks is probably the flu. We got flu shots earlier this year, so hopefully this will be a mild case, and will pass fairly easily.

Being sick means I’ve stuffed my iPod with old radio shows. I’ve been cycling through The Six Shooter (with Jimmy Stewart, in one of his few regular radio roles, and it’s a really good show, populated by the stable of actors who did so much work on Gunsmoke, Fort Laramie, and a few others), Have Gun, Will Travel with the incomparable John Dehner, and Tales of the Texas Rangers, a Dragnet-meets-Gunsmoke series of stories drawn (allegedly) from actual case files taken from the mid-1920s through to the late 1940s.

The quality of the recordings is mixed. The best come directly from Armed Forces Radio, and they also come packed with public service announcements (and bits on military history!). A few deal with the role of religion in American life. I’ve blogged about that before.

Well, this came embedded in an episode of The Six Shooter originally broadcast in January, 1954. So, we’re nearing the high water mark of American Christendom (which I place at around 1960):

Our religious institutions are strongholds of the American way of life. Our country was founded by men who had faith in God and who were will to endure hardship and sacrifice for the sake of that faith. Today, the religious institutions in your community need your interest and support. So, take an active part in religious affairs. Your pastor, rabbi, or priest will give you invaluable family counsel and aid if you are newcomer to the community. To face the problems of the future, America must be morally strong, and that moral strength comes through worship and faith. Go to church this week. And take someone with you.

Again, this is faith as social utility, and entirely for its sociological purpose. And because of that, the focus is on the social utility of believing and belonging — it answers questions, solves problems, and works hand-in-hand with the state to foster meaning, well-being, and purpose — both individual and collective.

I’ve called this faith anodyne and meaningless. Part of me says that maybe I’m not being fair when I write that. Several generations of American Christians got nothing but this faith, and yearn and ache at its loss. It was the faith that guided them, formed them, shaped them, and the end of this faith leaves many lost and anxious about the future. Whether I agree with, or even appreciate that (largely civic) faith — and I don’t — I still need to honor something faithfully and honestly held. I’m certain that this was the belief in God held by some (most?) of my ancestors.

But I still cannot help but critique American Christendom harshly. “Our religious institutions are strongholds of the American way of life.” And that’s the problem. Granted, in 1954, the “American way of life” was seen somewhat differently than it would be when George Bush, pere et fils, sent troops to war to defend it, but this is still some combination of industrial capitalism, mass consumption, mass democracy, and mass society. But the american way of life is not the gospel, no matter what it promises or delivers. The church in America needed to think a little harder than it did when it signed up for this. I’m not sure where supporting and preserving “a way of life,” enviable as it is, is part of our calling as God’s people. (Or, for that matter, being morally strong to face the future.) But I admit, I could be wrong about this.

Intriguing, however, is the call to “[g]o to church this week” and “take someone with you.” Gone are the days when just about anyone, anywhere — much less in national media — would suggest taking a friend (let’s not start with strangers) to church. How many actually followed that call? And what on earth did they find when they got there?