They Say Christians Are Trying to Impose Their Values
By John T Galloway, Jr
[Dr. John T. Galloway Jr. is Pastor of the Wayne Presbyterian Church in Wayne, Pennsylvania. He delivered this address to a recent meeting of the directors of Religion in American Life who subsequently published it in their journal, Religion in American Life. It is presented here on the recommendation of Dr. Jimmy Allen and with Dr. Galloway's permission.]
Having been in the Presbyterian ministry for 30 years, I have had to proclaim the Christian faith in the face of society's criticism of religion in general and my faith community in particular. Along the way, I have tried to sort out what the criticisms mean, and to discern how one might best respond. I premise today's remarks on three assumptions I have come to accept over these three decades.
First. Much criticism of religion is born of ignorance and fear. It is born of a defensiveness over the inevitable challenge religion poses to people's lives. Criticism is sometimes a weapon people use to advance their political position in opposition to persons with whom they disagree who happen to be religious. In other words, the first, and perhaps the least important, assumption is that much of the criticism is ill-conceived.
Second. Nonetheless criticism can be appropriated into the thought categories of our faith community as a valid judgment that we have strayed from the teachings or example of our religion. Criticism can even be perceived as the voice of our deity calling us to mend our ways. Please note that assumptions one and two are not mutually exclusive. Very often the bigot offers uncannily insightful criticism.
Third. We in the religious community very often muddy the situation by losing the substance of our faith when we get into the public square. Ironically, this loss is particularly apparent when we try to defend our religion against its critics. We tend to behave in counterproductive ways that give our critics more ammunition and more credence.
In our time together I would like to run these assumptions through one fundamental criticism of my own faith community, the Christian church. The criticism I hold up today is the complaint that Christians are trying to impose their values on everybody else. "You've got to keep an eye on those Christians. They are trying to impose values."
Such a criticism is born of a fear that is not without foundation. Some surveys indicate that as many as 87% of the American public claims to be related in some way to Christianity. When you consider that 43% of those who voted in 1992 elected the President of the United States, you can sense that the Christian presence in this land is a significant one. Further, even older baby-boomers can remember the era of explicit Christian imposition when children of all faiths were asked to recite at the beginning of the public school day a prayer taught by Jesus. Growing up in Pennsylvania, I can remember when baseball games played by the Philadelphia Athletics or Philadelphia Phillies would be suspended late in the afternoon on Sunday so that Christians could go to worship. And of course history teaches us the sad lesson that the times of Christian institutional dominance have also been times when institutionalized racism and sexism and anti-Semitism flourished. Christians have not only tended to pass by on the other side of the street rather than work for justice, the church has often blessed the injustice itself. Add the fact that Christians have the maddening habit of entering the public square in the spirit of John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd in the movie "The Blues Brothers." "We're on a mission from God." Because we Christians almost by definition see ourselves as on a mission from God, some of us compromise with no one on anything. Some of our faith act smugly and belligerently and condescendingly above the fray. Now understand that Christians are by no means the only arrogantly uncompromising citizens in the land. Nonetheless, taken as a whole, this last paragraph highlights ample reason for concern about Christians. To the thought that Christians are trying to impose their values, society has a negative visceral reaction that is not without foundation.
Having said that, however, one wonders if perhaps the concern isn't somewhat overdrawn. I say this for three reasons. First, the Christian community itself is hopelessly divided on the major hot button issues of the day. When we wrestle with these issues in my own Presbyterian denomination, I often do not know in advance how the vote will turn out. My own congregation is divided on a number of today's controversies, and indeed, Christian families do not agree. Many an argument can be heard at the breakfast table in a Christian home. Wife, husband and children find themselves on opposite sides of the fence. Before "Onward Christian Soldiers" was removed from our hymnal, we stood in worship and belted the lines:
"We are not divided, All one body we,
One in hope and doctrine, One in charity."
But we are divided. We are not one body. Our hope, our doctrine, our charity are splintered and competing.
As a net result, we find the Christian Right aligning itself with non-Christian groups who share their views, trying to elect persons to office who will pass laws that can be imposed on the Christian and non-Christian Center and Left. At the same time we can witness the Christian Left aligning itself with non-Christian groups with whom it agrees, trying to get court cases decided in their favor so that their value system can be imposed on the Christian and non-Christian Center and Right. An apt description of the present scene would say that Christians are struggling against Christians to impose their values on each other. What we cannot say is that Christians, as Christians, are united in trying to impose Christian values on the rest of society.
A second thought as to why the charge is overdrawn is that Christians, as Christians, do not have the means of imposition. In our society the means of imposition are constitutionally structured and consumer driven. There are constitutional channels. Congress makes laws. Local and state governments, town councils and school boards make decisions within the law. The public elects representatives who appoint judges to interpret the law. The constitutionally based processes are clear and they work their way.
At the same time, we are a consumer driven population. When advocacy groups take on business or the media, officers of the corporation or network argue that there is little they can do. Harkening back to Adam Smith, they blame it all on an invisible hand which today is the buying habits of the consumer public. If even for lofty motives one produces what the public will not buy, he or she goes out of business. If even for questionable motives one produces what they will buy, the person makes money. "We do not impose on them. The consumer market imposes on us." While such an argument is a cop-out and self-serving smoke screen, we can at least admit the business and media leaders have one valid point. The consumer public has a mind of its own, which will accept or reject whatever it wants. Such is life in America.
Within such a setting and within the limits religious bodies accept as a trade-off for tax-exempt status, Christians can try to influence the electorate and the market place the same as anyone else. But, truth be known, our influence even within our own organization is waning. I preached a sermon in Pittsburgh, suggesting that the members of our church not take their children to soccer games on Sunday morning. No one seems to have listened. I suggested that parishioners not run in the Pittsburgh Marathon which was held on a Sunday morning. I urged members not to walk or run in the various charity activities that go on opposite worship on Sunday mornings. One man in the church who was trying to make up his mind what to do said, "Well, if Galloway's gonna try to tell me not to do it, I'm doing it just to show him. "
Christians have a voice. But in a constitutionally structured, consumer driven society where "do your own thing" is our mantra, the effectiveness of Christians' efforts to influence is minimal. The means of imposition are certainly not ours to control.
A third reason why the critique that Christians are trying to impose values could be called overdrawn is that believers are only doing what other groups are doing. Christian voices are heard on both sides of the culture war. In such a situation, the charge that Christians are trying to impose their values is quite unfair. After all, who isn't trying to impose values in the culture war? As James Davison Hunter writes, "The cultural conflict is ultimately about the struggle for domination." Christians seem to be singled out for using inappropriate tactics. But who doesn't stoop to them these days? It is said that Christians resort to boycotts and economic pressures. But who doesn't? And why not? It is said that Right-wing Christians are trying to get stealth candidates elected to school boards. But given the image makers and poll-following spin doctors, a certain co-efficient of stealth sneaks into almost all of our elections. It is unfair to single out Christians for merely doing what everyone is doing.
But does that not point to how pathetic we have let ourselves become? The Christian church in the public square has lost its spiritual integrity. Our critics are calling us to a higher standard of excellence than that to which we call ourselves. The critics are calling us to a more excellent way.
Though fear drives many critics of Christianity, the real problem in American society is not that Christians are dangerous, but that Christians are not dangerous enough. The problem is not that we are a threat to the society, but that we are not enough of a threat. We have blended. We have lost our prophetic witness by becoming just one more interest group in the socio-political landscape. Alas, our ultimate defense against the charge of trying to impose our values is to confess that to win in the public square we have sold our souls and become toothless tigers. Instead of being a prophetic threat to culture's shenanigans, we become merely practitioners of the shenanigans themselves.
To illustrate how we Christians have lost our teeth, I hold up five temptations to which we have yielded in the public square. Before listing them, permit me an illustration to provide a backdrop for what follows. Robert McCracken was for years the gifted preacher at the Riverside Church here in Manhattan. In one of his books he has this story:
Do you recall the ground on which Gandhi criticized organized Christianity? His complaint was not directed at the Christian ideal-for the Sermon on the Mount he professed admiration again and again-but at the failure of Christians to put it into operation and at their refusal to take it seriously. Stanley Jones once said to him: "Mahatma Gandhi, I am very anxious to see Christianity nationalized in India, so that it shall no longer be a foreign thing identified with a foreign people and a foreign government, but a part of the national life of India and contributing its power to India's uplift and redemption. What would you suggest that we do to make that possible?" This was the reply: "I would suggest, first, that all of you Christians must begin to live more like Jesus Christ. Second, I would suggest that you must practice your religion without adulterating or toning it down. Third, I would suggest that you must put your emphasis upon love, for love is the centre and soul of Christianity."2
As we consider the following five temptations, I suggest we do so in the light of Gandhi's wisdom. Our concern must be less about nationalizing Christianity and more about following Jesus.
First. We Christians have yielded to the temptation to worship a political position, rather than worship the Lord. My father served for twenty-five years the church that I now serve. In an election year some time ago he preached a series of sermons on the campaign, even going so far as to endorse a particular candidate. He came out for the Republican nominee, while speaking against the Democratic nominee. This Main Line Philadelphia congregation was a well known Republican Mecca. My father was hailed as a hero. He was applauded for his relevance, for his prophetic voice, for his courage in bringing the truth to the pulpit - "Keep it up, preacher!" Unfortunately, he took that advise to heart. Four years later he delivered another series of sermons, following much the same model. Again he endorsed a candidate for President. But this time it happened to be the Democratic nominee. Same church, same congregation, same style of sermon series - people left the church. There was hate mail. There were threatening phone calls. People said, "Stick to religion. Quit trying to impose your views on the rest of us. Stop meddling in politics." Later in his life he regretted both series of sermons. But not before a lesson had been learned. Church people do not so much have a theology as they have a politics. "If you agree with my politics, go for it; preach it." "If you disagree with my politics, stick to religion; stay out of my life."
In recent years, one would have thought that the Christian Right has rarely had more kindred spirits in the White House than either Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton. One would have thought that, if faith in Jesus Christ were one's driving reality, a church attending, born-again President would be the goal. Having a believer in the Oval Office would be a wonderful moment. Where political disagreement arose, Christian political opponents would modify their barbs. One would expect to hear: "Brother in Christ, I disagree with you on certain political issues. For that reason, I cannot vote for you. But I accept you as my brother in Christ." That I do not hear such rhetoric as normative exposes the duplicity of the Christian Right. Instead, both Carter and Clinton have been demonized by fellow Christians. They have been drummed out of the corps, and heaven help anyone who wants to be called a Christian who dares support or associate with either man. Clearly the barrier at the gate, the criterion for admission to the faith community has more to do with politics than faith.
John Chrysostom was a great preacher in the early church. He once said that the essence of sin is the confusion of means and ends. Today Christians on both sides of the political spectrum have been exposed in the public square as worshipping the end of politics. Politics is the goal. Jesus and religious rhetoric are merely a means to get us there. And the substance of our witness is lost.
Second. We have yielded to the temptation to put the wrong issues at the foundation of our witness. We resemble characters in George Buttrick's great illustration of the slave ship. While human beings were dying amid deplorable conditions in the bowels of the ship, the captain was chastising the crew for playing cards on deck. There should not be much argument as to whether Jesus would see a more urgent issue at stake on that ship than card playing.
The Old Testament prophet wrote, "And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God." (Micah 6:8) Jesus introduced his ministry in his hometown by saying, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (Luke 4:18-19) Our issues are to center on justice, feeding the hungry, empowering and enabling the poor, on freedom and healing. I do not read that Jesus ever cared one way or the other whether etchings of the Ten Commandments were hanging on the walls of Caesar's academies. I do not read that Jesus and the disciples fought vigorously to have a creche publicly placed on the porch of Pilate's Palace. I do not read of the disciples or the early church struggling for their rights to live as they wanted to live. Rather, early believers witnessed with courage and put their lives on the line for the betterment of the lives of others. Be wary lest in the public square we give ourselves to the wrong issues, and lose the substance of our witness.
Third. We have yielded to the temptation to negativity. The Old Testament says, "Choose life." (Deuteronomy 30:19) The New Testament quotes Jesus: "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly." (John 10:10) The Biblical message is positive. But negativity is easier. Being negative is not unique to Christians. This is a negative culture. Negative advertising works. Even in our negative culture that is negative about negative advertising, negative advertising works. The problem is not that Christians are pulling down public standards on this one. The problem is that once again we blend.
I was interviewed by a pulpit search committee a few years ago. They were describing who they were. "We're not like that evangelical fundamentalist church down the street." Trying to be affirmative, I responded, "OK, I can appreciate that. You've got your own unique witness..." "Yes, we do," they chimed in. "We've got a unique witness here in this place." I said, "Well, could you tell me a little bit about what you believe and what you do." "We'll tell you who we are. We're not like them." That was all they had to offer. "We are anything that is not like that church." This doing theology by negation is akin to saying that if we can articulate vociferously enough what we are not, maybe by the process of elimination we will discover what we are. Increasingly the voice of religion in the public square has been a voice of negativity and negation, a voice of judgment, a voice of don 'ts instead of do's, a voice of censorship.
The Apostle Paul writes in Romans, "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil (not with anti-evilism), but overcome evil with good." (Romans 12:21) The greatest spiritual crisis in our land is not the presence of evil, but the absence of good. The failure of the Christian community is that in our anti-evilism we have forgotten to offer the good.
Andres Serrano's photographs caused quite a stir when they were put on display. A national debate exploded when it was learned the work received federal funds. The most controversial photograph was entitled, "Piss Christ." The picture shows a plastic crucifix submerged in a container of urine, presumably that of the artist. Understandably Christians were offended. Understandably there have been attempts to censor the work. Christian outrage is natural. But we need to be wary lest we lose perspective and lapse into lazy negativity. After all, if an artist wants to tinkle in a jar and drop a crucifix in it, for whatever hidden meaning, one may question said artist's sensitivity, and one may even wonder if the artist is ready for the ninth grade program. And, if connoisseurs of the arts want to get all gussied up, park their cars and stand in line to look at a photo of a urine specimen with a crucifix in it, one can assume their kids are probably right when they say, "Get a life," - but in the last analysis, it is up to them. I submit to you that the greater offense to the Kingdom of God is when persons take the name of Christ, and call themselves Christ-ians, and put a crucifix up in the front of their sanctuaries, or elevate a cross to the top of their steeples, and then do absolutely nothing to work for justice, do absolutely nothing to feed the hungry, do absolutely nothing to work for the cause of the poor, do absolutely nothing to bring a positive good to the community. That is unbiblical, and that is an offense to our Lord. The greatest spiritual crisis in America today is not the presence of evil. It's the absence of good. We have been exposed as failing miserably on that score, becoming only a voice of judgmental negativity.
Fourth. We have yielded to the temptation to de-humanize. I am sure that anyone who has ever been pastor of a church has had the experience of being confronted by a frantic parishioner, waving a petition to stop Madalyn Murray O'Hair from taking religious broadcasting off the air. The issue is bogus. Representatives have been inundated by mail urging them to block a non-existent bill. Madalyn Murray O'Hair is the atheist whose name has become synonymous with taking prayer out of the public schools. She has indeed made some pretty strong statements. She once said she would like to walk down any street in America and see no cross and no religious symbols anywhere. Needless to say, the churches have not only disagreed with her, but also blamed her for most of our national ills. She has incurred the wrath of the Christian community and paid the price. Across the years she has been the victim of merciless attacks. Her hemophiliac son was beaten severely more than a hundred times. When she tried to intervene, people spit in her face. When she was in the hospital recovery room after major surgery, Christians tried to get the erroneous word to her that her father had died, hoping the shock would kill her. The windows of her home have been broken. Her car has been shot at and vandalized. Someone wrung the neck of her cat. She has received barrels of hate mail. One Christian wrote, "You atheist. You mongrel. You rat. Jesus will fix you, you scum." She has been labeled the most hated woman in America by people who sing, "They'll know we are Christians by our love." I would submit to you that Madalyn Murray O'Hair wins the day, not by getting prayer out of the public schools, but by getting love out of the hearts of the Christians. We have been exposed as becoming a hateful people. Gandhi said, "I would suggest that all of you Christians must begin to live more like Jesus Christ."
And finally, number five. We have yielded to the temptation to be less interested in serving our Lord and more interested in winning the battle. In the culture wars, with hot issues, and Church-State litigation that often pushes Christians aside, the temptation is understandable to want to win one for Jesus.
I want to suggest to you that the greatest power any of us has is the power of authenticity, faithfulness and integrity. When earlier in this address I referred to the fact that the church is not dangerous enough, I was not suggesting that we are called upon to be dangerous in the sense of winning court cases, or elections or acquiring more political clout. That would merely be going along with the competitive values of our culture. No, we become genuinely powerful and dangerous and a threat when we witness to a more excellent way, which is the way of servanthood.
This past Easter many of you may have read of events that took place in the San Diego area. There is a cross on Mount Soledad - public land. Court cases wrestle with whether or not that cross ought to remain. There have been groups in California that have attempted to purchase the land so that the cross will stand on private land beyond the reach of the secular society's attempts to remove it. The issue to which I speak today is that for years ecumenical Christian groups have held an Easter sunrise service at the foot of that cross. But not this year. This year the Atheist Coalition beat them to the punch. The Atheist Coalition went to the town council and got the use permit before the Christians got there. This was absolutely shocking to the Christians. "Why, the very idea of people coming on our turf (it's public land) to do something at the foot of our symbol on our day." An emotional intensity had developed by Easter morning. So, when the atheists gathered there were counter demonstrations. To give you some of the flavor of what happens when winning the day becomes paramount, let me read to you from the San Diego Union-Tribune, Monday, April 8, 1996:
There were hell-fire shouters and serious doubters, men in white robes carrying staffs and women wearing T-shirts that said, "Beware of God." A man, naked except for a loincloth, carried a cross. He was followed by a woman dressed as a bunny.
The dawn of a glorious spring morning drew a truly curious crowd to Mount Soledad yesterday.
An event sponsored by the Atheist Coalition was pre-empting a 73 year tradition of Christian Easter services at the La Jolla landmark, with representatives of both camps gathering before sunrise.
There was a brief moment, though, when the controversy that has had both sides stewing for years seemed to come to a boil.
Just as the sun peaked over the Cuyamaca Mountains, a small group of young men carrying Bibles and singing a religious song pushed their way into the opposite group gathered on an open space 50 yards northwest of the cross.
They interrupted Scott Nailor, a representative of the Atheist Coalition, and began testifying to their conversion from drugs and gangs to Christianity. "It's the blood that sets me free," sang one man as another held the Bible aloft.
There was a bit of shoving on both sides, and Nailor called on the several hundred in attendance to stay cool.
A group of young people from a Christian congregation sang hymns and clapped as goddess worshipers burned sage to cleanse the area, beat drums and warbled in the honor of the life force they revere.
Another man stood guard at the railing circling the cross and said he was willing to die to keep the cross standing. "It's a symbol of purity rising above scum. They have no right to be here on Easter or any time else if they are only here to broadcast sin," he said.
During the remainder of the program, though, a man carrying a banner bearing the words "Atheists, Communists, Socialists, Liberals - Repent!" stood near the podium. He was occasionally accompanied by a leather-suited man holding a placard that read, "God says repeal the motor cycle helmet law."
I do not know if these are the atheists putting us on, or if these are really Christians who have lost it. Sometimes we become so concerned about winning that we lose the substance of our faith. We want to win one for Jesus. We let ourselves become the issue. Witness to our Lord diappears. Our rights, our symbol atop the hill, our presence, our prestige, our prominence, our power, the imposition of our way are the witness we show. Jesus wept over Jerusalem, and I submit, he weeps over what he sees of Christianity in the public square today.
A big brouhaha goes on in California, and many Christians get all worked up. Their cause is to keep the cross on Mount Soledad. But let me tell you Jesus doesn't care. In fact, it would seem to me the Lord is deeply concerned that human energy and resources are being siphoned off to this kind of controversy, rather than being put to the use of housing the homeless, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked. The Lord Jesus is not interested in playing king of the hill. When he went to the hill, it was to teach, "Blessed are the poor in spirit..." "Blessed are the meek..." "Blessed are the peacemakers..." "Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account..." (Matthew 5) When Jesus went to the hill, it was to lay down his life. The Christian community is not called to win at king of the hill. The Christian community is called humbly to serve in the valley.
If you recall from the beginning, my third, and most important assumption, is that too often in the public square we get so caught up in the culture war we lose the integrity of our faith. We blend.
Back on Mount Soledad hill on that Easter morning there was one Christian group that had heard the news that a group of atheists were going to be there. They were concerned that the morning was going to be cool, and that the atheists would have nothing to eat. They stayed up during the night, and they baked hot muffins. They went out among the crowd with trays on that Easter Sunday morning so that the atheists would have something to eat - a Christian Fellowship passing out hot muffins to the gathered atheists at the foot of the cross. As the sun came up over the mountain, and as we see those persons silently going about that act of service, I see a sign of hope.
1 'James Davison Hunter, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (New York: Harper Collins (Basic Books), 1991), p. 52.
2 Robert J. McCracken, Questions People Ask (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951), p. 66, 67.