The Christian Paradox?

Bill McKibben says that America gets Christianity wrong. In a recent Harper’s essay, “The Christian Paradox” (excerpted here), McKibben argues that though Americans profess Christianity, they do not live out their faith.

McKibben gets much of it right. For example, he observes the rise of biblical illiteracy among Americans:

Only 40 percent of Americans can name more than four of the Ten Commandments, and a scant half can cite any of the four authors of the Gospels. Twelve percent believe Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. This failure to recall the specifics of our Christian heritage may be further evidence of our nation’s educational decline, but it probably doesn’t matter all that much in spiritual or political terms. Here is a statistic that does matter: Three quarters of Americans believe the Bible teaches that “God helps those who help themselves.” That is, three out of four Americans believe that this uber-American idea, a notion at the core of our current individualist politics and culture, which was in fact uttered by Ben Franklin, actually appears in Holy Scripture. The thing is, not only is Franklin’s wisdom not biblical; it’s counter-biblical. Few ideas could be further from the gospel message, with its radical summons to love of neighbor. On this essential matter, most Americans—most American Christians—are simply wrong, as if 75 percent of American scientists believed that Newton proved gravity causes apples to fly up.

McKibben goes on to raise the question of whether or not America really is a Christian nation after all. The assumed answer is no, as “America is simultaneously the most professedly Christian of the developed nations and the least Christian in its behavior.”

The assertions McKibben makes are certainly warranted. The United States as a whole is at best post-Christian, if it could ever truly be considered Christian in the first place—an issue I’ve discussed here before. However, the “paradox” McKibben describes is little more than civil religionism. If America doesn’t hold a common commitment to Christ, it certainly has a common ancestor in the notion that most of its forefathers celebrated Christmas rather than Ramadan.

If McKibben’s essay does anything, I hope it highlights the fact that there is an increasing deficit of knowledge in America as to what biblical Christianity teaches. In an ironic twist, McKibben himself illustrates this point in his idealizations of how a Christian nation should act. He laments the fact that, “having been told to turn the other cheek, we’re the only Western democracy left that executes its citizens, mostly in those states where Christianity is theoretically strongest” — a text (Matthew 5:38-39) having to do with personal vengeance, not state-issued capital punishment.

It’s clear from his ideals that McKibben is writing from a liberal perspective, but it should wake up all Americans to the fact that there are many of us who do not act the way we say that we believe, and vice versa.