In my engagement with public theology, especially in the American context, it has become clear to me that what many claim as the Gospel of Jesus Christ is something else. For the most part, what many see as the good news is ultimately something that is counter to the true hope of Jesus Christ. It is also a gospel that is cultural in its message and application.
That gospel is an American Gospel. This gospel has its own unique characteristics and definitions that often comes near apostolic faith in Jesus Christ, but often runs counter to the true hopeful message. Instead of proclaiming Jesus Christ, it is a gospel that often props up self over community, the teachings of the Founding Fathers above all else, and political party as the main interpretive tool.
The dangers of the American Gospel are many and the consequences of its message are being felt, I believe, in churches and communities throughout our country. In order to understand these consequences, one must understand what comprises the American Gospel. What follows are what I consider to be characteristics of the American Gospel. These are ideas that are often expressed in churches and theological discussions as being true to faith, but are counter to what God truly desires. This is not a complete list, but a sampling of views that can hinder apostolic faith in Jesus Christ.
Much of the American Gospel, and the American mystique, can be defined by a sense of rugged individualism. The individual is most important. This can be seen in the way many interpret Scripture. As we discussed recently, American individualism leads to seeing the self as the prime focus of interpretation. Instead of seeking God’s will for our lives, we come to Scripture seeking to have our views and desires validated. When this does not happen, we are quick to discount the authority of Scripture and claim it hinders an individual’s needs and desires.
Individualism also runs counter to the sense of community spirit that we see throughout Scripture. Acts 2:42-48 talks about the community of believers sharing life with one another. There is a sense, both in the Old and New Testament, that community is an important value in our relationship with God. We are not called to be isolated on our own, but together in relationships with others. Scripture calls us to recognize our common need for one another.
This runs counter to the American individualistic ideal of “pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.” The bootstraps mentality of many Americans, especially in the church, denies the Holy Spirit any involvement in our lives. Individualism says it is all about our own self, but the Christian message says we need God’s grace through the Holy Spirit to guide and teach us.
Many Americans believe that “being a good person” is the key to entrance into the kingdom of God. If one is a good person they will enter heaven upon their death. This borders on God being Santa Claus and only gives gifts (heaven) to those who are good.
This is a poor theological perspective. It states entrance into the kingdom of God is based not one faith, but good works. It is an element of works righteousness, which believes one earns their entrance into heaven or the kingdom of God based on what they do in this life. Scripture does not affirm works righteousness. We are justified (declared innocent of our sins) not by our works, but by our faith in Jesus Christ. Good works comes as a fruit of our faith in Jesus Christ.
When we claim good works as the primary entrance way to heaven, we make another poor theological argument. We argue that one must be “cleaned up” before they can come to church. In other words, we close the doors to the church to those who “do not have their life together,” because they have not “earned” their place in the kingdom. This is wrong. The church must be open to all, especially to those who are on the outside wondering what is so special about this life. When we claim you must be “right” before you enter, we are denying a key element of evangelism of sharing the message with the poor, the hungry, and the lost.
God is Just Like Me
The American Gospel often says that God looks exactly like us. This goes beyond the mere identification of Jesus as being the ideal of American imagery – long blonde hair and blue eyes. It is an identification that says that God is specifically American and represents the best of American values. It claims God stands for “truth, justice, and the American way.” God becomes an American agent used to promote American ideas and desires. This certainly goes against the global nature of the church and the proclamation that God is above all political definitions, as seen in Jesus’ about paying God what is God’s and Caesar what is Caesar’s.
This also brings up another issue. This idea of God being like us can be seen in our political debates. Many claim God is a Republican and, at the same time, others claim God is a Democrat. Even those who claim that God is of neither party make a claim that God is politically something else. In all of this, we are desiring something. We want God to be aligned with our political worldview and for God to be on our side. This is problematic, because in this our worldview is defined by American ideological perspectives and not by true engagement with Scripture. Our worldview must come from God and not from political definitions.
There are many other issues and characteristics that define the American Gospel. Whatever characteristics are used there are few things that are certain. That is that the application of the American Gospel’s characteristics has major implications on the church. All leaders in the church – from pastors to laity – must take seriously these characteristics and consider what is being taught in their churches.
Is it true faith or is it something less and something that resembles the Federalist Papers instead of Scripture?