The American Christian Identity

As people all across America get ready for Thanksgiving later this week, I wanted to offer up some thoughts on what is unique about “Christian identity” in America.

Almost two years ago I wrote some critiques of social contract political theory and proposed what I saw as an alternative model.  Still admitting that this is beyond my field of expertise, here’s a summary of what I suggested:

  • The notion that societies are formed by the voluntary association of the members of that society in a contract seems phenomenologically wrong and historically unfounded.  Rather, it seems more historically and phenomenologically correct to say that societies exist because of a shared sense of identity among those who make up that society.
  • This being said, the legitimacy of a government is not based on the “consent of the people” in the sense of popular support so much as it is based on the governments ability to embody (or shape, as the case may be) the shared identity of the society it governs.
  • The role of democratic freedoms in a society is not so much to ensure the legitimacy of the state as to provide a mechanism for moral improvement.  Freedoms like a free press and free elections mean that the state must be open and responsive to external criticism, which then provides a means for the state to grow in its capacity for moral governing.

Now with that said, in the earlier post I also acknowledged that in America the identity around which our society coalesces is bound up in the ideals of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.  I would argue that this doesn’t mean that American society was formed when people voluntarily got together and wrote those two documents.  I think that the idea of an American Society existed long before that and that those documents were written to create a state which embodied what was already the common identity of Americans.  That common identity can be summed up in the ideal of self-determination.

This image was selected as a picture of the we...
Declaration of Independence. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Such an identity has a number of different manifestations, from the often violent rhetoric we have been hearing lately about the seeming atrocity of having an apparent socialist in the White House, to the everyone-for-themselves mentality of American market capitalism, to a particular attitude toward religious affiliation (particularly in the Christian tradition in America), which is what I want to write about in this post.

I have heard a lot of talk in the last several years comparing the American relationship to religion with consumerism.  Americans shop for churches, picking and choosing which music or preacher or architecture or youth programming they want in their particular place of worship.  Americans also feel relatively few qualms about walking away from a church if there is some disagreement or change in their attitude toward a particular congregation.  And Americans (myself included!) feel very free to float from one denomination to another, despite the theological differences that might exist between them.

Contrast this with a different model of religious affiliation.  In that model, a very specific religious identity is bound up with the cultural identity.  For example, to be Greek is to be Greek Orthodox.  Very few people who are not Greek join Greek Orthodox Churches, and while many Greeks may not be practicing Orthodox, the Church is tightly wound up in their culture (see this video of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch swearing in the new Greek Prime Minister).

What I want to argue in this post is that the American way of approaching religious affiliation is exactly in line with the American identity in the same way that Greek Orthodox affiliation makes up part of the Greek Identity.

Dating back to the Puritans there is a notion in the American identity that religion is in some way just as self-determined as government.

The Puritans went to found a colony around their own religious identity, leaving behind the project of reforming the Church of England.  Once in America, they often dealt with “heretics” by sending them away to found new colonies of alternative religious views (including the current day states of Connecticut and Rhode Island).

The default form of church government for most of these early American religious movements was congregationalist, meaning that each individual congregation made decisions about its own finances and leadership, not a higher body.  That influence is seen even in the most hierarchical of churches in America, where lay members or representatives often have a vote at major meetings of local bodies or national denominations.

Certainly the deistic faith of the Founding Fathers was based in a notion of self-determination, reflected in the particular natural rights they felt the creator had endowed humanity with.  And the frontier faith of the developing nation was often left up to the laity of individual communities to forge and shape.

In the present day, I think this has several significant implications for American Christianity:

First, this attitude of self-determination has resulted in the boundaries between Christian denominations in America being very permeable. The attitude among American Christians is generally that what church you belong to is up to you to decide, leading to lots of movement between churches and lots of people in the pews from a variety of different religious backgrounds.

Second, I think this denominational permeability and mixing of backgrounds among people in the pews has led to the formation of three major “clumps” of Christian denominations in America:  Catholic, Mainline Protestant, and Evangelical Protestant.  Within each of those clumps can be found a remarkable degree of similarity in theology and often enough in worship practice (though certainly not complete uniformity).  My experience has been that this often results in a situation where many lay members of Christian denominations have trouble explaining the difference between their denomination and another within the same “clump” but have fairly clear ideas about what makes them different from the other two “clumps.”

Third, I think the culminating effect of all of this is the development of a uniquely American outlook on Christianity.  Even despite the differences between the three major “clumps” of Christian denominations, American Christians are all fairly united by a sense of self-determination about their faith (it is up to the individual to decide where to go to church, for instance) and a unique sense that their faith, whichever brand of Christianity they might choose, is also tied up with their political and cultural allegiances (which are also often seen as self-determined).  The American way of relating to Christianity is, in other words, a part of the broader American identity.

So as we move into the distinctively American holiday of Thanksgiving, followed by the distinctively American tradition of Black Friday, I’m wondering about how much of our faith really is “self-determined” and how much that mindset of self-determination affects the content of our faith.


What do you think? I would love to hear from you, please share your thoughts. Just remember to be respectful of others.

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