In recent days, I watched in amazement as our television screens daily broadcast images of civil unrest, the pulling down of statues, not to mention our unparalleled political upheaval. More than once, I turned to my wife after watching a newscast and said, “America, as we have known it, is gone forever.” While I am well aware of the resiliency of the American people, it seems we have crossed a line in which there is no return. God only knows.
At the same time, witnessing all of this increases my hope for the future. How you may ask, can I be hopeful while watching the greatest nation in human history dissolve before us? It is because of something Reformed apologist Francis Schaeffer wrote over fifty years ago that I recently called to mind. It was so helpful I have never forgotten it. In writing about our nation, he said America was built on three impoverished values—personal peace, affluence, and cultural Christianity. The first two are not difficult to understand, and many preachers and commentators of the social scene have addressed it.
He went on to define each one this way. By personal peace, Schaeffer meant that as long as my family is safe at night behind lock and key, that’s all that matters. Affluence is the belief that the size of our bank accounts determines the quality of our lives. While this nation has given us the most affluent lifestyle the world has ever known, we have paid for it dearly. Perhaps this is best understood by the classic American bumper sticker—‘he who dies with the most toys wins.’
We can understand how these first two represent impoverished values but are perhaps surprised by his choice of the third—cultural Christianity. What did Schaeffer mean by that? When he spoke of cultural Christianity, he was not referring to radical, biblical Christianity, which shook the Roman Empire and shaped the West. Rather, Schaeffer referred to a form of Christianity that emerged over the last two hundred years, which left a moral veneer, yet without transforming lives. Perhaps the apostle Paul said it best when warning his spiritual son Timothy to watch out for those who have a “form of godliness but deny the power thereof” (2 Tim. 3:5).
How did it happen that cultural Christianity replaced biblical Christianity in America? Schaefer likened it to a frog suddenly plunged into a pot of boiling water. What will the frog do? It will immediately jump out of the pot to protect itself. But what happens if someone places the same frog in a pot of cold water and the heat gradually increases? The frog will eventually die, unaware of the slowly changing environment. That precisely describes what Satan did in America.
Realizing he could not stop the power of the Gospel from transforming lives, he Christianized the culture so that people slowly believed that being in a Christian culture was the same thing as being a follower of Jesus. In other words, the culture, due to Christian influence, made people nice, which became synonymous with being transformed by the Gospel. As long as people believed in hard work, staying true to your word, and avoiding sexual promiscuity, they were considered Christians.
It is not difficult to see why this also is an impoverished value upon which we built our country. As long as people believe that they’re generally good and that they should avoid the coarser sins, they are cultural Christians rather than biblical disciples. And that is why the dissolution of cultural Christianity is a good thing in the long run (though difficult to endure while it is occurring). It removes the gray area so that people cannot hide behind the thin veneer of morality and human goodness. They must face the stringent demands of Jesus Christ who said “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Matthew 6:24).
As previously stated, the dissolution of cultural Christianity is a good thing, but painful to undergo since it means losing those benefits living in a culture influenced by the Judo/Christian/ ethic provided. Take, for example, the benefits to the nuclear family, which accrued to Westerners living in a culture shaped by Christian ethics. While it didn’t produce radical Biblical disciples, it did provide a certain stability that protected the nuclear family. Children have grown up in stable homes with both mothers and fathers present, contributing to a stable society.
But the steady demise over the last fifty years of cultural Christianity has meant the loss of the nuclear family as the most important means of producing emotionally well-balanced persons. And with its demise, all types of social ills have arisen, such as increased rates of crimes by juveniles growing up without a father at home (studies have shown that fatherless boys are most likely to commit crimes than boys who grew up in two-parent homes).
Why then am I hopeful in the face of the dissolution of cultural Christianity? I recently remarked to someone that the only other time I can recall like these days is the Anti-War protests of the Sixties. That also was a time when an entire generation dropped out, rebelling against many of the mores of cultural Christianity. These circumstances prefaced a mighty outpouring of the Spirit, now known as the Jesus Movement when God drew thousands of young people into the kingdom of God. Perhaps our present demise will also be the basis for another wave of God’s Spirit to deliver us from being mere cultural Christians to become radical disciples of the Lamb of God.
Buckle your seatbelts because it’s going to get a lot worse as many of the institutions we trusted crumble before our eyes. But our hope is in the God who always is at work in the midst of chaos, raising up a people who know their God and do exploits.