The Christian Paradox
How a faithful nation gets Jesus wrong
Posted on Wednesday, July 27, 2005. What it means to be Christian in America. An excerpt. Originally from August 2005. By Bill McKibben.
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.
Asking Christians what Christ taught isn’t a trick. When we say we are a Christian nation—and, overwhelmingly, we do—it means something. People who go to church absorb lessons there and make real decisions based on those lessons; increasingly, these lessons inform their politics. (One poll found that 11 percent of U.S. churchgoers were urged by their clergy to vote in a particular way in the 2004 election, up from 6 percent in 2000.) When George Bush says that Jesus Christ is his favorite philosopher, he may or may not be sincere, but he is reflecting the sincere beliefs of the vast majority of Americans.
And therein is the paradox. America is simultaneously the most professedly Christian of the developed nations and the least Christian in its behavior. That paradox—more important, perhaps, than the much touted ability of French women to stay thin on a diet of chocolate and cheese—illuminates the hollow at the core of our boastful, careening culture.
Ours is among the most spiritually homogenous rich nations on earth. Depending on which poll you look at and how the question is asked, somewhere around 85 percent of us call ourselves Christian. Israel, by way of comparison, is 77 percent Jewish. It is true that a smaller number of Americans—about 75 percent—claim they actually pray to God on a daily basis, and only 33 percent say they manage to get to church every week. Still, even if that 85 percent overstates actual practice, it clearly represents aspiration. In fact, there is nothing else that unites more than four fifths of America. Every other statistic one can cite about American behavior is essentially also a measure of the behavior of professed Christians. That’s what America is: a place saturated in Christian identity.
But is it Christian? This is not a matter of angels dancing on the heads of pins. Christ was pretty specific about what he had in mind for his followers. What if we chose some simple criterion—say, giving aid to the poorest people—as a reasonable proxy for Christian behavior? After all, in the days before his crucifixion, when Jesus summed up his message for his disciples, he said the way you could tell the righteous from the damned was by whether they’d fed the hungry, slaked the thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, and visited the prisoner. What would we find then?
In 2004, as a share of our economy, we ranked second to last, after Italy, among developed countries in government foreign aid. Per capita we each provide fifteen cents a day in official development assistance to poor countries. And it’s not because we were giving to private charities for relief work instead. Such funding increases our average daily donation by just six pennies, to twenty-one cents. It’s also not because Americans were too busy taking care of their own; nearly 18 percent of American children lived in poverty (compared with, say, 8 percent in Sweden). In fact, by pretty much any measure of caring for the least among us you want to propose - childhood nutrition, infant mortality, access to preschool—we come in nearly last among the rich nations, and often by a wide margin. The point is not just that (as everyone already knows) the American nation trails badly in all these categories; it’s that the overwhelmingly Christian American nation trails badly in all these categories, categories to which Jesus paid particular attention. And it’s not as if the numbers are getting better: the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported last year that the number of households that were “food insecure with hunger” had climbed more than 26 percent between 1999 and 2003.
This Christian nation also tends to make personal, as opposed to political, choices that the Bible would seem to frown upon. Despite the Sixth Commandment, we are, of course, the most violent rich nation on earth, with a murder rate four or five times that of our European peers. We have prison populations greater by a factor of six or seven than other rich nations (which at least should give us plenty of opportunity for visiting the prisoners). 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. Despite Jesus’ strong declarations against divorce, our marriages break up at a rate—just over half—that compares poorly with the European Union’s average of about four in ten. That average may be held down by the fact that Europeans marry less frequently, and by countries, like Italy, where divorce is difficult; still, compare our success with, say, that of the godless Dutch, whose divorce rate is just over 37 percent. Teenage pregnancy? We’re at the top of the charts. Personal self-discipline—like, say, keeping your weight under control? Buying on credit? Running government deficits? Do you need to ask?
To read the remainder of this essay, pick up a copy of the August issue of Harper's Magazine, on newsstands near you. Looking for a newsstand?
About the Author
Bill McKibben, a scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College, is the author of many books, including The End of Nature and Wandering Home: A Long Walk Across America’s Most Hopeful Landscape. His last article for Harper’s Magazine, “The Cuba Diet,” appeared in the April 2005 issue.
And, yet some jokers want me to declare Amreekanos to be the geniuses of the world!