|A rich man came to Jesus one day and asked what he should do to get into heaven. Jesus did not say he should invest, spend, and let the benefits trickle down; he said sell what you have, give the money to the poor, and follow me. Few plainer words have been spoken. And yet, for some reason, the Christian Coalition of America—founded in 1989 in order to ‘preserve, protect and defend the Judeo-Christian values that made this the greatest country in history’—proclaimed last year that its top legislative priority would be ‘making permanent President Bush’s 2001 federal tax cuts.’ —Bill McKibben |
In last August’s issue of Harper’s Magazine, writer Bill McKibben had an essay entitled The Christian Paradox. In it, he explores the disconnect between a United States that is supposedly Christian, and its very unChristian behavior.
Here’s my favourite bit:
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. The questions McKibben raises here are important ones. It’s no secret that Europe is the most atheistic continent on the planet (although I don’t think anyone is keeping tabs on Antarctica). You don’t have to go very far amongst Christians in the States before you run into someone who thinks Europe is a godless cesspool of filth and immorality. After my wife and I got back from Venice last year, she mentioned to some well meaning Christian person that that city is eroding further into the ocean each year. Her comment prompted this person to point out Europe’s immorality, and that this is the sort of thing that happens to those who don’t build on strong foundations (I’m not kidding—this person seriously made that allusion).
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?
But if that’s the case, and if the U.S. is such a Christian nation, as so many Christians seem to think, then why are the godless Europeans better at following the teachings of Jesus than we American Christians?