By Kevin Shrum
In a recent article titled, “The Gospel that Is Killing Us,” I used what I thought was a throw-away phrase in the final paragraph – “American secular gospel.” A dear friend of mine immediately called me and said that he thought there was something in that phrase that needed to be fleshed out. His comment to me forced me to think through once again what I had written. What did I mean when I wrote that it is the American secular gospel that is killing us? Let me break
this phrase down.
American – There is no one who loves America as much as I do. This is no slam on other nations or cultures. It is simply a recognition that God has afforded me the privilege of living in what some have called the greatest nation ever to exist in the history of humanity. The freedoms we enjoy and the progress we have made in technology, medicine, education, science, and basic living conditions have been unprecedented. While America has never been a pure theocracy, the framework that has informed our cultural and social morals was shaped and formed by a decidedly Judeo-Christian worldview. If America had any message it was the gospel. So, closely identified has the Judeo-Christian worldview been associated with America that, in fact, some have equated Americanism with the gospel itself. The flag has dangerously wrapped itself around the cross. To preach the gospel was to preach Americanism and vice versa.
But America lost her way along the way and, along with it, the goodness and grace that may have been a result or affect of the gospel. America has disconnected itself from its spiritual moorings. Two devastating consequences have resulted from this disconnect. First, America has been set adrift on the sea of radical individualism where everyone has their own god and everyone is their own priest. Second, the gospel some preach from the pulpits of America’s churches is preached under the delusion that America is still on God’s side and God is still on America’s side. This means that the pulpits of America have lost their prophetic voice to preach the gospel to sinners, to proclaim truth to power, and to bring a message of judgment to a nation that has for the most part abandoned God. In other words, there is no discord between the gospel some preach and the American way of life.
Secular – So, if God is out, what or who is in? The answer: secularism. This much used word simply refers to the fact that we are no longer ruled by eternal principles or vertical considerations. We are now completely horizontal in our perspective. There are no longer any eternal considerations. With the death of the gospel has come the flat-lining of an eternal, spiritual horizon. And if secularism is the new religion, then science and technology are its theology, with scientists and technocrats posing as its theologians. In addition, the ultimate goal of this secular perspective is the heightened awareness of my individual autonomy as my own god and the continuing development of the many creature comforts we so enjoy.
Gospel – The consequence of this spiritual shift in America has been the product I call the American secular gospel. The American secular gospel preaches a message that is more about flag-waving than it is about loyalty to King Jesus; that is less about personal repentance and more about personal fulfillment; that is more about individual success than it is about the Savior; that is more about our creature-comforts than sacrifice; that is more about promoting a particular political party than speaking truth to power; that is more about seeing God’s will as making much of me rather than much of Him. The American secular gospel is a pathetic replacement for the real gospel where Jesus Christ is preeminent in all things.
The consequences of the American secular gospel on the church have been devastating. Carpeted, air-conditioned buildings greet neatly dressed consumers who gather to consume a gospel that makes much of them and not much of God. Nice-speaking preachers preach the gospel of fulfillment rather than the gospel of self-abandonment that confronts us in our sins with the radical demands of the gospel. We have forgotten the gospel that declares that true happiness comes hard by our death and self-abandonment as we made truly alive in Jesus Christ.
Is there hope for America? Yes. There is a clue that can be found in the historical record. In 1840 Alexis de Tocqueville traveled to America from France to observe the secret of the success of this new experiment called democracy that had been born out of religious truth and liberty. This is what de Tocqueville wrote in his book, Democracy in America:
“I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers, and it was not there; in her fertile fields and boundless prairies, and it was not there; in her rich mines and her vast world commerce, and it was not there. Not until I went to the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”
Hope for America will be found in the churches of America IF the churches of America rediscover the gospel of Jesus Christ – a gospel that makes much of God and less of us; a gospel that calls us to repentance and commitment to Jesus Christ; a gospel that calls us to serve rather than be served; a gospel that unleashes the creative power of humanity in service to mankind; a gospel that calls for an eternal, long-term perspective; a gospel that declares that humanity is more than a compilation of lucky cells, but a call to true greatness where human abilities are viewed as God-given and are used in service to the glory of God; a gospel that calls for moral and spiritual purity that trumps reckless autonomy; a gospel that calls for responsible freedom and that rejects license. America, God is calling. Are you listening?