Christianity is Judged in Public by What Christians Do, and That is Good
Protestant Christianity is rooted historically in Martin Luther’s interpretation of St. Paul’s words that followers of Jesus are saved by faith and not works. That theological statement is central to the so-called evangelical confession, to “accept Jesus Christ a Lord and Savior.” That confession is regarded by millions of Christians as the key to salvation.
Regardless of how one interprets what either Paul or Luther meant by “saved by faith,” or what anyone who makes the evangelical confession had in mind, these words are nearly meaningless in public life except as a signal for what a person does.
In public life, Christians are judged by what we do—or, I should say, by what the loudest and most visible Christians do. What we claim to believe, or who we allege to believe in, is nearly irrelevant in public. What do we do, where do we stand on the issues of the day, with whom we ally ourselves—these are important in public. Whether various Christians claim a common confession influenced by a Roman emperor, as the creeds of the first centuries were, is nonsense to much of the public.
The philosopher William James wrote, paraphrasing Jesus: Jesus said you will know his followers by their fruits and not by their roots. By what we do rather than where we come from or what we claim to believe.
Many American Christians support the administration’s family separation practice. “The parents did something illegal and it is too bad the kids have to suffer for the parents’ lawlessness.” I stand with the many others, religious and non-religious, who utterly reject the practice as immoral, inhumane, and unholy. Truly abominable. Which kind of Christianity did the attorney general of the U.S. represent?
Some years back when I lived in suburban Chicago, I was getting a haircut and the barber asked what I did for work. I said I was a seminary professor. A female barber sitting nearby spun her head in my direction and stared daggers.
While my seminary was in the cohort of seminaries where the student body and the faculty are at least 50 percent women, in the Chicago area, Catholicism is the publicly dominant Christian expression. And stories of priests abusing children and seminary professors abusing seminarians were prominently in the news. For all she knew, the dagger-thrower thought I was that kind of Christian.
There are, again, millions of Christians who reject anyone who identifies as LGBTQ+ for their “decision” to exercise a “lifestyle choice.” More than a few such Christians greet LGBTQ+ persons with slurs and, on a moral scale, are disgusted with their “abominable” practices. I identify with Christians and others who, for reasons of science and faith, believe that human sexuality is a spectrum and real, holy love is not confined to persons born in one part of that spectrum. For us, marriage equality and full inclusion in society and church are necessities. Which of these stances is understood to be “the more Christian” stance in public?
There is a kind of “law and order” Christianity that supports suppressing dissent, that seeks to lock away the guilty regardless of their danger to society. These positions are highly correlated with white supremacy, especially Christian white supremacy (Robert P. Jones’ new book, White Too Long, demonstrates that Christianity has, in fact, been the pole holding up the tent of white supremacy). I stand with Christians and others who cannot find how the Jesus of the parables and the Sermon on the Mount can be squared with “law and order;” and white supremacy must be rooted out for the sake of the nation and for the sake of fidelity to the way of Jesus.
Well, here is my problem. I reject what many others, who like me identify as Christians, do. In fact, I don’t recognize what they do as Christian, and they reject what I do and stand for as Christian. If we still hurled anathemas at each other, we’d be inflaming social media. Oh, right, social media posts may be our contemporary anathemas.
I don’t want to be judged by the public based on what the most visible and loudest Christians do, unless they are my kind of Christian. However, I don’t get to decide who a public thinks I am if I identify as a Christian. In the language of classical marketing theory, a brand is the sum total of what everyone thinks about the brand.
As long as I identify as a Christian, I’ll be grouped with whatever the public thinks a Christian is and does. And, it is the case that “my kind” of Christianity is often a minority position, which means that the public’s perception and my self-perception will often be different. Painfully different. I have atheist friends who don’t believe I’m a Christian because of what I think Christians ought to do, and that doing does not square with the Christianity that both my friends and I have rejected.
Here is a fundamental question that emerges from these musings, a question for all of us who identify with a particular religion: is a religion defined in ideal terms or in real terms? Is a religion defined by what it claims its adherents ought to believe and do, or by what they actually believe and do? The most charitable answer is to recognize there will always be some gap between a religion’s vision and what adherents actually do and believe.
But the public will not often be charitable. Nor should they be. Christianity ought to be judged in public by how we who claim to be Christian act. On this point, the author of James was right and Luther was wrong. Show me your works. (James 2:18)
Dr. Gary Peluso-Verdend is president emeritus at Phillips Theological Seminary and is the executive director of the seminary’s Center for Religion in Public Life. The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. Learn more about the Center’s work here and about Gary here.