Shifting Sentiments: American Christianity and Group Identity
Updated: Jul 24, 2021
“so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” – 1 Corinthians 12:25-26 (NIV)
These verses struck a chord with me recently. They reminded me of what it felt like to be an American Christian on September 11, 2001, and the months that followed. Not only was there a collective mourning together as a nation, but there was a resounding spirit of solidarity that swept the country. There seemed to be a genuine empathy for the people who lost their lives in those towers.
There were public prayers for grieving family members who lost loved ones. Pastors in pulpits across the country readily deviated from their regularly scheduled order of service and their original sermons out of deep concern for what many people in their congregations were feeling and processing in the wake of such traumatic events. Some prominent evangelical pastors even turned their remarks on the 9/11 attacks into a full, multi-part sermon series.
As far as I can tell, there didn’t seem to be very many evangelical Christians who had a problem with sermons that centered around the most significant socio-political current event of that era—nor did they seem to consider those sermons a distraction from the gospel. On the contrary, it appears as though they saw fit to reference what was happening in society as an opportunity to offer a biblical perspective that spoke directly to the times we were living through. Perhaps they were more inclined to do that back then because they actually cared about the tragic event that shook society at that time. And perhaps they actually cared because it had a profound impact on a group of people that really mattered to them—Americans.
Interestingly enough, it was a time when evangelicals seemingly had no problem embracing, encouraging, and even fighting for a “group identity.” People in the church at that time didn’t seem to be as subscribed to the kind of mentality that would’ve led them to debate on whether or not terrorist attacks were a prevalent enough problem to make a big deal out of. In fact, we were so determined to defend the dignity of our group identity as Americans that we actually ended up going to war for years (The Iraq War). But these are very different times.
Today, when tragic acts of domestic American terrorism happen that reverberate globally, a large number of American Christians aren’t nearly as interested in collectively mourning together as we once were. In many segments of the American Christian church today, public solidarity is scarce and empathy for lives lost and grieving family members is mostly reserved for private conversations.
Many evangelical pastors in pulpits across America today are sticking to their regularly scheduled order of service and their original sermon series because many of them now feel that public commentary in the church regarding socio-political current events (particularly related to injustice along racial/ethnic lines) is a distraction from the true gospel. Perhaps that’s because the tragic abuses of power and domestic terrorism that regularly leads to lives being unnecessarily taken these days is usually affecting groups of people whose lives don’t seem to matter as much to many evangelical Christians as the lives of Americans that are taken by foreign terrorists. And perhaps that’s why the idea of fighting for the dignity of your group identity in this country is only acceptable (within many segments of the evangelical church) when the label of that group identity is “American,” but when the label of group identity centers around anything else (race, ethnicity, gender, etc.) it’s stigmatized as Cultural Marxism and considered a serious threat to society and the church.
It’s in the midst of this climate of shifting sentiments within many evangelical Christians towards the idea of group identity (other than American) that we find ourselves in another kind of war. A cultural war. And as this culture war intensifies in the coming years, my hope is that the body of Christ would remember 1 Corinthians 12:25-27, so that even as we continue celebrating and defending the dignity of the group identities we embrace, we are careful to refrain from elevating them above our shared group identity as Christians.