Rebroadcast: What do American Christians believe about their religion?
This rebroadcast originally aired on December 12, 2022.
When referring to Christians, politicians and the media are often focusing on one group — politicized evangelicals.
But, in truth, they are a small slice of the broad spectrum of American Christianity.
A new survey finds that American Christians’ beliefs are as diverse as the country they live in. From the traditional:
“Jesus Christ, we believe is God incarnate who came, died a death on a cross and then rose again on the third day,” listener Peter Green says.
To the surprising number of regular churchgoers who believe Jesus was a great teacher, but not divine.
“Whether or not in fact he is divine, and the son of God is actually, well, it’s a little irrelevant to me personally,” listener Jennifer Hudson says.
Today, On Point: The voices we don’t often hear in American Christianity.
Jonathan Tran, associate professor of philosophical theology and George W. Baines Chair of Religion at Baylor University.
Jua Robinson, co-founder and executive director of Boston Collaborative, an organization that connects workplace Christians to each other and the Boston community. Chaplain of the New England Patriots.
Scott McConnell, executive director at LifeWay Research.
Kelli Masters, director of children’s ministry at Wayne Presbyterian Church in Wayne, Pennsylvania.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: For decades, when covering the views of American Christians, the media, including this show, have often focused on right wing Christianity, largely because of its significant political influence. Think of groups such as the Christian Coalition, the Moral Majority, Focus on the Family, just to name a small few.
And more recently, the rise of Christian nationalist extremism cannot be denied, especially after the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.
SCOTT McCONNELL: A growing movement led by right wing politicians is increasingly challenging a centuries old value of America’s political system, the separation of church and state.
During the January 6th attack on the Capitol, there were Trump banners and confederate flags, the Gadsden flags. There’s also Christian imagery. The wooden cross, people in prayer, the “Jesus saves” slogan.
CHAKRABARTI: And while these groups dominate media coverage of Christianity, and for good reason, they also represent only a fraction of the more than 60% of Americans who identify themselves as followers of the Christian faith.
And American Christians overall have a spectrum of belief as broad and diverse. As the country they live. In fact, many American Christians profess beliefs that their more conservative fellow churchgoers find outright heretical. We have a biblically heretical statement that says the Bible, like all sacred writings, contains helpful accounts of ancient myths, but it is not literally true.
McCONNELL: So essentially that statement saying the Bible is fiction, but it might be helpful. And that percentage has slowly grown and it’s now 53%.
CHAKRABARTI: This is Scott McConnell, executive director at the Nashville, Tennessee based LifeWay Research. It’s an arm of LifeWay Christian Resources, the publishing group of the Southern Baptist Convention.
And every two years, LifeWay conducts a fascinating survey of American Christian belief. They’ve been doing the survey since 2014. And McConnell says the 2022 survey has some surprising findings.
McCONNELL: One of those is the statement. Worshipping alone or with one’s family is a valid replacement for regularly attending church, that the percentage of Americans who agree is now two thirds.
It’s 66%. Whereas the last time we asked it in early 2020, just as COVID was hitting, was 58%. And so we see that Americans, including churchgoers are saying, attending church in person, more of them are saying that’s optional.
CHAKRABARTI: The most interesting set of findings in the LifeWay survey takes a look at the views of people who still are regular churchgoers.
And LifeWay found that more than two thirds of regular American churchgoers believe that God accepts the worship of all religions. 45% believe that religious belief is a matter of personal opinion rather than objective facts. And almost half replied that they view Jesus as a great teacher, but not as God incarnate.
And even among American evangelicals, specifically, more than 40% said they do not believe Jesus is God. Now, for LifeWay executive director Scott McConnell, some of these findings are a cause for concern. Recall that this is a research group of the Southern Baptist Convention. So McConnell says that part of the reason why they try to understand America’s state of theology is so that those who teach theology can better reach their audiences.
McCONNELL: It’s helpful for church leaders to understand, within their own congregations, which biblical teachings people are slower to accept. And also, which teachings people in their community may already accept and so they could start a conversation with a shared belief and then share more of the story that’s found in the Bible.
CHAKRABARTI: Now, thanks to the First Amendment, Americans can believe basically whatever they want in their religious lives. But from the organization’s point of view, there are right and wrong answers to the questions posed by the survey about, say, whether or not Jesus is God or that the Bible is myth.
And McConnell wishes that would be true among a broader swath of Americans, even though it is not.
McCONNELL: A typical church leader or pastor would read through these questions, and I think they would sort them the same. There could be a couple questions that they’d say, “That’s a debatable item.” That there’s something in the wording that some Christian teachers may teach one direction and others another.
But that would probably be only a couple out of all these questions we’ve asked. They would sort them very similarly based on a Protestant reading of the Bible.
CHAKRABARTI: But again, LifeWay’s own survey reveals that there is no such thing as one reading of the Bible or one view held by American Christians. In fact, when we asked On Point listeners: If you are a regular churchgoer, what do you believe? We got many diverse answers.
The core tenets come down to really three questions. Who is God, who is man, and who is this one Jesus Christ, who we believe is God incarnate, who came, lived a perfect life, died a death on a cross, and then rose again on the third day.
Whether or not, in fact, he is divine, and the son of God is actually it’s a little irrelevant to me personally, because his example of what we all should be aspiring to be is a miracle in itself.
Like most of our Christian friends, we stopped attending church around 2018. It just became too political. I’m not surprised there’s been a huge drop in church attendance in those who belong to a denomination. What sane Christian wants to be lumped in with non-stop mean-spirited Christianity that has been in the news the last four years.
CHAKRABARTI: Those are some On Point listeners sharing their thoughts about their faith.
Now, of course, you might be saying, “No duh, Meghna. There are a lot of different views within American Christianity.” But the question we’re asking today is, as the media continues to focus on the most vocal and politically active right wing of American Christianity, what are we also missing when we don’t talk about that broader swath of American belief?
So joining us now is Jonathan Tran. He’s Associate Professor of Philosophical Theology and Chair of Religion at Baylor University and he joins us from Waco, Texas. Professor Tran, welcome to On Point.
JONATHAN TRAN: Thank you for having me on.
CHAKRABARTI: So first of all, I acknowledged at the beginning that this State of Theology Survey is done by LifeWay Research, an arm of the Southern Baptist Convention.
What’s your take overall about this survey and what it has found about American Christianity?
TRAN: I think the survey is helpful for studying, say, certain baseline realities. You study X in 2020, you check the results in 2022. It shows a growth or decline according to X. I think the researchers probably extrapolate a little bit more from it than that, than it allows. Then you begin to get the feeling that the books are somewhat cooked on the survey. That is, it’s asking for some very specific sets of criteria and then it draws too many implications from it.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So take me through then in more detail, like some of your concerns. First of all, I know that even just some of the questions you thought were not worded in the best way.
TRAN: Yeah, so take, for example, the question of Christ’s divinity. So it suggests that all Christians should believe this or that about Christ’s divinity, and it measures or tests respondents according to that, and then draws large conclusions about the Christian public accordingly. But the status of the question of Christ’s divinity, of course, is a hugely debated one.
It took about 700 years for the church to decide what it meant. So there’s that question. And then how you interpret people’s responses to it, of course, matter. So in some communities, saying Christ divinity or claiming Christ divinity looks like X, but in another community, it could very well look like Y, right?
So as well, you can look at other parts of the survey. It asks, for example, for certain lines in the sand, it draws very important, it puts a lot of significance on questions of, say, abortion or same sex marriage, whereas a lot of Christian communities, those would be important, but they wouldn’t be the all-important questions.
So by putting a lot of weight on those questions and making conclusions about how people decide about those questions, that’s what I mean by it’s somewhat, the books are already cooked on the survey.
CHAKRABARTI: I see. Okay. The sort of intent of the survey is clear based on where they’re focusing. Now, also. I know, I broadly use this phrase American Christianity throughout that whole introduction. But we should note, and you pointed this out to us, that what LifeWay Research defines as Christianity is actually more narrow than Christendom itself.
TRAN: Yeah, both in the American context. There’s a lot of different types of Christianity. So you can imagine some Christianites in America are going to have different lines in the sand. So in the way that this one talked about questions of abortion or same sex marriage, you can imagine other communities talking a lot about immigration or racial justice.
So it’s narrow both in the American context, though certainly representative of a broad swath of Christianity, but it’s also narrow in the non-American context. We have to remember that most Christians in the world don’t exist in America, and by far the fastest growing elements of Christianity are not American, and of course the vast swath of Christian history takes place outside of America.
CHAKRABARTI: So tell me more though about, it seems like you read the LifeWay survey as defining American Christianity as basically Protestant Evangelical Christianity, which is a subset of a subset, even in this country.
TRAN: Protestant Evangelical Southern Baptist inflected, which of course has certain racial, social, economic, gendered realities.
And so if you look at other types of Protestant Christianity, even in thinking about the survey, for example, I thought about Lawndale Christian Community Church in Chicago, Redeemer Community Church in San Francisco, even my church here in Waco, Texas, Mosaic, all these are Protestant Evangelical churches, just like the ones at the point of the survey, but they look very different than the ones examined in the survey.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, I really appreciate you pointing out what you find as the weaknesses in the LifeWay survey. Because we should be this rigorous for any set of polls or surveys we put on this show. So I am grateful, Professor Tran, for that. And so even with those concerns in mind, and we’re, in a sense, they get us to this broader question of how diverse American Christianity actually is, which we will be continuing to explore for the remainder of this hour.
We’ve just got a couple of seconds left, so I’m going to set up a quick question for you. I’ll let you answer on the other side of the break. I’m curious to hear, in a moment, what you think about some of their findings. Even with your concerns in mind, for example, some of the changes in belief for American evangelicals and their view of whether or not Jesus is divine.
So I’ll have you answer that, Professor Tran, when we come back in just a moment. This is On Point.
CHAKRABARTI: Professor Tran, let me just play a couple of more responses that we got from On Point listeners when we asked them about their beliefs as American Christians, and specifically several responses regarding the divinity of Jesus.
Here is Jennifer Hudson from Yellow Springs, Ohio. She’s an Episcopalian.
JENNIFER HUDSON: Whether or not, in fact, he is divine, and the son of God is actually, it’s a little irrelevant to me personally, because his example of what we all should be aspiring to be is a miracle in itself. It is magnificent. He gave his life so we could have a further understanding of how committed we should be.
CHAKRABARTI: So Professor Tran before the break, I was asking what you made of the LifeWay finding that even among American evangelicals, in 2022, they found that more than 40% of them did not believe that Jesus was necessarily God or divine. What’s your interpretation of that?
TRAN: On the one hand, you want to say something like, certainly that matters to Christianity.
It is a central tenet, if not the central tenet. But it also comes down to how you ask the question and how you interpret the answers. So for a lot of Christians, or say certain parts of Christian history, you need to map on to a certain doctrine, a certain commitment or articulation of that doctrine. But you can imagine for many people in Christianity today and in its history, the ability to articulate things and talk about things in specifically those ways, is a challenge.
So you have to interpret broadly, and I would say charitably. But the place where I think the survey is correct is do we sense a kind of change or a cultural change? I would say 20 years ago when I started teaching theology at a largely evangelical university, you could probably expect certain kinds of biblical or theological literacy that are not as clear today.
So what do you do with that? I think I take different lessons from that change. And the survey writers do, I would like to think that part of what’s happening is larger cultural shifts politically, economically, racially, in terms of gender, and these largely color how we think about these questions.
CHAKRABARTI: So as the nation changes, those changes are, it seems that you’re saying, organically taken into houses of worship.
TRAN: Yeah, and one of the things that’s important to have here is a large historical perspective. Throughout the church’s history, which we have to remember is not only 2,000 years old, but covers the expanse of the entire, most of the planet, Christianity certainly had challenges along the way.
There’s been crises from the beginning, in some ways you can articulate and narrate, the history of Christianity is a series of crises. But the church is also ready made with tools and concepts and practices that know how to take on crisis and go on. So the question is, how do you interpret change? I think some of us in America interpret change as always a kind of alarming reality. Versus others of us think about change in the history of the church as part of this, part of what it means to be Christian, part of what it means to be in a body of diverse individuals that expands historically and globally.
CHAKRABARTI: We also got responses from On Point listeners who have the more traditional conservative belief.
Actually, I should strike that because you just said that there’s been this centuries long debate over Jesus’s divinity, so I’ll just put it as, rather than traditional, I’ll put it as more conservative belief about Jesus being divine. So for example, here’s Cameron Cavanaugh who called us and he attends Eternity Bible College in Simi Valley, California.
CAMERON CAVANAUGH: I think something that I’ve learned in Bible college that has been so advantageous is how to really wrestle with the text and ask questions about the text without demanding that everybody needs to understand the same thing. I think when you look at the Bible there’s one thing that Jesus commanded all his followers and that is to surrender their entire lives to his lordship.
And it’s something that I think we’ve lost in the church. I think it’s something that we say that we believe, but really, we’ve traded that for a view of our faith that is more easier to come by and easier to sell to other Americans.
CHAKRABARTI: Professor Tran, I want to bring another voice into the conversation now.
Jua Robinson joins us. Jua is co-founder and executive director of Boston Collaborative, an organization that connects workplace Christians to each other and to other needs within the city of Boston. Also happens to be the chaplain of the New England Patriots and former lead pastor of HeartChange Fellowship, a multi-ethnic church in Boston, and he’s joining us today from Phoenix, Arizona.
Pastor Robinson, welcome to On Point.
JUA ROBINSON: Great to be with you.
CHAKRABARTI: So actually, let me just ask you something that was revealed in Cameron Cavanaugh’s call to us there, the Bible college student in Simi Valley, California. Cameron is saying that when it comes to understanding what Christianity is, he says, when you look at the Bible, there’s one thing that Jesus commanded all of his followers, and that is to surrender their lives, in Cameron’s words, to his lordship.
I’m just wondering what you think, are there some immutable beliefs about Christianity that without which, you can’t really call yourself a Christian anymore?
ROBINSON: I think in so many different ways, as the survey indicated, is you have so many varying degrees of thought and ideology, as it pertains to believers in Christ. And if we’re having the conversation similar to what was mentioned by the caller, there is a kind of belief amongst us as believers in Christ, around being centered in the gospel, or centered in the message of Jesus Christ being our Savior and being the one who we believe lived here on this earth.
Scripture says that he took on human flesh and dwelt among us. But then also that he actually died and rose on the third day and ascended onto heaven. And so I think from the standpoint of really understanding the life of Christ, for those of us who would have more of a gospel centered view, that would be our interpretation of what it would mean to be a Christ follower.
CHAKRABARTI: Let’s go to another quick voicemail from an On Point listener. This is Andy Ross from Hawthorne, California, and he told us pretty clearly that anyone, he believes, that anyone who doesn’t believe Jesus was divine is not really a Christian.
ANDY ROSS: Anybody who denies the deity of Christ, denies the ability of his sacrifice on the cross to be of any good to us. Anybody who believes that Jesus is simply a good teacher, denies the central power of the gospel. The core tenet of Christianity no longer holds any power to save our lives. It is simply a nice sounding philosophy.
CHAKRABARTI: Professor Tran respond to that and what Pastor Robinson is saying, is this a non-negotiable tenet of Christianity?
TRAN: The tenet is non-negotiable. It’s central. But again, the role it plays in the Christian faith and how it’s articulated really matters, and different communities in time and history have thought about this question differently. For example, one can claim the absolute divinity of Christ, that Christ was in fact God, but maybe articulate in terms different than, say, the Nicene Creed, which was a 4th, 5th century document that took hundreds of years to develop.
So the question of Christ’s divinity is central. The significance and articulation of that is varied.
CHAKRABARTI: But so tell me more then. How do you think, what do you think the importance of that is in understanding American Christianity in 2022?
TRAN: For example, you might think about, so early you quoted, what are the central claims of Christianity according to Jesus?
One, of course, is to love God above all others. And the second is to love neighbor. You can imagine millions of Christians throughout Christian history, imagining loving God as an articulation and as seen through loving neighbors. And so what about people who claim to hold on to these central tenets, but show no evidence that they actually love their neighbors?
Can it be said in good faith that they in fact love God or claim Christ’s divinity? The question of Christ’s salvation, as well, is a complicated question. Certainly, a central tenet of Christianity is that salvation comes through Christ. How one holds that and articulates that is often expressed in the local politics of a church, how that’s related to one’s neighbors, how one imagines issues of social justice.
So these are complicated but importantly complicated questions.
CHAKRABARTI: Pastor Robinson, how would you respond to that?
ROBINSON: Yeah, I would believe something very similarly. In each context, people are always asking the question, when it comes to the church, around community, am I able to connect with people within this congregation?
Am I able to find people who are like myself? Is this a church where I am able to be a part of something bigger than myself? Similarly, in terms of understanding what is the impact that we’re trying to make together upon the world. And so when it comes to really extrapolating kind of the whole idea around what it means to be a Christ follower, how do I live in community, regardless of what you believe in relation to the tenets of the church.
There are so many different values that we all would hold, as what it means to be a part of this congregation, in terms of how I relate to the community itself. And so as we think of —
CHAKRABARTI: I’m sorry, I did not mean to interrupt you. Continue.
ROBINSON: No, I’m just saying, just in terms of really thinking about, the comment itself, because we recognize that it’s such a myriad of thought but at the same time, we do recognize the power of who Christ is and how he is able to really transform the life of the believer.
CHAKRABARTI: So let me ask both of you, and Pastor Robinson, I’ll start with you. I keep thinking about, we are focusing on Christianity in the American context. And this country’s history is full of triumphs and tragedies that have, depending on what group you’re talking about, have led different people into Christianity and out of Christianity at different times.
How important, Pastor Robinson, do you think it is to understand the path that different groups of Americans have taken, different groups of American Christians have taken in their faith?
ROBINSON: No, it’s a great question. And even going back to the survey, it also makes you wonder how much of the survey was conducted with people of color, people of color from lower economic backgrounds.
From the immigrant community, as well. Because oftentimes when some of these national surveys are conducted, it excludes others who make up a large swath of the Christian community. And it’s very important to understand that there are so many varying degrees of thought, of preference, of expression when it comes to the church. And a survey that took, I want to say, three weeks to conduct would be very hard to understand its overall value if it doesn’t communicate and connect with a larger swath of people.
CHAKRABARTI: Professor Tran, your thoughts on that?
TRAN: Yeah, exactly. That’s all very right. Let me offer two examples. So two places you would step into, two sites of Christian worship that you would never doubt that these folks claim the divinity of Christ, or say the history of the extraordinary witness of the African American church, or say the migrant Chinese Baptist church that I became Christian in.
Very few of these folks could articulate the Nicene Creed or claim the divinity of Christ through its tenets. But almost all these folks have tried to understand their migrant lives or their lives on the, say, the underside of the American empire absolutely through the divinity of Christ. We just tend to bring presumptions to the table that smuggle in other kinds of beliefs and then use those presumptions to judge other people’s Christianity, which of course is terribly ironic.
But at the end, consistent with a certain impositional behavior, you can imagine African American church Christians growing up on the underside of a type of slave Christianity imposed on them, and them finding other remarkable resources to think about Christ’s divinity in other kinds of ways. 200 years downstream, then all of a sudden, we’re surprised when we find a President Barack Obama or Senator Warnock articulating a different Christianity, a different conception of Christ divinity.
But part of what they’re doing is articulating the Christianity that makes sense in a world of oppression or domination and liberation.
CHAKRABARTI: Now, I may be speaking out of turn here, because I am not an American Christian, but from my understanding of what Jesus’s foundational teachings were, it makes a lot of sense to me that people who are oppressed would find guidance and solace in those teachings versus, there’s Jesus and Jesus’s teachings, versus the authority of the institution of the church, right?
Is it fair to find a separation between the two, Pastor Robinson? I’ll turn that one to you.
ROBINSON: Yeah, I would say in terms of really thinking about kind of the two areas you’re extrapolating. Recognizing that there was great hope that Jesus has provided and continues to provide when we look even historically especially amongst us as Black Americans here in this country the gospel of Jesus Christ went to other parts of Africa prior to slavery.
And so it wasn’t a faith tradition that was unknown to many in Africa prior to the slave trade. And when we understand the history of our country and the great migration, and how important, especially the Black church was to the formation of community, especially in the north, it was the place where would have your one suit.
And so it brought dignity, it brought life, it brought hope, it brought peace to so many people who were in communities. And it’s sometimes hard to separate the two because they both have tremendous value and tremendous meaning for so many people, like myself.
CHAKRABARTI: Pastor Robinson and Professor Tran, I just want to play for you a couple of more voices from folks we reached out to and heard from in the course of preparing for this hour.
One of them is Angel Salmons. Angel is from Clanton, Alabama, and she initially left us a voicemail, and we gave her a call back because she had a lot of interesting things to say, especially about how a certain hardening in different arms of American Christianity, specifically the more conservative evangelical parts.
It really, it pushed her out and other fellow Christians. Because she was raised as Southern Baptist. And growing up, Angel told us that she went to church every Sunday and Wednesday, but it never felt like a good fit.
ANGEL SALMONS: Southern Baptists are a little intense when it comes to Jesus. They believe that you can’t go to God anymore.
The only way that you could talk to God is through praying for Jesus. And I started looking further out and feeling like I was being pushed to believe something that I didn’t truly believe. And I do feel like Jesus was a great man and a good teacher, but not a divine being. He didn’t have superpowers.
CHAKRABARTI: Angel told us she went out and researched other denominations, other religions as well. She even spent a year attending services at a Muslim Mosque. Ultimately, she settled on her own beliefs outside of any organized religion.
SALMONS: I believe in God. I believe, but in a different sense, not that God is a man in the clouds that’s watching everything I do.
I consider God to be the vibrations in our world. What makes trees grow? Everything. Everything is God to me.
CHAKRABARTI: Pastor Robinson, what do you think about that? Because I think there are many folks out there listening who would profess the same, and call themselves Christians as well, that they don’t go to church, they don’t necessarily even read the Bible, but their sensation of what Christianity and what God is something more, expansive, if I can use that term like Angel described.
ROBINSON: To be honest with you, if I could do one thing with her would be to give her a hug. Because one statement that she communicated, is she mentioned, she said, they said, I couldn’t. And then she mentioned pray to God. And I believe that’s a statement that so many people communicate in relation to their experience with church.
And so in so many ways, people have a disconnect with church that may impact how they view God. And recognizing that the relationships, how they’ve seen people not respond in love, not respect others who are different from themselves really try to demonize others, as opposed to really embracing people and really showing them hope and love and encouragement.
And so I know for so many people, they feel as if because this is my experience with church, let me throw everything out in relation to my faith in Christ. And so as a pastor, I consistently have conversations with people who have this experience, living in Boston, obviously with the Catholic church and people who have just said, “No, I don’t want to be a part of this anymore because if this is how the church treats children, I don’t want to be a part of that.”
Which in so many cases, I understand, because for someone to see something as so central and so important to their lives and to see people that they’ve put great trust in and great belief in, and had great hope in and see them do differently. I understand where the hurt comes from.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Professor Tran, I’m going to get to you on this in a second here.
But the sort of hardening and the strictures that many Americans are finding in their churches in particular, again, it’s one of those threads that was made very aware to us in researching this hour. And here’s another example. We reached out to someone named Kelli Masters.
Kelli is the director of children’s ministry at Wayne Presbyterian Church in Wayne, Pennsylvania. And she grew up in a Christian household. And for much of her life, she says she was in the quote, conservative evangelical camp. But she says over the years, a series of events pushed her away from the church.
KELLI MASTERS: There was a young woman who was engaged to be married, and she was, for financial reasons, primarily, she was living with her fiancé, and she had come to the church and wanted very much to teach Sunday school, and the church said no, and I had to tell her that she wasn’t allowed to teach because she was living with her fiancé, and that felt awful to me.
And I remember a moment in the quiet of my own heart saying, “If I have to stand before God and say that I fenced the opportunity for somebody to serve him because of a decision I made, I am not comfortable with that.”
CHAKRABARTI: So that black and white stance on certain matters, as Kelli says, led her to change churches in 2008.
She began to attend the Wayne Presbyterian Church, and there, Kelly says she felt a noticeable difference in the church’s willingness to meet people where they are.
MASTERS: The young boy, he was probably fourth grade, and his mom became affiliated in our music ministry. So he was coming to the church, but even the mom, they would not in any way say they were Christians.
And he came right to me, and he said, I need to ask you, “Is it okay if I’m here if I don’t believe in Jesus?” And I said, “Absolutely.” This is exactly the place to come to ask your questions and don’t ever be afraid to ask a question. So we tried to set him at ease.
He immediately came back with, “All right, then I have a question. Was Jesus white?” (LAUGHS) And I said, “Yes.” This is what I love about this job. And so right away, he’d already been thinking about Jesus.
CHAKRABARTI: And we asked her, while she had left her old church because of its, again, as she puts it, black and white theology, is it possible for churches to be clear on certain doctrine without pushing out those who have questions about those very doctrines. And Kelli says she thinks it is possible, in the same way that there are non-Christian organizations that live out things that she holds as truths.
MASTERS: The thing is, you could strip away any faith language from the things I believe that are true. And I would still be okay with it. Caring for our neighbors. Seeking justice. Caring for the world. The planet. For me, they find their home in Christianity. But if you find them outside of Christianity, they’re just a host of fantastic nonprofits.
They’re probably more successful because they’re not flying the Christian flag. They’re doing beautiful work. Do I think God’s smiling on that? Absolutely.
CHAKRABARTI: It’s Kelli Masters. She’s director of the children’s ministry at Wayne Presbyterian Church in Wayne, Pennsylvania. First of all, Professor Tran, since this question from that young boy just jumped out at me, I’m curious, how would, if someone came to you and asked you, “Was Jesus white?”
How would you answer that question?
TRAN: I’d say there was no white people in Jesus’ day, because race was a construction of chattel slavery and other kind of capitalist entities in the 15th, 16th century. So the question is whether Jesus is white, Jesus was a first century Palestinian Jew.
And so whiteness wasn’t really a category at the time.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. But isn’t it interesting though, that in the context of an American church, a young boy comes to her with that question.
TRAN: Yeah, and I think that’s the really interesting story that we need to think through right now. What is the church in this moment?
I think we have a tendency to say that the church used to be X, and in the future, it always needs to look like X. I think the really interesting thing about the survey and the story y’all are doing is the seeming disconnect between central doctrinal commitments, which to me are very important, and the articulation and evidence for those doctrinal commitments.
For example, you can imagine a person who grows up in the Southern Baptist Church and is raised in all these tenets and even can articulate them eloquently and powerfully. This person sees, as has been reported in the state of Texas, countless cases of sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Church. And then seeing those same people who were involved or protected or enabled, articulating those doctrinal commitments without pause or consideration.
That person has good reason to not think, not necessarily doubt the doctrine, but doubt the articulation of the doctrine. Another good example would be something like, a good but painful example would be, in Christianity or Christian theology, the doctrine of Christology, of what Christ is internal or at least deeply related to, the doctrine of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
But you can imagine people who have suffered the abuse, especially women, under the conditions of, say, certain parts of Christianity, being given reason to rethink how those doctrines are articulated. I think the question going forward is given the moment we’re in, which I think we need to be increasingly honest about, given the moment we’re in, what does Christianity become?
That’s to me, the really interesting question.
CHAKRABARTI: That is the really interesting question. And out of total transparency, it is the reason why I wanted, we wanted to do this show. Because we always talk about, we being the media, and I include On Point in this, tend to almost always talk about quote-unquote American Christianity through our analysis of what that particularly politically active far right wing of Christianity is doing, advocating, and the influence they’re having.
Now, I also don’t want to just hive them off and say that’s just a small portion of Christianity. So therefore, everything’s okay. So professor, I’m sorry, so pastor Robinson, how would you answer that question that Professor Tran asked. Given what’s happening today, for American Christians, how would you answer that question?
ROBINSON: Yeah. I would say, given the moment we’re in, answering that question is, we ask ourselves, who is the church now, quote-unquote, post COVID? We’ve seen that many churches have shut down. In certain communities, certain churches have also decreased significantly in population.
And obviously with the kind of whole idea of white national nationalism and kind of some of those viewpoints have just been given so much more of a platform to be communicated. We all know that in our country, they were there, but now there’s more of a platform for them to be heard amongst the masses.
And I’d say, for example, in my church, we’ve seen about a 54% growth over the last year, and when churches are really concerned about their communities and really think about how can we actually be the hands and feet of Jesus in our communities while still ascribing to the long-held beliefs that really make us who we are, it’s really important.
And so in a city like Boston, where, you know, the net worth of the average Black family is $8, there’s a problem, when communities where certain states decide to build prisons based upon the reading and the test scores of third graders, it’s a problem. When people can’t find housing and communities where they’ve lived for decades as families, that’s a problem.
And as the church begins to also wrestle with some of those questions and ask themselves, how can we be participators in the dialogue and participators in the conversation? I believe that those types of churches will have a far greater long-term health than churches that choose not to engage the meaningful questions that people are wrestling with in their congregations and outside of the church.
CHAKRABARTI: My last question is going to go to Professor Tran. Because I’m approaching this conversation transparently, not as a Christian, but as someone who’s deeply concerned about the future of the secular commons of the United States. And I wonder, it is inspiring and eye opening to have a chance to talk about these varying beliefs of American Christians.
But in the public political conversation, there is that one vocal minority who not only seeks to define what it believes should be American Christianity, but also wishes for the entire nation to be run under that set of beliefs. Do you think other American self-identified Christians whose beliefs are on the other broader spectrum that we’ve been talking about, do we in the media, should we pay more attention to those people?
Or do they need to speak up more and say, “No the man carrying a cross and the stars and the stars and bars while raiding Congress is, does not speak for me and my beliefs.”
TRAN: Yeah. I think those communities have been speaking for a long time. The question is whether we have the ears to hear and the eyes to see them.
It’s always been the case that Christianity has tendencies to debase itself or to give itself over to counterfeit versions of itself. But it has extraordinary practices of repair. So a question to ask ourselves is, how do we pay attention to these other stories of Christianity that greatly complicate the political scene? And in ways that complicate the tendency of the media to create self-fulfilling prophecies that Christianity can only be white Christian nationalism. It’s so much more. It has always been so much more.
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