Unchristian America: Living with Faith in a Nation That Was Never Under God

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With the 2008 election approaching, the Christian Right will once again be a major topic of discussion. Conservatives are concerned that America is losing its Christian heritage, and liberals are disturbed at what they see as the increasing political power of Christian conservatives. Yet both sides often share a key assumption: that America has historically been a Christian nation. In UnChristian America?, Liberty University professor Michael Babcock traces America's historical, political, and religious ...

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Overview

With the 2008 election approaching, the Christian Right will once again be a major topic of discussion. Conservatives are concerned that America is losing its Christian heritage, and liberals are disturbed at what they see as the increasing political power of Christian conservatives. Yet both sides often share a key assumption: that America has historically been a Christian nation. In UnChristian America?, Liberty University professor Michael Babcock traces America's historical, political, and religious development to reveal the surprising truth: The country has been trending post-Christian since Jamestown, and therefore America was never really Christians' to lose. As he presents a sympathetic but candid view of the legacy of the Christian Right, Babcock challenges evangelicals to take action for moral change and prevent the slide into a post-Christian future before it's too late.

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Editorial Reviews

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The essential basis for this book is that Americans have used popular culture as a standard of success or ethic of social equality and lost sight of the word of God since Colonial days. Babcock (humanities, Liberty Univ.; The Night Attila Died: Solving the Murder of Attila the Hun), in exploring the historical, political, and religious development of America, shows that humanism was the seed that flourished in the New World. Through discourses on moral, political, economic, and religious paradigms, including creationism, abortion, and gay rights, Babcock calls for evangelical Christians to put Jesus first as a way to influence American culture. He states that Americans, like the Romans, have been accumulating a bewildering mass of alternative philosophies of life and argues that Christianity must be exclusive. The text is a confusing mix of the author's personal experiences (missionary work in Africa), conjecture, historical facts, and biblical quotes (King James Bible). For a limited audience of militant evangelicals.
—Leo Kriz

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781414318608
  • Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers
  • Publication date: 8/1/2008
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Read an Excerpt

UNCHRISTIAN AMERICA Living with faith in a nation that was never under God
By MICHAEL BABCOCK
TYNDALE HOUSE PUBLISHERS, INC.
Copyright © 2008 Michael A. Babcock
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4143-1860-8



Chapter One The Battle Is Engaged

With the founding of the Moral Majority in 1979, evangelicals andfundamentalists ventured into the political process. They were not welcomedwith open arms by either the political or religious establishments. Rather, they kicked down the door and marched in with such fury that they sent panic through most sectors of American society. -CAL THOMAS AND ED DOBSON

I grew up in central Washington, in that wonderful valley ringed by snowcapped mountains and adorned with apple trees, near places with Indian names like Wenatchee and Wapato and Walla Walla. Summers were filled with vacation Bible schools, Kool-Aid ice pops, and warm evenings with little balsa planes that cost ten cents each at the neighborhood store. Our little white church sat on a street corner and held about a hundred souls on a good Sunday morning. It was a conservative flock, and our pastor was a faithful custodian of the law. Dancing was wrong. Movies were wrong. The Beatles were wrong. Long hair was wrong. Mixed bathing-I didn't even know what this was, but I knew it was wrong.

Granted, my memories have acquired the softened edges of a Norman Rockwell painting over the years. But peel away the sentiment, the nostalgia, the church potlucks, and the flannel-graph Bible lessons, and yousee the dark stirrings of cultural fear. America was changing in the age of the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the British Invasion. The sense of peril was most evident in the first political book I remember, None Dare Call It Treason, a high-pitched screed that came out in the middle of Barry Goldwater's disastrous run for the White House in 1964. One of the heroes of the book was still a hero in our quarters-Senator Joe McCarthy, the man who ruined lives with his reckless accusations. Some of our church deacons were even "John Birchers," the kind of people who believed that fluoridation was a Communist plot to take over America through our water supply. It seemed to make sense at the time.

This was the old conservative movement, shaped in the teeth of the Cold War. In this dark geopolitical landscape, America was cast as a Christian nation facing godless Communism. Morality was an indicator of our national strength, our ability to face down the Communist threat. Moral weakness-as evinced by long hair, rhythmic music, and psychedelic drugs-would lead to military weakness. All you had to do was connect the dots. After all, didn't Rome fall when Rome became immoral? As a child I never questioned the history behind that claim. I didn't know that Rome, having been Christianized, was actually more moral when it fell than when it ruled the Mediterranean world. But when you're battling spiritual and cultural decline, even bad history can be a good sermon illustration.

Politics was politics in the old conservative movement, and church was church. Those boundaries were seldom crossed, except to denounce moral decay. Those of us sitting in the pews might have shared a common demographic profile, but we didn't talk about it in church. For all his legalism, our pastor taught the Bible faithfully-and drily. His weekly exposition, along with the steady stream of missionaries that came through our little church, would transform my family. Before long my parents felt God calling them to the mission field. This was the way you changed the world back then, long before the church discovered politics. So off they went to Bible school and then to Europe for language training. Finally, in the early 1970s, the Babcock family ended up in the Central African Republic, which was about as far from central Washington as you could get. I look back now and see Africa as the great divide in my life.

The sights and sounds and smells of Africa would be forever etched into my childhood memories. I loved hearing the village drums at night and the warm equatorial rain as it pounded down on the aluminum roof. The open market was colorful and smelly with fresh fruits and vegetables, the pili-pili peppers so common across Africa, gunnysacks of flour and sugar, and Arab women who smeared their bodies with goat milk. When we came to buy meat, the Sudanese cowherd would slaughter a bull on the spot and load the carcass, flies swarming and blood running, onto the back of our pickup truck. But it was the evangelistic trips deep into the bush that I remember most. My parents, my brother, and I would gather a crowd with our instruments-three trumpets and an accordion. I was on the accordion. Dad presented a simple Bible lesson, usually a story with flannel-graph illustrations, and gave the gospel message around the interruptions of village goats, pigs, and chickens.

It was in Africa, as a child, that I first read the Bible. There was no television or video games, but that's not why I read. I had a hunger for the Word of God. I first read through the Bible from cover to cover as a twelve-year-old. And then I read it again. I memorized Galatians. I was presumptuous enough to begin writing a commentary on Colossians. The cadences and odd vocabulary of the King James Bible became familiar to me as a child (which made reading Shakespeare a whole lot easier later on). The Bible had transformed my parents' lives, and it would do the same for mine. Not immediately, though. I was a young legalist-in-training, "zealous for the law," as Paul described himself. But I was also hiding God's Word in my heart-and God's Word would not return void. These were the contradictions in my life. On the one hand, I was idealistic and earnest, striving after God with a sense of mission and purpose. But it was all law with no grace. It was my effort, and the only thing my effort yielded was dead religiosity. Years later I would recognize the same contradiction in the political fortunes of the Religious Right. I would also come to see that this contradiction-the tug-of-war between this kingdom and the next-was central to the American character as well.

RUMBLINGS OF DISCONTENT

We returned in 1976 to a very different America. The Vietnam War was over. Watergate had come and gone. My family settled not on the West Coast but in the tobacco fields of South Carolina, in an old plantation town called Hartsville. It was a town with two public schools, one black and one white. I attended neither. Instead, I attended a private Baptist school that had been founded, like scores of others across the Deep South, during the decade of desegregation. I had left Africa behind only to find myself in an all-white school operated by an all-white church.

As a teenager suddenly reintroduced into American culture, I was becoming acquainted with a second strain of American conservatism, one rooted in the Old South and its social and religious conservatism. The Barry Goldwater movement I was familiar with had viewed moral decay as part of the global struggle against Communism. This new movement, in its best form, championed small government and family values; in its worst form, it viewed moral decay through the dirty screen of racial politics. These two cultures would come together in a movement set to explode on the political scene in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan and the rise of the Religious Right.

I was a living contradiction. A Westerner in the Deep South. The descendant of a Union abolitionist family in the heart of the old Confederacy. A young man whose friends in Africa had been black children, now attending an all-white school in a still largely segregated town. A young man who had seen the power of the gospel in the heart of darkness, being drawn toward the empty political promises of a shining city on a hill.

During high school I became interested in politics. The first issue that really captured my attention was the Panama Canal Treaty in 1978. I remember writing a letter to Senator Ernest Hollings and objecting in the strongest terms possible to this surrender of American property-thissymbol of our ingenuity and sacrifice. But it was a security issue too, since we couldn't let this vital national resource fall into Communist hands. And so on and so on. I wrote the letter on wide-ruled paper so there'd be plenty of room for cosignatories. Then I canvassed my fellow high school students and sent the letter off to Washington. I received a warmly patronizing response from the senator's office, and when I listened to the vote on the radio I was disappointed to hear the white-haired senator with his deep Southern drawl say, "Aye" on final passage of the treaty.

Three decades later it's clear to me that Senator Hollings was right and I was wrong.

But I was on board with the movement-the new conservative movement that jumbled up politics and religion and nationalistic pride and jingoism. I was too young perhaps to see the contradictions in any of this. I was balanced awkwardly between worlds-between Africa and America, between childhood and adulthood, between the past and the present, between two views of my country. I was at that time in life when you're trying hard to catch your balance and hold it long enough to figure out where you're standing. Perhaps I was too young to understand that we come to God with all our contradictions, all our paradoxes, all our contrary impulses, and we find completeness in Christ. Certainly I was too young to realize that God didn't have a policy position on the Panama Canal Treaty.

All through the late 1970s this new movement would begin to coalesce around a few distinct themes-moral, cultural, political, and economic. The moral theme was motivated principally by Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision in 1973 that established the right to abortion as the "law of the land." As long as abortion was a matter for individual states to take up, as long as it was only whispered about, shuffled off to the rhetorical back alleys of American politics, then Christians weren't terribly concerned about it. But no longer. Abortion was now front and center in American life. More than any other issue, the fight to overturn Roe v. Wade unified religious conservatives across the theological spectrum, giving them a sense of purpose and validating those first uncertain steps into politics. But this didn't happen immediately. Perhaps it took some time for the full significance of the Supreme Court's decision to register among conservatives, but that lag time (a period of several years) has opened the door for some critics to question how big a factor abortion really was in the birth of the movement.

Abortion was just one element of a "perfect storm" gathering in the mid- to late-1970s. When the commissioners in Dade County, Florida, passed an ordinance in 1977 outlawing discrimination against homosexuals, Anita Bryant-a former beauty queen and spokeswoman for the Florida Citrus Commission ("A day without orange juice is like a day without sunshine")-stepped forward to "lead a crusade to stop it as this country has not seen before." A prolonged media circus, more like a cultural Gong Show, had been set in motion. Rallies were held. Gay activists organized an orange juice boycott. The former beauty queen even took a cream pie in the face at a rally in Des Moines, Iowa. A few months later the ordinance was repealed, and Bryant took her campaign nationwide. Momentum was on her side.

The battle was won without working up a sweat. But the war was just beginning. Religious conservatives weren't the only ones organizing and entering the political arena. The "homosexual community" came out of the closet as a demographic unit with considerable capital and political clout. Long associated with San Francisco and Greenwich Village, homosexuals would become a mainstream part of American culture within a generation. In the early 1980s, the AIDS epidemic provided the newly minted Gay Rights Movement with the cultural mandate it needed to change its public image once and for all.

Meanwhile, the boycott of Florida oranges was successful. Anita Bryant's contract was not renewed in 1979. In 1980 her marriage broke up and her career was in decline. The evangelical community that had held her up as an icon of family values now abandoned her. But the movement she'd helped to launch found new leaders-and new battles.

Moral issues merged inevitably into cultural ones. In the mid- to late-1970s it looked as though the twenty-four words in section 1 of the Equal Rights Amendment were destined to become part of the U.S. Constitution. But that was before another conservative "Joan of Arc," a constitutional lawyer named Phyllis Schlafly, skillfully mobilized conservative opposition around the defense of traditional values. The feminist movement had come of age in America, but by taking on the U.S. Constitution, its leaders had tackled too much-too fast. The amendment expired in 1979, having fallen three states short of the thirty-eight needed for ratification. Though the language of the amendment itself was fairly innocuous ("Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex"), Schlafly perceived that a larger game plan had been set in motion. The social fabric of American life could be reshaped, Schlafly warned, by a legion of activist lawyers with the full backing of the Constitution. But this is not why the ERA failed. A cultural nerve had been struck. The role of women was changing in American society-sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. Ironically, many of the changes most feared by conservatives have happened anyway, such as widespread acceptance of women's roles in the military. These changes have happened in spite of the ERA's defeat, which should cause us to question how effective our political activity really has been.

New political themes were also emerging-sometimes in strange ways-and these themes would become staples of conservative rhetoric. For example, Hal Lindsey's popularization of biblical prophecy, The Late Great Planet Earth (1970), can be read from the distance of almost forty years as the blueprint for a crude evangelical foreign policy. From a conservative standpoint, everything wrong with international affairs was embodied in the cold, academic figure of Henry Kissinger, national security adviser and secretary of state in the 1970s. Lindsey's apocalyptic best seller sketched out the direction evangelicals would take when thinking (for the first time) about foreign affairs in the years following Kissinger's "shuttle diplomacy" in the Middle East, the détente with the Soviet Union, and the opening of diplomatic contacts with China.

Before Hal Lindsey, there was no cohesive evangelical foreign policy. The revival of interest in end times prophecy, however, provoked questions about the larger world and how our actions as a nation might fit into God's plan. In one slim package-a little book with corny chapter titles like "Russia Is a Gog" and "Sheik to Sheik"-evangelicals would find a foreign policy that addressed the major hot spots in the world: the Middle East, the Soviet Union, the European Common Market, and China. The centrality of Israel in biblical prophecy guaranteed its centrality in evangelicalforeign policy. Evangelical leaders were unabashedly pro-Israel and soon earned for themselves the label of "Christian Zionists." The role of Gog and Magog in the prophecies of Armageddon ensured that Russia (then the Soviet Union) would be vigorously opposed. Détente would be rejected in favor of a more robust posture toward Soviet expansionism. Christian conservatives, for example, were deeply skeptical of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II) and opposed it vigorously. The European Common Market was viewed suspiciously too, as it was widely understood by evangelicals to be the forerunner of the revived Roman Empire prophesied by Daniel. Military and political support of Taiwan (another policy position taken by evangelical leaders) found its rationale in China's role in biblical prophecy. Never a favorite of conservatives, China was the nation that would bring two hundred million troops against Israel in the battle of Armageddon.

The Late Great Planet Earth became the best-selling nonfiction book of the 1970s. Millions of readers, including the future president of the United States Ronald Reagan, devoured the breezily written and thinly documented book. Of course, Reagan didn't get his foreign policy from Hal Lindsey, but the fact that Lindsey's apocalyptic vision was so compatible with Reagan's political philosophy goes a long way toward explaining why Reagan and the Religious Right embraced each other with such affection.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from UNCHRISTIAN AMERICA by MICHAEL BABCOCK Copyright © 2008by Michael A. Babcock.Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents


Introduction     vii
Losing the Battle
The Battle Is Engaged     3
How Christian a Nation?     39
Rethinking the Shining City     65
The Long Defeat     99
Winning The War
Back to the Beginning     133
What's Worth Fighting For?     163
A Simple Call to Virtue     193
Epilogue     213
Notes     215
Acknowledgments     221
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