Tag Archives: America

American Christianity: A Story of Pick-and-Choose Protestantism

The Affordable Care Act has constantly been making headlines since its inception back in 2009, and now is no exception. As previously mentioned on this blog, Hobby Lobby, an American crafts company, has a case against the Obamacare contraception mandate that is headed to the Supreme Court. Hobby Lobby is not the only organization complaining about this apparent infringement on its freedom of religion—there have been several other cases like this one in the past.

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Americans protest Obamacare on the grounds of religious freedom.

Hobby Lobby is an Evangelical company, so it only makes sense that it would fit the Evangelical political mold in its displeasure with certain contraceptives that are believed to be similar to abortions in their use. But have Evangelicals always thought this way? As Jamelle Bouie, author of the Slate.com article entitled “God Does Not Regard the Fetus as a Soul”, tells it, Evangelicals certainly have not always been “obsessed” with abortion and contraception. As the article explains, Evangelicals—and most other Protestant Christians—in America, at the time of Roe v. Wade, were actually quite apathetic to abortion. Some Evangelical denominations, namely the Southern Baptists, openly preached during the 1960s and 1970s that the use of abortions in most situations was perfectly acceptable. It wasn’t the Evangelicals, but the Catholics who firmly discouraged abortion consistently throughout these culturally-turbulent decades. By the 1980s, however, most Evangelical and other conservative Christian denominations came to join forces with their Catholic counterparts and advocate the moral flaws inherent with abortion.

But how can such a change happen, and in so short of a time?

The American attitude has always been one of freedom and preservation of the individual. Among the first settlers of what would become the United States were those who sought religious freedom. Those men and women would inevitably establish a Protestant America, a trend that remains even to this day—51.3% of Americans self-identify as Protestant Christians, according to the most recent PewResearch Report on American religious affiliation. Why has Protestantism thrived throughout American history, even with over two centuries of immigration introducing other denominations and religions to the public?

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Some of Protestantism’s many denominations and how they’ve evolved across time.

Protestantism and the American identity grew together as the country established itself. America has been a hotbed of Protestant thought, fostering the creation or maintenance of several thousand denominations, by some estimates. The ideals of both American thought and Protestant thought are essentially the same. They were founded off the same notion.

America was founded as a result of the Enlightenment and revolutionary philosophical ideas. Freedom was essential to the new nation. To be able to do as one wished was fundamental in the United States, and it still is to this day. Protestantism was founded as a result of the Reformation, which was also a revolution—but instead of rebelling against the British Monarch, the people were revolting against the established Catholic Church. This was the first step in forming what has become characteristic of what it is to be American: the ability to pick and choose what an individual wanted to belief. It was one of the first radical events to occur in the western world on the front of individualism.

America is a pick-and-choose nation. An individual’s ideals and preferences are almost sacred in this country. This environment has created the perfect setting for a religion as subjective as Protestant Christianity to thrive in.

Because of this, American Christianity is especially subject to change with the times, or, as Bouie put it, to not be “immune to the winds of the world around [it]”. American Protestants are especially vulnerable to this cultural-moral shifting, but American Catholics are not necessarily exempt, either.

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Breakdown of American Catholic legal views on abortion according to the Pew Research Forum.

Catholicism, unlike Protestantism, has maintained the same doctrine throughout the existence of the Church. It is required that Catholics follow this teaching in order to be in full communion with the Church. That doesn’t stop American Catholics from falling victim to their national environment, though: according to the PewResearch Forum, 16% of all American Catholics believe abortion is legal in all cases, and 32% believe it is legal in most cases. This is a far cry from the Vatican’s official teaching.

The American atmosphere is one that is inherently Protestant. Its very nature is to change and pick and choose its own ideals, and no two people are guaranteed to have the same ideals. Any religion introduced to America is almost guaranteed, upon some degree of assimilation, to become a little bit more Protestant and a little bit more American—those two things may not be quite as different as they seem. As Catherine Albanese puts it in her book America: Religions and Religion, there is a Protestant cultural establishment. All subsequent religions must either fight through or conform to this American, Protestant institution.

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Ash Wednesday and Public Christianity

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Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the forty days of Lent on the Christian calendar, has been celebrated for centuries in many churches. As a representation of repentance and dependence on Jesus, Christians across America come together to be blessed with the words of Genesis 3:19 and marked with ashes in the shape of a cross on their foreheads. The ritual is not uncommon and widely practiced in American church culture, but what happens when it is taken to the general public, outside the confines of a strictly Christian sanctuary? Ashes To Go, a national organization that was started about seven years ago, has done just that: church officials bring ashes to public places, blessing people as they pass by and marking them with the symbolic cross of ashes.

We take ashes to the street corner because that reminder of need, humility, and healing shouldn’t be confined to a church building.  We probably need it more when we are in the middle of our daily business! The ashes we receive are to remind us throughout the day of our need for God, and of God’s call to us.

Ashes To Go, as seen in the above quote taken from their national website, is all about the mission to remind people of their need for repentance, even if that reminder comes in the middle of a crowded urban street corner. On the national website for the organization, stories of joyful reactions and “smiles of gratitude” are described. But America is not a country of one-sided opinions, and in fact many negative responses have been shared in a number of articles about this national phenomenon since its beginning. One particular piece in The Washington Post by Michelle Boorstein features both sides of the argument, noting that even though the majority of people walking by Ashes To Go at Union Station would identify themselves as Christians, the reactions to being asked to represent this faith on their foreheads seemed to vary.

But why do so many people object to the idea of making this ritual public for those who would like to participate, and why are so many of those objecting people Christians themselves? According to Boorstein’s article, the many Americans who call themselves “unaffiliated” with any particular religious group include a portion of Christians. As the custom of wearing the ash cross for Lent is mainly associated with what the article calls “traditional Christian denominations,” it follows that people of the Christian faith who do not want to be associated with specified tradition would in fact not want to take part in such a conventional practice. But this simply cannot account for all the Christians passing by Ashes To Go at Union Station who were not willing to participate in what is widely accepted as customary for their faith. Why were people hesitant to proclaim their religion in such a way that it could literally be seen on their foreheads?

The answer may lie in American culture today. In a country that emphasizes religious and cultural freedom, it is not surprising to find that people are hesitant to show what they truly believe in such a straightforward fashion. Modern culture in America is seemingly geared toward imaging and outward appearance. How a person looks or what a person wears is paramount to the way that person is viewed by society. For example, someone sporting large, dark-framed glasses and colored, tight-fitting jeans might be labeled in American culture as a hipster. Outsiders may associate this identification with any number of characteristics and connotations, whether they are true or not. In the same way, many people, including Christians, could be opposed to being branded by a cross on their foreheads for Ash Wednesday. The implications that come with being publicly labeled as a Christian are enough to make some believers pass by the Ashes To Go station rather than receive the blessing.

In her book America: Religions & Religion, Catherine Albanese continuously returns to the theme of religious change brought on by an evolving environment and America’s “manyness.” The effect of national religious diversity and changing culture can be seen even today. The controversy of Ashes To Go and public labeling of faith illustrates just how much American culture can influence religious perception.

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