Earlier this month, the Center for Investigative Reporting released the story of a chicken factory-farm and “rehab” program in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Called the Christian Alcoholics & Addicts in Recovery, or CAAIR, this program convinced local courts to send defendants with substance abuse problems to work in grueling, dangerous conditions for long hours with no pay, all in the name of “learning work skills” and “overcoming addiction.” Now being sued by three Oklahoma men who allege that they were treated as little more than slaves for the for-profit business that depended on their free labor, CAAIR is a shocking yet not unexpected result of a trend that’s been winding through the fiber of American culture for generations. The unholy marriage of suffering, religious services and profit that characterizes CAAIR is yet one more sign that American Christianity is losing its soul.
Certain elements of this flavor of religiosity have been with us ever since settlers started coming here in boats from the old country. The same exodus of those with (for the time) fringe or extreme religious views that inspired the Establishment clause of the First Amendment also self-selected for a widening gap in cultural attitudes generations later between the Old World and the New.
Whether it was based on racism or abortion, the hookup of the Evangelicals and the Republican party in the 1970s and 80s, combined with a bit of New Agey “New Thought,” led directly to the mess we have today. New Thought, with its roots in 19th century American occult spirituality, is the bit of dogma which claims that individuals are completely responsible for their own situation in life, and that proper application of mental energy is the cure for what ails you. Toss in a bit of the Calvinist work ethic and predestination, and this is what gave us Prosperity Gospel, the idea that material wealth is proof of personal righteousness. Can you imagine the Biblical Jesus traversing the Holy Land, reassuring folks that the blessed rich would inherit the Kingdom of Heaven? When these beliefs are used to corrupt a revolutionary religion into the service of the Lords of Industry, American Christianity is losing its soul.
As long ago as 1990, neopagan social commentator Isaac Bonewits astutely picked up on the way American Christians were headed. The closed logic loops, the intolerance, the rigid moral dualism, and the trinity of anger, hatred and fear would only get worse as time passed. It took an outsider, a Druid, to point out that American Christianity is losing its soul, but the view from the inside seems to be one of persecution.
Like an immune system with no invading microbes to fight, American Christianity started attacking enemies that aren’t. That explains the love affair with Tim Tebow but the condemnation of Colin Kaepernick, two Christian footballers who were moved to their knees. Yet Tebow is a living embodiment of the opposite of Matthew 6:5, while Kaepernick is protesting the killing of people like John Crawford III. It’s even visible in articles like this one, which suggest that instead of directly helping needy families at holiday time, Christians should donate to wealthier families who can then employ poorer parents who need money to buy gifts for their children, in a kind of charitable trickle-down. Or better yet, don’t donate anything at all, because Christmas isn’t supposed to be about getting presents, anyway. Instead, the holy culture war should focus more on what self-described Christians like Joel Osteen and those who run CAAIR represent.
Perhaps queasiness over the seeming hypocrisy is what’s driving Americans from the pews in droves, making a kind of “war” on Christianity a self-fulfilling prophecy. On the other hand, lacking the mitigating factor of a religious community to temper radical views may explain why it was mostly the unchurched variety of Evangelicals that boosted Donald Trump into the oval office, a sure sign that American Christianity is losing its soul.
That said, can American Christianity get its groove back? Of course it can – if it repents. Not all American Christians are spiritually empty; many are still working to make the world better in ways that reflect well upon their religion. For example, consider the Evangelicals who are urging Trump to back away from the resurgent neo-Nazi/KKK movement. Then there are the 40 Catholic organizations whose concern about climate change inspired them to divest of their oil and gas industry investments. That’s what I call an attempt at being a good steward of creation.
In the end, perhaps it’s not that American Christianity is losing its soul. Perhaps it’s only the individuals and groups who are the loudest about turning the gospel into a money and political power machine that are giving up the holy ghost. It then falls to the rest of the American Christians to serve as a correcting influence upon those who seem to be actively intent upon losing their way. May the Force, however you define it, be with you.