Culture Wars and the Crisis in American Christianity

11/26/2013 06:09 pm ET | Updated Jan 26, 2014

We live in a culture in which it is seen as a virtue to be impetuous.

Some people actually seem to sincerely believe that making impulsive decisions is a leadership quality. Of course, there are times when leaders are called upon to make quick and thoughtful, spontaneous decisions, but real leadership is not rooted in a lack of impulse control. It's rooted in authority, which includes a knowledge base and humility that contextualizes any immediate decision that has to be made.

The reason that the culture-at-large tends to view this weakness as virtuous is because it often demonstrates an exercise of force that has specific results. We view this as being powerful. Of course, we also confuse power with authority, not understanding that an impulsive person usually lacks the latter even while demonstrating the former. Rash judgments rarely turn out to be the wisest, though sometimes of course they can prove themselves out, a vehicle of luck, not power. Rash, impulsive decisions are a gamble without leverage, the privilege of those who are intoxicated by their own sense of power and who usually have no clue as to the difference between that force and genuine authority.

The Difference between Authority and Power
Authority proceeds from character, which is important in traditional Christianity, and true power is invested in authority, not status. Jesus wasn't persecuted because he healed the sick on the Sabbath, but because he claimed he had the authority as the Son of God to do so.

A powerful person without authority creates chaos, confusion and destruction, whether she is a small business owner terminating an employee on a whim because she is irritated, or a political leader who is power-hungry, whose thirst for power will lead him to impulsively and brashly go so far as to shut down the government just in order to make a point. Power without authority is an interior crisis that has an impact on all levels.

A Crisis of Character
This is the kind of dynamic that I believe is at the heart of culture wars that gravitate around tenuous issues such as whether or not a retail business, such as Radio Shack, wishes customers and potential customers a Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays. Boycotting a business on that basis demonstrates a rash insensitivity to less superficial issues, but people buy into it because they think they are empowered by it. In fact, buying into it strips such people of any authority they might have once held..

What's worse, exercising one's sense of "power" as a consumer in order to manipulate a company (and public perception) over such a marginal and insubstantial fight is akin to fencing with windmills. There is not a corporate conspiracy to secretly deny Jesus Christ in the public sphere by being sensitive to the sensibilities of those who are not Christians in a pluralistic nation. And we do live in a pluralistic nation, which is evidenced frankly by the freedom we have to exercise or not exercise our religious convictions.

One might argue that one's religious conviction is that Christmas should retain a public acknowledgement of Christ. That's fine, though superficial. In fact, Christ himself seemed to frown upon those who wanted to make a big show of their religious faith. And one would be pressed to find him coercing others to worship him. He didn't launch any brand name campaigns to make his name known. Instead, his name became known not only because of the power he demonstrates in word and deed, but the authority by which it was demonstrated.

Christian churches and associations such as the American Family Association (AFA), who focus on what they deem to be attacks on their faith (such as saying "Happy Holidays" or "Seasons Greetings" instead of "Christ is born!" or "Merry Christmas") seem to be exerting a lot of heat and effort in a battle they can never win. The reason it cannot be won is because it isn't real. It's a false issue used by political pundits and cynical politicians to energize an attitude of victimhood for a privileged group who otherwise could not reasonably claim victim status.

The result is the image of a prince who feels persecuted because he isn't getting the respect he feels he deserves. He response is of course to try to punish you, publicly shame you, coerce you into giving props to Christ whether you believe in Him or not. Hardly the kind of behavior Jesus exemplified.

A Crisis of Calling
If the Christian right, those who promote the ridiculous notion that there is a "war on Christmas", led by over-the-top blowhards such as Bill O'Reilly on FOX, perpetuated by Sarah Palin and other cohorts, had any authority they would address real issues. Why boycott Radio Shack for not giving you the proper greeting when you could be addressing the problems of real poverty among the poor and the working poor, who are more likely to work at Radio Shack (and therefore potentially suffer from your boycott) than they are to shop there? Why not boycott companies like Walmart that have clearly documented histories of fraud and employee mistreatment? Why not boycott corporations that rape the environment for the sake of profit, clearcut the rainforest, and pollute and devastate the Appalachians?

There are a whole host of real problems that Christians with authority, if they had it, might address that are not addressed. Christians are called, quite explicitly, to feed the hungry, heal the sick, visit the prisoner. They are called to compassion, not outrage.

Wasting effort and energy over a non-issue such as whether or not Radio Shack promotes Jesus or mere happiness in its commercial campaigns during the Christmas season is (in the real world) a one-sided war that exposes the crisis in American Christianity. It is a crisis of character and of calling, which is more destructive to the church and the world than anything an imaginary conspiracy of atheists might ever attempt in the most fertile of imaginations.