Growth Inhibitors: Hypocrisy

As you can see from the title of this blog, my main concern has been the growth of the church. So over the last few months I have explored what we mean by growth and how it can be measured. I have examined some of the things that I think prevent that growth from taking place and considered ways of facilitating ecclesial health. As it so happens and in spite of my deepest desire, the church in the United States does not seem to be growing. Recent Pew Research Center surveys conducted in 2018 and 2019 conclude that “65% of American adults describe themselves as Christians when asked about their religion, down 12 percentage points over the past decade. Meanwhile, the religiously unaffiliated share of the population, consisting of people who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” now stands at 26%, up from 17% in 2009. Both Protestantism and Catholicism are experiencing losses of population share. Currently, 43% of U.S. adults identify with Protestantism, down from 51% in 2009. And one-in-five adults (20%) are Catholic, down from 23% in 2009. Meanwhile, all subsets of the religiously unaffiliated population – a group also known as religious “nones” – have seen their numbers swell. Self-described atheists now account for 4% of U.S. adults, up modestly but significantly from 2% in 2009; agnostics make up 5% of U.S. adults, up from 3% a decade ago; and 17% of Americans now describe their religion as “nothing in particular,” up from 12% in 2009. Members of non-Christian religions also have grown modestly as a share of the adult population.”[1]  While these statistics are already somewhat dated, they do establish a trajectory of decline which gives every indication of continuing. In fact, I wonder if the current pandemic is going to exacerbate the Churches’ losses by giving the many who have now gotten used to not actually engaging an excuse to never come back. In any case, the Church in the United States is no longer growing.

For a believer, the most natural question at this point is “why is this happening?” Why are so many people leaving the Church even when they are apparently not abandoning their basic religious orientation. What is it about the formal church that causes “…millions speak of their being spiritual but not religious … [and] shun the disorganized fronts of what they call ‘organized religion,’ and go their own way, sometimes finding new company?”[2]

These are not new questions and in what I have presented so far I have suggested that, in spite of occasional “success” (whatever that means) the church’s reliance on modern business thought and practice has altered its very character and led to some of the decline I just mentioned. But when I listen to those who have left the Church, I realize that the alignment with North American commercialism is not their only criticism. Many speak of hypocrisy. Others are troubled by the Christians’ extreme personalization of truth and their apparently willful ignorance of and disregard for their own teachings. Still others are put off by what appear to be unholy alliances with secular, if not anti-Christian social and political theories, supported by truly muddled thinking. These criticisms do not reflect the Christ-intended character of the Church, but are, rather, indicative of distortions and betrayals introduced by sinful human beings. So in the posts that follow I will try to identify some of these destructive affiliations or identifications, examine them in terms of the effects they have or are having on the growth of the church, and use the truth of the Holy Scriptures to call us all back to the true essence of the faith we proclaim.

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After an hour of­­ running off election stress and quarantine cookies, I ended up in a roadside conversation with my friendly atheist neighbor. Between us, it’s understood that I’m religious and that he religiously hates religion, and I listened as he picked apart the “Christians” in politics.

“There’s a basic moral compass in everyone,” the fellow said. “You know, right versus wrong, black and white. You shoot and kill someone, it’s wrong. You deny people education, that’s wrong. But these Christians, they claim all these“—he threw up air quotes— “‘principles’ they don’t uphold.”

I couldn’t disagree.

“They’re hypocrites.” My neighbor shook his head. “Religion is a nice idea and all, but what are rules and checklists when you never follow them? You have no moral authority as a Christian if you live against your own beliefs.”[3]

Claiming the moral standards of Christ while actively violating those standards is, indeed, hypocritical. To their shame it is a charge that has, with some justification, long been leveled at Christians. But contemporary North Americans believers––Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox alike ––appear to be drawing an increasingly intense variant of that charge from an ever-growing segment of the general population. “Christians have [it seems] developed a reputation for saying one thing and doing another.” Associating conservative Christians with hypocrisy[4] has become a default position of sorts such that

“Many folks don’t perceive Christian individuals, churches, institutions, and organizations in the United States as being loving, patient, or kind—and with good reason. Instead, Christians are often viewed as being the exact opposite: envious, boastful, arrogant, and rude. The credibility of Jesus has been marred by the hypocrisy of his namesake’s religion.”[5]

This is in no small part a result of the degree to which Christians have, on the one hand, so enthusiastically owned the premises and practices of North American capitalism[6] and, on the other hand, embodied the radicalized American version of “the great Enlightenment idea of intellectual freedom,” according to which “every individual is free to believe anything they wish”[7] and insists that those perceptions are true simply because they feel them “so thoroughly to be true.”[8] That these two identifications lead to the charge of hypocrisy is easily seen. Capitalism’s fundamental idea “that if we are left free to choose what we want most, we’ll get the most of what we want”[9] is profoundly antithetical to the teachings of Christ.  If Jesus teaches His disciples that what they have is a gift from Him, that they must share it with the needy, and that they must not serve the god of material wealth, how are contemporary Christo-capitalists for whom the “love of money is either the chief or secondary motive in everything”[10] they do to avoid the charge of hypocrisy? Likewise, the “promiscuous devotion”[11] to a mutated form of intellectual freedom has left American believers adrift in the trackless wasteland of a post-factual or post-truth moral landscape in which self-confirmation[12] is the only moral compass. “If I think it’s true, no matter why or how I think it’s true, then it’s true, and nobody can tell me otherwise.”[13]   Armed with “alternate facts” and “personal truth,” Christians can easily “believe” (feel?) that they are somehow released from Jesus’ command to care for the “weak and downtrodden” (Lk. 14.13, Ps. 82.3) or, for that matter, from any of His other commands.

So, even as they claim to follow Christ’s teaching on the virtues, we discover that “evangelical”[14] Christians are as likely to embrace lifestyles every bit as hedonistic, materialistic, self-centered, and sexually immoral as the world in general. Divorce is more common among “born-again” Christians than in the general American population.[15] Only 6 percent of evangelicals tithe. Forty-seven percent of self-identifying Orthodox think that aiding the poor “does more harm than good.”[16] White evangelicals are the “most likely people to object to neighbors of another race, and the sexual promiscuity of evangelical youth is only a little less outrageous than that of their non-evangelical peers.”[17] Sixty two percent of Orthodox think that homosexuality “should be accepted” even as their Church absolutely rejects the practice.[18]

Hypocrisy? Probably, and I believe that the inconsistent beliefs and practices of North American Christians is a major factor in the decline of the Church. In the next post, I will be asking if what we are dealing with there is simply hypocrisy or something far worse.

 

 

[1] “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace,” Pew Research Center, 2019, accessed Feb, 15, 2021, https://www.pewforum.org/2019/10/17/in-u-s-decline-of-christianity-continues-at-rapid-pace/.

[2] Martin Marty, “A Scholar’s View: The Long and Winding Road,” Newsweel, no. Aug. 29 (2005).

[3] This vignette, supplied and written by my granddaughter AnnaMarie Hickman, based on a random conversation with one of our neighbors which took place on November 5, 2020.

[4] “Skeptics may henceforth be disinclined to consider Christianity because they’ll think of hypocrisy when they think of evangelicals.” “Evangelicals’ embrace of Trump harms Christianity,” Tennessean, 2020, accessed Nov. 16, 2020, https://www.tennessean.com/story/opinion/2020/11/01/evangelicals-embrace-trump-hurts-credibility-christians/6110934002/.

[5] “American Christianity Has a Hypocrisy Problem,” Christians for Social Action, 2019, accessed Nov. 25, 2020, https://christiansforsocialaction.org/resource/american-christianity-hypocrisy-problem/.

[6] William Leach, Land of desire : merchants, power, and the rise of a new American culture, 1st ed. (New York: Vintage Books, 2011), Kindle.

[7] Kurt Andersen, Fantasyland : How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History (New York: Random House, 2017), 5, Kindle (2017).

[8] Andersen, Fantasyland : How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History.

[9] “The Essence Of Capitalism,” Foundation for Economic Education, 1955, accessed Dec. 8, 2020, https://fee.org/articles/the-essence-of-capitalism/.

[10] Andersen, Fantasyland : How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History, 85.

[11] Andersen, Fantasyland : How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History, 6.

[12] The idea of confirmation bias has been around for some time. In essence it means that “When people would like a certain idea or concept to be true, they end up believing it to be true.” “What Is Confirmation Bias? People are prone to believe what they want to believe.,” Psychology Today, 2015, accessed Dec. 11, 2020, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/science-choice/201504/what-is-confirmation-bias.

[13] Andersen, Fantasyland : How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History, 48.

[14] “In fairness, evangelical is an umbrella term encompassing many Protestant Christians who hold some variance of similar beliefs. It should likewise be noted that many conservative evangelicals denounced Trump from the very beginning, an act for which they should be commended. It is these evangelicals who remain left uncertain of what to do amongst fellow congregants post-election.” “The Betrayal of Evangelicalism,” Huffington Post, 2017, accessed Nov. 10, 2020, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/the-betrayal-of-evangelic_b_12911888. As I shall argue later the teachings that these faithful evangelicals have refused to betray are the very principles that will enable us to survive the present darkness.

[15] “Born Again Christians Just As Likely to Divorce As Are Non-Christians,” Barna Research, 2999, accessed Feb. 16, 2021, https://www.barna.com/research/born-again-christians-just-as-likely-to-divorce-as-are-non-christians/.

[16] “Orthodox Christians – Religion in America: U.S. Religious Data, Demographics and Statistics “, Pew Research Center, 2020, accessed Dec. 11, 2020, https://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/religious-tradition/orthodox-christian/.

[17] Ronald J.  Sider, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience. Why don’t Christians live what they preach? (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005), 5, Kindle (2005).

[18] “Orthodox Christians – Religion in America: U.S. Religious Data, Demographics and Statistics “.

4 comments:

  1. In New Zealand people have advised each other to indicate that they are unbelievers in the census and other documents . It is not acceptable to employers and others to be Christian or Jewish. So when clergy bewail the lack of belief maybe they are being misled.
    Think of the horror of supporters of President T by US Democrats. It is not unreasonable that people now keep opinions to themselves when they risk exclusion.

    1. Hi,
      Yes, you bring up an important point about the statistics. We have indeed faced a kind of privatization of religion which, for many reasons, causes people to want to hide their affiliation. So, a person could conceivably declare themselves non-religious and still be a faithful believer. However, it is important to not that not all the statistics are based on self-identification. Some things, like church attendance, church membership, social behavior measured against the teachings of the Church (abortion, divorce, materialism, etc) appear to be more overt behaviors indicative of an actual change in perspective. These things are easily measured by the researchers and the trend does seem to be negative. If that is the case, then my question is why that is happening and I have suggested that hypocrisy might be one reason. By hypocrisy I mean claiming to believe one thing and living in another way. So if some christians “terrorize” others because of their political stance (and I am sure that has happened) then they are not living in accord with the teaching of Christ and are thus hypocritical. So, I can’t help wonder if (some) Christians being hypocrites might not discourage non-christian observers from wanting to become part of the Church, which seems to be increasingly happening, or if some believers might just get fed up with the duplicity and leave the Church, which also seems to be happening. So, the lesson here might be for each and every one of us to faithfully and consistently live according to the teachings of Christ (sermon on the mount, fruits of the spirit, etc.).

  2. We are all hypocrites. Including your atheist neighbor. Difference is a Christian may fall short but has Christ to help him when he does. Assuming he is a practicing christian which i hear is maybe 10% of the church. The rest we don’t have any control over. The Reality is most people will look for an easier softer way to get to the spiritual state they want. Our church offers the fullness of faith. It’s easier to buy a cheap hamburger from McDonalds drive thru, then to get out of my car, find a steak, pay $15 , take it home, marinate it, grill it, then clean the grill etc…. Who wants to put in the uncomfortable work of looking at themselves and changing? Just my opinion. Thanks for letting me share.

    1. Indeed, there is not one of us who could claim to be without some degree of hypocrisy. Thankfully, God in His mercy has made a way for repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation in Christ. That is, as you say, the heart of the true faith. I do wonder why fewer and fewer individuals avail themselves of this opportunity today. I suspect that it is because so few Christians are living in obvious compliance with the teachings of their own Church—you suggest that it might only be 10%. If that is even close to being true, then we can understand why Christians are generally perceived to be hypocrites. We know that for many non-believers this is just a convenient excuse for avoiding the truth. Nevertheless, they are avoiding, it and that is my concern. So, while we do not have control over other peoples behavior, we do have some control over our own lives and the challenge seems to be living in such a way as to avoid giving others an excuse to reject Christ, but more than that, to give them a reason to follow Him.

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