Contemporary Christianity: Identity Rather Than Doctrine?

The Theotokos of Vladimir, one of the most ven...
The Theotokos of Vladimir, one of the most venerated of Orthodox Christian icons of the Virgin Mary. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the most common criticisms atheists make of Christians is their tendency to read whatever they want (if they read it at all) into a book they claim to regard as "holy." We are quite fond of pointing out how they pick and choose which parts of their bible to glorify and which to ignore, placing their own judgment over that of the divine entity they insist is responsible for inspiring the text. We see this as arrogant and hypocritical. And I think we are correct to do so.

Even if the bible is not inerrant as some Christians claim, it seems odd to many atheists that Christians wouldn't make more of an effort to read it and attempt to conform their behavior to its instructions. If it is indeed different in some meaningful way from all other books that have been written, it would seem that Christians would be highly motivated to approach it with the goal of living by what it says and not merely what one wants to read into it. And yet, this stands in stark contrast to how most Christians seem approach their bible (fortunately for us).

The bible is sufficiently long, ambiguous, and inconsistent that Christians can find whatever they seek in its pages. If they want passages that can be used to support the institution of slavery, rape, or genocide, they will find them. If they want passages that can be used to support aid to the poor, nonviolent resistance, or environmental stewardship, they will find them. The bible can be used to justify all sorts of conflicting views of the world. And as you are well aware, it has been used to justify some truly awful things.

But what if much of contemporary Christianity, at least as one finds it in the U.S. today, has little to do with the bible or its contents? What if has little to do with the parts of ancient dogma that Christians believe or at least claim to believe? I think an argument could be made that Christianity has become little more than a shared identity and that this - more than any doctrine or scripture - is why it endures in the U.S. today.

Admittedly, I haven't thought nearly enough about this possibility yet. I know I am not articulating it well here. It is one of those vague sorts of thoughts that has been circling the recesses of my mind for a while and to which I haven't devoted nearly enough conscious reflection. I wanted to get my thoughts down anyway, mostly so I might remember them.

When I look at the Christians who surround me these days, nearly all of whom are socially and economically conservative evangelical fundamentalists, I do not see people who are particularly concerned with the contents of their bible or who are seeking to live up to the example provided by its Jesus character. To be sure, I hear a great deal from them about Jesus. But they are focused on a distinctly American Jesus that bears little resemblance to the one described in their bible. They do not use their Jesus as a moral exemplar as much as a cudgel against those they perceive as enemies. And their enemies are those they see as threatening their interests, interests which seem to revolve around the accumulation of personal wealth, the sort of family values portrayed in 1950's television shows, and the public expression of piety and patriotism.

Nothing mobilizes these Christians faster than something they perceive as a threat to their way of life (e.g., same-sex marriage, reproductive rights, secular education, progressive tax policies). And when they are mobilized against such a threat, one can count on hearing a great deal about the parts of their bible that are consistent with whatever position they are attempting to support. Much like Jesus, their bible is merely a tool to argue for the things they would want anyway. It is a way to imbue their cause, whatever it may be, with an air of the divine. "I'm not doing this for me; I'm doing it for my god." This, in turn, provides them with a license to treat their enemies cruelly without experiencing guilt about doing so.

Where the shared identity comes into play, perhaps, is that these Christians recognize that they need allies in their quest to return us to their idealized version of the 1950s. Specifically, they need allies who share their vision. And they are only able to find them in certain churches because many people follow what they would consider the wrong types of Christianity. They need a way of making sure that people want the same things they do, and so they have developed an elaborate system of evangelical fundamentalist code (i.e., Christianspeak) that can be used to signal membership in their tribe.

What I have just described focused on a particular type of Christian. But is the manner in which more liberal Christians use their bible really much different? I don't think it is. Might their form of Christianity also be primarily about shared identity and not about doctrine or even belief? I think it might be.