A Response to Stephen Mattson’s “American Christianity Has Failed”

–Daniel S. Ferguson

This article went viral a couples days ago. That’s partly because Sojourners hosted it. And partly because Stephen Mattson has a pretty stout following already. And partly because it was, of course, click bait.

With a title like “American Christianity Has Failed,” you really can’t expect anything different. It was designed for people who were already partially outraged about Christianity (either for it or against it) to click on it because of that outrage.

The liberal side of me likes a lot of what Mattson has to say. He’s all about the social justice side of Christianity, and so am I. For him, the Golden Rule is a big deal, as it should be. He thinks churches should employ it as a fundamental standard for public activity, and he’s right. They should.

But from there, he just goes off his rocker. He says things like this:

“[Christians are] largely responsible for refusing shelter and opportunity to some of the world’s most helpless and oppressed people.”

That’s absolute nonsense. Even though Congress’s decision to keep away Syrian refugees drives me up the wall and makes me want to pull my hair out, that says very little about American Christianity. It does say a lot about American political power games, but it doesn’t say much about the church itself.

However much Franklin Graham’s support of President Trump at his inauguration may have driven Mattson (and me) up the wall (no, Franklin, rain is not a Biblical sign of blessing from God), Graham’s Christian organization, Samaritan’s Purse, provided over $450 million in aid, just in 2015. That doesn’t include their fundraising or administrative costs. Just the aid itself. And that’s just one organization. There are hundreds more, some of which are providing phenomenal aid directly in Syria and other crazy dangerous places, all because they think that’s what Jesus would do. A lot of these people deserve combat pay for the environments they’re in.

With full knowledge of that, Mattson says,

“It appears that the sole role of Christianity is to selfishly protect people’s own self-interests instead of sacrificially serving others… Mainstream Christianity has failed. It looks nothing like Jesus.”

But it does. It so often does. It’s just not obvious.

I know churches that have stepped in when disaster strikes whole towns and when it strikes just one family. I know churches that have calmed city riots with nothing more than lemonade and pie. I know churches that have prevented domestic abuse with their own bodies. I know churches that have housed refugees in their sanctuaries and in their own homes. I know churches that have sat in hospital waiting rooms with Muslim neighbors. I know churches that have sent their own people away from comfortable suburbia into the most devastated places on earth, not even to preach the Gospel, but just to help wherever they can. I know churches that have stood in front of protests against abortion clinics to prevent violence against women and doctors. I know churches that have stood against evil, even evil from among other churches.

That doesn’t get on CNN much, but it happens. A lot. The main reason American Christianity doesn’t “look like Jesus” is because “looking like Jesus” doesn’t break headlines. (Click to Tweet)

I completely agree with Mattson that the United States government should be doing substantially more to aid Syrian and other displaced refugees. I want our country to welcome them in by the tens of thousands. It drives me batty that there’s not enough political support for such obvious moral good. But Mattson’s defeatist attitude leaves him with no solutions outside our government to help with the problem, when really I suspect it’s only because he can’t think of any.

Mattson also doesn’t seem to understand his own argument. He says,

“While there might be political, economic, financial, and safety reasons for implementing policies that harm people and refuse them help, there are certainly no gospel reasons.”

Even if he’s right, that’s not how our government works. We’re not supposed to make national decisions on the basis of religion. That’s exactly what so many advocates complain about with the church’s resistance to LGBTQ rights, that religion shouldn’t influence politics. They’re right; it shouldn’t.

If the only reason for the government to do anything is on the basis of Christian moral impetus, it shouldn’t be done. That’s a fundamental American principle. Christianity shouldn’t even be a factor. There need to be ten city blocks between the church and the state. Or at least, so the advocates on many other issues have correctly argued. Asking the government to be “Christian” on one issue but not all issues presents both a Constitutional and a logical landmine. (Click to Tweet)

Mattson does say one thing spot on the nose, though:

“Following Jesus is really hard.”

Yes, yes it is. It means speaking the truth with grace, not just outrage. It means creating social justice with your own hands and body, not just complaining that it’s the government’s responsibility. It means loving the church even when it fails, not disparaging Christ’s bride just because she’s a popular and easy target at the time.

I get that I may be preaching a bit to myself here, too. I’m a harsh critic of the church as well. I do my best to speak lovingly and to provide solutions to the problems I discuss. Sometimes I fail at that. For that I apologize. If I do it again, tell me. I’ll try to fix it.

Stephen, I don’t think you’re a bad guy. I share a lot of your goals and frustrations, about the situation in Syria in particular. But casting your blame on the church will not fix the problem that’s making you so angry. It might feel good to get so many hits and tweets of support, but it’s not the same as helping to produce a genuinely moral outcome.

You don’t fix problems by blaming people who have the power to help. You fix them by helping with what power you have. (Click to Tweet)

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