Sunday, July 12, 2009

Buicks Are Part of Chairman Christ's New Five Year Plan

This morning over coffee, I was reading a review of a new book entitled God is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith is Changing the World. The review was written by a good sort, the estimable Diana Butler Bass, and it articulated what she saw as the core theme of the book: the mesh between religious liberty and progress.

It's a valid connection, and a hopeful theme in human society, but one particular quote jumped out at me as a wee bit off. Maybe I'm just oversensitive, so let me share the quote in question:

The book opens with an American evangelical-style Bible study in Shanghai, where the pastor proclaims: "In Europe the church is old. Here it is modern. Religion is a sign of higher ideals and progress. Spiritual wealth and material wealth go together. That is why we will win." These words echo the American view that economic prosperity meshes with religious freedom. This vignette supports the book's main point: that religion and modernity are not at odds, that, in the American mode, they can function together to create prosperity and individual freedom.

While I may be projecting a bit, I don't think what the Chinese evangelist is saying and what the book is arguing are the same thing. When an evangelical says: "Spiritual wealth and material wealth go together," they generally don't mean "religious liberty and material wealth go together." In fact, they pretty much never mean that.

They mean that being spiritual gets you material blessings. Period. You should be spiritual, because the 2010 Buick Lacrosse is a really fine looking car and Jesus can get it for you if you ask real nice. And given the choice between a brand new Buick and religious freedom for Muslims, I'm not quite sure how many Chinese evangelicals would choose door number two.

I agree that religious liberty is absolutely necessary, and a sign of a culture in which progress is possible. But religious liberty and evangelical Christianity worldwide have a somewhat interesting relationship. On the one hand, Christians value the freedom to worship and to share the Gospel. But when you believe that every other faith is a one way ticket to eternal damnation, your motivation level to support the rights of other faiths has to be somewhat impacted.

As the global marketplace becomes a stronger force, the danger for the integrity of Christianity is that it will become increasingly co-opted into the values and norms of the marketplace. The Gospel of Prosperity and the Word Faith movement are powerful, powerful forces in the developing world. The spread of a consumerist "Christianity" in which individual material prosperity is the goal is a real, and I would argue spiritually dangerous, eventuality.