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An essay donated by Alton Thompson

Why Did Christianity Never "Take" in Our Society?

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Given the diversity that has existed over the centuries, and now exists, with “Christianity,” my first task here, of course, is to clarify the meaning that I give to “Christianity” in this essay.

As I want to keep such a discussion short, I find it useful here simply to distinguish between “death” and “life” traditions within Christianity. The discussion that follows is a part of the latter tradition.

As the distinction between these two traditions has been delineated rather well by Carl Gregg, 1 here I will make just two points:

  • The death tradition has focused on Jesus’s death, evidently perceiving that death (by crucifixion) as a continuation of animal sacrifice in the “Old Testament”—what Jews refer to as the Tanakh. However, within Judaism 2 sacrifices and offerings occurred for a variety of purposes. The Hebrew word “Karbanot [usually translated as “sacrifice” or “offering”] comes from the root Qof-Resh-Bet, which means ‘to draw near,’ and indicates the primary purpose of offerings [/sacrifices]: to draw us near to G-d.” Christians in the death tradition, however, have tended to perceive Jesus’s death as a “substititionary sacrifice for the sins of the world” 3 (rather than for, e.g., a cause).

  • The life tradition, in contrast, has not so much focused on alleged events in Jesus’s life, including his death on a cross, as a certain aspect of his life. That aspect of Jesus’s life is, specifically, the teachings attributed to him in the (canonical) gospels. For members of the life tradition, the point is to strive to be a disciple of Jesus; thus, a second differentiating characteristic between the two traditions is that “life tradition” people have an orientation to proper behavior (orthopraxy), whereas the orientation of “death tradition” people is to proper belief (orthodoxy)—i.e., accepting as “true” certain facts about Jesus’s life, and attaching certain meanings to those (alleged) facts. Put another way, for life tradition people Christianity is (or at least should be) the religion of Jesus rather than (merely) a religion about Jesus.

As one who identifies with the life tradition associated with Jesus, an aspect of USan 4 society that has long puzzled me is: Given the claim that the United States was founded on Christian principles, and that the country remains a Christian nation, the values that are seemingly dominant in this country—e.g., individualism, competition, materialism, selfishness—are not ones that a person associated with the life tradition, at least, would label as being of a “Christian” nature. What that fact would seem to indicate, then, is that it is death tradition Christians who have been the dominant element in our society.

But if that’s the case, how does one explain the fact that there are so many good people in our society—such as the lovely (in more than one way!) Melissa Salguero? 5 Is it simply the fact that as humans we USans are naturally “good natured”? But if that’s the case, how, then, does one explain all of the violence (by guns alone) that occurs in this country 6 —and all of the violence that we have perpetrated, and continue to perpetrate, abroad?!

From the fact that both good and bad behavior are common in our country, one might very well conclude that ours is a schizophrenic society! And in a very real sense I believe that it is! Let me next, then, explain what I mean in making that assertion:

As members of USan society, of necessity all of us (virtually, at least) must live in two realms—a public realm and a private one. While we are working, shopping, informing ourselves about political matters, attending a church or movie or concert, walking around in the neighborhood, etc., we are living in the public realm. Needless to say, the dominant component of that realm (today, at any rate) is the economic one, and the values that I identified earlier as dominant in our society are associated especially with the public realm, its economic component in particular.

In the public realm competition is a primary value, with that value (a) being (subtly) promoted by professional and non-professional sports (all of which are of a competitive nature!), while also (b) serving to justify—i.e., make respectable—competition as a value. Because of the popularity of sports in this society, it is “natural” for one to acquire a mindset that assumes, tacitly, that competition is not only an inevitable component of the public realm, but a desirable component. Especially if one has been “well-schooled” in the discipline of Economics is one likely to think this way.

What members of our society fail to recognize, however, is that the presence of such a mindset in so many of this nation’s citizens has implications for structural changes in our society, which changes, in turn, have well-being implications for citizens of this country.

Prof. Richard D. Wolff is an example of an economist who has argued that a capitalist system, by its very nature, will produce increasing economc inequality in a society. 7 I agree with that conclusion, and would add that that inequality has been, and is, the basic cause of many of this country’s problems.

What’s ironic here is that a person in this society who is motivated to “do good” in the private realm may simultaneously be competitive in the public realm, and thereby contribute to a societal situation characterized by numerous social problems! Those social problems may be of such a magnitude, in fact, that they are beyond—even far beyond—the efforts of “do gooders” to address them in any meaningful way! And the “do gooders” in question likely fail to realize that their own actions in the public realm have contributed to this situation!

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The above discussion has contained a number of points, and so far I have not given those points much in the way of coherence. They do lead me, however, to create a typology that brings those points together. Using the above points, I perceive three types of people in our society:

  1. Those guided by our society’s dominant values—competition in particular—in both the public and private realms: If one in this category is a Christian, s/he is likely a death tradition sort of Christian. That tradition’s emphasis on beliefs rather than behaviors (those of a “discipleship” nature specifically) enables a member of that tradition to live—in both public and private realms—by the society’s dominant values. Also, the fact that values such as competition are the society’s dominant values mean not so much that such people constitute the majority in our society, as that the “successful” members of our society—because of their influence/power—control the society, and are involved in the manufacture of consent. Why one is in this category rather than one of the other two would be an interesting—and important—question to address, but I make no effort to do so in this essay—although I would assert that the nature of one’s upbringing likely plays some role.

  2. Some in our society are guided to an important degree by our society’s dominant values while in the public realm, but by “goodness” in the private realm (home realm in particular) Even the Melissa Salguero 5 referred to above as a “lovely” person, although likely not in competition with her fellow teachers, and although she “mothers” her students, is likely somewhat infected by the society’s dominant values—in that she is likely helping those students become more “successful” than they would otherwise be. In the private realm, however, she is likely a “good” person, carrying her helpfulness as a teacher in her public life into her private life. Whether or not she is a Christian, it seems clear that she is a life tradition sort of person.
  3. I would add that those in this middle category are likely to be in the middle class—having some degree of “success” in the public realm, while providing a good home environment (if married) to their children, etc. Perhaps it was the fact that they themselves had a loving home environment—in which excellence and achievement were also, though, valued—that goes a long way in explaining their location in this category.

  4. Finally, there are those in our society for whom “success” has little or no attraction, and who may also practice “goodness” in the private realm. I say “may” because some in this category are merely independent-minded individuals who simply want (like Henry David Thoreau) to “go their own way.” Those who are not “success-minded” in the public realm, but are “good-oriented” in the private realm, would tend to be either individuals who (a) are closely “in tune” with their natures as humans or (and/or, actually), or (b) people who identify strongly with the “life” tradition—whether or not they also identify themselves as “Christians.” 8 Because individuals in this third category do not value “success,” they are not likely to have much income—although some may have inherited wealth.

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The title of this essay poses a question—Why Did Christianity Never “Take” in Our Society?—so I suppose that it is now the time and place to offer an answer to that question!

As I stated at the beginning of this essay, for me “Christianity” means the life tradition of Christianity. Given that, the answer to my question should be obvious: Although it’s true that those who founded this country had some connection to Christianity (including its Deistic component), for much of our history (until quite recently) most USans were either part of the death tradition of Christianity or were simply uninterested in theological matters.

Given the mindsets of so many of those who peopled our country in the early centuries, 9 the life tradition had little chance of gaining a foothold. It’s true that in the early part of the twentieth century a “Social Gospel” movement gained some prominence, but that movement died out, for a variety of reasons. The very name that the movement acquired—in (falsely!) suggesting that a difference exists between “the gospel” and “the social gospel”—led one to believe that there was something basically inauthentic about the movement. But such an interpretation is, of course, precisely what one would expect from those who were a part of the death tradition—and the dominant element in the society besides (a point that Noam Chomsky would likely make)!

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  1. Carl Gregg, "The Life Tradition versus the Death Tradition in Christianity," Patheos, 2014-MAR-18, at:
  2. Animal sacrifice, within Judaism, basically ended in 70 CE, when the Jerusalem Temple (within which sacrifices occurred) was destroyed by the Romans.
  3. Related to this, many in this tradition have perceived baptism as involving a symbolic “washing away of one’s sins,” others in the tradition seeing baptism (of the immersion variety, specifically) as signifying one’s desire that one’s “old sinful self” die, and that one be “born again” into a new sinless life. How either interpretation of baptism might be related to the baptism of Jesus is unclear—given that, e.g., in John’s gospel, at least, the Spirit descended as a dove upon Jesus’s baptism. Of course, “pentacostalists” (who tend to be in the death tradition) place emphasis on “spirit-filling,” but seemingly base their attachment to that phenomenon primarily to what allegedly occurred on Pentacost.
  4. A citizen of the United States is more properly referred to as a “USan” than an “American,” for obvious reasons.
  5. Melissa Salguero is a music teacher in the Bronx, NY. From the "P.S. 48 Recovery Project" at the GoFundMe web site:

  6. "Ms. Salguero has been teaching at P.S.48 for six years. She commutes sometimes over 2 hours to get to school everyday. She wants to share her love and passion for music with her students. She teaches her students to love and appreciate music. Being positive and kind are two core principles in her classroom. Currently she is a graduate student at the University of Bridgeport pursuing a Masters in Music Education.

    P.S.48 is in the South Bronx and is located in one of the poorest districts in New York. The average household income is $16,000. The music program started with help from Education Through Music. ETM is a non-profit that builds quality, sustainable music programs in inner-city schools."

    As of 2015-MAR-02, people have donated $12,446 towards their goal of $30,000. 

  7. "List of countries by firearm-related death rate," Wikipedia, as on 2015-FEB-17, at: Among English speaking countries, they list Australia as having 0.86 firearm-related deaths per 100,000 persons; Canada: 2.22, New Zealand: 1.45; UK: 0.25; and the U.S.: 10.30.

  8. Book cover Richard D. Wolff, "Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism," Haymarket Books (2012). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store Available in paperback format for $12.50 plus postage, and in Kindle format for $7.98. 92 customer reviewers gave the book a 4 star (out of 5) rating.
  9. For example, they might identify themselves as Buddhists.
  10. Excluding native “Indians” and black slaves, of course!

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Originally posted: 2015-MAR-02
Last updated 2015-MAR-02
Author: Alton Thompson
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