A Letter to the American Church

A review of A Letter to the American Church by Eric Metaxas, offered by Ken Kuhlken:

I will credit Mr. Metaxas for offering, in Letters to the American Church,  valuable history lessons concerning Dietrich Bonhoeffer and William Wilberforce.

However, that’s about the extent of my admiration.

Mr. Metaxas appears to be preaching to the protestant, fundamentalist movement generally tagged Christian nationalism, and inciting it to violence if that’s what it takes to achieve its mission. He uses Bonhoeffer’s experience in the Germany of the 1930s as an example of what will become of the United States if we don’t eradicate what he terms Cultural Marxism, about which he exhibits fierce antipathy.  His Cultural Marxism includes critical race theory, all sexual behaviors besides those Biblically and traditionally favored, any promotion of or allowance for abortion, and of course anything we might label Communist or Socialist. All these evils, he asserts,  share a taproot that leads all the way to hell. He  assures readers that  critical race theory will destroy the fabric of society and that promoting vaccination is an attack on our liberty, noting that “some vaccines  were manufactured with cells from aborted babies.”

What most bothers me, he expresses what is, in my estimation, a false view of American exceptionalism. He feels we are called by God to spread the gospel.  But I wonder what gospel he means. Might he mean any the gospel that brings people to churches like the ones he criticizes all through his book? For the record, I too believe that God issued America a great challenge, to spread a gospel by exemplifying that all people are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Sound familiar?

Throughout the book, he used William Wilberforce’s advocating against slavery as an example we should follow. This even though his target audience demographic is the Christian nationalist movement brand that is, from my observation, tied to the Southern Baptist Conference, which was founded as a result of northern Baptists refusing to send money to support slaveholders.

I agree with Mr. Metaxas’ claims that the 1954 Johnson Amendment to the U.S. Tax code was rather insidious as it enables the IRS to remove the tax exemption of churches for their political advocacy. Mr. Metaxas rightly asserts that the amendment silenced preaching that  needs to be preached. What puzzles me is an example he uses that if this act had been in place in the 19th and early 20th centuries, pastors not have been allowed to speak out against Jim Crow laws,.” This coming from an author whose target audience is the sort of churchgoer who would categorically refuse to  vote for anyone liable to favor remediating any of the damage done by  Jim Crow laws and  their legacy. I firmly agree with the author’s  view  that preachers  should take a stand about what they believe. But he loses my agreement when he  contends that the reason most of them don’t take a stand on anything political is because of theological beliefs such as attitude that Christians should obey the rulers, and that they should on principle avoid politics. For some pastors, those beliefs might be a factor, but I suspect the reluctance of most has got more to do with what philosopher Eric Hoffer asserted: “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.” The history of the Church includes a history of churches as rackets,  and too many contemporary churches, especially mega-churches, certainly can be considered rackets. I wonder how many current pastors would be willing to lose half their congregations by standing for anything that contradicted the political views of their most generous financial supporters.

A Letter to the American Church consistently applies rhetorical tools in an apparent attempt to dissuade readers from noting the logical fallacies, some of which rise to great irony. One of these is the use of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a  virulent opponent of leadership  of the brand  Germans called  their “Fuhrer” as though were Mr. Bonhoeffer alive he would call into  question the right of MAGA opponents to the current dangers our democracy faces. On the contrary, as Mr. Metaxas notes, Bonhoeffer pointed out how the Nazis swiftly acted to destroy democratic processes, much like the January 6 crowd  attempted to overturn our presidential election.

Similarly, he cites German churches hanging swastikas in or around their churches as equivalent with some American churches exhibiting BLM or Rainbow flags. But he doesn’t mention the display or idolization of the American flags, which are currently the banner more of a particular type of candidate and a particular brand of patriotism, which I find particularly annoying because when I first went looking for a church, during the Vietnam war, I heard more talk about winning the war than about serving God.

Mr. Metaxas cites Matthew 22:37 where Jesus answers the question what is the greatest commandment, and Jesus replies “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[c]38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[d] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” But he stops halfway through, with the command to love God, and doesn’t include that we are to love our neighbors, and it seems clear that the two are essential to each other and should be read as one. 

In another rhetorical abuse of the Bible, he calls Jesus’s turning over the tables of money changers  “perfect masculinity” and “a muscular action of some violence” — which I suspect some Proud Boys and the like will take as a call to arms.

He berates the evangelical stance he defines as “if we pray a certain prayer, we have done all that is needed and can move on. We can dispense with fighting for justice or against slavery or with trying to see that our government enacts the will of the people.” Like Mr. Metaxas, I am chagrined by the commonly held evangelical notion that going to the altar or otherwise pledging ourselves to Jesus is final assurance of salvation, and I agree with Mr. Metaxas in his objection to  Luther trying to relegate the Book of James to apocrypha for its assertion that faith without works proves or assures very little.  But I cringe when this author charges the evangelical church with indolence and apathy by using as a as sort of a battle-cry Bonhoeffer’s accusation against the German Lutheran church: ‘Only he who cries out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chants.” and then explains to his slower readers, “If you are unwilling to show the self-giving agape love of Christ by openly risking all you have for the sake of those who are suffering, who have no voice, you are not Christian at all, but a hypocrite, a fraud. God will reject your worship because the very thing he required of you, you ignored.” I cringe is because I’m fairly certain Mr. Metaxas believes God clearly favors those who regularly vote for candidates whose obvious motive is to stay in office and enrich themselves and their sponsors even if it means vilifying people of other faiths and other ethnicities or who seek refuge from persecution, as long as these candidates oppose abortion and the teaching of any history that questions the motives of the ruling class or exposes any student to the fact of non-hetero sexuality, and who label every attempt to help hurting people survive or common people prosper as socialist or communist. And I’m not clear how Metaxas can so continually urge the rejection, dismissal, and loathing of anything he views as socialist or communist without explaining how his position differs from that of the German Nazis of the 1930s who,  as he earlier pointed out,  gained and held power largely by stoking the fear of communism.

When Mr. Metaxas laments that “patriotic” Americans may be demonized as White Supremacists ,  I wonder,  can anyone who attempts to keep schools from teaching about the systemic way blacks have been humiliated and kept in poverty honestly deny they are acting as a white supremacist.

He charges us reader to,  “In voting and everything else, do what you believe is right for all concerned. ” Amen, as long as  his all concerned includes everyone, all God’s children everywhere, without distinction. Because he also issues a fervent call for revival, with which I certainly agree, while I surely hope he and his readers will recognize that no great revival will come until we at last end our Civil War and bring about the equality of all people that God, through our founding fathers, called us to create and send out to the ends of the earth.

While nearing the book’s conclusion, we find Ronald Reagan portrayed as a prophet  on account of his words and actions against the USSR. Comparing moderate Republicans to Reagan, Mr. Metaxas disparages their timidity and tells those readers all hyped by his dire warnings to run for office, raise money for causes like the ones he favors. Which, I suspect are exactly the causes that will keep things as they are or have traditionally been in this “best of all possible worlds” where of course nobody is hungry, where nobody needs to flee from political or other imminent danger, where it didn’t really happen that a dear friend of my daughter went home to Sudan over summer from college out of concern for family members and was murdered, where icebergs aren’t melting, where drought doesn’t mean famine, where our capitalists aren’t exploiting other countries or making their billions by creating and selling weapons so one country can use them against another, and where, of course, everybody is everybody’s neighbor and we all act in concerned and loving ways.