American Christianity’s « Jesus Problem »

In his September 23 column, « Evangelicals Decenter Jesus, » for The ThIrd Rail (« a newsletter examining the disputes that divide America »), conservative Christian commentator David French addressed what he sees as a particularly problematic aspect of contemporary American Christianity, what he labels « a Jesus problem. »

French prefaces his principal argument with a discussion of the increasingly political rather than religious salience of the term « evangelical. » He fits American evangelicals into three broad categories. The first consists of  ethnically and politically self-identified evangelicals of any race or ethnicity (including nonwhite evangelicals who tend to vote Democratic). The second consists of self-identified white evangelicals, who are « religiously heterodox (ranging from biblical fundamentalists to casual Christians) but remarkably ideologically uniform, » whom he calls « the core constituency of the Republican Party. » The third is those he calls « the theological evangelicals, » who actually profess to believe Christian faith’s « key tenets. » What beliefs they actually prioritize, however, is the subject of French’s argument.

French cites a recent study which suggested that « even this cohort struggled with basic Christian doctrine, especially regarding Jesus. » On the other hand, « the respondents were remarkably orthodox on a very specific topic—sexual morality. Most evangelicals may misunderstand who Jesus is, but 94 percent said that sex outside of traditional marriage is wrong, 91 percent said that abortion is a sin, and 67 percent disagreed with the idea that the Bible’s ‘condemnation of homosexual behavior doesn’t apply today’.”

Herein lies the problem, as French sees it. He suggests that American evangelicals have made sexual ethics « the shortcut answer » to who is a disciple and who is a heretic. For French, however, « the core of the faith is not its moral codes but rather faith in the person of Jesus Christ, and a focus on Jesus is both profoundly humbling and profoundly hopeful. » And, furthermore, « even if you live your life compliant with the most strict of sexual codes of conduct, you will still, inevitably, fall short in countless other arenas of life. » Hence, the hope in « a God who is gracious, who sacrificed himself to atone for our sins, » which should make  Christians « among the most humble and most hopeful communities in the land. »

But, French insists, « when the Church leads with its moral code—and elevates that moral code over even the most basic understandings of Jesus Christ himself—the effect isn’t humility and hope; it’s pride and division. When the Church chooses a particular sin as its defining apostasy (why sex more than racism, or greed, or gluttony, or cruelty?), it perversely lowers the standards of holy living by narrowing the Christian moral vision. » One result, he argues, « is a weaker religion, one that is less demanding for the believer while granting those who uphold the narrow moral code a sense of unjustified pride. Yet pride separates Christians from each other, and separates Christians from their neighbors. »

Thus, he concludes that « in the quest for morality, » many have « lost sight of Jesus—but it is Jesus who truly defines the Christian faith. »

French is not the first or the only Christian commentator to worry about this apparently pervasive reformulation of Christian faith into a preoccupation with ethics, and specifically sex. Of course, sex is important, and a right ordering of one’s sexual behavior is important – as is the right ordering of one’s moral behavior in all other areas of life. The question is whether a preeminent preoccupation with sex sufficiently exhausts Christian ethics and whether a preoccupation with ethics expresses the fullness of the Christian life, which is, first and foremost, an encounter with the Risen Christ, whose gracious gift of the Holy Spirit to his Church empowers people to live a new life (not necessarily a sinless life, but a new, grace-filled life nonetheless).

Formed by faith in the Creed and an encounter with Christ in the sacraments, Christians strive to bear the fruit of good works, while always, of course, falling short (as all acknowledge whenever they pray the Lord’s Prayer). Sadly, however, the contemporary preoccupation with ethics (especially sexual ethics) as an identity marker has both narrowed the Church’s message and even further divided Christians from one another. It is noteworthy how many religious divisions among contemporary Christians are rooted in disputes about sexual ethics – very conspicuously so, among so-called « main line, » non-evangelical Christian denominations, some of which have been literally tearing themselves apart. This, of course, reflects a peculiar feature of contemporary culture which increasingly defines people – and expects them to define themselves – primarily if not exclusively in terms of their sexuality. If anything, that in turn should suggest the desirability of deemphasizing such issues as a Christian counterweight to secular society’s contemporary obsession with sexual identity and sexual expression. Whatever a person is, he or she is much more than his or her secular sexual (or any other) identity. And, for a professed Christian, it should be faith in Christ and life as a member of his Church which must be one’s primary identity.