When CBS wanted to visually portray “the perfect American small town” in the trailer of its highly touted series, Under the Dome, the camera came to rest on a classic white frame church building. Curiously, whenever TV and movie producers want to convey a sense of tradition and values, steeples come to their minds.
And, conversely, whenever they want to communicate hypocrisy, churches come to their minds. Or at least pastors do. Whenever a priest or pastor is portrayed in a television program there is a good chance he or she will be caught up in the villainy.
These opposing attitudes reveal a kind of cultural schizophrenia when it comes to churches. On the one hand, the church is symbolic of all that is good and commendable in human nature. People helping people. Believers who put into practice the great teachings of Jesus to turn the other cheek and to love others as we want to be loved.
But on the other hand, the church is also symbolic of the deepest kinds of human flaws. Many of us are old enough to remember when Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s empire crumbled due to his adultery, and Jimmy Swaggart’s tearful admission that he was involved with a hooker.
Ted Haggard’s very public resignation in 2006 from the Colorado Springs megachurch he founded and from leadership of the National Association of Evangelicals due to a homosexual liaison and drug use shocked conservative Christians across the nation.
Of course, in terms of sheer numbers of offenses and damage to human beings, no group of clergy can match the Roman Catholics, but Baptists have had their share of public humiliation, too. Remember Lonnie Latham, former Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee member and pastor of a Tulsa, Okla., church who was arrested for propositioning a police officer whom he thought was a male prostitute?
Just this week in Norfolk, David W. Smith, the former pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, pleaded guilty to 10 counts of child porn possession.
Sadly, I could go on. And on. And these are only sexual charges. When you factor in general stupidity, pastors are also making the news. Who can forget or excuse the pure ugliness of Westboro Baptist Church demonstrations led by pastor Fred Phelps or the Quran burning debacle created by Florida pastor Terry Jones?
Recently two Colorado pastors blamed their state’s devastating wildfires on civil unions and Christian women wearing hats and pantsuits. Of course, they also blamed Christian men for “doing the metrosexual thing with their skinny pants and their little fairy shoes.”
For pure craziness, however, it is hard to beat California Baptist pastor Wiley Drake, whose crowning imbecility called for “imprecatory prayer” that President Obama would die.
Of course, some follow the example of Jim Bakker and have a foot in both camps.
But the American church in general also contributes to the sense that the church is filled with hypocrites. A survey conducted by the Barna Group six years ago produced interesting results. “Although born-again Christians are more likely to volunteer for their church, they are no more likely than average to help the poor or homeless, the survey found. And they are also one of the least likely groups to recycle. When measured for other moral behaviors, born-again believers are not much different from non-born-again adults.”
All of this is to remind myself that any skepticism toward the church and clergy on the part of our culture is, in some measure, justifiable. Is it any wonder that our culture takes what we Christians say with a degree of doubt and levels a charge of hypocrisy?
When a national retail chain encouraged its associates to wish shoppers a “Happy Holiday” rather than a “Merry Christmas,” some Christians got wrapped around the axle because they were taking Christ out of Christmas. They viewed it as a sign of cultural persecution. But prayer in public schools remains for many the signal cultural shift indicating Christianity is no longer the favored religion. Somehow the intricacy of religious liberty applying to all people and not just to themselves seems too illusive for them to grasp.
Given all of this, that our culture still relies on images of churches to portray perfect American small towns is a wonder. That it does is a tribute to the thousands of pastors whose sacrifices go largely unheralded and whose lives mirror the gospel they preach. It is also a tribute to those countless churches whose ministries make their communities better places to live. (See “Renew the Blue” on page 2.)
Although we all grieve whenever Christian leaders fall, we can never eliminate the power of temptation on them —or us. Even in the first century Paul grieved that his young associate, Demas, could not withstand the temptations of the world and forsook him (2 Timothy 4:10). In this life we will never be rid of our tendency to sin. But this is no excuse.
As long as there are people in the church, there will be sin in the church. And as long as there is sin in the church, the charge of hypocrisy will be leveled by those looking for excuses not to attend.
But if we, the American church, are serious about transforming our culture, our work is cut out for us. We will never succeed by demanding that laws reflecting our moral views be enacted. Do we really expect a culture of unredeemed people to act as though they are? It is highly unlikely that a single unbeliever will be converted by etching the Ten Commandments on a courthouse wall. Does any Christian seriously believe that “putting Christ back in Christmas” is an effective evangelism strategy?
I have a better idea. Let’s put Christ back into the lifestyles of Christians. As long as Christians are as secular as the society around them, their claims of spiritual transformation cannot be taken seriously. And instead of becoming offended that “they have taken prayer out of the public schools,” why don’t we reinstate prayer in Christian homes? The spiritual schizophrenia of our culture can only be overcome as we Christians deal with our own.
Jim White ([email protected]) is executive editor of the Religious Herald.