If there is something to be said about many of the American strains of Christianity, it is a dedication to faith, if not dogma, in guiding the ways and thinking of Americans. For the last thirty or so years, that dedication to faith is something that has become increasingly political in an era where progress and modernity accelerate to ever greater speeds, and secularism becomes all the more prevalent. Just today, two influential American figures discussed worship in a political context: Radio evangelist Bryan Fischer used a unique interpretation of the Old Testament Book of Haggai to claim that it is the "patriotic duty" of Americans to worship God, especially if they desire economic improvement on both a national and personal scale. Meanwhile, in Iowa, junior Senator Ted Cruz from Texas, a born-again Christian, spent an hour lecturing Iowa evangelicals on the purpose of belief in a conference deemed as a possible prelude to Cruz's 2016 presidential campaign. He said that belief is "not sitting there quietly doing the golf clap," preferring more the revelry that often takes place in Evangelical and Pentecostal services, and quoted the Book of Isaiah in pressing Iowans to hold their conservative politicians more accountable to their principles.
The relationship between Christianity and America has always been entangled in messy ways. One of the first successful colonies in the United States was Plymouth, founded by Separatists of the Anglican Church who dissented. The early colonies were led by Puritans, who enforced a very specific civil and legal code. This led Roger Williams, a Calvinist, to separate from one such colony to form his own colony in what is now Rhode Island, on the theological principle that "enforced uniformity confounds civil and religious liberty." This formed the structural basis of the separation of church and state in the country, later to be used by the Enlightened Christian deists that are known today as the Founding Fathers, including President Thomas Jefferson.
However, outside the realm of the cities, rural America often relied on, and in certain areas continues to rely on, the church as the primary civic and civil institution. Belief and faith became the foundation of which these places, often long distances away from any semblance of urban environment, established themselves. This system of belief, in conjunction with several Great Awakenings and Great Revivals invoked by Evangelical Protestant pastors, created the unique strain of Protestant Christianity that is not found elsewhere in the world. It also led to a distinct situation found only in America, in that beliefs should inherently serve as the rules of society, though not made into law. This makes people like Bryan Fischer declare that faith and worship is the key to the country's revival, rather than a sound fiscal and economic policy.
Furthermore, the faith espoused by the Evangelicals and Pentecostals, which are considered a more fundamentalist form of Christianity, are unique in the lively active services that accompany them, often utilizing singing, activities, and miraculous possessions by Jesus. This differs greatly from other forms of religious service, be it Catholic, non-Evangelical Protestant, Jewish, or Muslim. Belief to the latter religions, while equal in ritual, is somewhat diminished in activity. When Senator Cruz speaks of belief being more than "doing the golf clap," are these religions suddenly less meaningful because their faith does not require them to be active participants outside of the rituals required? And what of atheists and agnostics, who have no particular religious belief to speak of, but may have their fervent beliefs elsewhere?
The question that Fischer and Senator Cruz bring up is important to this country, and remains unresolved some 237 years after its independence. It is simply, what does it mean to believe? Does it mean mere guidance or respite? Or does it mean creating a code and agenda that everyone should live by, and a vigorous activity that includes speaking in tongues? It is the question that drives the clash of secular modernity vs. religious tradition.
But what about you? How do you define belief? What is it that makes it a part of your being? Please send us your thoughts and understanding in the comments below.