Every fourth of July I end up thinking about this topic, knowing full well that lots of Evangelical churches across America are reveling in “Old Glory” and hosting “God and Country” Saturday night revivals, even as Liberal churches in the same towns cringe and argue about whether it is appropriate to have an American flag in the building. As a LiberalEvangelical I come down on these issues in some unexpected ways thanks in large part to the impact of a single book that influenced me more than almost any other in seminary: H. Richard Niebuhr’s Radical Monotheism and Western Culture.

    I write book reviews from time to time, but this is more of a recommendation than a review. Niebuhr’s text isn’t as well know as some of the texts that his brother wrote, nor is it as internally coherent. It is, after all, a collection of essays, not a sustained argument. But it does introduce a very important distinction that has stuck with me for almost 20 years. Monotheism and Polytheism, we are all familiar with, but Niebuhr introduces the concept of Henotheism, a kind of degenerate monotheism that “believes” in one God but is in fact “that social faith which makes a finite society, whether cultural or religious, the object of trust as well as ofloyalty and which tends to subvert even officially monotheistic institutions, such as churches” (11). With this formulation Niebuhr construes religious life as less a matter of confession and more a matter of loyalty, the true monotheist being loyal to all-beings-that-are and all-being-that-is part of creation. Rational assent to a statement of belief or creed is meaningless in the face of divided loyalty and any act that partitions off part of creation and elevates it above another is a kind of henotheistic idolatry.

    I remember feeling that I had been slapped upside the head when I first read this text. It is brutal and uncompromising, but true to the work of the both the Niebuhrs (H. Richard and Reinhold) the text is also rich in pastoral instruction. Niebuhr wasn’t trying to break any skulls, he was instead calling on his readers to re-appreciate the radical claim of monotheism that not only is God one, but God is truly the creator and sustainer of all being, so no subset thereof is to be elevated above another or despised. It is a radical restatement of universal love i.e. an ideal, an unlivable task, an impossibly egalitarian love.


    OK, full disclosure; this title is a rip-off of a Rebecca Schuman piece that ran last month on It’s a great editorial entitled “College Students are not Customers: a political shorthand that needs to die.” So your first task is to pause and read it, and try not to get bogged down in the comments section. (Most comments sections are unreadable, but you can tell that more than a few unemployed or underemployed academics responded to this article since the comments are uncommonly articulate.)

    Now that you’re back, you should see why I am so eager to look at our churches through a similar lens. If (and this is very much a disputed “if”) we think of students as customers, then there will always be the temptation to goose the bottom line by appealing to the immediate desires of these students/customers. The analogy here is with political pandering. If all you want is someone’s vote, then you are more likely to tell them what they want to hear than to try to get them to hear the truth. So colleges and professors, when they treat students like customers, are inevitably drawn to shape curriculums and programs and even classes to fit “what the students want” instead of working to shape students through exposing them to hard ideas and holding them to high standards.

    I could do a couple of things here. As a college professor I’m tempted to stay with the educational theme, but as your esteemed blogger, I’m moved to turn my attention to similar dynamics within the churches. Instead of asking the question, who are our customers, I’d phrase the issue differently. To whom should our churches be accountable? Who is our constituency?


    We’ve had quite a winter here in Montreal. My snow-blower has been getting more than its usual workout. So we’ve been looking forward to the beginning of spring this year even more than normal. I’m not sure anyone really looks forward to Lent. Advent season is a preparation for Christmas, but properly speaking, Lent is more about preparing for Good Friday than for Easter. It is a relatively solemn time that matches the weather—at least our weather here in the frozen north—so most of us are usually content if not eager to see Lent in our rearview mirrors. But these past few weeks have been rewarding enough to make me pause. Our little church here decided to embrace the season and the weather by taking this month to explore the topic of depression and it has proven to be strangely heartening. I won’t write a single argument here, I’ll just make a few points that I hope will add up to a cogent whole.

    1) I’ll fill you in on my theory as to why exploring depression has been so uplifting at the end of the post, but I want to begin by noting one of the worst habits that so many of us Evangelicals (Liberal and Conservative) embrace. We are far too happy, far too self-assured, and often entirely unable to stop babbling on joyfully and nonsensically to hear what people in real pain have to say. Many non-Evangelicals (Christians included) have created Evangelical caricatures based on this common and annoying characteristic that so many of us share. The fellow depicted here may be a cartoon, but his constant habit of making lemonade out of lemons and spewing nonsensical clichés is all too familiar to many of us. Nobody wants to talk to the Neds of the world because Ned is incapable of a conversation. He may hear, but he doesn’t listen because no one can truly listen if they’re convinced that they already know the answer before they know what you are going to say.

    2) A while ago I wrote about some of the most harmful clichés that Evangelicals sprinkle into their conversations with one another and with non-Evangelicals. It remains one of my best posts. Happiness is wonderful, but it’s most wonderful when it’s a response to a genuine encounter with grace and beauty. Happiness can also be a weapon, a blunt instrument that can feel like a cudgel to someone who is struggling simply to get up in the morning. Depression isn’t a choice, and when people fighting that battle are made to feel yet more pressure to “seem happy” or “act happy”, happiness can become a positive evil. The last thing people with mental illness need is some chuckling schmuck telling them “chin up buddy, God never gives us more than we can handle.” Sure he does. It is a lie to suggest that we can handle i.e. control everything. None of us can.