Why are American Christians so unhappy about America?


By some measures we should be happier and healthier than ever. Life expectancy in the West is higher than it's ever been, and in spite of some deep inequalities and structural problems, many places are more prosperous and peaceful than could have been imagined only 75 years ago during World War II.

Yet we only have to take a cursory look at the electoral earthquakes of the past year to ascertain that we are not happy at all/

In the US many reluctantly voted for Trump not because of the positive vision he was extolling, but because they wanted to 'send a message' or 'shake up the system'.

Similarly, the Brexit vote in the UK indicated a level of dissatisfaction with the status quo that was about more than just the European Union.

But if these are just hunches, new data from the American Culture & Faith Institute (ACFI) seem to show that the level of dissatisfaction really is high.

The survey shows that 'Americans are generally dissatisfied with a variety of aspects of life in the US. In addition to their disenchantment with the morals and values of most Americans, adults also have widespread concerns about living conditions and circumstances in the country.'

Digging into the results a little more, a majority of Americans are only 'very or somewhat satisfied' with two areas on which they were surveyed – their level of religious freedom and the practices of small businesses.

In every other area, (fairness of the courts, race relations, moral condition of America etc.) a majority of people reported being unsatisfied.

Further enquiry reveals another surprising detail. People who are most actively following a religious teaching seem to be the least happy with their lives and with the direction their communities are heading. As ACFI executive director George Barna says, 'The outcomes show that the people who hold the most consistent and passionate views about how to live are the ones least satisfied with the realities of contemporary American life. In contrast, the people who tend to have a more laissez faire or ambivalent approach to life tended to be more sanguine about the state of our culture these days.'

It's a curious thing that those who are most inspired by their faith, and presumably should be full of joy, are those least comfortable in the cultural milieu of 2017. Barna's explanation? 'Those who take their faith most seriously and attempt to live in concert with their beliefs, he argues, 'are the most likely to be frustrated by the choices that are most common in our society. There is a price to pay for having a clear and passionate set of beliefs in a culture that tends to prize moderation and indiscriminant (sic) tolerance.'

Is he right? Is it simply that Christians are unhappy that the rest of the culture doesn't accord with their beliefs and values and therefore they're dissatisfied? There's certainly some evidence of that. The survey showed only 24 per cent of those asked were happy with the 'moral condition of America'.

If conservative Christians (and other religious believers) see liberal attitudes and laws on issues such as same sex marriage gaining traction, then maybe the results aren't that surprising.

But I suspect there's something else going on here. Since the 1960s, as the so-called 'culture wars' have developed and been fought, it seems that many on the Christian 'side' have allowed themselves to be defined by what they are against. A quick glance at the Twitter feed of the American Family Association, for example, reveals its main current interest is in organising a boycott of Target because of the store's decision to allow trans employees to use the lavatory of their choice.

Franklin Graham, one of the most high-profile conservative Christians, seems to spend much of his time defending Donald Trump. Eric Metaxas, who is as close to a public intellectual as the evangelical movement has these days, seems to be ever more concerned with defending Republicans against Democratic attacks.

The common thread here is that there isn't a positive vision being presented. A narrow and defensive definition of 'freedom' has developed which focuses on resisting big government. This is one version of freedom, but it's a pretty anaemic one.

There is little articulation of the idea that 'freedom' might be about so much more. Freedom for Christians could encompass the radical vision of the kingdom of God breaking through on earth. It could have all sorts of positive virtues such as the integration of refugees into communities and the provision of ethical businesses which pay good wages and treat workers well. It could look at the forgiveness of debts for poorer communities. It could seek to bridge the deep racial divides and bring radical reconciliation. It could be promoting local, sustainable food, and so much more besides.

There are some Christian groups and leaders advocating for this kind of positive vision. But the overarching vision seems timid, defensive and partisan. Is it any wonder faithful religious people feel pessimistic about the direction of their country when they lack the leadership from within their movement to inspire them once again?

Follow Andy Walton on Twitter @waltonandy