During the past couple of years, my family has walked the difficult journey of Dementia with my mother. She has moved rapidly from a healthy alert woman living by herself, to a senior living environment, to assisted living, to memory care, and now to nursing care. Perhaps the thing that is most difficult about the process is knowing that improvement is not going to happen.
I have often wondered what it must be like not knowing who you are or where you are. Forgetting your past and even your identity makes you do things that are totally out of character. A couple of times Mama has slapped one of her caregivers and even used inappropriate language. These are things that are completely unlike who she is and has been her entire life. Most of the time her caregivers speak about her kindness and sweet personality, but those ugly responses have appeared a few times.
I bring this up because Dementia seems to be an accurate metaphor for the American church. It seems as if the church is experiencing a similar debilitating disease, forgetting who it is and what it’s supposed to be. Let me clarify by stating I’m not referring to the church identified in the Bible as the body of Christ. I’m speaking of the American church—the church that embraced the notion that being a follower of Christ is equivalent to being an American.
It came on almost imperceptibly. For several years, Daddy talked about Mama losing her memory, but since none of us were with her every day we thought he was exaggerating. After he died, and we were more involved with her life, it was obvious she was struggling.
In like fashion, almost imperceptibility, the American church began to lose its identity and history. I’m certainly not qualified to write a history of the American church, but I can offer one example that suggests this might be the case—the issue of abortion.
It wasn’t that long ago, at least in my lifetime, evangelical Christians were not as singularly focused on the issue of abortion. The Roe v. Wade Supreme Court Decision allowing abortions was issued in 1973. Speaking about that decision, W.A. Criswell, pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas, Texas, spoke out in support of the ruling with these words: “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person,” he said, “and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.”
In fact, two years earlier, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution encouraging “Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.”
Indeed, times have changed, and now the predominate American church position is that all abortions are wrong, and for some extremists, even in the case of the mother’s potential death. It has become expected that Christians will oppose abortion at any cost.
The point of all of this is not to make the case that abortion should be allowed or that it should not be limited. I agree that abortion is wrong and would never advocate for any abortion except under extreme circumstances. The overwhelming majority of abortions are wrong and not healthy for the moral condition of our society.
What has happened is that the American church has moved from the pre-Roe v. Wade position when abortion was frowned upon but not the make-or-break test of faith that it has become today. Because it has become such a crucial issue for the American church, it makes every action to eliminate abortion acceptable. We see this with some who have even approved of killing abortion doctors.
The American church has adopted similarly strong feelings to other issues, most notably homosexuality and gun ownership. Consequently, the primary task of the church is no longer understood as making disciples of Jesus, but of making adherents of these political positions. Such a change in the American church didn’t happen overnight. It has taken decades. It was gradual, almost imperceptible at times, but now here we are.
We have leaders of the American church, empowered by a loyal band of followers, who ignore moral failures of politicians as long as they will help eliminate abortions, condemn homosexuality, and fight for gun rights. Pastors invite politicians to stand in their pulpits and recruit voters and volunteers.
Like my mother forgetting who she is, the American church has forgotten the church existed long before America existed, and if God chooses, will exist long after America is gone. It’s time to lay aside the political positions that shape the American church and take up the teachings of Jesus—they are not the same. Jesus said nothing about abortion, homosexuality, or gun ownership.
The American church must gather around the cross, not the American flag. The American church must get off the Republican bandwagon and follow the narrow road of Jesus. The American church must relearn the value of helping the lame, blind, and poor. The American church must put its hope in God, not in a man-made constitution.
There is no cure for Dementia, and I recently learned its one of the leading causes of death in this country. To be honest, I don’t have much hope for a cure of the American church either. Once you have forgotten your identity and values, there’s little hope of returning to health and viability.