We'd all reject this theologically, I think, but it is implicitly central in a lot of the rhetoric and the exasperation from American Christians about what's wrong with America, etc etc.
As I was waiting for my ride to the airport from the hotel in Louisville, KY last week after the Together 4 the Gospel Conference, I was reminded of cultural Christianity's real concerns. The transportation attendant at the hotel noticed from my tag that I was from Vermont. Our conversation went like this:
Him: "You're from Vermont?"
Him: "That's great. That van load that just left were from Vermont."
Me: "Oh cool."
Him: "Yeah. Good to know you guys are getting the good news out up there."
Me: "Well, we're trying."
Him: "Need to get some Republicans up there."
And there I was transported back to everything that drives me nuts about American evangelicalism: the equation of the good news with something other than the gospel of Jesus Christ, in this case -- as is often the case -- with political conservatism.
I believe many Christians in America would be satisfied if "the culture" just stopped using pornography and drugs and alcohol and stopped aborting babies and started "acting right." As far as I can tell, that would be a Win.
But it's not a win. A land where everybody acts right and is on their best behavior, where peace reigns and social decay is no more and the poor are helped and the hungry are fed, but Christ is not worshiped as the sole supreme satisfaction in all the universe, is a big fat FAIL.
As C.S. Lewis says:
We must not suppose that if we succeeded in making everyone nice we should have saved their souls. A world of nice people, content in their own niceness, looking no further, turned away from God, would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world.
The message of the gospel is not "Behave!"
But that is the message American evangelicalism -- Southern and Northeastern, and most other places -- has been proclaiming. It is at its heart pharisaical.
We are called to preach not moralism but Christ crucified, foolishness to American culture and a stumbling block to American Christians.
Michael Horton illustrates this well in his book Christless Christianity:
What would things look like if Satan really took control of a city? Over half a century ago, Presbyterian minister Donald Grey Barnhouse offered his own scenario in his weekly sermon that was also broadcast nationwide on CBS radio. Barnhouse speculated that if Satan took over Philadelphia (the city where Barnhouse pastored), all of the bars would be closed, pornography banished, and pristine streets would be filled with tidy pedestrians who smiled at each other. There would be no swearing. The children would say, “Yes, sir” and “No ma’am,” and the churches would be full every Sunday . . . where Christ is not preached.
There is a great difference between “being good” and the gospel. Some call it moralism. Moralism, in fact, blinds us from the gospel by giving us something of “the real thing” ensuring that we miss out on the true gospel all together. We must remember that Christ came first not to make bad people good but to make dead people live. If we forget that, our Christianity will turn out to be Christless.