The Words of the Richardson Family

Five Characteristics of American Christianity

Herbert Richardson
June 7, 1985
East/West Conference

Dr. Herbert Richardson speaks at the one-day conference.

In my study of American religion I have found five things to be most important. One is that religious unity is a central problem. If you look on American money you will see a motto in Latin which says E pluribus unum, which means, "many become one." That is the American ideal; in fact, however, Americans find it easier to "be many" than to "become one."

A second characteristic of American Christianity is that Americans tend to relate to Jesus more as a friend than as a suffering Savior. You might say he is more like a friendly ancestor. Many American Christians talk to Jesus as if he were a constant companion -- they talk to him while they are washing the dishes, or going to work; anytime. American Christianity is not very dogmatic or doctrinal. You could even say it's not very much concerned with the head or the book, but rather with the heart of direct experience.

The third characteristic of American Christianity is that faith basically means reconciliation -- making friends with your enemy. Faith, in American Christianity, is not so much directed towards the other world or towards doctrine as it is towards dealing with people fairly and with love. It's very practical and deals with ordinary things. Therefore faith for Americans also means good harmony in the social group. Let me emphasize that these characteristics of American Christianity are very different from what you'll find in Europe. When Karl Barth told me to go back to study Christianity in America rather than in Europe, he was saying that I'd find something different here.

The fourth characteristic of American Christianity is the use of science and modern management methods to improve the standard of living and make life better for the common person. American Christians have always seen science as something that God has given us to bring about the Kingdom of God. For example, when the smallpox vaccine was invented and people were afraid to get the inoculations, it was the ministers who were the first to promulgate the vaccine and convince the people that this was God's way of improving the human condition. American Christian businessmen are especially interested in developing modern methods of management based upon Christian values. The Bible from my hotel room was put there by Christian businessmen. It's also interesting to note that the oldest life insurance company in America is called the Presbyterian Ministers' Life Insurance Company. So Christianity in America has not been separated from business and politics and science, but has played a very important role in the development of these areas. The major idea in American Christianity is the social gospel-type concept of building the actual Kingdom of God on earth.

The fifth characteristic of American Christianity is the proliferation of new religions. Many people have tried to find God's way, and this has led to the creation of many new, experimenting religions. In American religious history there have been a great many inspired prophets and leaders. Some of these inspired leaders have been well received by traditional groups. Others have unusual ideas, or have put old ideas in a new way, and the people have cried out, "No! No!" Nevertheless, even the ones who have been rejected often gain acceptance and respect in time.

Let me tell you one of the most amusing stories from America's religious history. You probably know that more Americans die of heart attacks than do Japanese. It has been commonly thought that this is because Americans eat more beef than the Japanese do. Now we all know that God desires life for His children, not death. If you were an American Christian leader and you knew that God wanted His children to enjoy a long, healthy life, you would find a way to keep Americans from eating too much beef. Not only beef, but pork, eggs, and cheese.

In the nineteenth century there was, in fact, a group of American ministers who realized that part of their Christian responsibility was to change American eating habits. One minister thought it would be good to begin with breakfast, because for breakfast the average American eats three pieces of bacon and two eggs. He thought he had to change that, find something else. Do you know the name of that minister? His name was Kellog. Kellog created a new kind of breakfast so people wouldn't feel they had to eat so much meat and eggs. Now just think a minute: How many lives has that Christian leader saved or prolonged? When Kellog first put forth his idea, everyone cried, "No! No! No!" But now everybody eats cornflakes; and you know, we live longer.

This is a practical kind of Christianity. Now let me ask you this: What do you think Rev. Moon would say to Rev. Kellog? Once he heard Rev. Kellog's explanation he would say, "Good! We'll send it all over the world!" This is because Rev. Moon, like Rev. Kellog, knows that God wants to make life better.

Perhaps now you can understand why, when Rev. Moon game to America, I thought he was so important for us.

First, Rev. Moon talks about unity.

Secondly, he talks about Jesus not as a remote savior suffering on the cross, but as a friend, an inspiration, and a help.

Third, he talks about faith as something that manifests itself not just in a belief in something other-worldly, but in better relations among people.

Fourth, he talks about the importance of science and good methods of management in aiding religion's quest to usher in the Kingdom of God.

Fifth, he brings something novel to religion, as did the new religions that have played so important a part in the growth of America.

I think these are the reasons why so many American ministers and professors of religion can relate to Rev. Moon, and find his leadership helpful. 

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