Much has been made of the notion that Americans tend to be “Cafeteria Christians” who accept the strictures that aren’t too onerous (Murder is wrong—unless it is done by our government), and ignore or revise the ones which are more difficult to live with. For example, what percent of churchgoing Americans do you suppose actually remain virgins until they get married? I would bet that even the majority of evangelical Christians would ultimately agree with the following assertion, whether they’re willing to admit it or not:
“Premarital sex is usually immoral (unless, of course, you really love the person and you are definitely planning on getting married.)”
And how many Americans who attend church regularly, even the most legalistic among them, actually believe that God sends people to hell for working on Sundays? (That would include, of course, everyone in the NFL) So really, the majority of people who go to church feel that some Commandments are more important than others, and most Christians, again even including self-identified evangelicals, would consider someone who actually attempts to live by all the strictures laid out in the Book of Leviticus to be somewhat fanatical. (It’s interesting how conservative Christians get so worked up about the prohibitions on homosexuality, but when it comes to eating shellfish, not so much. And Jesus never said anything about homosexuality, but He went on and on about the evils of divorce, another point of hypocrisy for so many conservative Christians.)
The essential point here is that the overwhelming majority of the people you will find in church on any giving Sunday are indeed Cafeteria Christians because they choose to ignore several aspects of His teachings which they find inconvenient. As a devout deist, I have no dog in this particular fight, but I do find it amusing. However, this essay isn’t really about Cafeteria Christians.
So I will now turn my attention to a situation which I find much more compelling, a peculiarly American phenomenon which I will henceforth refer to as “Fantasy Christians.” My working definition of a Fantasy Christian is someone who attends church rarely, if ever, has only the most rudimentary understanding of the major tenets of the faith, yet insists on thinking of himself as a Christian primarily because he is a decent human being who lives in a “Christian Nation” (as if the God of the entire universe recognizes manmade borders on this puny little planet located out in the boonies of His universe.)
As a proud egghead who spends way too much time thinking about such things, I am dismayed how it rarely occurs to the Fantasy Christian that religion is ultimately an “all or nothing at all” proposition. Being “sort of” Christian is akin to being “somewhat” pregnant. Christianity is a creed based on a specific book. If you haven’t actually read what’s in the Bible, then your “Christianity” is a tabula rasa, becoming whatever you want it to be. This is why we often come across such airheaded statements as “God is love” (that would be news to the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah, the people who perished in the Great Flood, and so many other people whom God brags about smiting).
If I were to stop eating meat, it wouldn’t automatically make me a Buddhist, but this is how so many Fantasy Christians think. They believe that if they’re basically nice people who do the right thing at least fifty-one percent of the time, their slot in heaven is reserved. When they really want something, like a promotion with a corner office, they will probably silently invoke the name of Jesus, not realizing that begging God for stuff is actually a rather pagan approach to religion. (Colman McCarthy, a very serious Catholic who has devoted his life to working for peace and conflict resolution, says that he prays in order to ask what God wants from him, rather than asking God for particular favors.)
Of course, there are myriad ways to interpret the Bible, but it really helps when you actually know what’s in the book. If your belief in God is not firmly rooted in the actual teachings of an established religion, then what you call belief is nothing more than “imaginary friendism.” He can be whatever you want Him (or Her) to be. The Fantasy Christians really don’t offend me. (Hell, you can worship your Teddy Bear for all I care.) But I imagine this whole phenomenon must really irk sincere Christians who take their religion seriously.