The American Church & A Relevant Rebuke
In his must-read biography on Herman Bavinck, Bavinck: A Critical Biography, James Eglinton chronicles two of Bavinck’s visits to North America, particularly the United States. Each trip had a different purpose and also came at different stages of Bavinck’s life. However, the cumulative effect of Bavinck's travels and reflections was an incisive critique (and also affirmation) of America and the church.
On this trip, as Eglinton points out elsewhere, Bavinick attempted “to understand American culture ‘from the bottom up.’ He tried to understand the American poor, working class, and African-American population. (And in that regard, his book forms a striking contrast with Kuyper’s Varia Americana, which is more focused on those who embodied the American dream – the rich, the powerful, those who had ‘made it’).”1 This posture allowed for fascinating reflection on the state of the American Church regarding racial injustices, the poor, and faith. Specifically, he saw a tension, an inconsistency, that put into question the ability of the church to address ongoing societal ills in meaningful ways. This tension, though described over 120 years ago, profoundly resonates today.
State of the Church
For example, Bavinck notes many successes of the American experiment. In his “My Journey to America,” he praises America's works of mercy and our care for the poor and mentally ill. But, immediately after that praise, he asserts a “great superficiality” of faith. He saw “the contrast of sin and grace weakened,” the “new birth and work of the Holy Spirit” as “shoved into the background,” and saw preaching as more of a speech than the ministering of God’s Word. From his perspective, “Religion does not master people; people master religion.” Church life had become a “matter of amusement, of relaxation,” and, as a result, he saw “individualism thus reign on ecclesiastical terrain.” Then, in an attempt at being charitable (at least that is how I read it), he notes, “what American religious life lacks in depth, it wins in breadth” (Bavinck, 248). Of course, such a statement cuts deep for anyone who values a depth of faith.
This superficiality, hyper-individualism, and lack of depth were consequential, as such critiques are still far too relevant today. As a brilliant theologian, philosopher, educator, and statesman, Bavinck seemed unable to find in the American church a depth of theological reflection and ecclesiastical commitments that produced consistently meaningful and faithful practices in society. This is evident in his distain for our deep-seated racism.
Eglinton, drawing from Bavinck’s journal entries and lectures he gave back in the Netherlands, points out just how jarring our racism was for him. Eglinton points out, “In a journal entry from that period, he wrote about how 'a Southerner' had told him African Americans were 'not humans' (rather, he was told, they were a mixture of human and ape). This shocked him.”2
Furthermore, the same racial tropes of today pervaded Bavinck’s day, as “he was told by white Americans about their African American neighbours…that they steal, that they were given to immorality, etc.” As a result, in an attempt to understand the true Black experience in America, Bavinck read authors like Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. In the end, part of Bavinck’s response was to condemn white Americans on account of their ‘prostitution, alcohol, and mammonism [i.e., love of money].’ On this point, the mature Bavinck did not hold back: because of its racism, America was ‘a disaster’”.
Such a perspective on America was also very much an indictment against the church in America. Instead of being a faithful voice amid such wickedness, Bavinck was struck by the segregated reality of American church attendance. As we well know, the American church was not peripheral to the racial injustices of the day but often was the center of its perpetuation. Based on Bavinck's assessment, Eglinton goes on to note, “Unless it also underwent a profound transformation, the American church could not offer a solution to the problem of race.” (248)
Bavinck's Critique for Today
Now, one would be disingenuous to compare the state of the U.S. during Bavinck’s day to today and not see meaningful progress. Objectively speaking, much has changed. That being said, Bavinck’s critiques of the U.S. and the American church are still disturbingly relevant.
For Bavinck, as a neo-Calvinist theologian with a high view of common grace and the works of God in all creation; as a pastor committed to formative ecclesial practices; as a philosopher schooled in a wide range of thought; as a statesman whose commitments to pluralism informed a vision of public life; as a Christian willing to hold an orthodox faith yet commit to learning from many perspectives and faith traditions, I suspect he would still see a “great superficiality” within many churches––a superficiality that leads to tribalism, isolationism, and a rejection of learning from those with whom we disagree.
The individualism that Bavinck critiqued––an individualism that led him to assert: “Religion does not master people; people master religion” and saw it as a “matter of amusement”–– still too often pervades our ecclesial practices and missional strategies. Pragmatism, cultural and/or sociopolitical commitments, and an overemphasis on institution building too often lead to the creation of religion of our own formation and not a faithful religion that forms us.
Our lack of depth and our satisfaction with breadth is also pervasive. Too often we are satisfied with the assertion that we are and must continue to be a Judeo-Christian nation. That is, we are too often happy to fight for and demand a breadth of faith, even if that leads to a lack of depth and a lack of faithfulness. This, of course, could be juxtaposed with a faithful people, who, as a result of their faithfulness, lose societal, cultural, and political power.
And most telling, the state of modern race relations in the U.S. shows how Bavinck’s critique was not about an unfortunate time in history but instead pointed out something far more fundamental. It was more than Americans at the time, as is argued, “just being people of their time.” Bavinck had conversations 120 years ago in which people argued that the problems in Black communities were the result of their lack of morality. In 2022, that same argument continues, for, as some argue, “The problem is not historical and contemporary systemic injustice. The problem is their culture and their bad decisions.” Over 120 years ago, Bavinck was struck by the segregated nature of the American church. But, in 2022, churches are ten times more segregated than the neighborhoods they’re in, and twenty times more segregated than nearby public schools.”3 These words hold: “Unless it also underwent a profound transformation, the American church could not offer a solution to the problem of race.”
Now, at this point, some might want to say, “Well, it was the church and Christians that advocated for the abolition of enslavement.” More specifically, to Bavinck’s post-enslavement journey to America, some might say, “Christians advocated for Civil Rights!” Yes. Yes, they did. But, what Christians? Which churches? It is well documented the extent to which many evangelical and Reformed churches resisted integration, voting rights, and other legislative action that forced equality. In fact, like today, many who advocated for equality were deemed Communists and Marxists.
(This is a complete side note, but if you’re interested in Bavinck’s assessment of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, see some of his thoughts in Christian Worldview. Again, Bavinck is an example of a good faith, educated, honest engagement. Also, see Karl Marx by William Dennison for an in-depth look at Marxism from a Reformed perspective.)
While to speak of the American church in a broad way is nearly impossible to do rightly, what if we narrow the scope? Let’s consider only the American churches that would hold Bavinck, and other great Reformed thinkers, in high esteem. I would love to be convinced otherwise, but those churches, by and large, have not offered a solution to the problem of race but have too often perpetuated the problem. This is not because our theology or faith tradition lacks the resources to produce meaningful change but rather because our cultural and political idolatries have led to unfaithfulness. Bavinck saw it when he said that “because of its racism, America was, in some ways, ‘a disaster.’”
I wonder, for the glory of God and the good of the church, if we can receive Bavinck’s 120-year-old rebuke (or at least receive his assessment as such), rightly analyze our churches and traditions, and consider how, in the next 120 years, we can be the solution Bavinck hoped we would be in our society.
1. See, "Herman Bavinck's 'My Journey to America'" by James Eglinton
2. See, "Bavinck on Racism in America" by James Eglinton
3. See, Michael O. Emerson in “Ethnic Blends: Growing Healthy, Multiethnic Churches"