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-by Mark Noll
Translating Christianity, Part 2
To be sure, Christianity in America grew from the stock of Christian Europe. But the special circumstances of American settlement--which mingled immigrants from many religious as well as ethnic regions and which was accompanied by a growing attachment to democratic liberalism--meant that Christianity in early America would also differ significantly from its shape in Europe. Thus, American dispositions were not theoretical but activist, not traditional but self-starting, not dependent on the state but voluntary, not institutional but individual. In Walls's terms, Christians in America came to be characterized by
vigorous expansionism; readiness of invention; a willingness to make the fullest use of contemporary technology; finance, organization, and business methods; a mental separation of the spiritual and the political realms combined with a conviction of the superlative excellence, if not the universal relevance, of the historic constitution and values of the nation; and an approach to theology, evangelism, and church life in terms of addressing problems and finding solutions.
With his willingness to see local culture as shaping much that American believers regard as unquestioned essentials of Christian faith, Walls is prepared to find fault. He thinks, for example, that Americans, and especially American missionaries, have been politically naïve. The naïveté lies in thinking that the American practice of separating church and state somehow represents the cessation of politics. By way of objection, Walls points out that most Americans embraced a separation of church and state from practical rather than theoretical reasons. There were simply too many different representatives of competing European churches to re-establish any one of them as the established religion. But when Americans treat their practical solution as a theological principle, "the effects," according to Walls,
have been paradoxical. American missions have tended to ...