Like most people around the world I spent yesterday following the results of the US elections. I have followed the campaign closely since the early part of the primaries. However I was on a plane when it was announced that Obama had won so missed the crucial moment. But watched with others as we collected our baggage at the carousel.
Later on as I watched Obama’s acceptance speech I was struck by the religious nature of American politics. I don’t mean the influence of Evangelicals or the religious right; but rather as a non – American observer I cannot help but be struck by the implicit religiosity of American culture. The sermon like speeches, the fervour of the crowds, the Messianic view of leadership, the faith in the divine calling of their nation, the reverence for the flag and anthem; all combine to create an environment that seems to the outside viewer as something akin to a religious rally. In Australia, my home, such rallies would never be seen. Sure, during elections we have rallies, but only those who are inside the political machine would turn up. You would never see thousands turning up to support a candidate, we here in Australia are simply too cynical about the political process. I would vouch that it is the same in most other Western English speaking democracies.
This difference in politics reveals to us a key cultural difference between America and other Western Countries that those engaged in mission must understand. That is that the US is at its core is a deeply religious country. This is one reason why Church attendance is so much higher in the United States when compared to Canada, France, Germany, Britain, New Zealand and Australia. But there is a deeper religiosity that pervades American culture that seems to even be evident in the actions and attitudes of those who would not describe themselves as people of faith.There seems to be in so many American souls a latent sense of hope and faith, a belief that their country is called to be something special. Americans posses a sense of optimism and enthusiasm, that is not seen in other Western Cultures.
Much of this can be traced back to America’s beginnings. America at it’s inception was influenced by two streams. One of these streams was the influence of the Christians fleeing religious persecution, who saw the United States as place to in freedom get to the business of creating the Kingdom of God on earth. The Second influence came through the founder fathers who were deeply influenced by the European enlightenment, and saw a chance to break away from despotic rule and create a republic of Enlightenment with Deistic sensibilities. Thus America represents both these influences, and the sense of hope in the future that undergirds these philosophies creates a different religious environment in the United States to that in other Western democracies. Even through many American Christians would point to the way in which post-modernity and secularism seems to have begun dismantled much of the framework of the church, there is definitely much more of a structure left tstanding than what we find in other Western countries.
So why is this important for those engaged in Mission? Well what this is all means is quite simple really. Often missional practices and methods that work in the United States will not work in other Western countries. The secularism that those of us outside of the United States face, may posses some of the similar traits to the beast that we must battle, but in many ways it is a different animal.Therefore we have much to learn from what happens in America but we must always remember that context is key to mission, and not all practices will be transferable.