City on a Hill

An Outside Perspective on America

“I hear that Christians have free sex,” the driver said eagerly, one hand on the steering wheel and the other clutching his prayer beads.

I was hitching a ride in the Kingdom of Jordan, where I live. The man, curious about the foreigner he had kindly picked up on the side of the road, had asked me if I were a Muslim like him. I had informed him that, no, I was a Christian.

His reply may seem shocking, but I wasn’t the least bit surprised. I’m used to it. Here in Jordan, as throughout the Muslim world, it is common knowledge that Christianity permits free sex.

As you (probably) know, it doesn’t. But when you think about where people in non-Christian countries get their information about Christians, the misconception isn’t so surprising.

And where is that? Basically, the answer is America. America is viewed as the quintessential “Christian nation”—and no wonder, since so many American Christians have declared it to be such. Technically, of course, America is a secular republic. But even so, we shout our Christianity very loudly. There has not been an American president since Abraham Lincoln who did not claim Christianity as his religion. God’s name is written on our money. American children say God’s name in the pledge of allegiance. “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” was in the hymnal of the church I grew up in.

If America is a Christian nation, then, what people believe about America is what they will believe about Christians. So the next question is, where do people get their information about America?

Well, most people get their information on America from Hollywood, social media, and pop music.

Therefore, the Muslim world believes Christian society to be whatever they observe in Hollywood, social media, and pop music.

What do you suppose they see there?

The View from Outside

A lot of the conservative discourse on “culture wars” and worldview-shift seems to contain the assumption that America exists in a vacuum. Or, if the rest of the world comes into the picture at all, it is portrayed as a threat: America, a once-free and once-Christian nation, is now under assault from European secularism, or Chinese or Russian communism, or violent fanaticism from the Muslim world. Rarely is America treated as a villain in the clash of civilizations. Whatever might be happening within America, we are still the good guys on the global stage.

But living outside of America has made me aware that America’s significance in the larger world is not quite what I imagined it to be.

I’m not alone in being unsettled this way. Benedict Option author Rod Dreher has been arriving at the same unnerving realization from his “self-imposed exile” in Budapest. He’s been coming to terms with it in several recent Substack posts. In one, he writes:

The decadence of the US is starker seen from the perspective of a country (Hungary) that hasn’t lost its mind. That I could have predicted. What I did not foresee is what this experience has taught me about how powerful the US is in terms of exporting its culture to the rest of the world. I thought I had a pretty good sense of it, but I did not. We Americans really are making the world crazy like us.

In another piece he writes:

If you sent people from today back to 2003, and showed the newspaper stories revealing where the LGBT movement was going to lead us, they would have denounced you as some kind of fundamentalist fraud. It will never happen here, they would say. Not in America. Because we are good.

Now look at us. The rest of the world sure is… I’m in Romania this weekend, and though my evidence is merely anecdotal, people are afraid of what the United States — both its government and its culture — is doing to their families and their children. They are right to be afraid. What starts in America doesn’t stay in America.

As Dreher notes in one of his posts, this is not only true in the more conservative eastern European nations, but even to a certain extent in more liberal European countries. I can concur. I recently had a conversation with a socially conservative German man who was surprised to hear that Americans consider our nation to be more conservative than Europe. To him, America was the anti-conservative influence. (If that is how some Europeans see America – just imagine how the rest of the world must see it!) The thing is, I don’t think he was wrong. There are, of course, aspects of western European society that are less traditional than American society, but there are also many aspects that are more traditional. After all, industrial mass production, smartphones, and social media – and all that follows from them – are American inventions.

The Light of the World?

The pilgrims who settled Massachusetts said that their colony would be a City on a Hill, shining its light for all the world to see.

And they succeeded.

America is a city on a hill.

It certainly cannot be hidden, anyway.

If you wander around a Middle Eastern community today, what sorts of things are you likely to observe? Walk the streets of the Old Town of a picturesque Arab city, and you may notice a line from Billie Eilish’s hit song “idontwannaobeyouanymore” (“told a tight dress is what makes you a whore”) graffitied on an ancient-looking stone wall. Stroll by a local shawarma shop, and you may hear the speakers blaring Cardi B’s no. 1 hit single “WAP” (an acronym you shouldn’t look up). On Halloween (an American export, of course), you might happen to see a couple of teenage girls dressed as devils. Christmas, too, is a big holiday—the commercialized version, stripped of any deep religious connotation but retaining primarily the imperative to buy more useless stuff.

These examples are not hypothetical. Nor will they be surprising to anyone who has traveled abroad much. The fact is, “American culture” is increasingly simply global culture. Game of Thrones seems to be watched by all the young men here. American videogames are ubiquitous. Social media posts that go viral in America go viral throughout the world. You get the feeling that everyone you meet hopes to immigrate to America one day. Why do you get that feeling? Because they tell you. Often the first time you meet them.

What is the result of all this? “God’s name is blasphemed among the gentiles because of you.

The United States of America displays a mockery of Christ for all the world to see. The world, by and large, likes what it sees. Sure, there are plenty of reactionaries—who, by the way, are more likely to be moderate Muslim parents quietly trying to protect their children than radical imams shouting about how America is “the Great Satan”—but many people, especially in the younger generation, either long to immigrate to America, or want more American “freedom” to come to where they are. Some of that freedom would be good for the Muslim world, obviously. But most of it would be destructive—is destructive.

My conclusion from the experience of living abroad is that Christian leaders in America need to take a hard look at our place in the nation, and the nation’s place in the world. The true church in America needs to ask itself: Is all this okay? Is it okay that the world naturally equates what is coming out of America with Christianity? And if not … is this a sad inevitability, or is there something that could be done about it?

Further Reading:

Diana Woerner, “Caveat Emptor

Benjamin J. Vail, “World War Sex

Brian M. Litfin, “In Defense of the Ancients

Daniel Witt, “A Tyranny of Managers

lives in Amman, Jordan, and has worked with asylum seekers and migrants from across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. He has a B.S. in Ecology and a B.A. in History and enjoys playing mandolin and foraging.

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