Is American Christianity an Ideology or a Culture?

Most of us believe that cultures have a fundamental value, that peoples have a right to their distinct cultural practices and suffer a kind of collective trauma if their way of life is violently suppressed or uprooted. So, for example, currently in Canada there have been a number of different lawsuits and controversies that basically concern the loss of cultural traditions among First Nations people. There’s a recognition that when indigenous kids were taken from their families and placed in residential schools, or when wards of the state were removed from their First Nations communities and placed with white families (usually under the assumption that white families could provide them with a superior upbringing), that the loss of their cultural heritage was a grave injustice against these kids.

We don’t generally make the same assumption about ideologies, mostly because we think that ideologies can be wrong, and when they are they can have a deeply destructive effect on culture. Ideologies can develop in ways that are more artificial: cultures follow a kind of organic development and they generally have to be resilient and accommodating enough to benefit a majority of the people who practice them. Ideologies on the other hand are notoriously fractious, they’re usually developed by intellectual elites in a vacuum, and they don’t have to be subject to the same kinds of social compromise that result when large groups of people attempt to actually put a cultural belief into practice. That’s why you can end up with authoritarian ideologies that function through violent imposition on their host peoples.

The difficulty is that in practice it’s never possible to completely separate culture and ideology, so you end up with situations where cultural destruction becomes justified under the guise of ideological correction. If you look at the history of cultural imperialism, the claim that the dominant culture is merely suppressing the false beliefs of the subordinate culture is very common, because if you say that what you’re trying to do is spread truth, correct errors and address endemic evils within a population then it gives a veneer of altruism and righteousness to forms of cultural destruction.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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