In a recent email conversation with a friend, the question arose: “What’s wrong with calling America a Christian nation?” Today’s post came out of that conversation.
What’s wrong with calling America a Christian nation?
There is no such thing as a Christian nation. Never has been, never will be (at least not in this world). All the kingdoms of the world are fundamentally and irrevocably in opposition to the Kingdom of God. To pretend or act otherwise is to misunderstand either Christianity or America or both.
This is an important thing to get right, because the designation “Christian Nation” is a source of a good deal of the confusion and antagonism and error we see today, especially in the unholy alliance between the religious right and the political right. (This would also be true of the religious left and the political left if such an alliance existed; I don’t think it does, at least not at present.) The Church has a long history of climbing into bed with the political powers of the day; this always turns out badly for the Church. Syncretism of some sort is the inevitable fruit of that marriage, and a syncretistic Christianity is a poor substitute for the real thing. It is like salt that has lost its saltiness.
Wasn’t American founded as a Christian nation?
It is more accurate to say that American was founded on Judeo-Christian principles and values. Some of the founding fathers were indeed Christians. Others were Deists, which would today be seen as religious Liberalism. Others do not appear to have held any religious convictions at all. Regardless of their religious views, the writers of the Constitution did not intend the nation they were creating to be a “Christian” nation. If they had, they would have said so. Instead, they went out of their way to NOT say this. Nowhere is God or Christ or Christianity mentioned in the Constitution, even in places where we would have expected it to appear. If the writers of the Constitution intended America to be a Christian nation, they did a good job of hiding it.
America was founded as a secular nation.
The Federalist Papers provide insight into what the writers of the Constitution were thinking, and it quickly becomes evident that there was some debate about this and that “God” appeared at least once in early drafts, but was eventually excised from the document.
Their insistence on the secular nature of the new nation is accentuated by the First Amendment, ratified two years later as part of the Bill of Rights: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …” We might argue about exactly how to translate this into specific legal issues of the day (e.g, does this prohibit Bible studies on public school property?), but it is impossible to miss the fact that it makes explicit the secular nature of the country the founding fathers envisioned.
How then should we live?
Here I speak specifically to my Christian friends: Beloved, let us live as strangers in a strange land, as radical counter-culturalists who challenge the pervasive American consumer culture we are immersed in, as peculiar people who shine a little light into the dark places of our society. Let us live as citizens of the Kingdom of God, not as citizens of this or any other nation.
I am an evangelical Christian (evangelical means bringer of good news). I believe that God calls me to live in a way that shows his grace to everyone around me. God’s grace says, “It’s all right. I’ll take you just the way you are. You don’t have to change a thing.” This is the gospel, the good news. (Yes, I know this is a shocking and frightening proposition, especially within the Church.)
What does this mean in practice? Two things. First, it means I accept everyone just as they are (including myself, BTW), with no strings attached. Second, it means I actively communicate that acceptance through the things I say and do. This is what it means to be an evangelical Christian. By living this way, we show God’s shocking and frightening grace to the world.
What should I do now?
Here’s a homework assignment: Identify someone who’s lifestyle you find revolting, or at least unacceptable, and befriend them.
Here’s an advanced homework assignment: Invite them over for lunch.
Final assignment: Stop thinking about America as a Christian nation. It’s not. It belongs to the Kingdom of Darkness that opposes the Kingdom of God.
Can I shout at you now?
Yes, please. I have said some provocative things. I’d like to hear what you think. What I do not want is argumentum ad hominum (“attack the man”; i.e., If you cannot defeat your opponent’s argument, all is not lost, you can still call him vile names). In other words, let’s try to be polite to each other.
Thanks for taking the time to read my blog.