Christian America? Sort of.

christian-americaIn my previous post, I argued that it is misleading to describe America as a Christian nation, because (1) the writers of the Constitution explicitly intended the fledgling nation they were creating to be a secular (i.e., non-religious) nation that did not favor one religion over another, and (2) from a biblical (i.e., Christian) point of view, there is no such thing as a Christian nation; never has been, never will be.

In today’s post, I will argue that there is nonetheless as sense in which we can talk about America as a Christian nation. “It is undeniable that the United States is a Christian nation in a cultural and ceremonial sense.” (Christian American and the Kingdom of God, Richard T. Hughes)

America’s Civil Religion

Robert N. Bellah, a sociologist, wrote an article in 1967 in which he coined the term “civil religion” to describe American Christianity (“Civil Religion in America,” Daedalus 96). By this he means that Christian themes so thoroughly pervade American culture that for many Americans it is axiomatic that they are Christians simply by virtue of being Americans.

This identification of America as a nation with Christianity as a faith is, as I pointed out in my previous post, an example of syncretism (the merging of Christianity with the values and principles of society). It allows people to adopt the Christian faith while continuing to hold values and principles that are antithetical to it. The result is a form of Christianity that looks like real Christianity but is not. Bellah notes that, “Though much is selectively derived from Christianity, this religion is clearly not itself Christianity.”

The American Gospel

The result of the marriage between biblical Christianity and American culture is a highly distorted form of Christianity, one that would have been seen in an earlier age a heresy. Many of America’s core values simply don’t pass muster when compared with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Consider, for example, our nation’s treatment of society’s throw-aways. In Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats, in which the sheep sit at his right hand in the Kingdom of God while the goats are cast into eternal fire, he identifies the sheep as those who cared for the poor, the hungry, the sick, the strangers, those in prison. He identifies the goats as those who did not care for the poor, the hungry, the sick, the strangers, those in prison. This theme runs throughout the New Testament and the Old Testament, and is the single largest topic of concern in the Bible. One has only to look at America’s national policies toward these groups to see that America’s civil religion and biblical Christianity are very far apart.

Another example is the “health and wealth” movement within the American church. This movement has drunk so deeply from the well of American consumer culture that it’s adherents have lost sight of the most essential elements of biblical Christianity. I have no hesitation in tagging it as a heresy (i.e., a belief system that presents itself as authentic Christianity, but is in fact a different religion altogether).

These are just two examples. There are others: Would Jesus condone the use of weapons of indiscriminate mass destruction against civilian populations? Would Jesus encourage his followers to put the pursuit of social status and monetary wealth at the center of their lives? Would Jesus encourage us to put our own creature comforts ahead of the needs of those who have less than we have? Would Jesus be pleased with today’s political rhetoric about Muslims and Mexicans? Would Jesus refuse to serve a homosexual?

When I put these questions to practitioners of American civil religion, I get a pretty consistent response. It goes something like this: “Well, we can’t afford to do that as a nation. We already have too much debt.” Or, “We have to defend ourselves or we’ll be overrun by some really bad people.” Or, “Better we kill them than let them kill us.” Or, “Those people are perverts.”

What these responses have in common is that, when confronted with the contradiction between civil religion and the Bible, they abandon all discussion about what it means to be a Christian in favor of what it means to be an American. They reveal the true nature of America’s civil religion as a belief system that wants to claim the name of Christian without being bothered by the demands of being Christian.

Christian America?

Yes, there is a form of Christian religion in America, and as long as you don’t examine it too closely, it looks like the real thing. I imagine people will continue to speak of America as a Christian nation. There’s nothing we can do about that. But those of us who want to take our Christian faith seriously should be very careful not to confuse America’s “Christian” civil religion with the real thing.

Footnote on voting.

I won’t explore this here, but I do want to make an observation. As a Christian living in a secular Republic, I have the opportunity and the responsibility to engage in public and political discourse. I can and should make my voice heard. One way I do this is by casting my vote for elected offices. In this Presidential cycle, I am listening to the candidates carefully. I am not especially interested in how closely they and their political positions align with America’s national interests. I am very interested in how closely their values and positions align with biblical Christianity. Do they pass the WWJD (What would Jesus do) test? None of them will align perfectly, of course. I pretty sure I don’t. But some will align more closely than others. That’s where I’ll put my vote.

Is this where I get to call you vile names?

Please don’t call me vile names. But do feel free to disagree with me, or to correct me where I have run off the rails. Or, heaven forbid, to agree with me.

Thank you for taking the time to read my blog.

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1 Response to Christian America? Sort of.

  1. Chuck McCallum says:

    So what does it mean to speak of America as a “Christian” nation. I believe that when some critical mass of citizens are genuine Christians that God’s values tend to become relatively more reflected in social mores, law, regulation, etc. This will always be imperfect of course, just as it is with our individual spiritual lives, but non-the-less I think it true.

    Some will feel inclined to believe that slavery and/or other offensive elements of our legal history decisively undermines this outlook. I have heard one person, professing Christianity and a progressive outlook, say that our nation is becoming more and more Christ-like (I assume that recent advances in civil rights was a major factor in their judgement). Conservative Christians are inclined to see the sexual revolution, the decay of the family, increasing divorce rates, the increase of crime, increasing pornography use, and etc. as clear evidence that the nation is becoming less Christ-like. One might point out that the same tarnish is upon the church itself but, like the case of the individual, we are all sinful but there is an important distinction between resisting or refusing God’s standards or in acknowledging what God’s standards are and that they are right and just despite our knowledge of our short comings.

    Taking a different tack one can do as Obama did and say that America is also a Buddhist nation and an Islamic nation and a non-believing nation and on the one hand it is important to be gracious and welcoming to everyone, regardless of their religion, but this statement stimulates a backlash in my mind as I focus on the fact that Islam and Buddhism have had almost zero influence on our American culture during our first few centuries (18th and 19th centuries) and they continue to have only a very minor influence today. We can argue what true “Christianity” is and is not but surely we can’t lose sight of the fact a relatively huge number of people seriously professing to be Christians chose to come to America during the founding and formative years of our nation and their “faith” made a profound stamp on the nature and character of our nation that continues to the present day. In comparison the ‘stamp’ of other religions is very minor. It is reasonable to call America a “Christian Nation” as distinguished from an “Islamic Nation” such as Iran or Saudi Arabia or a “Buddhist Nation” such as Thailand or Cambodia. This acknowledges that there are distinct religions that have had and continue to have a powerful effect on national cultures and that in some nations a particular religion is especially influential. In America the Christian Religion remains by far the most influential and to argue over what true Christianity really is or the fact that grace requires that we allow a peaceful place for other religions can appear to be an attempt to critically obscure the facts. And this is my tendency – to react to statements that America is NOT a Christian nation as an attempt to rewrite history and pretend that those who self-identify as Christians have NOT had the vast preponderance of effect on what our nation was at its founding and what it is today as compared to other religions – as an attempt to write God out of history – in short, to deny God.

    We have all heard it said that you cannot legislate morality and this is both trivially true and outrageously false. No law can cause a person to want to adopt as a personal value the intent of the law in question. On the other hand in any nation that does not pretend to theocracy the law is the ONLY standard of morality and you either measure up or face the consequences.

    Regarding syncretism of politics and religion I think it will be worthwhile to ask where the democratic values embedded in the constitution come from. I don’t think anyone can find democracy in the Bible. The fact is that American democratic values stem from sources that are alien to and sometimes hostile to Christianity. Enlightenment, Greek, Roman, and Pagan sources were all mixed together with Christian values to produce the intellectual atmosphere out of which the founders condensed the constitution.

    But at the end of the day every true Christian must know the voice of Christ the great shepherd and that knowledge will draw them to seek the Kingdom of God which is always and forever absolutely and fundamentally different and distinct from any earthly government or constitution. Nevertheless we do live in a democratic republic with civic duties to vote your mind and your values and while this is not syncretic in itself the danger is always there. How do we discern when someone is being syncretistic in a way that is at odds with true Christianity? How then shall we guard our hearts and minds from syncretism? Discussions like this are a part of that endeavor.


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