In 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.
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.