Christian Nation? No Such Thing.

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What is a Christian Nation?

Is it a country with a government based on Biblical principles? If that’s the case, could we also call a heterosexual, adultery-free marriage a Christian marriage, even if neither spouse is a believer? Could we call a submissive, obedient child a Christian child because he or she is acting in line with the fifth commandment?

We all know that being a Christian is not determined by what we do, but what Christ does. Christianity is a monarchy, not a democracy. Christianity is a governance of spirit, not law. This is not like Israel, where biology or a patch of land has something to do with spiritual identity or destiny. The Church is global, transcending the barriers that typically divide us.

There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28  

If we really believe these things, why do we so easily blur the line between faith and patriotism? Why can’t we let them stand apart?  Over the Fourth of July weekend, I was struck by the lyrics of some of our patriotic hymns. It’s one thing to pray for your country and its leaders, but it’s a whole different thing to claim that your nation stands apart from all others, as if being a citizen of the U.S. is pretty much the same thing as being a citizen of heaven.

Check out the last verse of Our Country ‘Tis of Thee:

Our father’s God to Thee, author of liberty, to Thee we sing. Long may our land be bright with freedom’s holy light, protect us by Thy might, Great God, our King!    

Look at the last verse of America the Beautiful:

America! America! May God thy gold refine, ‘till all success be nobleness, and every gain divine.

If the Battle Hymn of the Republic is about the Kingdom of God moving against the spiritual armies of darkness, striving toward the second coming of Christ, I can get on board with that. If it’s about God supporting America against its enemies, I’m out.

I have heard some pastors use II Chronicles 7:14 to urge Americans to vote conservatively and press legislators to fall more in line with Biblical principles. They claim that if we could only get back to our Christian roots, God would smile on us, healing our land, stabilizing our finances, restoring our global power, bringing sanity back to a culture that seems lost and flailing. But when did we feel comfortable claiming verses that were written for Israel, as if America could just snatch up Israel’s nametag, claiming to be “a people who are called by My name”?

A Christian Nation?

I read a book by Peter Marshall called “The Light and the Glory,” which systematically lays out the fundamentalist view of American Christianity. It starts with the call of Christopher Columbus, quoting from his journal:

It was the Lord who put into my mind (I could feel his hand upon me) the fact that it would be possible to sail from here to the Indies. There is no question that the inspiration was from the Holy Spirit, because He comforted me with rays of marvelous inspiration from the Holy Scriptures.

Christopher (whose name means Christ bearer) discovered a land which God would set apart for himself, establishing a country which would ultimately be, as Puritan preacher John Winthrop famously stated and Ronald Reagan affirmed, “a city on a hill,” a beacon of light for the world.

America was kept hidden until after the Reformation so the truth of the Protestant faith could be established in a new land with a unique, God-fearing government. Though Columbus was tempted by gold and power, tainting his legacy, he ultimately paved the way for the Puritans who came to the New World seeking religious freedom. Though some have criticized their fundamentalist ways, it was ultimately the Puritan views of freedom and faith that inspired our Founding Fathers.

These Christian men, called of God, came together under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, writing a new form of government that would allow faith to thrive without persecution. They infused the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution with Christian values and imagery, presenting America as a kind of new Israel, fleeing from the persecution of Pharaohs like King George III, setting the stage for a country that would soon rise to great wealth and power, allowing them to give aid and guidance to other, less fortunate, less enlightened nations.

A Nation of Tyrants?

I read another book that presented a polar opposite view. In James W. Loewen’s, “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” Columbus is presented as a member of a society that used religion to rationalize conquest. Here is a quote from what Spaniards would read to their freshly-conquered savages:

I implore you to recognize the Church as a lady and in the name of the Pope take the King as lord of this land and obey his mandates. If you do not do it, I tell you that with the help of God I will enter powerfully against you all. I will make war everywhere and every way that I can. I will subject you to the yoke and obedience to the Church and to his majesty. I will take your women and children and make them slaves. The death and injuries that you will receive from here on will be your own fault and not that of his majesty nor of the gentlemen that accompany me.

This form of Christianity condoned the plunder and rape of the American continent by the early American explorers and the first colonies, a plunder that continued for centuries and haunts us to this day. Has there ever been a period of American history free of violence, greed or tyranny?

The Puritans were not as pure as their name implies. They were full of arrogance, prejudice, fear and hate, creating societies that were far from free, inspiring works like “The Scarlet Letter” and “The Crucible.” Connecticut’s Code of 1650 was brutal: “If any man shall have or worship any God but the Lord God, he shall be put to death.”

According to Loewen, the Founding Fathers did not frame their new government after the example of the Puritans, but as an effort to avoid their narrow-minded and oppressive approach to religion, an approach that had dominated European nations for centuries.

Jon Meacham, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of “American Gospel,” makes this startling statement:

The right’s contention that we are a “Christian nation” that has fallen from pure origins and can achieve redemption by some kind of return to Christian values is based on wishful thinking, not convincing historical argument. Writing to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1790, President Washington assured his Jewish countrymen that America “gives bigotry no sanction.” In a treaty with the Muslim nation of Tripoli initiated by Washington, complete by John Adams, and ratified by the Senate in 1797, the Founders declared that “the government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion.” [18-19]  

It was important to the Founders to speak of God in a way that was unifying, not divisive. ‘Nature’s God’ was the path they chose, and it has served the nation admirably. Despite generation of subsequent efforts to amend the Constitution to include Jesus or to declare that America is a “Christian nation,” no president across three centuries has made an even remotely serious attempt to do so. [23]

Meacham explains that the Founding Fathers were not the conservative Christians that many pastors make them out to be. They were children of the Enlightenment. Most of them were Deists, believing in a Creator, but not one who is heavily involved in human lives, at least not in a personal sense. Most did not believe in the divinity of Christ, rejecting the Trinity outright.

Thomas Jefferson, one of five who drafted the Declaration of Independence, cut up his New Testament, keeping the moral teachings of Jesus, but removing the miraculous. He believed that a man should be judged by his actions, not his personal faith.

Benjamin Franklin, another of the five, recognized Jesus as the best moral teacher the world has ever seen, but was unconvinced of his deity. Franklin believed that the best human government was one that protected and encouraged a personal faith in a Creator, one that would ultimately judge a person based on his or her conduct. He called it “public religion,” infusing his new government with images and themes that the faith-oriented Americans of his generation would resonate with while keeping the door open to people of all cultures and creeds.

Meacham sates that a tolerant, pluralistic democracy in which religious and secular forces continually contend against one another may not be ideal, but it has proven to be the most practical and enduring arrangement of human affairs—and we must guard that arrangement well. [33]

What about the separation of Church and state? I expected to find this concept somewhere in the Constitution or some other foundational document, but the quote comes from a letter of Jefferson in 1802, responding to the concerns of the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut:

I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between Church and State. [105]

This metaphor would not take central place in the American political or legal culture for another century and a half when proponents of a more secular society would begin to push back against Franklin’s “public religion.”

So what are Christians supposed to do? Should we take the American flag out of our church sanctuaries? Should we stop trying to promote Christian values at the legislative level? Should we stop singing patriotic hymns?

My advice would be to come to a clear understanding of what it means to be an American and what it means to be a Christian, and live in a way that adheres to both without compromise. Our misunderstanding can easily lead to some kind of bizarre hybrid, an American Christianity that blurs the beauty and potency of each, tainting their unique visions for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

7 thoughts on “Christian Nation? No Such Thing.

  1. Christianity is a religion centered on a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. There is no way a nation could be “Christian” in this sense. But Christianity is also a world view, a way of understanding and interpreting the world as we experience it. It is in this sense that I believe that America was a Christian nation at it’s founding. Regardless of the personal religions of the various founders, the ideas and values that formed this nation are biblical ideas and values. And it is this worldview, not salvation or sanctification or any of the personal aspects of Christianity, that has caused America to flourish. Relatedly it is the throwing off of this world view in favor of secularism, another world view, that has caused America to flounder. I have no problems keeping these two things separate in my mind, and I can wish for a nation whose laws and mores were founded on a Judeo-Christian world view, even if many of it’s citizens are not Christians. I can also desire to see the citizens of our country saved so that not only are we a “Christian” nation in our beliefs, but also a nation of Christian people.

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    • Hi Karl,

      I think I see your point, but I would ask what the Founders said or did that would make America distinctly Christian versus, say, any of the other religions that embrace a Creator God and moral values? The Founders chose their words carefully, opening the door wide enough for people of a variety of faiths to step through, which is a distinctly Masonic thing to do. As you probably know, Franklin, Washington, Monroe, Hancock & Revere (among others) were Masons.

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    • If I had to a choose a religion that most fits our government, I would say Judaism. That is most based in a Creator God with a strong moral emphasis and a sense of destiny related to a specific land and people. Not Christianity.

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  2. I would agree with you, but I wouldn’t make a distinction. I think that Judaism and Christianity basically share the same worldview. The only other sort of similar “Creator God” religion that I can think of is Islam, but Islam’s world view is vastly different from the Judeo-Christian worldview. I think this is a terribly important distinction because one of the ways that our values are being discarded today is by identifying them as Christian religious beliefs rather than underlying foundational truths that are set forth in the Bible. Truths which will, at least in my opinion, benefit our country regardless of the personal religious affiliation of it’s citizens. I guess what I am saying is that it is possible to be a country founded on biblical values without having leadership, or even a majority of its citizens, Christian. The opposite is also possible, to be a Christian by virtue of accepting Christ as savior, but to hold to a secular understanding of the world. I think America today is proof of both of these things. A secular country that still holds to some vestiges of it’s biblical moral compass, and a Christian church that too readily buys into the secular worldview. I would like to see both of those things change. By the way, I really enjoy reading your blogs.

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    • I agree that the Biblical worldview is distinct for Jews and Christians, and that a government based on these basic values would lead to a stronger society, one that Ben Franklin and others recognized as a cultural benefit despite their own beliefs. No question. And I also see that our persist abandoning of these values have only brought us confusion and chaos.

      I guess the only pushback I would have is that Jesus basically took a Jewish system that was based in divinely-chosen group of people and a set of laws, and created a spiritual reality that transcended the former system, making the concept of a specific chosen people no longer valid. That’s why I think Americans tend to lean more toward a Jewish worldview than a Christian one.

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  3. If we have a secular government, then citizens should expect our laws to have bases in science as much as revelation or tradition. For American Christians, I think this means promoting those values which conscience dictates and reinforces. Sometimes, these converge, but it takes energy and honesty to demonstrate convergence. In God’s universe, I’d expect science and Christian revelation to converge more than we may realize. Regardless, American Christians must live according to conscience (nourished among the people of faith, steeped in the values of the age to come, informed by scripture, and so forth). Example: More Christians are able to fairly explain why they do not practice homosexuality than are able to explain why America should not condone homosexual marriage. If we think it belongs on the law books, we need to apply the effort and honesty to articulate the argument.

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  4. Pingback: American Christianity | Barnts in the Belfry

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