Tuesday, June 30, 2009

If America Were a Christian Nation

Whenever we approach the American Independence Day observance, the debate over whether or not America is a Christian nation inevitably rekindles. The debate seems to me to be shaped in three different ways.

First, some people debate whether or not America was a Christian nation in the past. Many insist, and they can find pious quotes from various founding figures to support their contention, that America was founded as a Christian nation by Christian leaders. The most reasonable observers acknowledge that some of the Founding Fathers were Christians, some were agnostics, and some were Deists. One fact jumps out of the mists of history at me: the founding document of our nation, the United States Constitution, not only makes no mention of the Christian faith but indeed mentions God not at all, which leads me to conclude that the Founders went out of their way to insure at least that church and state would be separate in the United States, insurance that was increased by the Bill of Rights.

Second, some people debate whether or not America is a Christian nation in the present. This debate is fueled by consternation on the part of some and delight on the part of others over remarks by President Obama in which he has said that America is not a Christian nation, as in his press conference in Turkey earlier this year in which he said, “One of the great strengths of the United States is ... we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation. We consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values.”

Some see such comments as an indication that the President does not value the Christian heritage that is so obviously important to American history and to the American ethos but another and likely more accurate way to evaluate them is as a celebration of the melting pot nature of American culture that is or at least should be a source of great national pride. What unifies Americans, in other words, is not allegiance to one religion but our common status as Americans who believe that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are ideals that are worth rallying around and defending. An American Christian is an American, an American Jew is an American, an American Muslim is an American, an American Buddhist is an American, and an American atheist is an American. We are Americans—that is what unites us as Americans.

Third, some people debate whether or not America should be a Christian nation. It is that aspect of the debate that I want to address here.

The first matter that must be addressed is what it would mean for America to be a Christian nation. Does it mean having official government sanctioned religious observances? Surely not, since even a cursory reading of the Hebrew prophets and of the words of Jesus in the Gospels reveals that outward expressions of religion mean nothing if they are not preceded and inspired by a heart that is in a right relationship with God which in turn leads to just relationships with other people and history—even the history of Israel and of the “Christian” West—shows that nations are simply incapable of developing and maintaining such a corporate heart.

Does it mean having a personal conversion experience and the subsequent personal walk with God that are the hallmarks of so much of the Protestant (especially in Protestantism’s Evangelical expressions) emphasis? Again, surely not, since nations are simply not capable of such an experience.

Still, for the sake of argument, let’s posit that what I have said is impossible is in fact possible; let’s assume that American as a whole—as a nation—could somehow be “Christian” in the sense of having a corporate personal relationship with Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Were that the case, would not the next mark of being a Christian nation be that the nation as a whole, led by our elected officials, would strive, led by Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit and instructed by Holy Scripture, to live a Christian life?

If so, what would that look like?

The basic text for Christian living is Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, that great manual for the disciple’s life given to us in Matthew 5-7. If American were a Christian nation it stands to reason that it would attempt to live out its corporate life in the world guided by the words of Jesus as found in that Sermon.

Let’s see.

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also...” (5:38-39). Therefore, if America should be a Christian nation, then whenever we are attacked we should not retaliate, even in an equitable fashion, but rather we should not resist the nation or group that has harmed us and we should in fact “turn the other cheek.”

Jesus also said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven…” (5:43-44). Therefore, if America should be a Christian nation, then our foreign policy should be guided by our desire to make alliances with our enemies rather than with our friends.

Jesus furthermore said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (6:19-21). Therefore, if America should be a Christian nation, then our economic policy should be guided not by a capitalistic mindset but rather by the effort to lay up treasure in heaven.

Obviously, this could go on for a while but I hope the point has been made: America cannot be a Christian nation— in any sense of the term that would mean anything— because America cannot be America with a “turn the other cheek” military policy, with a “make alliances with your enemies instead of your friends” foreign policy, and with a “don’t amass treasure on earth” economic policy. With such policies America would fall like a house of cards within a few short years.

“But,” someone will object, “the Sermon on the Mount is not meant to be a guide for how a nation is to live—it is meant to be a guide for how the Church and for how the Christians who make up the Church are to live.” In that objection the objector has agreed with my point.

Or someone else might object, "Besides, it's hard enough for an individual Christian to live out the Sermon on the Mount, much less a nation." In that objection the objector has identified the real issue and the real challenge.

The real issue is not whether America should be a Christian nation; the real issue is rather whether or not the Christians who live in America will be—will think as, will talk as, and will act as—Christians.

The real challenge is not for America as a nation to be Christian—to live a life that is led by Jesus, that is guided by the Spirit, and that is shaped by Scripture; the real challenge is rather for the Christians who live in America to be Christian—to live lives that are led by Jesus, that are guided by the Spirit, and that are shaped by Scripture.

In such living we will provide a needed witness to the nation and to the world, the effect of which will go largely unnoticed and utterly unappreciated, but the legitimacy and integrity of which will speak volumes about who Jesus is, what the Kingdom of God is, and who Christians really are.


mcdaniel clan said...

what, then, would you suggest someone do if his church wants to sing Battle Hymn of the Republic or other patriotic songs this Sunday?

any good advice!

Steve F. said...

My snap response to The Battle Hymn of the Republic in church would probably be this passage, and to leave that venerable song at the fireworks demonstration. I'm sure there's a more tactful way of saying it, but that would by my message...

I guess it's a failing of our educational system, but we so easily forget that America was not founded to be "a Christian nation," but simply "a place where Christians could worship according to the dictates of their own conscience."

And I'm sorry to join in exposing the myth, but Michael is right - America was not founded exclusively by Christians. Our founders were both saints and scalawags, a mixture of men of great faith and men of some faith and men with only faith in themselves.

For me, the proof of God's hand in it all was that out of this hodge-podge of men came a set of documents which would grant freedom of religion to all people - and then left the choice of whether folks would be Christians (or not) up to them.

If this is to be a Christian nation, then it will not be by legislation or declaration, but rather (as the 12-step folks would say it) by "attraction rather than promotion" on the part of us Christians.

Michael, you pointed to the Sermon on the Mount as a measure of Christian behavior. Five years ago, I posed this challenge to my Christian sisters and brothers. The response so far has mostly been silence.

If we could grow closer to that standard, I wonder if we would be able to find an open seat in our congregations...

Stephen said...

While you make your main point well, and it is obvious that a nation cannot be Christian since the definition of a Christian is one who has faith in Jesus Christ, It seems a bit disingenuous to say that the constitution makes no mention of God (true) and then quote midsentence from the declaration. Here is the sentence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." The authors didn't believe these were ideals, they believed that they were God-given rights that the government should defend

Michael Ruffin said...


Not only disingenuous but quite careless as well.

Bill said...

This Southerner-By-Choice's snap response to singing "Battle Hymn" in church is...well, uh, sorry, better behave myself here. ;-)

I headed our church's worship committee back in the day, and on the first Sunday after 9/11, my music director was trying to decide just which patriotic hymn to sing at the close of the service. He decided on "America the Beautiful," which turned out to be a wonderful choice. I especially like passages in Katharine Lee Bates' text that extol our nation and its ideals without idolizing them (i.e., "God mend thine ev'ry flaw" and "God shed His grace on Thee").

Michael Ruffin said...

Some readers have pointed out some problems with my post that basically boil down to the fact that I build part of my case on the absence in the U.S. Constitution of any mention of God while at the same time asserting that Americans rally around such principles as "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," a phrase drawn from a line in the Declaration of Independence that refers to these as "inalienable rights" with which we are endowed by "our Creator," which fact I do not note.

To the charge that I should not have used "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" out of its context, I say "Mea culpa." That was careless of me.

However, I take issue with any assertion that the mentioning of God in the Declaration of Independence rises to the same level of importance in this discussion as the lack of such mention in the Constitution. While such references in the document that laid out the logic for indepencence are important, it is the Constitution and not the Declaration that provides the framework for our republic.

Those comments were made in a part of the post in which I try to lay out the ways that people frame the debate over whether America is a Christian nation.

My main point is that it is simply not possible for a nation to be Christian in any way that really means anything and that it is difficult for even the Church to be so, although it is the Church that has the mandate to, with the help of God, try.

Karl Kroger said...

Thanks for the great post. The real challenge for me as I think about these issues is: what does it mean for Americans to be Christians when they are government? Or should they be in government, particularly at the national level? If Christ calls us to lay our lives down and America calls us to preserve American lives through violence--can a Christian be faithful in Congress, as President?

wolf_rhino said...

A very interesting post. One I will probably think about for a long time. I was always taught that the U.S. was and is a Christian nation, but I don't believe that I was ever taught what that actually meant. Thanks for the post. I don't know if I completely agree with you on all of your points, but it was definitely an eye opener. Thanks!

Astra Navigo said...

Y'know, I'm late to the dance on this one - but I still go back to Sinclair Lewis' comment about America and Christianity when I think about what America would be like under Christian rule:

"When Fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in a flag, carrying a cross."

Happy belated Fourth, and all....