In any election year (especially one as tumultuous and exhausting as 2016), there will be claims and counter-claims about what values and principles should guide the United States of America.
And such debates inevitably lead to appeals to the history and heritage of our country. What principles guided the founding fathers? Were the founding fathers Christians? Were the founding documents Christian in nature?
Thus we come to the next phrase in our “Taking Back Christianese” series: “America is a Christian nation.”
Our purpose in this post (as in all the posts in this series) is simply to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of this phrase. We will do this by asking three questions: (1) Why do people use this phrase? (2) What is correct or helpful about this phrase? and (3) What is problematic about this phrase?
Why Do People Use This Phrase?
There are a number of reasons this phrase is used by believers. Some may simply use it historically. It is a phrase that attempts to capture some historical truths about our country and how it was conceived. As for whether this phrase accurately captures such truths, that is something we will address below.
But other believers may use it as more of an argument. Given the rapid moral and cultural decline of our country, the idea that “America is a Christian nation” is designed to stem the tide. It is a way of pushing back against the secularization all around us by reminding people that things were not always this way. It reminds people that Christians were, at one time, not viewed as cultural pariahs.
What is Correct or Helpful about This Phrase?
One of the challenges of this phrase is that people can mean dramatically different things when they use it. So it might be helpful to get some of the options on the table. The following list (not exhaustive) moves from the most stringent interpretation of the phrase to the most lax:
1. It could mean that America is a theocracy, a nation specially and distinctively under the direct rule of God. In this way, America is a new “Israel” of sorts.
2. It could mean that America was (and is) a nation that officially embraces the Christian religion as the religion of the land, though not a formal theocracy.
3. It could mean that all the founding fathers of America were committed Christians, even though they did not make it the religion of the nation.
4. It could mean that America was founded on the principles (particularly moral ones) laid out in the Christian worldview, even though not all the founding fathers (or citizens) were Christians.
5. It could mean that America was merely influenced by Christianity at its founding because some of the founding fathers happened to be Christians (and most of the populace was also Christian). But, this influence was merely a circumstance of the times and is not essential to the way the nation was conceived or structured. Thus, there is no reason to think that America ought to follow Christian ideas today.
A quick analysis of the above list:
#1 is out due to the biblical uniqueness of Israel.
#2 is out because America was designed to have no official state-sponsored religion.
#3 is out because we know there were a number of founding fathers who were not Christians but Deists or rationalists (e.g., Jefferson, Franklin, et al.).
#5 is out because any honest appraisal of the founding fathers (and the documents they produced) demonstrates that the Christian worldview was not merely a disposable circumstance, but central to structure and values of America’s founding.
So we are left with some version of #4. And I say “version” because even within #4 there are substantial differences (which we will not try to resolve here). Even so, #4 does highlight some potential positive uses of the phrase. Let me mention three.
First, the phrase rightly captures the fact that a nation has to be built on some worldview. There is no such thing as value-less, principle-free, worldview-neutral nation.
Every nation (and every person for that matter) has to make decisions about what is right or wrong, good or evil, moral and immoral. And those decisions have to be based on some ultimate view of reality. And those decisions will affect whether a country survives or perishes.
Second, the phrase is a helpful reminder that Christian ideas, and Christian values, ought not to be viewed by our culture as peculiar or dangerous (even if one disagrees with them). The current trend of our culture is to portray Christian thinking as fundamentally un-American and worthy of condemnation. It is out of sync with American values, we are told. But, even the most superficial familiarity with America’s founding suggests such sentiments are profoundly misguided.
Third, the phrase demonstrates that appeals to God, to religion, and to religious principles are not out of place when debating the future of this nation. Such topics belong in the public square. The founding fathers did precisely this. So why should it be regarded as out of bounds today?
What is Problematic about This Phrase?
Of course, even with these positives, this phrase is ripe for abuse. And there is one danger that stands out above the rest.
Some Christians use this phrase in a manner that come dangerously close to #1 or #2 above. And that runs the dangers of linking the health of the church to the health of America. Or, even worse, linking loyalty to America with loyalty to Christ. The church and state become an undifferentiated lump.
This is a major theological (not to mention political) mistake. And history has shown that the Kingdom of Christ cannot be aligned with any one geo-political nation. And so Christians must be careful not to let nationalism be their defining characteristic.
To be clear, there is nothing wrong with loyalty and commitment and even excitement about one’s own country. Indeed, it is commendable. But, that can never override the fact that, as Christians, we are fundamentally citizens of a different country, a heavenly one.
The book of Hebrews tells us that this is how the saints of old thought:
But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city (Heb 11:16).
So, in the end, America is a a nation founded on Christian principles and ideas. But it is not a theocracy, nor is Christianity the national religion, nor are all its citizens Christians. So, it is a Christian nation in certain ways, but not in others. And Christians must walk that narrow and dangerous boundary in between.