I have a lot of friends who have discussed the topic of a “Christian nation” — saying that America is a Christian nation, or maybe it once was but is not now, or maybe it never really was at all, or maybe it should be. I’m blessed in that I have a lot of good friends who are Christian and generally share the same views as me, many good friends who are Christian but with whom I tend to disagree, and many who are not Christian but are still awesome friends. So I get a lot of different viewpoints on this subject.
One of the first issues with this topic is “What do we mean when we talk about a Christian nation?”
I offer a few possible definitions and my thoughts on whether the U.S. fits these terms:
1. You could see it as a nation that is explicitly founded to advance the cause of Christianity. Laws and policies would be governed by the Bible, or more accurately by interpretation and application of biblical principles. The leaders of the nation would be chosen through a religious process or for a religious reason. An example of what this might look like would be the nation of Israel in the Old Testament, governed by the Law and with a King appointed by God through the prophet Samuel. Another example might be the various theocracies in the Middle East.
The US is NOT a Christian nation by this definition. We aren’t a theocracy, we’re not governed by the Bible, our national leaders aren’t religious officials, etc. I *think* it’s safe to say no one is really arguing for this to change in America. But I don’t want to put words in anyone’s mouth.
2. You could see it as a nation with an established state religion. Some examples were brought up, like the European nations that many of the colonists fled, where THE religion, or the only accepted religion, was what the state said. The religious leaders in this system are appointed and controlled by the head of State (unless my memory of history is mistaken). I suppose there were a number of places where the Church influenced the State as well.
It seems clear that this is what the Founding Fathers specifically tried to avoid. They did not give America a state religion, and they made provision for freedom of religious belief. I am pretty sure no one is arguing for America to become a “Christian nation” in the sense of selecting a state-approved denomination or establishing The Church of America or any such thing. Again, please let me know if I’m wrong.
3. You could see the nation’s policies and laws as being based on many Christian principles and ideals, looking at the beliefs of many of the Founding Fathers and their cultural background, coming to the conclusion that they made the most “Christian” nation possible, in all but name. Informed by their knowledge of the Bible and of the human condition, these leaders set up a system of government that would not constrain anyone in an official way, but would allow for Christianity to flourish. It could be argued (and I believe some of the Founding Fathers expressed this) that this system depends on, or presumes, the Christian virtue and lifestyle of the governed. Therefore, the definition might also contain the thought that the great majority of the people of the nation adhere to Christian values and morality.
I imagine this is the way most people think of America at its founding, and this is the Christian nation most people are talking about when they seem to long for a return to our “Christian roots” in America. Let me know if I’m wrong or if there’s that much more to it that I’m forgetting.
4. One could make the case, perhaps, that much of the social and cultural religious practice in America has been only that, despite all the Christian terms and symbolism. Actual relationship with God through Jesus Christ might not have been as common as we all would hope. America may have been steeped in Christianity the religion, with very little of Christ at work in the people. From this point of view, a person might say that “Christian nation” means the vast majority of the people are God-fearing and fervent in their faith, doing their best to live up to God’s will. Regardless of what state we feel the nation is in, I’d wager all of us want America to be a Christian nation in this sense more than any other.
It’s possible that much of the religious content of speeches and documents in the past falls into the category of following social or cultural norms instead of truly following Christ, though I would hope that is not the case. It may be that a good deal of the “religious” roots of America come from political posturing similar to what we see in campaigns and politics today. It’s impossible to prove and difficult to judge; the fact is we’ll never know this side of heaven how fervently any of these men believed in God. From this perspective, the religious references in American history don’t prove that God was influencing the nation. A good comparison might be the Jews in Jesus’ time, who certainly felt like they enjoyed special spiritual privilege. Jesus showed them that they missed the point. I suspect that some here are arguing from this position, saying that America might be very much like Israel was, “Christian” in name but not so much in practice. I could be wrong or I could be misunderstanding the view; if so, please clarify.
Once we identify what we mean when we say Christian nation, then we can talk more about how that impacts us. A good question at this point is, “Are we really called to go create a Christian nation? Is that what Jesus commanded of His disciples?” My honest opinion is “no, it’s not.” But I know that there are many who may disagree with me, or who think that it’s important for America to remain a “Christian nation.”
A good question for those who advocate America becoming or remaining a Christian nation is, “What would have to change, and what steps would have to be taken, to get there from where we are now?”
That’s where much of the fear and confusion comes from, I think. When an atheist hears talk about a Christian nation and returning our Christian roots, they might think we’re all looking at option #1, wanting to appoint Billy Graham (or whoever) as Minister-in-Chief or whatever. I won’t waste much time with this option, because I personally know not one Christian who wants this. But it’s good to recognize that some people really expect this from us.
Or perhaps they think of option #2, and look at the Religious Right, assuming that “we” are trying to develop a Church and State relationship, sharing power between the two. I know no Christian conservatives who really want to establish a state religion, but again, people honestly fear this is our intent.
More likely, if they are willing to think well enough of us as to consider we mean option #3, then they’re going to wonder what sort of laws and policies we might put in place in order to bring about that “Christian” nation. And that’s where my question above comes in. If option 3 sounds right to you, what do you see as the necessary steps to get there?
And I suppose if they consider option #4, that for some of us the hope is that the nation will become more of a Christian nation as more individuals freely choose to accept and follow Christ, they might fear that down the road, the collective Christian community will think options 1-3 are a good idea. The same question applies, though; for those who think of option 4 as the ideal (whether option 3 appeals to you or not), what do you see as the way to get there?
It’s really hard to discuss a topic like this without first ensuring we’re all talking about the same thing. So I’ll stop here for now and follow up later (if needed) about why I feel we’re not meant to be a Christian nation, never really were in the first place, and shouldn’t be pursuing that as a goal.