The UnChristian Quest for a Christian America

I do love America.

 Great Smoky Mountain National Forest

Great Smoky Mountain National Forest

How could one not love the forests of Maine; the gorges of the Cumberland plateau in Tennessee; the mesquite trees of west Texas; the ragged coastline of California? All of it like a hymn of praise, a song of thanksgiving for so much abundance and goodness.

And being a grateful citizen of Music City, I must stop there a moment: how could one not love the prophetic consciousness of Johnny Cash, the mesmerizing cadences of Don Williams, the angelic strains of Alison Krauss?

Or considering socio-political greats: how could one not admire the virtues of industry and wit in Benjamin Franklin; the democratic impulses of the nineteenth-century religious reformers; the cry for justice in the words of Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Martin Luther King, Jr.; the humility suffusing Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address; or the persistence and sheer human courage seen in the likes of the Wright Brothers, Thomas Edison, and Chuck Yeager?—all like paeans to the human spirit.

One could go on and on, in all good faith, with more accounts of beauty and courage.

Christian Nation

Here in the Bible Belt at least, this rather honorable love for land and neighbor, however, gets conflated with another, less helpful construct: the myth of the Christian nation. “Conflated” is a word too little used or appreciated: the melding or melting of two ideas into one.

I am rather convinced that to conflate love of country with the myth—or the pursuit of—a Christian nation is bad news: bad for the country and bad for Christianity. To claim that the United States once was a “Christian nation,” or to seek to recover some supposedly lost “Christian nation” status, is bad news because it is historically false; misunderstands basic Christian theology and practice; and contends for a strategy that is sure to back-fire into resentment and hostility.

1. Historically false

Neither “God” nor “Christianity” are ever mentioned in the Constitution. “Religion” is, of course, mentioned in the first amendment: but the amendment requires freedom to practice religion as one chooses. And Article VI of the Constitution maintains that: “[N]o religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

There are references in the Declaration of Independence to “Creator” and “Supreme Judge of the World.” But these are phrases that any good Deist could have and would have used.

Much noted these days is the Treaty of Tripoli, ratified in 1797 under the presidency of John Adams. Ratified unanimously by the Congress, the treaty maintained that “The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” (Picture here.)

 Thomas Jefferson Attribution: Rembrandt Peale

Thomas Jefferson
Attribution: Rembrandt Peale

Or note the letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Adams in 1823, the ironic truth of which many Christians ought, I think, pay more attention: “The truth is that the greatest enemies to the doctrines of Jesus are those calling themselves the expositors of them, who have perverted them for the structure of a system of fancy absolutely incomprehensible, and without any foundation in his genuine words.”

Jefferson then takes on the claim of the virgin birth: “And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. But we may hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away all this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this the most venerated reformer of human errors.”

So Jefferson, like many eighteenth-century great minds, saw some value to the “moral teaching” of Jesus, but rejected wholesale the theological narrative which birthed such teaching to the world. Jefferson’s Bible—in which Jefferson took a sharp instrument, perhaps a pen-knife, and cut out the parts of the Bible he found objectionable—ends with Jesus of Nazareth having been crucified, placed in the tomb, and the stone rolled over the entrance. Jefferson is clearly not Christian in any orthodox sense, given his forthright rejection of the resurrection of Jesus.

Or consider more recent language and developments: “In God We Trust” was first placed on coins in 1861, and then only under significant political pressure. But, as I tell my students over and over again, one must look beneath mere words to the substance. In important ways, it does not really matter whether any group of people says “in God we trust,” or whether the citizenry pledges allegiance to one nation “under God.” Even we Christian monotheists know that the use of the word “God” is argued and fought about (as evidenced by the recent controversy at Wheaton College).

More interesting to me than the well meaning but I think naïve push by Christians to make sure we say “Under God” in the pledge are the facts that, first, the phrase was later added to the pledge, in 1954, during the administration of President Eisenhower. And that same Eisenhower once noted: “our government makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply felt religious faith—and I don’t care what it is.”

Which leads us to our second point:

2. Why the Quest for a “Christian America” is problematic theologically

Some of the basic and elementary theological reasons the very notion of a “Christian America” is problematic (pat me on the back; I am restraining my language) include the following:

A “nation” is geographically bounded. The Christian church, however, is trans-national.

A “nation” as an entity seeks its own partisan agenda. But to identify itself with any given party, sect, nation-state, or other more narrow community of self-interest destroys the Christian church’s most fundamental calling—a “ministry of reconciliation.”

Being geographically bounded, a “nation” maintains its existence through military might. The church is an entity that lives by, according to, and bears witness to suffering love. The church is not dependent upon self-preservation. (And, let it be noted, that this is not a mere utopian theological assertion; it is a historical fact. All empires have fallen, and those in existence will fall; meanwhile the Christian tradition has survived, for good or ill, through its own times of horrific failure and its times of creative faithfulness, for two millennia.)

A “nation” encompasses citizenship according to arbitrary historical accident. The church, however, encompasses membership according to voluntary intentional commitment.

One way to put this: the quest for a “Christian America” betrays an elementary and fundamental mis-understanding of what Christianity is. Another way to put it: the quest for a “Christian America” perverts Christianity. This is not some Christian self-righteousness looking down its nose at “America.” The facts are that “America” has often had to school the church: breaking down patriarchy and breaking down racism are two of the most obvious examples. It is simply a contention that a nation-state and the Christian faith are two very different things, and to seek to super-impose “Christianity” on the “nation-state” misunderstands Christianity.

Some have insisted that the point of the rhetoric of “a Christian nation” is not to be taken literally, but as a way of saying “we support the greatest and historic values of ‘America.’” If this is the case, I would suggest you stop confusing folks, and say what you mean. But even in saying what you might mean, on this score, other theological difficulties are raised. For example, notions of “freedom” in Western democracies are grounded in the notion of maximizing individualistic pursuits. “Freedom,” generally speaking in the West, is the liberty to do what one wants. Christian notions of freedom (as well as “freedom” in many other ancient moral traditions) entail a liberty, we might say, on the other side of virtue: the freedom to do what one ought, the capacity to live a truly good life.

Similarly, the whole tradition of “rights,” while it has served a terribly useful function politically and practically in overthrowing various forms of oppression and injustice, is ill-founded theologically. For constitutional democracies, “life” is a “right.” For Christians and Jews, life is a gift. Similarly, the very notion of a “right to private property” stands in tension with “all is gift.”

Related, others have raised the question: ought we not be proud of the ways in which the United States has made possible immense strides in standards of living and raised the poor up from the heap of the oppression of poverty?

3. Why the Quest for a “Christian America” is problematic strategically

When Christians attempt to do stupid things like making the Bible the official state book, or they pursue other legislation to impose their particular moral concerns, the horror of ISIS blares loudly in the public consciousness.

But if Christianity is, at best, being “salt and light” in the world, as Jesus said; if Christianity is, at best, a suffering love of all, including one’s enemies, as Jesus said; if Christianity is, at best, a rejection of imposition and an embrace of generosity, as Jesus said—if these things be true, then the quest for a “Christian America” can only be counted a strategic failure.

So then, let us pray for a demise of the “Quest for a Christian America.”

 

Originally published on Huffington Post.