Old Whine in New Whine-skins
I don’t know about you but I feel exasperated by the whining of the religious right in this country. Over the past decade I must have received thousands of forwarded emails complaining that this nation is going to the dogs spiritually speaking, that the government is planning to take away our religious liberty, that a conspiracy is afoot to turn America from its Judeo-Christian roots. Let me offer a few corrections.
The United States of America has never been what some call a strictly “Christian nation,” let alone a theocracy. It has always been a secular state. (Truly Christian nations do not enslave people, nor do they practice ethnic cleansing. They do not steal land that belongs to others nor oppress their neighbors. They do not go to war at the drop of a hat nor show little to no concern for the poor among them.)
In 1797 during Washington’s second administration, the U.S. made a treaty with the Muslim-ruled Barbary state of Tripoli in North Africa, assuring them “the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” The Declaration of Independence does mention “the Creator” or “Divine Providence,” but such language is rooted in Deism, not orthodox Christianity. The Constitution begins “We the People…” but does not go on to mention God at all, and its various references to religion are “exclusionary,” that is, they merely limit what the government can do in respect to religion (such as the First Amendment).
Perhaps what people mean by “Christian nation” is that Christianity, more so than any other religion, has had and continues to have a profound impact and influence on this nation. This is undeniably true, and I thank God for it. Many things that today we take for granted have had their roots in the Christian faith and experience: the abolition of slavery, civil rights, child labor laws, women’s suffrage, Social Security. Even some aspects of our form of government and Constitution can be traced back to Reformed Christian theology and polity.
Perhaps also people are mourning the loss of a simpler and more homogeneous time even not so long ago when Protestants still formed an overwhelming majority. Since 2006, however, Protestants have actually slipped to minority status (below 50% of the population). This gradual decline is the result of the great influx of immigrants from Catholic countries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as more recent immigration from Asia and the Middle East– not to mention the increasing number of the population that identifies itself as agnostic, atheistic, non-theist, or unaffiliated with any religion. In short, the U.S.A. now comprises the world’s most religiously diverse population.
It is natural for Christians to look back to the early history of this nation, when one could almost assume one’s neighbors were Protestant church-goers. But America, which the world often sees as a “beacon of liberty” and a “haven for religious and ethnic freedom” in a world increasingly torn by religious and ethic strife, has become the victim of her own success. With increasing diversity comes an increasing need for tolerance on all levels. If Christians want to see their rights and religious freedoms protected, they will have to start respecting and protecting those of others. It’s part of the package. Removing Christian language and symbols from public places may make us sad and wistful, but it is part of the cost of being a nation that respects religious freedom and diversity. Some countries outlaw certain religions; others blend religion and state. Our Founders wisely resisted both tendencies and sought a via media that remains officially neutral toward religion, a principle that favors no one and protects every one.
I often suspect that what motivates some believers to whine is not only a xenophobia but also an assumption that borders on laziness. There seems to be an expectation that it’s the government’s responsibility to make this a Christian nation and restore “religious majority rule” to its “rightful owner.” That would certainly be hard to achieve legally or even justify logically, given the First Amendment, and especially since Protestants no longer comprise the majority. Consider also that the Founders so constructed this nation as to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority. The original motto on our Great Seal and coinage, chosen by the Continental Congress, was one that celebrates unity in diversity, E Pluribus Unum (“One out of many”– i.e., one nation out of many States).
If Christians want to “take this country back,” then they will have to do it the hard way, Jesus’ way: on their knees, with sacrificial service and loving hearts, and in the power of the Holy Spirit –not by winning elections but by winning souls, not by legislative fiat but by converting and discipling people one by one. The Kingdom of God is inclusive, not exclusive. So instead of moaning about Muslim prayer services being held at the U.S. Capitol, why not do something about it, something biblical, like trying to win Muslims in our community through love and acts of sacrificial kindness, showing them the face of Jesus. Instead of complaining about the growing ranks of non-Christian immigrants in our communities, how about taking a more biblical attitude: “Hot dog! Since we did not go to them, the Lord has brought them to us!”
Instead of kvetching about the exploding secularism of our society, how about cleaning up our own front yards and making them more attractive to passers-by. Looking at the behavior of the religious right in this country over the past 30 years, one can hardly blame its critics for accusing it of being power-hungry and intolerant. If that is the only face of Christianity that they see, who would want to become a Christian? Perhaps the greatest factor in the growth of atheism in America in recent years is the power of the religious right, specifically its aligning itself with a single political party and its influence over government policies that have proven disastrous. Atheism has been on the rise since the 1960s, as has witchcraft, but the recent sudden surge in growth for both (Wicca is now the fastest growing “religion” in the U.S.) can be understood as a reaction to 30 years of the fundamentalist religious right’s attempt to dominate and exclude and its rigid inability to accept diversity.
The words of the apostle Paul seem particularly apt here: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who being in very nature God did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death– even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2:5-8)