That America is and always has been a “Christian nation” is one of our most enduring national myths. Yet in 1796 the newly formed United States of America negotiated a treaty with the Muslim-ruled Barbary state of Tripoli in North Africa, assuring them that “the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”[i] The treaty was later approved by the U.S. Senate and signed by President John Adams.
From its creation, the United States of America has always been a secular state. The Declaration of Independence mentions only the “Creator” or “Divine Providence,” the usage of which is rooted in Deism, not orthodox Christianity. The Constitution does not mention God at all. Its various references to religion merely limit what the government can do.
Some governments outlaw certain religions; others blend religion and state. Our Founders shrewdly resisted both extremes and sought a via media that remains officially neutral toward religion, a principle designed to protect every one by favoring no one. Again, Ingersoll says it best:
Our fathers founded the first secular government that was ever founded in this world. Recollect that. The first secular government; the first government that said every church has exactly the same rights, and no more; every religion has the same rights, and no more. In other words, our fathers were the first men who had the sense, who had the genius, to know that no church should be allowed to have a sword; that it should be allowed only to exert its moral influence.[ii]
To claim that we have always been a Christian nation is to create confusion and misunderstanding among non-Christian individuals and nations. From a Christian viewpoint, one might even find such a claim to be blasphemous. Would a truly Christian nation enslave people? Would it practice ethnic or cultural cleansing? Would it steal land that belongs to others, or oppress and exploit other nations? Would it go to war to extend its territory or influence, or show little to no concern for the poor among its own people? Surely, it would not drop atomic weapons, torture, kill innocents with drones, or prop up dictators! One might try to justify some of these actions based on the necessities of realpolitik, but there is nothing “Christian” about them.
Rather, what people really mean by “our Christian nation” is that, in the past at least, more Americans have claimed adherence to that faith than to any other. Christianity, also, more than any other religion, has had and continues to have a profound influence here. Many good things that today we take for granted have had their roots in Christian faith and experience: the abolition of slavery, civil rights, child labor laws, women’s suffrage, Social Security. Even our War of Independence, as well as some aspects of our form of government and Constitution, were heavily influenced by eighteenth-century Reformed Christian theology and polity.
American Protestants may mourn the loss of a simpler and more homogeneous time, even not so long ago, when they still formed an overwhelming majority. Since 2006, however, Protestants have actually slipped to minority status. This gradual decline is partly the result of the great tide of immigration of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as well as more recent immigration from Asia and the Middle East. There is also an ever-increasing demographic that identifies itself as agnostic, atheistic, non-theist, or unaffiliated with any religion.
The U.S.A. now comprises the world’s most religiously diverse population, and with increasing diversity comes an increasing need for tolerance and sensitivity at all levels. If Christians wish to see their rights and religious freedoms protected, they must respect and protect those of others. It is one of the responsibilities that come with living in a free society.
There is much talk in Christian circles about “taking this country back.” If we wish to do so, we will have to do it the hard way, Jesus’ way: on our knees, with humility, sacrificial service, loving hearts, and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Not by winning elections or by legislative fiat, but by actually caring for the poor and oppressed, healing the sick, working for peace, and winning and mentoring souls, one by one. Instead of complaining about the exploding secularism of our society, we might consider changing our own attitudes and making our lives (and churches) more attractive by reflecting more of the kindness and character of the Savior we claim to follow.
Atheism and disillusionment continue to grow, much of it due to the power-grabbing of the Religious Right: its marriage with a single political party, its abandonment of the poor and reduction of the faith to a couple of hot-button issues, its xenophobia, as well as its influence over some of our nation’s more disastrous policies and militarism. To reverse this trend, Christians might want to take a page from a book often quoted but seldom followed:
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 form of a servant… (Phil. 2:5-7).
A City Upon a Hill
Listening to the radio one day, I was reminded of how much our collective American vocabulary is still firmly rooted in what has been called the “Puritan experiment.” The image of America as “a city upon a hill” has been used in political rhetoric by leaders as diverse as John Adams and Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy and Sarah Palin. The metaphor, of course, goes back to Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount, but Puritan governor Jonathan Winthrop was perhaps the first to apply it in a socio-political sense in referring to the fledgling Massachusetts Bay Colony.
The phrase is almost always quoted out of its original, narrow context. Applied to the United States as a whole, a creation of a later century, it acquires a somewhat self-righteous and supercilious air. American exceptionalism has been used to justify our most egregious injustices against other people groups, our wars, as well as our most well-meaning but blundering foreign policies.
It seems ironic, therefore, to consider that Winthrop’s 1630 sermon, given aboard the good ship Arbella en route to the shores of the New World, is actually entitled “Christian Charitie, a Model Thereof.” In it he lays down the scriptural rules of conduct by which relationships and commerce within the new colony were to be guided: In short, all is to be governed by justice and mercy, by love, compassion, and generosity. The Almighty, in his wisdom, has ordained that some be rich, others poor, some mighty, others lowly, and God does this, Winthrop reasons, that “every man might have need of others, and from hence they might be all knit more nearly together in the bonds of brotherly affection.”[iii]
Both the “natural law” and the gospel command us to love our neighbor as ourselves, he states, and so we must give generously, lend freely, forgive the debts of the penniless, love our enemies, deny ourselves, and in every way care for one another. As each of us is part of one body, there is no soundness in the whole if there is sickness or misery in the part. For Winthrop, quoting Isaiah 58, such social solidarity and unselfishness are the surest road to God’s blessing and prosperity. How foreign this sounds to our American sense of individualism and self-reliance, and how far we have departed from this ideal!
Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck [God’s judgment], and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God….We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities….We must…make others’ conditions our own…always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body.[iv]
“For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us,” he says. “So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.”[v]
The Governor’s words speak of opportunity and responsibility, not a God-given right or noblesse oblige. Winthrop did not envision a society where each member could pull himself up by his own bootstraps. Rather, his vision could be achieved only if all worked together, sacrificed, shared with, and cared for one another.
Despite the fact that the Massachusetts Puritans were attempting to build a theocratic, rather than a pluralistic society, this sermon still has something to teach us about what it means to be truly blessed as a nation—if we really wish to be that shining city upon a hill—a calling that is not just a privilege, but also a great responsibility and sacrifice.
A Pyrrhic Victory
During the 2012 election a letter to the editor appeared in a small U.S. newspaper. Its author stated that the election had been an eye-opening experience, from which he had learned a great deal about American evangelicalism. In their quest for power, he said, (the power to impose their beliefs on others, whose beliefs they would not want imposed on themselves), evangelicals have embraced candidates who share little of the true values Jesus preached, such as concern for the poor. Instead, they have targeted same-sex marriage and abortion as the great enemies, while at the same time treating women as little more than “breeding cattle.” They care more for an “unfeeling clump of cells” than for real suffering humanity, he wrote. In short, they have abrogated their master’s teaching to become “idolaters at the altar of politics.”[vi]
The letter encapsulates the disillusionment of a growing segment of our culture that increasingly identifies itself as religiously unaffiliated, secular, or even atheist. If you read it with compassion, you might have caught a tone of bitterness and disappointment, as if the author once had higher expectations for evangelicals and perhaps still does. He may even be an admirer of Jesus, but certainly not of the church.
While the letter did not surprise me, it still filled me with sadness and not a little anger. As an evangelical, I do not share all of the author’s opinions, but I do understand his feelings—not because I supported either party’s agenda, but because I, too, hope for much better from my fellow Christians.
If evangelicals could claim any victory in forty years of culture wars, it would certainly be a Pyrrhic one, a case of winning the battle but losing the war. Such victories are costly if we win electoral or legislative battles only by alienating the very souls for whom we ought to be burdened.
Continuing the Culture War
In October 2009 a group of Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and evangelical leaders and scholars gathered in our nation’s capital to sign a new declaration. Drafted by the late Chuck Colson and others, and signed by a broad range of evangelicals, including James Dobson, Tony Perkins, Tim Keller, and Ron Sider, the Manhattan Declaration begins with soaring and inspiring prose extolling the courage and heroism of the church from the Roman period to the 1960s. “Christians are heirs of a 2,000-year tradition of proclaiming God’s word,” it states, “seeking justice in our societies, resisting tyranny, and reaching out with compassion to the poor, oppressed and suffering.”[vii] So far so good.
Sadly, however, the document then descends into the same old shibboleths about abortion, gay marriage, and religious liberty that have characterized the narrow agenda of the Religious Right for over a generation. So much for heroism.
The declaration is fine as far as it goes; it just does not go very far, like a huge cannon that hisses and booms and turns out to be nothing but an oversized beanbag shooter. Continuing the evangelical culture war begun in the 1970s (now in the guise of an ecumenical confession), Mr. Colson et al. give full vent to the old rants over how Christians have been forced to violate their consciences due to a government overly officious in its devotion to the separation of church and state. To be fair, there have been numerous cases of government overreach, both on the federal and local levels.
The declaration justifies passive resistance to governmental authority. It even attempts to co-opt the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., even though the latter’s goals were quite different. Nowhere does it actually address, as King would, the other gaping wounds of our society, such as poverty, the growing disparity between rich and poor, racial prejudice, corporate greed, drugs and violence, AIDS, government corruption, imperialism, torture, and the victims of war.
Why the silence? The agenda of the “culture war” is perforce limited, since to do otherwise would involve our having to take a hard look at ourselves. It also shields from exposure the corporate backers of this agenda who want the Christian vote without the “meddlesome” concern for social justice that characterizes so much of God’s Word.
For decades conservative evangelicals in this country have campaigned to make America a righteous nation. But will the Lord God bless a people who have successfully banned abortions yet allow greed to run rampant? Will he bless a nation that has outlawed same-sex marriage yet permits the poor to be trampled by the rich? Will he bless a country that prays at football games but whose security and prosperity rest on the brutal oppression of its neighbors? The church in America has largely been silent on these latter issues, our prophets and leaders like Isaiah’s “dogs that cannot bark” (Isa 56:10).
Fresh Air Instead of Fresh Ire
Working together? Not something ideologues and fanatics on both sides of an issue are best at doing. But wherever you stand on abortion, you have to admit that reducing the number of or need for abortions is a worthwhile goal.
Over the past four decades, the abortion argument has raged on, pitting members of families and communities as well as religious denominations against one another. There is no question that the harsh rhetoric and bitterness have helped to foster a division in this country that has not been seen since the Civil War.
During his 2008 Presidential campaign Barack Obama took what many regarded as a risky stand in proposing that pro-life and pro-choice advocates should try to find some “common ground.” It was an idea he continued to outline in his “controversial” commencement speech at Notre Dame a year later:
Maybe we won’t agree on abortion, but we can still agree that this is a heart-wrenching decision for any woman to make, with both moral and spiritual dimensions.
So let’s work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions by reducing unintended pregnancies, and making adoption more available, and providing care and support for women who do carry their child to term. Let’s honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded in clear ethics and sound science, as well as respect for the equality of women...
Understand…I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away. No matter how much we may want to fudge it—indeed, while we know that the views of most Americans on the subject are complex and even contradictory—the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable. Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction. But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature.[viii]
Mr. Obama and most evangelical Christians may be on opposite sides of the table when it comes to abortion, but his proposal seemed, well, helpful. Of course, there are passionate ideologues on either end of the abortion issue, but calling both parties to talk and try to work together seems very reasonable. After all, we need one another. Hurling curses at each other over a dividing wall has certainly accomplished nothing.
As Christians we must resist the tendency to demonize the opposition. We must fight the temptation to remain obdurate, to dominate, to exclude. These are the characteristics and mindset of extremism, which destroys even the very thing it would build. We do not have to change our belief system in order to negotiate; we do not have to agree with someone to work hand in hand for the common good.
America is a nation growing in diversity. Therefore, we need all the more to listen to, to respect and work with one another if we are going to achieve anything. Instead of waiting zealously for some magic moment in the future when Roe v. Wade is overturned (an outcome that is by no means certain) and, somehow, all our ills wiped away, can we not go to the table now and hammer out how, through targeted programs and compassion, we can make abortion in this country as rare as possible?
This, at least, would seem to be the most rational approach to saving the lives of the unborn—that is, of course, assuming we have an interest in rational approaches. The fact that such rapprochement or cooperation seldom ever happens ought to show us that we are not only being poorly led but also downright manipulated—and by forces that are thoroughly invested, not in ending abortion, but in keeping the culture war going and the flames of hostility burning, for their own political purposes.
In a 1981 interview Billy Graham told Parade magazine,
I don’t want to see religious bigotry in any form. It would disturb me if there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political right. The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it.[ix]
[i]“Treaty with Tripoli (1796)”, in The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America, from the Organization of the Governmenet in 1789, to March 3, 1845, (Little, Brown & Co., 1867), vol. 8, 155.
[ii] Ingersoll, “Centennial Oration” (1876), in Works, vol. 9, 74.
[iii] Jonathan Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity” (1630), in Classics of American Political and Constitutional Thought, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2007), 13.
[iv] Winthrop, 17.
[v] Winthrop, 18.
[vi] Letter to the Editor, Winston Salem Journal, 4 November 2012. Web. JournalNow.com.
[vii] “Manhattan Declaration: A Call of Christian Conscience,” 2009.
[viii] “Obama’s Commencement Address at Notre Dame,” New York Times, (17 May 2009). Web. NYTimes.com.
[ix] Marguerite Michaels, “Billy Graham: America Is Not God’s Only Kingdom,” Parade, (1 February 1981), 6-7.