I am guided by a commitment to lead people to Jesus; Christians and nonChristians alike. One way in which I address very un-Jesus-like beliefs common among Christians is addressing the myth that America is a Christian nation. Not only is the belief that America is Christian wrong, both historically and theologically, it has also lead to terrible acts of war, oppression and genocide. The following is a quote from a sermon entitled Comforting the Soldiers, Preached by Puritan Preacher Cotton Mathers, in 1642. “We are the New Isreal and the natives are the Canaanites, just as Jehovah commanded Israel to slaughter the Canaanites, so God is calling us, by Divine right, to take this land and to slaughter if necessary.”
While founding fathers appealed to God to justify their war against Britian and in the drafting of The Declaration of Independence; a document in which only white, landowning men were granted by their Creator “certain inalienable rights.” George Washington, as did almost all the Founding Fathers, owned slaves, so it’s likely they didn’t believe the very words they penned in the Declaration of Independence. Washington had the teeth pulled from his slaves to produce a set of false teeth for himself. An early draft of the Declaration of Independence had to be rewritten because it implied that slaves were created to be free as well. Unfortunately, many modern Christians proof-text the Founding Fathers to “prove” America was founded as a Christian nation. When in reality, the Founding Fathers were simply doing what politicians of all generations do (including Clinton, Bush and Obama), quoting scripture and appealing to God to justify their own political aspirations. Even if it were possible for a nation to be founded as “Christian,” the US was founded to be plurasitic, as evidenced by the “separation clause.” Now, to be fair, the vast majority of the first US citizens would’ve identified themselves as Christians but the US wasn’t founded as a Christian nation. Our supposedly Christian nation was founded by men who demonstrated little commitment to the teachings of Jesus. Those who did hold to some sort of faith were mostly deists, far short of biblical Christianity.
“The words and acts of the founding fathers, especially the first few presidents, shaped the form and tone of the civil religion as it has been maintained ever since. Though much is selectively derived from Christianity, this religion is clearly not itself Christian.” – Robert Bellah
Beyond the personal faith (or lack thereof) of our founding fathers, there are two major reasons in which our nation is not a Christian nation; it's faulty theology and it's inaccurate historically.
The only theocracy in history was the nation of Israel and that wasn’t much of a success. God abandoned that plan with the creation of the Church. With the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, God's representatives were no longer a particular nation but rather a world-wide group of people committed to following Jesus. In Romans, Paul refers to the church as the “new Israel” and Peter names the church “a royal priesthood, a peculiar people, a nation belonging to God.” In Ephesians, Paul challenges the church to manifest everything Jesus died for, manifesting a divisionless “new humanity, which is the heart of the Kingdom calling. The Kingdom of God is not within human borders, rather it is composed of all followers of Jesus. While Christ-followers have their own particular national citizenship, no nation can be “Christian.” To quote one author, “it’s just as theologically accurate to call a dog a Christian than to call a nation a Christian.” While may work good through an earthly government, no political entity can be Christian, it’s theologically impossible.
Governments also operate in a manner completely opposite of Jesus. To borrow Greg Boyd’s terminology, governments operate with a “power over” approach while Jesus operated under a “power under” approach. Governments pass laws to enforce behavior, Jesus lays down his life in service which leads to a change of heart. Governments use force and violence to attain their ends, Jesus told Peter to “put away your sword” and then laid down his life for his enemies. Unfortunately, the power over approach is very appealing, whether it be the mixing of church leadership and government positions under Constantine or the American Religious Right trying to legislate sexual ethics. The way of Jesus is very costly but the only true way to affect change.
A perfect example of this is how the owner of Bonita Flats has changed his perspective on Christians thanks to Trinity Family’s Love Wins ministry. Read a letter from Guido here.
And this “power over” method NEVER works. Look at every nation (mostly European) that was once dominated by the church in a “power over” approach, the church is now a non-factor on those nations. Many American Christians want to blame the secular / humanistic philosophy that was birthed in the era of the Enlightenment for the secularization of Europe and eventually the United States. I’d argue however, you need to go farther back and see how the power over approach of the church created an environment in which Christianity was doubted and mistrusted. For example, the "Church of Reason" birthed during the French Revolution was a direct rebellion against a Church supporting the oppression of France's poor. Whenever the church aligns itself with the world's powers, the name of Christ is blasphemed.
“Having accepted the falsehood that we must run the world, we seek to get ahold of the mantle of power. Consequently, ‘discipleship’ gets transformed: ‘following Jesus,’ rather than denoting a walking in the way of the humble Suffering Servant, denotes being ‘spiritual’ as we seek to wield power over our fellows… Christians become convinced that they are pursuing the purposes of God by pursing the purposes of the empire.” – Lee Camp
And even if it were theologically possible for a nation to be Christian, the history of the US convinces us to reject any false affirmation of our nation’s commitment to Jesus.
While the first Puritan settlers believed their new settlement to be a “new Jerusalem “ and a “city on a hill,” they quickly abandoned that ideal by their second generation. The modern belief of a “Christian Nation” came into vogue during the first few decades of the 20th century, mostly from the KKK, who were revolting against the influx of Eastern European immigrants who were Catholic. Protestants of Western European descent didn’t like the unsettling feeling of a changing US demographic. Their desperate grasp to retain a privelege position in US politics is remarkable similar to politically active evangelical groups trying to remain relevant in the current political scene.
It seems the only group of people to have ever bought into the idea of a “Christian nation” are white protestants. It’s not a coincidence that this the same group to have held poitical power throughout most of our nation’s history. No Native American or descendant of a slave nor even many Catholics would ever call the US a Christian nation. Those on the wrong-side of power are (for obvious reason) much more aware of the immoral use of power than those who hold the power.
The following is a quote from Frederick Douglas, who as a freed slave turned abolitionist preacher, spent years on the wrong side of the US’ power structure. “Between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference – so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt and wicked…. I love the pure, peacable, and impartial Christianity of Christ; I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity." Ouch…
Following Douglas' thought, the problem with this belief in a “Christian Nation” is that it’s used to justify American interests. If America is Christian, it just makes sense that whatever is good for America is ordained by God. It’s not too difficult to see why this belief would make life much easier for politicians. Why do many American churches blindly support America’s wars? Because if we’re Christian, than America’s enemies are also the enemies of God. This language is heard in a vast majority of white Protestant churches.
It’s quite enlightening however, to realize we’re not the only country who believed they were a Christian nation, and that their national interest was synonymous with God’s will on earth. The crusades, the 30 years war, the Revolutionary war; every western nation has believed itself to be a Christian nation and to be fighting for the cause of righteousness. An extreme, yet powerful example, is Nazi Germany. Obviously, there was nothing Christ-like about the plunder and extermination of other European countries carried out by the Nazis. The average German however, didn’t realize the autrocities being carried out by Hitler’s regime until it was too late. Rather, they allowed themselves to be pacified and carried along by their national leaders’ appeal to the Christian history of Germany. If we think about it, Germany has a much longer and deeper Christian heritage than the US. If any nation could be “Christian” it would be Germany. Germany’s conquest of and payback to the rest of Europe in the 30’s was propped up with the same spiritual language used by our nation’s leaders to justify our wars. It was quite disturbing to tour the Holocaust museum in Washington DC and read a nationalized Christianity from Hitler that sounded very much like the language of the US Presidents of my lifetime. Please don't read too much into this connection; in no way am I saying we're Nazi Germany but I am saying the spiritual language used to support Hitler's war is similar to the spiritual language used to support our wars, including the current war on terror.
So branding the US a Christian nation is wrong, obviously but it also makes us like many other western nations. What we must come to accept is that the US isn’t Christian, neither is it Satanic. Rather, it’s simply a spiritually neutral government composed of fallen human beings. The US has done a lot of good and a lot of evil because we’ve got a lot of imperfect but well-meaning humans in our nation. The Kingdom of God is found within the US (among the communities of Christ-followers) but it is not expressed by the US. That’s a simple, but revolutionary distinction.
This deconstruction has been long and has been blunt, but only because it's extremely necessary to go so long. I realize that if this is the first time the average protestant midwestern Christian has come across these ideas, they’re likely fuming with anger right now. But the deconstruction of the lie that the US is a Christian nation, while painful, must be done. The process is long and difficult however, because it’s hard to train our eyes to see the water in which we swim – this myth is a foundational belief for many Christians.
When we’re done with the deconstruction, we’re left with Jesus; his life, his teachings, his example and his Kingdom. Our ultimate allegiance is to a crucified-but-now-alive King and an already-but-not-yet Kingdom. JESUS is the answer. We’re to reject the coervice methods of government and lay down our lives for our enemies as Jesus modeled. Rather than fighting for a marriage amendment, we find ways to share God’s love with those of a same-sex orientation. Rather than waiting for schools to sanction prayer, we teach our students to constantly pray for their classmates. Rather than celebrating America’s history of violence and supporting American wars, we challenge our government to find nonviolent means of reconciliation while personally modeling a commitment to peace and to valuing the life of every human being created in the image of God (which is every human even terrorists). It’s time to focus on introducing people to the self-sacrificial love of Jesus and trust in the power of that love to effect life-transformation.
Highly recommended reading:
Myth of a Christian Nation
Jesus Wants to Save Christians
They like Jesus but not the Church
Lies My Teacher Told Me
A People’s History of the United States