C Flag This question is a classical Catch-22. No matter how you answer it you will be right in some ways and wrong in others. Let me explain.

First, one must define what they mean by a "Christian" nation?

If you mean a nation that was deeply and profoundly shaped by Christian beliefs and values, and a nation in which the church had a major role in the shaping our forms of culture and government, then the answer is a qualified yes. America is a Christian nation only in this very limited sense.

The majority of early Americans were sympathetic with most Christians ideals. But, and this is rarely noted the overwhelming majority of Americans (1790) did not go to church at all, some estimating the percentage to be as high as 90% before the First Great Awakening. The number today still exceeds 30%.

But this idea that America was Christian in some sense must be qualified precisely because Enlightenment Deism also had a major role in shaping America. Our founders clearly drew language and ideas from both sources, for which I personally thank God! If you know anything at all about the history of religion in Europe (with the bloody wars of religion), and in early America (with its intolerance of non-Christians and Christians who were not mainstream, like Quakers and the Baptists), you know that this mixture was one that gave us a very different land over time. Here church and state were separate for a good reason. Faith could flourish here, and it has more than in any modern nation. But I argue this is precisely because the state has not had a role in advancing the faith, any faith. This must remain so even with non-Christians growing in number in the present age.

Second, in what sense could any nation be considered a "Christian" nation?

A nation could not be Christian in terms of being the church because a nation is not synonymous with the church, never ever. This is a mistake made in the aftermath of the (Holy) Roman Empire, at least in linking the Vatican with the state in direct ways, a mistake which should not be made again. Rome recognizes this reality now but many fundamentalists still do not see or understand why.

A nation could not be Christian in the sense that Christians should govern it to the exclusion of others or it would violate the very principles of the kingdom of Jesus in this present age. We are not called upon to build a theocracy, or a nation-state that is under the sovereignty of King Jesus, constitutionally.

Chr If you think my last sentence is silly you do not know the history of ideas in America. There were Christians in our founding era who wanted to insert the name of Christ into our founding documents. This failed and I am grateful it did. All one really needs to do is look at Puritan New England (Massachusetts will do as a model) to see how much this idea failed in real practice. I once asked a leading theonomist where we should go to discover the "closest" historical example we have to what he hoped to see come about in the future and he answered "Puritan New England." I rest my case. Massachusetts was a Puritan commonwealth and this idea failed miserably. I would not have wanted to live in Massachusetts prior to the 1820s. Give me Rhode Island, Pennsylvania or Virginia as an alternative, at least for political reasons.

Third, why should we desire a Christian nation given the history of how Christians have used power and influence in so many ways that have fallen short of the will of Christ? There are two cities, as St. Augustine noted centuries ago, and the two cities should never be linked in a direct way.

Should Christians influence culture? Absolutely. Should they run for office? Yes, for sure. Should they seek to make the public square a place where religion is treated fairly? Yes, without doubt. But the idea that we were ever a "Christian nation," or ever should be one, needs to be assigned to the dust bin of historical ideas tried and found wanting.

So long as non-Christians hear this kind of talk from far-right Christians they have every reason to resist what they see as a potential encroachment upon their political, religious and social rights. Liberty is a grand experiment. We have enjoyed it for 220 years constitutionally. We have a great system of government, as one of the founders noted, if we can keep it. It will take Christians and non-Christians to preserve it. Right now some Christians (a minority I am quite sure) seem intent on preserving it by destroying it so that they can remake it in their own way. Preserving our system of laws and government will involve the continued freedom the church needs to make disciples and publicly enjoy the freedom of religion. It is right that we argue for this freedom, even to the Supreme Court. It can be lost and vigilance is necessary. But this is not what many on the far right argue for if their blogs, Web sites and magazines are read carefully.

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Comments

  1. Matt Stone May 2, 2009 at 5:13 am

    I agree, very problematic terminology, that’s best left behind with Christendom.

  2. Chris Criminger May 2, 2009 at 8:58 am

    Hi John,
    Thanks for some good insights on this needed topic. I will say it seems to me that the religous left is just as confused and does many of the same things as the far right on this issue (confusing politics of the world with the politics of Jesus or God’s kingdom).
    Lastly, I heard that Wheaton got this huge grant to start a new ancient church department (something like that?). Maybe you can fill us all in more on what is happening there.
    Thanks in advance . . .

  3. Al Shaw May 2, 2009 at 7:16 pm

    One other important reason for avoiding the term “Christian nation” is the confusion it causes among non-Christians, especially those from different religions.
    My Muslim lodger doesn’t like all that he sees in the west. Thankfully, I don’t either and nor do I have to defend or justify it as somehow “Christian”.

  4. Anthony May 4, 2009 at 10:45 am

    This is the hitch with the idea of a Christian nation, or any manner of Xian institutionalization. On the one hand Xianity, insofar as it is the work of God in Christ that brings salvation to humanity, is not a reality that can be institutionalized. On the other hand, we are hardwired by God to be institution builders. I say this insofar as building institutions is a natural expression of our endowment and calling to have dominion over creation. Institutions embody our values and ideals, and so on some level, by virtue of our being, we are going to institutionalize Christianity in some way shape or form. This is an inevitable expression of our existence as humans. The problem is that in the synergy of institutions, in this fallen world, they can no longer function as pathways or agencies of justice. In this world, institutions, even when established by good men, are broken and will exhibit some kind of oppressive influence. The response to this is not to dismantle institutions, as this would be like dismantling our humanity. Rather, we must be ever reforming, ever self critical, ever returning to the Word, and ever opening our ears to the Spirit, so that our institutions do not be come calcified in their brokenness.

  5. Sarah May 4, 2009 at 1:21 pm

    Great post. I explored a similar idea a few days ago. http://moxymamarocks.blogspot.com/2009/05/each-year-one-of-units-i-taught-in-my.html

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