Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Christian Nation

More and more, commentators like Glenn Beck and politicians like Newt Gingrich invoke the sentiment that America is a "Christian Nation". This is an unusual concept for those of us who revere the founders, because their writings contain lines such as this one:

[T]he Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion - Treaty of Tripoli
So who are we to believe? Socialist Progressives surely fight the idea of a Christian Founding, and Conservatives seem hell-bent to push the idea at every turn. There are thousands of articles, blogs and discussions on the web pro- and con- about the historical validity of the question. Both sides quote particular founders out of context to push their side of the agenda. Neither side budges an inch. I'm no historian, and neither are most Americans. So what's the answer?

I think we're going about the question wrong. It is impossible and non-objective to try and gauge the personal convictions of men who lived 200 years ago. Even if their letters were replete with paeans to mysticism (which they aren't) it would tell us nothing about their true motivations. Trying to argue this point historically is not going to convince anyone, I'm afraid. We need to take a different approach.

First we need to ask-- IF America were a Christian Nation, what would that mean? Why is it an important question at all?

How do we define a "Christian Nation"?

Is it a nation composed primarily of Christians? If so, Italy is certainly a far more Christian nation than the US. The United States is about 78% Christian, if you believe the polls. Italy is 93%. Panama is 99%. Mexico is 95%. So does the "Christianity" of a nation dependent on its demographics? If so, then this "Christian nation" idea is nothing more than tribalism and racism. It says, essentially, that no matter the form of the government-- whether it be a monarchy, a republic, a theocracy, or a dictatorship-- if that nation is composed primarily of Judeo-Christian peoples then that nation is "Christian". By this standard, in world history we have seen many bloody and murderous "Christian nations" that none of us would want to live in. Israel creates much of its own troubles by being a tribalist country-- insisting on its own "Jewishness" when all that is required is that Israel be a nation that protects all citizens equally. But the tribal or racist standard is corrupt and pernicious wherever it's applied. And if this is a numbers game, I cannot imagine that Conservatives see America as being of lesser moral credit and stature as Hugo Chavez' Venezuela, which is 98% Christian. So we must conclude that a "Christian Nation" is to mean something else in this context besides a mere numbers game.

So, do we define a "Christian nation" as being "founded on Christian principles"? Okay. Which principles are those and what does it mean? First, let's define "Christian principles" as all that which was taught or preached by Jesus in his ministry. Is that not broad enough? Okay-- let's say it is all that was taught by Jesus, his disciples, the church fathers, the Catholic Church, the Protestant churches, and every other denomination of Christianity prior to 1776.

Here is the Sermon on the Mount. I think it may be considered representative of the best Jesus' teachings:

Where will anyone read within this a doctrine of individual rights, separation of powers, a bicameral legislature, ANY of the distinctive features of the American political system?


  1. The concept of a "Christian Nation" feels a little weird. I grew up in a Christian (fundamentalist) background with "conservative" (Republican) parents. But the Republicanism they knew had nothing to do with the government abusing the church, or the church abusing their power and using it as a weapon against people they don't agree with.

    I still pray to JC and still believe that He even loves homosexuals like me. Of course, this grates against the grain of what a lot of these folks believe. They can believe anything they choose to believe, but really, it's offensive and out of line that they have stepped way over the line in terms of their influence on government policy and the micro-morality policy-power they use to put down anyone who doesn't subscribe to their brand of humanity. Offensive, and more than that, illegal.

    God Bless the USA.

  2. I was raised in the evangelical tradition, specifically the Assemblies of God who believed in the implicit doctrine of Dominionism, meaning to seek influence or control over secular civil government through political action, especially in the United States, with the goal of establishing either a nation governed by Christians or one governed by a conservative Christian understanding of biblical law.

    It took me a very long time to admit however that not only is there NO scriptural basis for Dominionism; the idea itself is contrary to Constitutionalism and downright UNAMERICAN.

    Here are some glaring inconvenient point my evangelical brethren hope no one pick up on:
    1. Jesus founded a New Testament in which the Kingdom of God wasn't instituted through human legislation or morality police as in Judaism but was to be established "... within you" Luke 17:21 through a person's individual choice.
    2. At his trial before Pontius Pilate, Jesus declared "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place." John 18:36
    3. James Madison, who was born a British subject knew full well England's long history of oppression and corruption under the ecclesiastical powers of Europe, did not look to the Bible for inspiration for a model government. He was drawn instead to the Romans, worshipers of Jupiter and Juno, who crystallized for us the concept of Liberty, Constitutionalism and Republicanism (Res-publica Romanorum). The Roman Republic outlived the theocracy and monarchies of biblical Israel. Even after its transition to the Empire, it was their legal system that was invoked by Christians such as the apostle Paul.

    It's time 'Christians' remember what it means to be a Constitutionalist Americans.