Sunday, April 19, 2009

Is America a Christian Nation?

Not long ago, I posted commentary regarding Newsweek's article on the 'decline' of Christianity in America. According to the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), the number of people identifying themselves as 'Christian' is falling. I think there are a number of reasons for this, and most of it really has to do with the way the church - right and left, conservative and progressive - has participated in the public square (among other things).

However, it begs the question, "Just how 'Christian' is America anyway?" There are some believers who are convinced that America was founded by Christians and as such is in some way representative of a 'chosen people'. Others who may not believe so extremely, but who believe that only explicitly Christian values are relevant in our culture and mores.

A few weeks ago, President Barak Obama caused a stir when he said that, "America is not a Christian nation..." Lost in all of the criticism was the fact that he also said that America was neither a Jewish nation, or a Muslim nation. It was, he said, a nation bound together by its ideals and its values. Obviously, the president wasn't teaching a Sunday School lesson. He was making a statement regarding this country's place in the world and how interviews itself politically and globally. In short, its still safe to go to church. And its still perfectly fine to celebrate Christian contributions to our culture and society. But we also have to make sure that we make this nation a place that makes room for others who don't believe as we do. That includes, I might add, other Christians!

It's an interesting debate and can be quite an awakening to those who are open minded. Take for example, what Brian McLaren, pastor, progressive Christian thought leader and activist, says,

"I agree wholeheartedly with historian Richard Hughes, author of "Myths America Lives By" and of the upcoming "Christian America and the Kingdom of God." When we in the US flatter ourselves with a mythologized national identity -- seeing ourselves as the Chosen Nation, as Nature's Nation, as a Christian Nation, as a Millennial Nation, and as an Innocent Nation -- we make it more likely not only that we will behave unjustly, but that we will be ignorant and un-self-aware as we do so. So I was glad when President Obama simply told the truth."

"When people tell me that we are or have been a Christian nation, I want to ask, "When?" Was it in the colonial era or during westward expansion, when we began stealing the lands of the Native Americans, making and breaking treaties, killing wantonly, and justifying our actions by the Bible? Was it in the era of slavery or segregation, when again, we used the Bible to justify the unjustifiable?"

Chuck Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries and a former special counsel to President Richard Nixon, has a more nuanced traditional perspective than MacLaren's.

"As for America being a Christian nation, a simple yes or no doesn't cut it. We were established as a free pluralistic society with a clear separation of church and state. But the body of English common law, along with the general consensus of the people, both largely informed by Judeo-Christian revelation, were the underpinnings of this free society. To forget this fact -- or worse, deny it -- is to imperil our freedom."

"Simplistic slogans, whether from the right or the left, do a disservice to the genius of our founders and to 233 years of history and tradition."

The thing is there are intelligent perspectives on both sides. And there is room for the conflicting perspectives beneath the surface. Where we get in trouble with this question is when we try and ignore the ironies and contradictions that go along with answering 'yes' or 'no'. And when Christians, without perspective, seek to answer the question in a way that makes a state's religious orientation a substitute or an excuse for their own behavior, attitude, or the evasion of our responsibilities.

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