Tuesday, February 23, 2010

There Has Never Been and Will Never Be a Christian Nation

One of the tubs that American conservatism loves to thump on a regular basis is the idea that America is a Christian nation. Or, if they're feeling a teensy bit more open-minded, a "Judeo-Christian" nation. Cross and country, faith and flag, all woven together, until the blood running from the wounds in His hands and feet and side isn't just red, but white and blue as well.

This takes many forms. It was a major theme in the recent Tea Party gathering, where godancountry was practically one word. It includes the recent "Patriot's Bible" translation/commentary (thanks, Jonathan) that asserts the American journey is essentially the same thing as the great story of the Gospel. This lovely piece of work affirms those who exist to wave the flag and feel good about America in their conviction that America is God's Nation, no matter what. Because we all know that reflexively loving your country above all other things is something that the Bible strongly endorses.

But while I view the order and structures of our society as a blessing, I also am not fool enough to believe that a nation can be Christian. In this, Christianity is...well...different from the other Abrahamic faiths. I had this realization a few months ago during an interfaith conference. You can have a Jewish nation. Or a Muslim nation. But not, no matter how many tears run down Glenn Beck's cheeks or how often Sarah Palin earnestly wrinkles her nose, a Christian one.

Why not?

Well...what is a nation? A nation is a people, a society, bounded and knit together first by geography, but second and more significantly by laws. Those legal structures provide the common ground upon which the collective life of a people are founded. They establish justice and balance between the inevitable competing interests that arise when human beings share life and space. That legal order can be used to oppress, or to..as the United States Constitution does...provide an equitable foundation for our life together.

In the Torah, Judaism has just such a set of laws, established to govern both the cultic and the jurisprudential life of a Jewish nation. In Sharia, Islam has another set of laws, which serve essentially the same purpose. But Jesus did not provide us with a carefully considered system of governance. He did not lay out the rules and standards for running an orderly society. He only gave us One Law, one which is intended not for the governing of human society and the balancing of competing interests, but for the transformation and spiritual liberation of human persons.

That One Law can, if it is embraced by a significant portion of the population of a country, change the character of that nation. It can help insure that the application of the coercion that undergirds the power of the state is leavened with grace and mercy. Even so, we shouldn't confuse it with the laws in our courthouses.

The kingdom of God is not far from us...but the Stars and Stripes is not it's flag.