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.


  1. Just this Sunday my pastor remarked on how the US used to be considered a Christian nation. Was there an article in Rev! Magazine or something?

    You almost present a case for Christian Anarchy here. If you could just go a little.. bit... farther...

    Toward the end, the courts present Christians an opportunity to leaven "the coercion that undergirds the power of the state" and extend grace to their fellow human beings. In their role as jurors, Christians have the ability to vote "not guilty" in all cases involving 'crimes' of personal vice, thereby repudiating oppressive laws.

  2. This is a really good post. Specially with the Isaiah and Jeremiah references, two of my favorite prophets.

    But why is this reality lost on our Fundamentalist friends? Even those that believe Christianity is only for the private life and for personal morality, still they believe in a right wing Godandcountry as if it was a given.

    Where does that come from?

  3. Historically this has not been a Fundamentalist position alone. Since the Civil Was until the end of WWII this was a common position of Christians of all stripes.

    I think one could make a case that some of the states before disestabulism that in those states there was a belief in a Christian state. The Northeast certainly believed this. Conn. kept the law about Conn being a Christian state (and a Congregationalist state) until 1826.

    On the other hand the Constitution clearly bans an establised Church. The US Post Office even delivered mail on Sunday for a while.

  4. A consideration (and you would know this better than I): Perhaps the 'christian' aspect of American democracy is/was based on an ecclesiastical model of church governance. Thoughts?

  5. Well, in Europe there used to be state churches. The Anglican church still is the state church of England. And the state church in Scotland is the Presbyterian church. And throughout the ages the church has benefited from states bringing them under their protective umbrella in exchange for their endorsement.

    These of course are not "Christian nations" in a theological sense, but from the point of view that by exclusion they are therefore not Jewish or Muslim, or Hindu or Buddhist, then yes, there are Christian nations.

    And the Byzantine Empire tried very hard to be a Christian Empire from its inception. Heck, I think it invented "orthodoxy". Orthodoxy being whatever Constantinople said you had to believe to be called a Christian

    Never mind the oxymoron that word "Christian Empire" represents.

    But I think that is where the Fundamentalists pine for state religion. They long for a way to enforce their beliefs as the right beliefs. They hate having to convince people. Its so hard to do in the modern world.

    Voluntary compliance just does not suit them at all...

    And I think Fundamentalist Muslims feel the same way.

  6. "Fundamentalists...long for a way to enforce their beliefs as the right beliefs."

    All too true. Thanks, Jodie.

  7. Good post. Who is this guy sending you these odd links? ;o)

    I've always taking "exception" to the whole "American exceptionalism" deal. Now, as a good 5 pointer, I certainly believe that America's inception and continuing existence is all due to God's guiding hand, but I also believe that for every other nation that has existed throughout the span of history. We have been blessed to be sure, but we are in no sense 'special'.

    The main thing about that "Patriot's Bible" nonsense that bothers me is the disrespect for Scripture that it shows. Much like the Conservative Bible or the Green Bible, etc. God's Word is treated as play-doh in the hands of such people.

    I blame Derrida and his ilk for modernity's propensity for playing fast and loose with the written word. ;o)