Thursday, October 21, 2010

Christian America

Two recent studies have surfaced an increasing trend in the thinking of Americans.  And no, it has nothing to do with Glee.

Rather, it's that now between 42% (if a Pew Study is to be believed) or 49% (if recent data gleaned the General Social Survey is to be believed) of Americans feel that being Christian is a central element of American identity.  America is a Christian Nation, or so almost half of America believes. 

This is really quite remarkable.  As I've noted before, such thinking shows a complete misunderstanding of the nature of Christian faith.  There can't ever be a Christian nation, not in the sense of a geographic region governed by laws and sharing a common culture.  We put that to rest back with Augustine.  Christianity is not a system of government, relying on the coercive power of the sword to enforce itself.  When it becomes that, and Lord forgive us it often has, it betrays the Gospel.  

Equally troubling is the complete failure of what appears to be functionally half of our population to grasp the nature and purpose of our constitutional republic.  America is the land of liberty, dagflabbit.  We are defined by our freedom, and our respect of the freedoms of others.    The fundamental principles of our republic are conducive to the free practice of Christian faith, yes.  I am grateful for that blessing.   But they are also conducive to practicing Judaism without fear of oppression.  And to being Muslim.  And Buddhist.  And if you so choose, being an atheist.   Jews and Muslims and Buddhists and atheists who embrace and defend the liberties of our Constitution are completely American.

The inscription on the Statue of Liberty does not read "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to be Christian."

7 comments:

  1. I wonder if there isn't some confusion between "Christian Nation" and "A nation of Christians". I suspect that while a great many of the 42-49% may say the former, they may actually mean the latter.

    That being said, I believe that this phenomenon is explainable by a particular linguistic/cognitive function in the brain. There is an experiment you can use to demonstrate this phenomenon. You invite someone to come up with a sentence with the word "bird" in it. Take a moment and do so yourself. Usually the sentence is something like, "The bird was singing in the tree."

    When you ask someone to substitute "robin" and "sparrow" the sentence holds up. When they substitute, "chicken", "penguin", and "emu" the sentence does not. What's curious is that everyone agrees that chickens, penguins, and emus are birds, but apparently some birds are more bird-like than others. Definitions do not exist in the brain in categories, but in associations.

    I believe the same thing to be true with the word "American" in many peoples' minds. (Probably many more than would care to admit it). That the word "American" on its own still conjures up for many a white, anglo-saxon, Christian male. To the extent that the particular American differs from that, it has to be qualified by some adjective: Italian-American, African-American, etc. That, as with the bird example, though we intellectually understand the term to be broad, for many people, the deeply held intuitive sense still construes it narrowly. Until that underlying assumption can be restructured, then these apparently outmoded understandings of America being a nation of Christians will persist.

    There is also one other thing going on, I think. There is general obliviousness in our country to the existence of our Civil Religion. It is my belief that when most Americans talk about us being a Christian nation, they actually have our civil religion in mind and have greatly confused that with Christianity.

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  2. @ Mark: The GSS findings seem to indicate that this attitude occurs primarily among self-identified Christians...and is notably absent in non-Christians. That may suggest it being less a matter of language, and more a question of a radically self-oriented ideation of national character.

    I really would like to think it's just a question of semiotics, though. Things would feel more hopeful that way. At a bare minimum, it's clear there's confusion out there.

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  3. It's true what you say. And it's scary.

    Then there's this guy:
    http://il.youtube.com/watch?v=QYCsrhJPIfY&feature=related

    (One small quibble: I don't think I "choose" to be an atheist. I can choose to go to the gym, or the bakery. I can choose vote, or stay home. I can choose to marry, to try heroin, or to stand with my hand over my heart when they play the national anthem. But I can't choose to believe, even for a minute, in the Tooth Fairy, or Lord Voldemort, or Lord Vishnu. You could hold a gun to my head and I the best I could do is pretend. Same with God. Atheism is not a life-style choice for me.)

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  4. @ Browning: It is disturbing, and will be more so if folks who actively think this way and/or foment this pattern of thought gain the reins of power.

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  5. "The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind." (Mark A. Noll)

    Thinking Christians need to reject the popular interpretation of Romans 13 and renounce the civic sacrament of voting. The sooner we acknowledge that the state tempts Christians to live out their convictions through its godless programs of welfare and warfare, the sooner we'll extricate Christ from Nation. Until then, whose bread I eat, his song I sing.

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  6. The founders purposefully created a separation of the religious world and the political to protect both. Roger Williams felt that that America could never be a "Christian nation," nor could any government, because the aims of each are antithetical to the other. Williams' argument was that Christianity is based on love while government is based on force; Therefore it would be unchristian to use a government to promote Christianity.

    It troubles me that a great deal of people believe that the United States was intended to be a Christian state and that there are politicians that don't grasp the 1st Amendment. Too often people take for granted the religious beliefs of the founders themselves; whom included several non-Christians and probably a few closet atheists (c'mon deism in the 1700's is pretty darn close).

    Often Christians criticize the wall of separation because they fail to realize that religion is much better off with the wall in place. The corruption of religion by political branches that is likely without our "godless constitution" should be enough to provoke enthusiastic support for separation of politics and religion amongst believers.

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  7. ""The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind." (Mark A. Noll)

    Thinking Christians need to reject the popular interpretation of Romans 13 and renounce the civic sacrament of voting. The sooner we acknowledge that the state tempts Christians to live out their convictions through its godless programs of welfare and warfare, the sooner we'll extricate Christ from Nation. Until then, whose bread I eat, his song I sing."

    @newworldview - very well stated. Maybe someday... ;o)

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