I am happy to be a part of a Christian nation. It has become my sense of identity, my place to belong. I didn’t choose to be a part of the nation, I was born into it. It was not my choice, but I am grateful that this Christian nation is my home. I pray for this nation to reflect the image of its Architect. I pray that this nation will demonstrate faith, hope, and love to the world. I pray that this nation will transform culture.
And by the way, the Christian nation of which I speak is the Church.
Today is the “National Day of Prayer” and I am joining people of various faiths in praying for our civic nation. As a follower of Christ, I am asked to pray for those in authority, to pray for those with delegated authority. I will stand today and do so, but my prayer may be different than other Christians. I will be praying: God, let your kingdom come, let you will be done on earth and it is in heaven. Sadly, I assume others will be praying: God, our nation has forsaken you, help us to return to you, so that you can bless us again.
I believe the second prayer is lifted up in sincerity and devotion. I do not doubt the ones praying it love Jesus and America too. But what is implicit in that prayer is a bit troublesome to me. “Help us return to you”—does this mean our nation once was “with” God or faithful to God or a community of people who once worshiped Jesus? Were we once a “Christian nation?”
I think we can all agree, things have changed. The Christian faith once had a dominate place in our culture and now it does not, but does this imply that we were a “Christian nation” that has lost its Christian identity? I don’t think so.
First of all, nations (i.e. political nation-states) cannot be Christian; people are. The only Christian nation is the “nation” of Christ followers. This is a trans-national, multi-ethnic nation of people who worship the Jesus of the New Testament as the Son of God and the one true reigning ruler of the planet and all the political nations in it. We believe he died for our sins, was buried, and rose up from the dead, vindicated, and proven to be the King of God’s kingdom and creation. It is Jesus that we follow. It is to Jesus that we pledge our allegiance. This “Christian nation” is a community called “the Church.”
So why do some want to call the United States of America a “Christian nation”?
I suppose it is because of the undeniable influence the Christian faith and worldview had on the formation of our nation. Colonial America of the early eighteenth century was filled with pilgrims and passionate Christ-followers who fled Europe in a desire to worship without the interference of Government. Those leaving Europe for Colonial American had experienced centuries of bloody violence between Catholics and Protestants. Many of them crossed the Atlantic to live out their Christian faith in peace and purity.
The Mayflower Compact, written by those traveling on the Mayflower in the early seventeenth century to establish their new colony, states their desire:
Having undertaken, for the Glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith and Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the First Colony in the Northern Parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, Covenant and Combine ourselves together into a Civil Body Politic...
I believe these were people of authentic Christian faith who wanted to organize themselves into a new civic body for the “glory of God and the advancement of the Christian faith.” It was people like these in the early seventeenth century who helped frame the creation of a new nation, a union of the thirteen original colonies, into one new civil body politic, the United States of America.
The big question is this: Did the founders of this new nation, desire for the United States to exist for the “glory of God and the advancement of the Christian faith”?
Historians more astute than I will need to help us sort this out, but from my reading of history, I would have to say no. If this was the intent of the founders then why is it not recorded in the founding documents, i.e. “the Declaration of the Independence,” “the Constitution,” or “the Bill of Rights”? The Treaty of Tripoli, ratified by the Senate and signed by President John Adams in 1797, explicitly states:
…the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.
When we read documents like “the Declaration of Independence” we see references to “Creator” and “Nature’s God,” but these are not references to the Christian God/Creator. These are the gods of deism, the religion produced by the Enlightenment. While the founding of the US included the influence of the Christian faith, it also included the influence of the Enlightenment, a revival of Greek philosophy, with an emphasis on the supremacy of reason, individualism, and cultural optimism. So if we want to claim that the US is a “Christian nation” because it were influenced by Christians, then shouldn’t we also claim that the US is a “Greek nation,” because it were influenced by the Enlightenment?
[Side note: For all you fans of Church history, I am not denying the fact that Christian theology was also influenced by Greek thought, i.e. Platonism, particularly in the first few centuries of Church history. I think it is crucial that we weed out Platonism when reading the church fathers as it is antithetical to the true gospel. But for the church fathers, these were Christian men writing Christian documents for the Christian church and so the influence of Plato is different than in the case of men like Thomas Jefferson who was a Deist, writing a political document for a political nation. The influence of the Greek thought on Jefferson was much greater than it was on somebody like Origin.]
I do not think it is helpful to consider the US either a “Christian nation” or a “Greek nation,” because the US is something altogether different. The US is a democratic nation, a republic, a political nation where the citizens have a voice in the government. This brings us back to the issue of the dominance (or the lack thereof) of the Christian faith in American culture. Christians, like all citizens, have a voice both politically and socially, but let’s choose a voice that sounds like Jesus.
Let’s choose a voice that sounds like Jesus speaking to the Roman Empire (my kingdom is not of this world) instead of Jesus speaking to Israel (How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings).
Let’s choose a voice that sounds like forgiving love instead of disrespectful hate.
Let’s choose a voice that sounds like peace instead of hostility, grace instead of rhetoric, faith instead of propaganda.
Let’s speak into the public and political arena with humble words, subversive words.
Let’s speak and then put our hope in the three branches of power: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Let’s speak and pray and put our hope in the kingdom of God and not the governments of men.