In the previous post I tried to give some context to the claim that the USA is a “Christian” nation. There are ways in which that adjective is accurate and important ways in which it is not. Sometimes, however, when folk call America a “Christian nation” what they really mean is that the USA is an exceptional nation. This time I agree: the USA is an exceptional place.
Of course there are ways in which the USA is like any other political entity that has ever existed. There are universals that apply to all governments. They all tax more than they should. They do less of what they should do (those things that individuals and private associations cannot and should not do for themselves) and more of what they should not do (those things that private persons and associations should do for themselves). In the USA government has grown rapidly since the early part of the 20th century. Part of that growth is the result of social changes such as urbanization (people moving from the farm to the city), the rapid growth of cities through that process and through waves of immigration. The economy has become less and less agrarian and increasingly urban and suburban. All these things tend to lead to more government and less freedom.
Samuel warned the Israelites about such tendencies:
“These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the LORD will not answer you in that day.” (1Sam 8; ESV)
Nevertheless, among post-canonical nations, there are ways in which the USA is unique and even exceptional. With the formation of the constitutional republic a new experiment was initiated. The American revolution was relatively orderly and relatively humane. The constitutional convention and the colonial and transitional institutions that predated the revolution may arguably fit Calvin’s doctrine of lesser magistrates (see Institutes 4.20). However problematic the American revolution might be it was radically different from the French Revolution. The founding fathers carefully constructed a representative (federal) republic. The founders were influenced by a wide variety of texts. Among them was the work Politica by Johannes Althusius (c. 1563–1638).
Another unique feature of the American experiment is that despite the overtly religious influences on the colonies and whatever the theological influences on the founding fathers, the republic was established as a secular (as distinct from a secularist state). There would be no state-imposed religion. In the 18th and into the 19th centuries the original understanding of the constitution did not originally prevent state-imposed religion even as it forbade a federally imposed religion. Massachusetts had religious tests until 1833! Gradually courts and legislatures applied the federal restrictions to the states. Nevertheless, the original intent of the founders seems clear. As a federal republic America was to have no mandated religion even as the people were free to pursue their faith as they saw fit.
The sort of religious liberty enjoyed by Americans was relatively unusual. In the 16th and 17th centuries religion was regularly established by civil magistrates in Europe and in the American colonies (the New World). In some cases, the alternative was just as bad as state-imposed religion: state-imposed secularism. The French Revolution in the 18th century brought with it a violent anti-religious secularism and bloody anti-clericalism. Europe tended to lurch from state church to secularism via the Enlightenment.
Remarkably, even though the American revolution brought with it serious problems (See Nathan Hatch, The American Christianity, including the introduction of a radical egalitarian principle from which Reformed Christianity has never fully recovered in this country, there are ways in which the Americans were able to appropriate the political benefit of the Enlightenment without bringing about the same sort of rejection of Christian theism in the way it was experienced in Europe. In short, the American experiment was the attempt to combine a secular political order while allowing (and for a time even encouraging) churches as private associations to flourish.
Certainly things have changed. The anti-theistic secularism that has dominated Europe certainly since the early 20th century has become increasingly dominant in the USA since the second half of the 20th century. As the churches of Europe were emptying churches in America, during the cold war, were relatively full. Since the 1950s, however, the lines that once distinguished the USA clearly from Europe have been blurred. As the established churches in Europe have long emptied (and been converted to first to internet cafes and sometimes now into mosques!) in the USA the mainline churches, which functioned as the de facto established churches, have followed the same trajectory. The social elites, whose grandparents populated the mainline churches, who tend to fill government positions, are increasingly alienated from historic Christianity.
Still, the constitution and its bill of rights remains. Even though Christianity has become increasingly marginal in the life of the country it is remains more vital here than in most places in Europe. Further, the fact that the founders established the American republic as a secular state serves the interests of those of us who still believe the faith. Unlike Europe, because we have not had a national church and because the states gradually adopted the same policy the church is free to flourish in ways that it was not in Europe. The future of the church and the Christian faith is not tied to the fortunes and whims of the state in the way that it was in Europe. It is not a tool in the hands of the magistrate that it often was in the old world Christians in America have a great deal for which to be thankful this election day. Chief among those them is the relative absence of civil restraint on the practice of the Christian religion. There are other ways in which the USA may be said to be exceptional but this one is enough for today.