Every four years (and in the interim) the question of whether we should regard the USA as a “Christian” nation re-emerges. There are three ways in which this question might be considered, sociologically, historically, and biblically-theologically. Under each rubric the case for “Christian America” falls short.
Is America a “Christian” nation as a matter of sociology? Judging by the studies that I’ve seen in recent years it seems difficult to say yes. Let’s take the most basic measure of Christianity: church attendance. No one believes the old Gallup studies that were published for years after World War II that indicated that 40% of Americans attend church. Those studies did not distinguish between casual attendance or between those who attend only Easter and Christmas services or even between those who attended a wedding in the last year and regular attendance. I’m happy to be corrected but more recent studies have asked more precise questions and yielded different results. Between 10-25% of Americans attend church regularly. If this is true it is difficult to see how America is presently to be regarded as a “Christian” nation.
There is considerable debate over the question how to interpret the founding of the American Republic. There is little doubt about the Christian orthodoxy of the 17th-century pilgrims but the picture is cloudier when it comes to the founding fathers of the republic in the late 18th century.
It is cloudier because, in the intervening 150 years, there was a theological and philosophical revolution in Europe and the British Isles. The effects of that revolution touched these shores and affected the theological and philosophical outlook of at least some and perhaps most of the founders. That revolution was the Enlightenment, a varied movement that tended to marginalize the authority of Scripture, supernaturalism, and Christian orthodoxy and tended to replace them with Deism and rationalism. Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, among others were deeply influenced by the enlightenment critique of Christian orthodoxy. Brian Lee argues in the Daily Caller this morning that American evangelicals have been sold a series of myths about the founding fathers, that Washington was not an orthodox evangelical and neither was John Adams. The latter was raised a Calvinistic congregationalist but repudiated that heritage. The faith of others of the founders was ambiguous at best and the list of orthodox Christians among the founders is fairly short. Witherspoon comes to mind but even he was not untouched by the Enlightenment.
We should remember that the formation of the Republic occurred 50 years after the outbreak of the first great awakening a period of great religious fervor by that episode that left a mixed legacy. According to Nathan Hatch America became more intensely and outwardly religious 50 years after the founding of the republic and it was during the time of the founding. If ever America was a “Christian nation” as determined by church attendance and religious enthusiasm it might have been during this period but even that enthusiasm faded by the end of the 19th century. For more on this see the chapter on Sister Aimee in Always Reformed. In short, from historical point of view, the claims of some popular Evangelical organizations notwithstanding, talk about America as a Christian nation is at best questionable. Alf J. Mapp, Jr., The Faiths of Our Fathers: What America’s Founders Really Believed (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003) is a helpful, brief survey. Note that it is marred by some editorial problems but as a beginning sketch it is useful.
Scripture and Theology
The third problem with the claim that America is a Christian nation is it’s almost complete lack of support in Scripture. God had a nation, with whom he entered into a special relation and even a national covenant. That covenant was inaugurated in blood at Sinai (Exodus 24). It lasted about 16 centuries and expired on across outside the city walls of Jerusalem early in the first century A.D. In Mark 7, Acts 10, 1Corinthians 8, and Romans 14 our Lord declares all food clean. Those passages tell us that the old covenant has expired. It has been abrogated and fulfilled. (2Cor 3; Heb 7–10).
Where the old inferior, fading covenant was national and temporary the new color that is eternal, unfading, superior, and international. There is no covenant with any nation as such. Jesus is King David’s greater son. He rules over all nations in the same way. No nation has any Special status before God (Acts 15). One of the great differences between the old (Mosaic) and new covenants is that the latter is international in character (Acts 2:39). In the new covenant the Lord is fulfilling the promises made to Abraham to bring all the nations (considered as ethnic groups not as political entities) under Christ’s Lordship by grace alone, through faith alone. For more on the relations between the old and new covenants see this essay.
Magistrates, wherever they may be, are ministers (Romans 13). We are to pray for all rulers (1Peter 2). We are to submit to them all. Their legitimacy is not, in the New Testament, conditioned upon their theological orthodoxy or fidelity to God. At age 20 Nero is described as God’s minister (Rom 13). There is no rational world in which Nero’s position may be said to have been contingent on his faithfulness to God. He was a rank pagan. His morality was regarded as scandalous even to other pagan Romans. Nevertheless, the apostle Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, described him as God’s minister. According to the New Testament we are to obey rulers, even pagan rulers such as Nero, because they have been instituted by God.
In the middle of the second century AD an anonymous disciple (μαθητης—Polycarp perhaps?) wrote to a potential convert to Christianity, a certain Diognetus. The setting is uncertain but it is possible that Digonetus was a government official or a person of some social influence. Thus, it is fascinating to observe that, instead of asking for special status or instead of insisting that the emperor recognize Christ as Lord as a condition of ruling, Diognetus wrote this chapter:
For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of mankind either in locality or in speech or in customs. For they dwell not somewhere in cities of their own, neither do they use some different language, nor practice an extraordinary kind of life. Nor again do they possess any invention discovered by any intelligence or study of ingenious men, nor are they masters of any human dogma as some
But while they dwell in cities of Greeks and barbarians as the lot of each is cast, and follow the native customs in dress and food and the other arrangements of life, yet the constitution of their own citizenship, which they set forth, is marvelous, and confessedly contradicts expectation.
They dwell in their own countries, but only as sojourners; they bear their share in all things as citizens, and they endure all hardships as strangers. Every foreign country is a fatherland to them, and every fatherland is foreign. They marry like all other men and they beget children; but they do not cast away their offspring. They have their meals in common, but not their wives. They find themselves in the flesh, and yet they live not after the flesh. Their existence is on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws, and they surpass the laws in their own lives. They love all men, and they are persecuted by all. They are ignored, and yet they are condemned. They are put to death, and yet they are endued with life.
They are in beggary, and yet they make many rich. They are in want of all things, and yet they abound in all things. They are dishonoured, and yet they are glorified in their dishonour. They are evil spoken of, and yet they are vindicated. They are reviled, and they bless; they are insulted, and they respect.Doing good they are punished as evil-doers; being punished they rejoice, as if they were thereby quickened by life. War is waged against them as aliens by the Jews, and persecution is carried on against them by the Greeks, and yet those that hate them cannot tell the reason of their hostility.
In light of the teaching of Scripture and of the second century church fathers we must say that the rise of Christendom was, biblically considered, an anomaly. It is true that our 16– and 17th–century Reformed forebears assumed the righteousness of the Constantinan system whereby the magistrate did more than simply execute justice, where the magistrate enforced religious orthodoxy. Just, however, as a rejected their geocentric view of astronomy (for which they appealed to Scripture) so too we rejected their Constantinian reading of Scripture.
There are Christians in America and she has, in certain respects, a Christian heritage but that heritage is mixed. There have been times (e.g., the Colonial period) where there was a real intent to establish Christian civil (political) communities but the American revolution overturned those experiments. There have been periods of considerable religious enthusiasm, when church attendance has increased, but they been temporary and not deeply rooted. Since the founding of the Republic, however, Christianity was marginalized. To be sure it had a favored status but since the end of the 19th century even that informal status as ebbed.
If we pay close attention to the Scriptures, however, if we read God’s inerrant Word in context, according to the original intent of the divine and human authors, it seems virtually impossible to speak about any civil-political entity after the crucifixion of Christ as a “Christian” nation.
As we reckon our civil duties and privileges tomorrow let us do so soberly, prayerfully, and thoughtfully—with an understanding of where we are in the history of redemption. We are in the in-between time, between the ascension of Lord and his glorious, visible return. Presently we live under his sovereign rule in providence over all nations and rulers and under his special exercise of sovereignty in his redemptive kingdom expressed principally in the visible, institutional church. With the apostles Paul and Peter, and with Epistle to Diognetus, we should pray for peace, for the freedom to preach the gospel and practice our faith. We should pray and seek to be left alone by civil authorities. We should not expect or ask for special status nor should we exercise our earthly citizenship with the expectation of returning to a myth, to time that never existed.
Shane Lems has a summary of the Noll, Hatch, Marsden volume, Search for Christian America.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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