The Myth of “Christian America”

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.

Sociology

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.

History

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
are.

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.

UPDATE

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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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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19 comments

  1. Well said. Turtullian was correct when he said “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” Praying for a “moral” government may in fact be worst thing for us as a church and a country. Obviously it dosnt mean we vote for the worst candidate so we thrive, but we need to realize God is sovereign even over politics. He knows what is best in any given context.

    If many Christians alive today were back in the 2nd century they would reason God was not blessing, when in fact He was. Perhaps having a christian ethic enforced on all isnt a blessing. Enforcing a morality from the outside in is hard to evangelize. What need have they of Christ being such upstanding, moral people? In the same way our inner corruption is still kicking until death lest we forget our need of Christ.

    Too many lose sight that the age to come is in fact, the age to come, which means it will not come in this age. We should do our civic duty in whatever sphere God placed us but realize it is passing and temporal, and that our citizenship, King, and His word are not dependent upon vaporous changes in this present evil age. We of all should show Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever and stop being such whiners and babies when it comes to who is or isnt in office.

  2. It seems like you would rather live in a place where Christians are actively persecuted than one in which the magistrates enforce both tables of the Law.

    God will judge magistrates by the extent to which they honor Him. This is why, when Herod refused to mention God during a political speech, God struck him down dead, and worms feasted on Herod’s flesh.

    Paul said that if he did anything that the Torah said was “worthy of death,” he would allow himself to be put to death by the Jews. Why would he say this if the civil laws are no longer in effect during the NT era?

    When you engage in historical speculation about if America has ever been a Christian nation, you are missing the point. What part of “we must obey God rather than men” do you not understand?

    Besides, even my atheist friends refer to America as a “traditionally Christain-dominated nation.”

    • Scott,

      1) Speculation? What did I say that was speculative? By “speculation” do you mean, “anything with which I disagree must be speculation”?

      2) No, I’m not anxious to live under persecution but I do think we should be honest about the past and the present. There’s a good deal of mythology about. One problem with such mythology is that people use it as a basis on which to make decisions. That’s not a good idea.

      3) Paul was willing to submit to the civil authorities. To infer from that willingness that the civil laws were still regarded as in force is huge and illogical leap. I will give you points for cleverness—but remember all the heretics were clever so it’s not really a virtue.

      4) I meant to point out that the language of abrogation and expiration is not mine. It’s the language of the Westminster Assembly, those liberals! WCF 19.4:

      4. To them also, as a body politic, he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require [emphasis added].

      The WCF reflects the Reformed consensus. The civil laws expired. Everywhere the apostles might have explicitly or implicitly taught the abiding validity of the civil law they did not. Just as the ceremonial laws were abrogated, so too the civil laws.

      5) There’s no question here about whether we must obey God. The great question is HOW to obey. Our Lord himself explicitly said that we must render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. Whose picture is on the coin? Caesar’s. Paul said that we had to submit to that pagan Nero. So, I could turn the question around: Why don’t you believe the inerrant Word of God?

    • Mr. Clark,

      1) What you said was speculation because it was only your opinion and the question as to whether America is a “Christian” nation is improvable, insofar as there is no agreed upon definition as to what constitutes a Christian nation and because the answer to the question is debatable. You could intelligently argue that America was not a Christian nation (based on the founding fathers’ deistic religious beliefs or church attendance during the revolution era). However, you could also intelligently argue that America was a Christian nation as well (as done in the book “The Christian Life and Character of the Civil Institutions of the United States”). Ultimately, historical judgments as to that nature are speculative and debatable.
      2) I never said that Americans should base their decisions or their political philosophy on mythology or on what the founders believed. I said that we should base our political philosophy on the Bible and on natural law.
      3) If Paul believed that the civil laws had been abrogated, that would have been the perfect time to say so. He could have said something to the effect of “I will comply with the law of the land, even though I believe that those laws have been abrogated by Christ.”
      4) The Westminster Divines still believed that the general equity of the law was in force, even though the specific applications of the law may change. For example, the Old Testament says that if the owner of an ox who gores a man to death knew beforehand that the ox was dangerous, he can be executed for manslaughter. The “general equity” of the verse would be that it is acceptable to execute somebody guilty for manslaughter.
      That clause, in other words, still implies that Christians should try to implement the “general equivalent” of the case laws. Do you agree with that?
      Furthermore, the Westminster Divines also believed that the civil magistrates’ duties included “taking order that unity and peace be preserved in the Church,” suppressing “blasphemies and heresies,” and preventing or reforming “corruptions and abuses in worship.” So clearly, they thought that religion should play more of a role in politics than you do.
      5) In context, when Jesus said to “render unto Caesar’s what is Caesar’s, and render unto God what is God’s,” he was simply saying that it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar.

      Are you seriously suggesting that I do not believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of God?

  3. I dont think wishing for persecution is anyone’s point to press here. The ceremonial and civil aspects of the Torah, including any theolocratic nations present or future were abrogated by Christ but of course the religious leaders who chose Barrabas rejected the Messiah and continued in the shadows. Paul was merely recognizing their standard and was declaring he was falsely accused of law breaking when all he was doing was embracing the promised Mediator of the covenant according to the Torah,scriptures, they claim as their authority. I also dont recognize anyone here advocating disobedience to Christ because we recognize a difference between this age and the next and dont equate a particular political platform with a divine mandate or stamp of approval; and that we oftentimes fail to recognize God’s ways of blessing are not always in the forms we think they should be in.

  4. You have (forgive me, I mean to be constructive, not harsh) a shallow understanding of this subject, Mr. Clark.

    Homosexuals know they are ‘queer’ (they’re word) *because* they live in a Christian nation.

    Atheists are constantly amped up to denounce God *because* they are living in a Christian nation, and they know it.

    Calvinism is in the blood and bones of this nation. It matters not what George Washington believed, or how many times he mentioned God rather than Jesus Christ. (And by the way, the claims of modern critics about the belief – or degree, or kind of beliefs – of the Founding Fathers are incredibly fallacious in the area of moving the goal posts.)

    Ask a Jew (actually, call Michael Medved) if they are living in a Christian nation.

    There’s a strange spirit behind these kind of statements you’ve written here and that I see commonly coming from other Christians. I mean, not just shallow understanding of history and what makes a nation one thing or another, but – I don’t know – a kind of delight in telling Christians we aren’t a Christian nation.

    I think about three major historians in the 19th century, two German, one American (George Bancroft, I believe) actually stated that John Calvin was the real founding father of America.

    • David,

      As I said, the picture is MUCH more complicated than you indicate. There’s no question that, during the middle of the 19th century America was, sociologically, a Christian nation but that consensus was collapsing by the end of the 19th century. It was gone by the middle of the 20th century.

      How do you answer the FACT that church attendance is practically bill now. What does “churchless” Christianity mean? How does it help the faith to redefine it to exclude the visible, institutional church?

      No question that, in the 17th century, Calvinism had a huge influence but today? The NAPARC world is about 500,000 people max. There are 60 million evangelicals almost none of whom are Calvinist. So, whatever was in the marrow of the bones of this country seems to have leaked out.

      Sure, Medved calls this a “Christian” country and there are ways in which that’s true, as I said but why do we want Medved to define Christianity for us?

      Bring the evidence? Read in context, the Founders were largely not Christian. Re-baptizing the dead is a Mormon thing, isn’t it?

  5. Our very system of government is unique in that it recognizes fallen man’s inherent sin and puts checks and balances on us, especially those of us in political power. Our rights are acknowledged to be given by our Creator because what God gives man can’t take away. What man gives man can take away. These are powerful – Christian – elements in the foundation of our nation.

    You seem to be more interested in numbers and more formalist evidence of Christianity.

    God always has His remnant. Whether 7,000 in Elijah’s time in Israel, or the Puritans who commonly were a small island of faith surrounded by a sea of unbelief and libertine culture and activity.

    But even seemingly non-Christian Americans are more Christian than what some stated bar would deem them to me. I think it was Emerson who said: what you are screams so loud I don’t need to hear you say what you are. I.e. put the Americans you are deeming to be no longer Christian in an environment of animism or Sharia law or the real practices (rather than the touristy or watered-down practices shown to the west) of Buddhism and Hinduism, and you will see that that American you are deeming to be no longer Christian are revealed to be Christian in their very marrow. Christian in the way we mean when we say the United States is a Christian nation.

    It’s hard to discern the medium we are living in, but it’s actually not that hard. And as stated earlier you can see that medium by the behavior of people who are dramatically in rebelllion or rejection of it.

    • David,

      The Reformed churches have always confessed a remnant theology. The question for us is where we should look for that remnant. In articles 28-29 of the Belgic Confession (1561) we confess that God has instituted a true, visible church in the world. The invisible church is to be found in the visible church, not apart from it. The remnant, in any given time, is in the visible church.

      The numbers, of course, are just estimates but they do give us some indication of what is actually happening. Are there those outside the visible church who identify with the Christian faith. Surely but it’s more difficult to count them. As I said, America does have a Christian heritage and there are ways in which the faith continues to influence people, even those who don’t believe. There is a moral capital on which even people who don’t attend church draw but I want to be careful to guard the adjective “Christian” because, in that case, there’s a lot more at stake than America. The Christian faith transcends political and national boundaries.

      I’m not criticizing our political system. I’m a big fan (see tomorrow’s post). I’m just trying to offer some historical and theological perspective. There are a lot of Americans who like to think of the USA as God’s chosen people. That’s not good history or good theology.

  6. I listen to folks like Rush, Prager, Medved, Hannity etc. I listen to them because of their politics and their protection of first amendment rights.

    I don’t give a hoot on their opinions on how they worship God. I prefer to hear from my pastor on that.

    Last night I heard Sarah Palin (and I like her as a fellow republican) misquote 2 Chron.: 7:14, and it made me cringe.

    I like Romney for many reasons (that I have previously stated here) and also the fact that he believes in protecting the first amendment rights. That is about as far as a politician should go in expressing their opinions from their called postions as government leaders.

    • Agreed Lloyd. Im a confessional American. I subscribe to our founding documents as much as possible these days. I just try to recognize the kingdoms the way the bible describes them. It seems Virgil Goode may be the only Constitutionalist on the ballot this term.

  7. “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.”

    Amen, Dr Clark!

  8. Thanks Michial –

    All of the politicians misquote the Bible to fit their agendas. I vote based on the integrity of the man, his views on the economy, and first and second amendment stuff.

    If they are solid in those areas, they usually work out pretty well.

  9. Mr. Clark,

    Can you please find me one verse in the New Testament that unequivocally says that the old testament civil laws have been abrogated by Christ?
    And I mean unequivocally. The verse has to specify that it is talking about the civil laws and not about the judaizing heresy or about just the ceremonial laws.
    I’m waiting.

    • Scott,

      You’ve set a test that the NT does not have to pass because it begins with a different set of assumptions. It deals with Moses as a unity.

      Colossians 2:14-17. The entire Mosaic period has been fulfilled and abrogated. See also the entire book of Hebrews. Matt 5:17. Jesus has fulfilled the Mosaic law. 1 Cor 9 also. See also Galatians 3-4.

      The syllogism is thus:

      1. The civil law is part of the Mosaic covenant.
      2. The Mosaic covenant is abrogated.
      3. Ergo the civil law is abrogated.

      This is not an idiosyncratic view. It’s the view of the church catholic (universal) since the 2nd century. The threefold distinction has roots in the Fathers, was expressed explicitly in the medieval period and repeated by the Reformers. Beza defended it explicitly as did Calvin.

      Calvin wrote:

      Next to the magistracy in the civil state come the laws, stoutest sinewsF975of the commonwealth, or, as Cicero, after Plato, calls them, the souls, without which the magistracy cannot stand, even as they themselves have no force apart from the magistracy. Accordingly, nothing truer could be said than that the law is a silent magistrate; the magistrate, a living law.

      But because I have undertaken to say with what laws a Christian state ought to be governed, this is no reason why anyone should expect a long discourse concerning the best kind of laws. This would be endless and would not pertain to the present purpose and place. I shall in but a few words, and as in passing, note what laws can piously be used before God, and be rightly administered among men.

      I would have preferred to pass over this matter in utter silence if I were not aware that here many dangerously go astray. For there are some who deny that a commonwealth is duly framed which neglects the political system of Moses, and is ruled by the common laws of nations. Let other men consider how perilous and seditious this notion is; it will be enough for me to have proved it false and foolish.
      We must bear in mind that common division of the whole law of God published by Moses into moral, ceremonial, and judicial laws. And we

      must consider each of these parts, that we may understand what there is in them that pertains to us, and what does not. In the meantime, let no one be concerned over the small point that ceremonial and judicial laws pertain also to morals, For the ancient writers who taught this division, although they were not ignorant that these two latter parts had some bearing upon morals, still, because these could be changed or abrogated while morals remained untouched, did not call them moral laws. They applied this name only to the first part, without which the true holiness of morals cannot stand, nor an unchangeable rule of right living.

      The moral law (to begin first with it) is contained under two heads, one of which simply commands us to worship God with pure faith and piety; the other, to embrace men with sincere affection. Accordingly, it is the true and eternal rule of righteousness, prescribed for men of all nations and times, who wish to conform their lives to God’s will. For it is his eternal and unchangeable will that he himself indeed be worshiped by us all, and that we love one another.

      The ceremonial law was the tutelage of the Jews, with which it seemed good to the Lord to train this people, as it were, in their childhood, until the fullness of time should come [<480403> Galatians 4:3-4; cf. ch. 3:23-24], in order that he might fully manifest his wisdom to the nations, and show the truth of those things which then were foreshadowed in figures.
      The judicial law, given to them for civil government, imparted certain formulas of equity and justice, by which they might live together blamelessly and peaceably (Institutes 4.20.14).

      Institutes 4.20.15 on the threefold distinction:

      The moral law (to begin first with it) is contained under two heads, one of which simply commands us to worship God with pure faith and piety; the other, to embrace men with sincere affection. Accordingly, it is the true and eternal rule of righteousness, prescribed for men of all nations and times, who wish to conform their lives to God’s will. For it is his eternal and unchangeable will that he himself indeed be worshiped by us all, and that we love one another.

      The ceremonial law was the tutelage of the Jews, with which it seemed good to the Lord to train this people, as it were, in their childhood, until the fullness of time should come [Galatians 4:3-4; cf. ch. 3:23-24], in order that he might fully manifest his wisdom to the nations, and show the truth of those things which then were foreshadowed in figures.
      The judicial law, given to them for civil government, imparted certain formulas of equity and justice, by which they might live together blamelessly and peaceably.

      Those ceremonial practices indeed properly belonged to the doctrine of piety, inasmuch as they kept the church of the Jews in service and reverence to God, and yet could be distinguished from piety itself. In like manner, the form of their judicial laws, although it had no other intent than how best to preserve that very love which is enjoined by God’s eternal law, had something distinct from that precept of love. Therefore, as ceremonial laws could be abrogated while piety remained safe and unharmed, so too, when these judicial laws were taken away, the perpetual duties and precepts of love could still remain.

      But if this is true, surely every nation is left free to make such laws as it foresees to be profitable for itself. Yet these must be in conformity to that perpetual rule of love, so that they indeed vary in form but have the same purpose. For I do not think that those barbarous and savage laws such as gave honor to thieves, permitted promiscuous intercourse, and others both more filthy and more absurd, are to be regarded as laws. For they are abhorrent not only to all justice, but also to all humanity and gentleness.

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