Until the early twentieth century, most Christians used some distinction between nature and grace, and the sacred and the secular. In the 1970s and 80s, however, American Christian fundamentalists (e.g., Jerry Falwell) began to use the adjective “secular” disparagingly. Similarly, the use of “liberal” (which once simply meant tolerant), became a term of opprobrium—it was used so widely that Bill O’Reilly inadvertently made a noun of the “the seculars,” when he seemed to mean “the secularists” (i.e., those who denied any existence of transcendent truth or reality).
Certain things belong to nature, and thus are common to (i.e., shared by) Christians and non-Christians, even if they interpret the significance of those things differently. Math would seem to be one of those things. The existence of a nation and nationalism would seem to be another. The Old (Mosaic) Covenant has been fulfilled, and with it the ceremonial and judicial laws. In 1647, the Westminster Divines, sitting at the behest of the English Parliament, adopted this language:
3. Beside this law, commonly called moral, God was pleased to give to the people of Israel, as a church under age, ceremonial laws, containing several typical ordinances, partly of worship, prefiguring Christ, his graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits; and partly, holding forth divers instructions of moral duties. All which ceremonial laws are now abrogated, under the new testament.
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 (Westminster Confession 19.3–4).
The one national people of God has, as a national people, expired. That fact, however, did not stop most Christians in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries from thinking of their nation and king as a kind of Israel and a kind of David. It also did not stop the Scots from covenanting with God as a national people, and it has not stopped Americans from thinking of America as God’s special people.
It is understandable why Christians during the Reformation and after continued to assume Christendom, the union of Church and State. After all, it had been in place since Theodosius I (AD 380). Until the formation of the United States, in 1789, it was considered unthinkable that there should not be a state religion. That was considered a fundamental part of a culture that made a nation what it was.
Christendom is a hard habit to break, but that is just what the American founders sought to do. They did not set out to establish a pagan republic, nor did they establish a Christian republic. They intended that religion should flourish in the Republic but that, after 1833 anyway, it should do so without being established by or as part of the state, without any coercion by the state.
Most Americans, even those founders who rejected it, assumed the primacy of some form of Christianity among the populace. For example, D. G. Hart has called Ben Franklin a “cultural Protestant.” That was almost certainly true of the other founders.
The vestiges of Christendom continued long after the disestablishment of the state churches in the nineteenth century. Until the mid-1970s, divorces were difficult to obtain in the USA. Homosexuality was considered not only a sin, but also a mental illness by psychiatrists as late as 1972. The removal of homosexuality from that category in the diagnostic manual used by mental health professionals was fraught with politics. Homosexual intercourse was illegal in the USA through most of the twentieth century. In 2003, in Lawrence v. Texas, The U. S. Supreme Court struck down Texas’ prohibition against sodomy. By 2015, the courts made same-sex marriage legal in all fifty states.
Until 1990, “blue laws” were in effect everywhere in America (no one seems to know exactly why they were so-called), which closely regulated what Americans could do on Sundays. In most places, shops were closed on Sundays. Liquor was closely regulated. Remember too that Methodists and others were even able to persuade Americans, from 1920–33, to support an amendment to the United States Constitution enforcing the prohibition of alcohol. The passage of the twentieth amendment illustrates the power and influence of what one writer called “evangelical Christendom” in America. Under the blue laws, there were more than a few counties in America that were “dry” (i.e., where alcohol was not allowed to be sold).
After the consequences of the Enlightenment have had time to take full effect in the Republic, today few of the elites who tend to populate positions of cultural and political influence are even culturally Protestant, let alone actually Protestant or Roman Catholic for that matter. Christianity has been marginalized. Nathan Hatch argues that America was a “Christian nation” for most of the nineteenth century, but that phase passed before the turning of the twentieth century. Today, the dominant religion is arguably what Carl Trueman calls “expressive individualism.”
Rightly or wrongly, American evangelicals, who, in 1976, elected a “born again” (Southern Baptist) President—and who, in 1979, declared themselves, “The Moral Majority”—now feel distinctly marginalized. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton, a notorious adulterer, was a Southern Baptist who attended Foundry Methodist Church during his administration, and made a show of carrying his Bible to church. Today, evangelical Christians are almost invisible in the media, elite academia, and politics.
Before and during the Clinton administration, which is not ancient history, Tipper Gore, wife of Vice President Al Gore (also Southern Baptist), publicly identified as evangelical and led a crusade again dirty lyrics in popular music. In 2023, our Roman Catholic president openly promotes the transgender movement and the LGBTQ agenda, which seeks not only acceptance, but full compliance. The time is near when Christian schools will have to choose between admitting students with federal student loans or standing by their conviction that Jerry Falwell was right when, in 1979, he said that God did not create Adam and Steve but Adam and Eve.
So, it is to be expected that we might see evangelical Christians seek to reassert some cultural influence but the rise of so-called “Christian Nationalism” might be considered counterintuitive. After all, the leaders of this movement are mostly evangelical Baptists, whose tradition has strongly affirmed the separation of church and state. They looked to the jailing of Thomas Helwys (d. 1616) by James I because of his call for the separation of church and state and to the exile of Roger Williams (d. 1683) from Massachusetts because of his call for separation.
Yet here we are. In the next installment, we will look at the recently published Statement on Christian Nationalism and the Gospel.
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- “‘Magic and Noise:’ Reformed Christianity in Sister’s America,” in eds. R. Scott Clark and Joel E. Kim Always Reformed: Essays in Honor of W. Robert Godfrey (Escondido: Westminster Seminary California, 2010), 74–91. (Apple Books version)
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