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Should America Be Referred to as a "Christian Nation"?

I reposted the poll below, because I wanted to discuss the question: “From the perspective of perception, should American be called a “Christian Nation”?” You can see by the results that most readers still feel this way. But I’m going to rile a few people up when I say that thinking is going to change in the future. I believe with the changes happening out there on the faith and culture fronts, this question should cause us to re-think this premise in the church. A good resource for this is the controversial book by Greg Boyd: “The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church.” Whichever direction you go on the issue, I think this may be one of the most critical points right now for reaching this culture – especially through media.

Barna Group researcher David Kinnaman and I spoke together at a Campus Crusade event in Canada just a week ago. In his new book “UnChristian” – he puts it this way: “It is clear that Christians are primarily perceived for what they stand against. We have become famous for what we oppose, rather than what we are for.” Clearly, that’s about power. In fact, in David’s survey of the non-Christian population, he found that 75% answered “A lot or some” when asked if Christians were too involved in politics. 46% answered “A lot.” That doesn’t mean Christians shouldn’t be involved in politics, and that we shouldn’t have a voice in the public square. It means that the majority of non-Christians have come to believe that Christianity is about a political agenda, and they believe we are allied primarily with conservative causes and issues. Today, conservative Christians are often considered right-wingers. And that has become a huge stumbling block keeping people from seriously considering the Christian faith.

The point is, does video of fighter planes and battle scenes during the Sunday service on July 4th make a positive impression or negative impression of our faith for non-believers? After all, shouldn’t Christianity transcend earthly government? Doesn’t our father’s business rise above any country, governmental system, or allegiance?

Let me make a few statements and get your reaction:

First of all, as Richard Land, President of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission said in Christianity Today magazine, “We’re not going to convince anyone in America to give Christianity a privileged position.” Those days are past. We need to give up the “Take American back” stuff. Too many churches and ministries long for the picket fences of the 40’s and 50’s and they’re wasting time dreaming. America isn’t going back. We need answers for the America that exists today.

Second, being founded predominantly by Christians, doesn’t make us a Christian nation. I’m the first to agree that you’d have to be a bit loony to miss that the founders had a Christian worldview. Some weren’t exactly orthodox Christians, and some were Deists, but few didn’t have a belief that at least included a Creator. The founding documents are full of religious language. I believe we were founded on the principles taught in the Bible. But to extend that to make us a “Christian Nation” is a stretch.

Third, (and this is my biggest issue) what does it do for us? So what? How does it help? What happens to the perception of Christianity in other countries when we tie it to America? They simply assume that Christianity means the same thing as rabid consumerism, wealth, pornography, and all the other negative things they see coming out of this country. How does that help our missions efforts? Better that we give the impression that America may be a great country, but Christianity is something far superior. That it’s something that transcends anything government has to offer. That way, whatever mistake this country may make in the global arena, doesn’t hurt our efforts to share the gospel with the nations.

Last – are we guilty of as Boyd suggests, nationalistic idolatry? Do we try way too hard to equate the church and the state? Does raising millions of dollars to promote legislation to allow prayers before high school football games help change the culture for the Kingdom of God? Are our priorities straight here?

One of the great political eras was what was called “Christian Europe” or “Christendom.” Christianity was the civil religion for a very long time throughout Europe. But look where they are today. Just because Christianity became the legal power broker throughout Europe, it certainly didn’t seem to win the hearts of the people over the long term. Today, thousands of great cathedrals throughout the continent sit virtually empty.

This isn’t meant to be a discussion about political parties or activism. I vote, and I encourage others to do so. I love this country. If you follow my writing, then you’ve seen my columns on how we should raise our voice as people of faith in the public square. But when it comes to reaching this culture – especially through media – I really think the power politics of the Christian community have come to an end. When people look back on the lives of the last generation of church and ministry leaders who were involved in massive legislative issues, I worry that it’s created a perception that’s hurt us more than helped us.

I’d love to hear your thoughts, because I believe this is a snowball that’s building. Let’s see where the conversation goes…

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8 Comments

  1. Quote: "What happens to the perception of Christianity in other countries when we tie it to America? They simply assume that Christianity means the same thing as rabid consumerism, wealth, pornography, and all the other negative things they see coming out of this country. How does that help our missions efforts?"

    That's an interesting question. And it points out a strange paradox.

    On one hand, since I live in America, I am ipso facto despised. Understandably though, for America is associated with Hegemonism, gun-happy military adventurism, global corporationist greed and exploitation, environmental destruction, and a host of other nasty things too many to enumerate here (not to mention Geo. Dubya Bush).

    On the other hand, I write the checks that help fund through my church things like a missionary doctor and his family who live on a hospital ship that travels up and down the coast of Africa providing medical care. And then there is an orphanage and school in South Africa, we help to support. And this is just a partial list.

    So, on one hand, people overseas hate me but on the other they love the money I send overseas. It's kind of like being a devil and an angel both at the same time.

    I don't want to complain too much, but sometimes I feel very ambivalent, being in this predicament. But I guess it's a tad better for me if people overseas would disassociated Xnty from America.

  2. I agree Phil. Particularly with the "prayer before the football game" statement. Sure, they could legislate it, but a spiritually dead teenager isn't gonna care either way. However, give those same jocks a real taste of Jesus… They'll be praying in the locker-room, on the buses, walking to the game, sitting on the bench, before school, after school… indeed, revival should not be legislated. It's like "Prohibition", look what that did to our nation (all good intentions noted), compare that to when the Great Awakening hit our nation in the 1800's. The heavy-drinkers turned to Christ, and the bars began to close. The writers of Prohibition would have been more successful had they prayed for and sought revival.  

  3. Phil,

    This is a very interesting entry to me, as I am one of the higher ranked reviewers at Amazon.com and participate in a Discussion Board with other reviewers in which some of these themes are often discussed, often in the light of the current atheist "resurgance" represented by authors such as Dawkins, Dennet and Harris.  I think much of their rise in popularity can in part be attributed as a reaction to the Christian political activism you note.

    As one who was raised as an evangelical Christian in Christian Schools and Universities, I came out as a young man very much in line with the "evangelical party line" the views the US as a Christian Nation and by which much of the predominant political activism of the past few decades has been raised.

    It is a very controversial field of study to be sure but after being beat about the head and shoulders for years by those who challenged my learned platitudes and arsenal of quotes to prove the point I was trained to accept, I finally got frustrated enough to do something radical.  I put aside the secondary sources and started reading the original writings of the founders including their correspondence and I came to learn that while as much clouding amd distortion goes on in the other direction, much of what I learned and taught was not wholly accurate.

    There's no question that the heritage of this nation is primarily Christian, although that definition of "Chritian" is much broader then simple trinitarian evangelicalism.

    That said, I believe today's Christian Political activism is not particularly well examined.  As I look at it, a great deal of it ties into Post-Millenialism where the idea is that the Church will create a golden age that will usher in the return of Christ.  What is ironic to me is that most of the Evangelical Christians who have been drawn into the current activism are pre-millenial and doctrinally are of a mind that the world and its systems are going to decline and it is Christ who by his return will establish his Kingdom on Earth, not the Church.  Yet, there is more emphasis put into obtaining political power rather than evangelism and reaching people's hearts.

    I think this is a very important issue and that the Church is entering a time of examination as to the fruits of primary allegience with one political party.   

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