Is America a Christian Nation?

This following is a paper I wrote this spring for my History of Christianity class.

One of the ongoing debates in the American “culture wars” revolves around the question of whether or not the U.S. is a “Christian nation.” As is so often the case, the American political scene wants to reduce this to a binary choice, either yes or no. But, as John Fea points out in the preface to his Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?, the answer is not quite so simple: “Though I am skeptical of the idea that any society on this side of eternity can be truly called Christian, it does seem that a society can reflect, in a limited sense, Christian principles…” The question of whether or not the U.S. is a “Christian nation,” or whether it was founded as such, has no easy answer.

In order to critically assess the variety of ways in which one can speak of the U.S. as a Christian nation, it is helpful to attempt to answer four questions: first, is the U.S. now a Christian nation? Second, was the nation founded on religious ideals? Third, was the U.S. once united by Christian ideals? And fourth, has Christianity made the U.S. a force for good in the world? While there should be no expectation that critical engagement with these questions will provide a firm answer to our overarching question, certainly tangling with each can give us a clearer understanding of the role of Christianity in the forming and shaping of the United States and its civic arena.

The first question – is the U.S. now a Christian nation? – seems to answer itself by a simple perusal of our modern political and civic sphere. While Christians certainly do play a large, majoritarian role, there is no doubt that non-Christian voices – Jewish, Islamic, secular, and in a more limited way, Buddhist and Hindu – are present and are increasingly making themselves heard. The Pew Religious Landscapes Survey made huge waves recently with its news that people who are religiously unaffiliated had reached their highest numbers in the history of the survey. That same survey also showed growing numbers of adherents to faiths other than Christianity.

On the other hand, the fact that the Pew survey also showed that upwards of 70% of Americans still identify as Christian, in one form or another, went largely unnoticed. Additionally, it is hard to observe the public sphere of American life and not see that Christianity still has the loudest and most prominent voice out there. In 2016, 81% of white Christian evangelicals -who make up a quarter of the electorate- famously voted for Donald Trump for president, the highest support they had ever given one candidate, likely providing the winning margin.

Beyond the obvious forms of Christian civil engagement, so many American institutional ideals are forged upon a Judeo-Christian framework, much as capitalism, patriarchy, and whiteness also provide support for American institutions in many instances. Many of the so-called “Blue Laws” across the nation, restricting activities on Sundays, as well as a variety of legal prohibitions – regarding things like alcohol, drugs, sex and other “vices” – have their roots in Christian temperance and public morality movements. As Kee et al. write, “Disestablishment meant that the religious orientation of the government would be unofficial, an endorsement of Christianity in general.” It is also Christian voices who continue to oppose the women’s choice movement and LGBTQ+ equality, fights that are still successful in implementing across large swaths of the south, midwest, and mountain west. These displays of public and legal morality still shape the political discourse in much of the U.S., determining the boundaries of what is and is not acceptable. Even public holidays are shaped by Christianity: Christmas and Easter are much-longed-for time off opportunities for working Americans of all stripes, celebrated in secular forms by all but a few.

In a more positive sense, some Christians have also led the way on justice issues, especially around race and war and peace issues. As Kee et al. point out in Christianity: A Social and Cultural History, Christians played important roles in the civil rights movement, and the activism against the Vietnam war. That legacy has carried over into the 21st century, with Christians playing important roles in the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as against military involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan and other global hotspots. Christians have also led some of the response to economic stagnation in the wake of the 2009 recession, the most public form of which has been Rev. William Barber’s Moral Mondays movement.

So, is the U.S. at this time a Christian nation? The question is hard to answer, because the nation is simultaneously at a low-point in individual Christian self-identification, while also seeing Christians on both sides of the political divide driving the conversation on a variety of civic and political issues. Kee et al. quote Paul Tillich, who wrote that “religion is the substance of culture and culture is the form of religion,” an assessment that seems to fit the interplay between American civic culture and the dominant form of religion in America. The U.S. in 2018 is a place where the separation of church and state is certainly being honored more and more, where a variety of forms of religious (and non-religious) expression are increasingly a part of the national conversation; at the same time, Christianity still plays a leading role in much of the country.

Our second question, was the nation founded on religious ideals, sheds more light on the role of Christianity in the United States. Claiming that the Founders were unequivocally Christians, and that they used Christianity in writing the founding documents of the country, is a favorite claim of those who advocate for an understanding of the U.S. as always and forever a distinctly Christian nation. Yet, the historical record is much more mixed than this simplistic account.

Certainly, the Founding Fathers of the Revolutionary generation lived in a cultural milieu that was unmistakably Judeo-Christian culturally. Even for men like Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington, none of whom were overtly religious, used language like Creator and God in their writings and speeches. In writing the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson used overtly religious language, even as he personally flirted with deism. America at the time of Revolution was certainly a religious place; in the northern colonies, Congregationalists were predominant, the descendants of the Puritans; in the middle colonies, Anglicans, Quakers, and Catholics were common; and in the south, Anglicans were also prominent, but newer strains of Christianity like Baptists and Methodists were gaining power. Kee et al. point out that all these various groups of Christians played a role in the revolutionary atmosphere, whether as supporters of separation from Britain, or as loyalists to the Crown.

After the revolution, the question of church and state became a central concern of the Framers of the Constitution. In 1779, Jefferson had drawn up a bill for establishing religious liberty in his home state of Virginia. In it, he wrote into law that “no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, not shall be enforced, restrained , molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by arguments to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” This same spirit of religious toleration carried over into the drafting of the federal Constitution and its attendant Bill of Rights. Kee et al. write, “The federal Constitution, unlike most of the state constitutions, outlawed any religious test for office, did not mention the word ‘God,’ and rested authority upon ‘We the People.’ In response to complaints that the document needed a Bill of Rights, the new government passed the First Amendment: ‘Congress shall make no law establishing religion nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’”

It is hard to assess all this, and to believe that it is just coincidental, that despite the plain words written by the Founders of our nation, to then assume they all meant for the U.S. to specifically be a Christian nation. The Establishment and Free Exercises clauses were not written by mistake. While many Founders were indeed practicing Christians, and some even argued for a distinctly religious understanding of the nation, in practice, they embarked on the first grand experiment in total religious toleration by an entire nation. Culturally, the U.S. at the time of its founding was Judeo-Christian, without a doubt. But, legally speaking, religious neutrality was the rule. The later inability of many politicians and commentators to adhere this ideal does not invalidate the intent of the Founders. Surely, James Madison, the drafter of the Bill of Rights and a close friend of Thomas Jefferson, wasn’t being misunderstood when he wrote, in defense of religious freedom, “The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right.”

Our third question, was the U.S. once united by Christian ideals, is closely related to the second. This assertion takes it for granted there was once a halcyon period of Christianity in America, when all Christians were of similar opinion in matters religious and political. A cursory understanding of American history disproves this simplistic understanding of earlier Americans and their beliefs.

For instance, one only has to look at the Civil War period to see not only the intense split that occurred in American Christianity at that time, but also the preceding fissures that led to that moment, and the groundwork it laid for the divisions that persist to this day. Besides splitting the nation regionally, the war also split northern and southern Christians. For the decades between the Revolution and the Civil War, the nation was consistently split on the issues of slavery and its spread, a split that extended naturally to churches. Several denominations, including Methodists, Baptists and Presbyterians, split into northern and southern iterations during the years leading up to war, splits that persist for the latter to this day. Many Christian clergy, including Lyman Beecher, were ardent abolitionists, while some southern clergy were themselves slave owners. Following the war, and into the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, many southern churches became leaders in the efforts for segregation, while black churches, like the African Methodist Episcopal Church, became leaders in the fight for desegregation and equal rights.

Besides issues of slavery and race, the supposed unity of American Christian thought can be perceived in the attitudes of the majority to Catholic immigrants. Opposition to Irish, Italian, Eastern Europe, and Mexican Catholics arose over religious issues as much as ethnic and cultural ones. Especially in the late 19th and early 20th century, the growing presence of the Catholic church in America induced Protestants into fears that the papacy would soon be in control of the levers of democratic governance in America. These fears persisted until at least the 1960s, as it became a prominent talking point for those opposed to the election of John F. Kennedy as the first Catholic president.

Throughout these episodes of American history, a thread runs through: American Christians were anything but united, and certainly not united in setting a single cultural tone for the country. American Christianity has been marked by denominational and doctrinal divisions since the start, to say nothing of cultural and political ones that invariably seeped into churches. As Kee et al. write, “If in government the United States went ‘E Pluribus Unum’ (from one many), in religion is began with many and went to more. The idea of the U.S. as simply a Christian nation falters greatly in light of the history of disunity in American Christianity.

The final question, has Christianity made America a force for good in the world, puts a sharp point on the question of whether or not the U.S. is a Christian nation. In fact, a variety of episodes in American history should make those who proclaim to follow the words and example of Jesus Christ and his message of love want to disassociate the faith with the U.S. For instance, the already-cited example of slavery is a culture-defining institution in American history that is surely as un-Christian as any can be, despite the best efforts of antebellum southern clergy to associate the two. American history is in accordance with the history of any imperial nation, and is thus full of moments of violence, imperialism, war, injustice and human suffering. Whether one looks to the continued legacy of racism, the propensity for the U.S. to initiate preemptive wars and military actions overseas that result in the suffering and deaths of millions of innocents, or the nation’s addiction to guns and violence in the culture, there are a variety of episodes that disprove any notion of the U.S. as Christian in the sense of Jesus (although it could certainly be said to perfectly embody Constantinian Christianity.)

This is not to discount the many good aspects of the U.S., or the variety of positive moments and influences it has had. The U.S. has long been the leading voice for democracy and liberty in the world, if not always in action, at least in word. It has been a leading pioneer in medical advances and the eradication of a variety of diseases around the world, in addition to raising the level of wealth in the world to unprecedented levels (even if that wealth has often failed to trickle down to the world’s neediest.) None of this is deniable, but neither is any of it explicitly Christian, or uniquely rooted in the Christian witness. America did not become a beacon for democracy because of Scripture; instead, democracy in America arose from Enlightenment ideals, many of them rooted in secularism. The rise of technology and improvement of living conditions around the world as a result of innovation are certainly in line with Christian social thinking, but the impetus for this achievement in America was the capitalist ethic, an institution that, despite its great achievements, has also proved itself extremely limited in bringing about just outcomes for the majority of world citizens. Christianity is about more than positive social outcomes, even if some on the far Christian left have reduced it to just that. As Dr. Richard Beck has pointed out, “Cruciform, self-donating love is way, way more than liberal tolerance.”

So, is the U.S. a Christian nation? In the wake of our critical look at the four important questions that make up this query, the answer is still not firmly yes or no. Institutionally, in the sense of establishment, the question is easily no. America was not founded as a Christian nation. Our founders were not writing from a place of Christian witness when they formed our civic sphere. Christians in the U.S. have a long history of disunity and the inability to agree on almost anything, making their ability to claim the U.S. as just Christian nonsensical, just as much as calling it a “Baptist nation” or a “Presbyterian nation” would be.

On the other hand, there is no denying the dominant role Christianity, in its broadest sense, has shaped American culture, both for good and bad. Christians of all different stripes have played central roles in American history, and many have tried to impose their worldview on the nation as a whole. Luckily for us, they failed, but not for a lack of trying. Especially when it comes to the worst instincts of many Christians with regards to worldly power, it is easy to see the influence in the political sphere. America is not a Christian nation, but it has long been gripped by a dominant Judeo-Christian culture, one that is slowly being loosened, against the ardent efforts of those who still insist we are, and always have been, distinctly and solely Christian.

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The Partial Success of the Protestant Reformation

This following is a paper I wrote this spring for my History of Christianity class.

The Protestant Reformation is largely understood today as the work of theologians and priests. These religious actos rethought the tenets of Christianity, and envisioned a new way of being the Church, and the process, radically reshaped religious thought and practice in Europe. These theologians and priests weren’t the only leaders of change, however. Kings, queens, emperor, and courtiers also played a large role in the Reformation, and their contributions drove the Reformation to also be movement of political change in Europe. The various wings of the Reformation were all generally successful in forming new ideas on theological and ecclesial matters, and even in forcing the Catholic church to examine itself and make significant changes. However, across Europe, all of the major Reformation movements were eventually co-opted by political interests, and put to work in service of the ongoing wranglings of monarchs and nations. Thus, the Reformation should be viewed as only partly successful: it certainly forced religious reform across Europe, but it failed to make life appreciably, materially better for millions of regular people.

The Late Middle Ages, the time in which the Reformation began, was a time of crisis and struggle for Europe. Ward Holder writes, “These crises were not all religious, but the minds of the people at that time tended to see things religiously.” The Black Death was the primary driver of angst through the 13th and 14th centuries, although drought, plagues, severe winters, and the threat of Islamic invasion also plunged people into insecurity and fear. All these threats challenged what Holder calls the “medieval imagination,” causing people to attribute the troubles to God’s wrath, and more importantly, bringing questions of eternity and salvation to the forefront of people’s minds. “Death seems never to have been more realistically considered than in this era and hardly ever so anxiously feared.”

The idea of purgatory sprung up at this time. Purgatory, in Catholic theology, “was a place reserved for those Christian believers who had failed to make full satisfaction for their sinning during the span of their lives.” People began looking for ways to limit the purgatorial work their souls would have to do after death, and also to lessen the burden of their own loved ones in Purgatory. One way the church proposed to address this was via the selling of indulgences. Indulgences served purportedly to release souls from purgatory, but more temporally, they filled the coffers of the Catholic church, and of its clerics. Indulgences were merely one form of corruption people perceived among their clergy, along with simony, adultery, and absenteeism.

The leading edge of the Reformation was in Germany, led by the monk Martin Luther. Luther, in response to the growing indulgence trade, began to question vital church doctrine. His 95 Theses addressed a variety of theological claims, including his assertion that salvation occurred through faith, not works. Denounced by the pope, Luther refused to recant and eventually become more strident in his denunciations of ecclesial hierarchy and corruption.

In Geneva, John Calvin was the other major figure of the Protestant Reformation. Drawing on humanism and the works of Luther, Calvin issued his Institutes of the Christian Religion, which critiqued traditional theology and ecclesiology in a variety of ways. In Geneva, Calvin was pressured to lead the city as a center of the Reformation. Initially reluctant, Calvin eventually accepted the role, and despite a brief exile, he transformed the city into his image of a Christian city-state, ruled by his firm theological and ethical standards.

Two other major movements characterized the Reformation. In England, King Henry VIII initiated a break with Rome due to his desire for an annulment in his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. After the pope refused (due as much to political considerations as theological), Henry declared himself the head of the church in England. Religious reformers, led by Lord Chancellor Thomas More, seized the opportunity to bring Reformation ideas to England. Although Henry never officially broke with Catholic theology (his Six Articles largely maintained the historical positions of the Church), after his death, the Reformers successfully pushed the child-king Edward VI to embrace Protestantism. Edward died after a short stint as king, and Mary Tudor tried to return England to Catholicism, before her sister Elizabeth I took the throne and reasserted a preference for Protestantism. However, Elizabeth understood the international political implications of the tensions between Catholics and Protestants, and took a policy of appeasement towards English Catholics.

The final major section of the Reformation were the Anabaptists. Arising variously from Bohemia, Moravia, the Swiss cantons, and the Netherlands, Anabaptists clashed theologically with both Catholics and Protestants, and suffered persecution at the hands of both. Anabaptist embraced a theology and ecclesiology far more radical even than the Protestants, proclaiming absolute pacifism, adult baptism, and a separation from worldly affairs. Christians on all sides saw these ideas as dangerous to church and state political arrangements, and consequently suppressed Anabaptists. When Anabaptist reformers finally gained a measure of power, in Munster, they subsequently sank the city into chaos and carnage, causing later Anabaptists to shrink away from the affairs of the state.

The success of Protestant Reformers in seizing the public imagination and providing people with visions of a better society was seen with political leaders as an opportunity to advance their own goals. Consequently, in the years after the initial Reformation movement, the theological and ecclesial goals of the Reformers were subsumed under the political goals of various monarchs and emperors. For the vast majority of common people, this meant that their subsistence form of living was never transformed in any meaningful way, but was instead transferred from one liege to another.

Lutheran shortcomings became evident during the life of Luther himself. Luther himself advocated a strict separation between political and church leadership, but advocated for positive political reform, including “efforts to improve education, social welfare, and the political process.” However, during the Peasants’ War, in 1525, Luther took the side of German princes against peasants who called for political reform to give them more rights and privileges. Luther called on princes to meet the demands of the peasants, but when they failed to do so and the peasants rebelled, Luther called for a violent crackdown on the peasants in his Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants.

In Geneva, Calvin also took part in political repression. Driven by his dogmatic belief in church discipline, Calvin used the Consistory, which at times under Calvin became a “moral reign of terror.” Calvin viewed violations of his city rules severely, liberally employing exile and execution against those who stepped out of line.

The English Reformation was tied up in political affairs and monarchical politics from the beginning, with the marriage wishes of Henry VIII being the original precipitating event of reform. As power swung between Protestants and Catholics under his various children’s’ reins, people on both sides of the divide suffered. Most crucially, unlike Luther and Calvin, no form of social reform became a part of the English Reformation. Aside from various changes within church practice and structure, in fact, many English peasants and commoners surely would never have seen much difference in their lives no matter which faction controlled the throne. Whether Protestant or Catholic, the monarchy still ruled and life was still largely bleak and precarious. Social justice of any type was never considered.

Finally, the debacle at Munster showed the limits of social reform in the name of Christianity. Anabaptist leaders instituted radical social change in Munster:

“The property of the expelled citizens was confiscated; food was made public property; real property was declared to be common, although people could continue using what was theirs, with the stipulation that all house doors had to be kept open day and night; the use of money was outlawed; and twelve elders were appointed to oversee the stockpiling of goods and their distribution to the needy.”

Despite all this, political repression was used against Munster citizens who objected to the rule of the Anabaptist leaders, including exile and execution. The Munster experiment was unable to sustain itself against attack by Protestant and Catholic armies, the city eventually fell. Later Anabaptist reformers rejected the attempt to spread their radical view of society very wide, instead choosing separation and distance from the dominant culture.

Overall, Protestantism became an arm of monarchical intrigue at large in Europe. Nations began aligning along Catholic and Protestant lines, creating vast tensions between states representing each faction. Catholic nations like France, Spain, and Portugal, along with the Papal States and the Holy Roman Emperor, clashed with England, German princes, the Dutch and the Swiss. Wars of religion, such the Thirty Years War, killed thousands. Repression and disregard for the masses of people flourished just as much among Protestant leaders as Catholic ones.

Through all four of these loci of Reformation, the good of theological and ecclesial reforms never translated to social reform for the vast majority of people. Consequently, the result of the Protestant Reformation can be viewed only as a partial success. It certainly succeeded in reforming theological and ecclesial thought, especially around the role of the clergy, the nature of the Lord’s Supper, the approach to various forms of corruption, and the relation of the church and the state. However, it failed to embody the justice and mercy of Christ any better than Catholics had done. Crucially, other than in a few Anabaptist outposts, the identification of Christianity with the state continued unabated as it had since the time of Constantine. The focus and emphasis remained on obedience to authority, rather than the bettering of the lives of human beings. In this sense, the Reformation was a failure.

Certainly, none of this was ever a stated goal of reform, and actors who lived hundreds of years before the era of human rights cannot be held to the same moral standard as modernity. But the precepts of Christianity, as laid out in Scripture, are regard for human life, a desire for justice, and a preference for mercy and forgiveness over obedience and punishment. Surely, the failure of Protestant reformers to seize on any of these themes, rather than merely the nature of the Host or the debate between faith and works, is glaring and damning. The Protestant Reformation, then, can fairly be called a partial success for the advancement of human civilization.

We Must Do Better

The bankruptcy of popular Christianity in America is on full display. The plight of immigrant children, ripped from their parents and housed in cages in camps and warehouses, is heartbreaking, and a new national low in the Trump era. This, we tell ourselves, is not what the self-crowned greatest country in the world does to anyone, much less refugees.

Amy-MissingChildrenPerhaps worst of all, to those of us who identify as Christian and care about the future of the faith, is Attorney General Jeff Sessions defending the policy as “biblical,” by citing the much misused and maligned chapter 13 from Romans, a set of verses often seized upon by those in power to justify whatever immoral and evil actions they are taking at the time. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, daughter of evangelical loud mouth and hyper moralizer Mike Huckabee, repeated the claim. And one only has to glance quickly at Facebook or Twitter to see self-proclaimed conservative Christians claiming that they care about children and families, but laws are laws and must always be enforced, no matter the outcome. All of this, after almost two years of full-throated evangelical support for every action of Trump, and almost 40 years of co-option of the Christian mantle by the Republican Party.

Christianity has to be better than this. It simply has to be about more than moralizing and conservative politics. But, even more crucially, it has to be seen as something worthy of loyalty, something life giving, something that has outcomes that are full of love and compassion, not cruelty.

This is the call of all religion, and the reason it is dying in the world today. Too much of religion in this world – whether it be Christian, or Jewish, or Muslim, or anything else – presents a face to the world that is small, and cruel, and intolerant. Millions of people across the globe no longer see religion as something worthy of their time, because it so often doesn’t seem like something relevant to this world, in 2018.35750760_10211566573669719_8473202165488287744_o

In the case of Christianity, it so often seems concerned with a salvation mechanism formulated in a pre-scientific, pre-rational age, something that just doesn’t make sense to people anymore. It rejects a broader and broader swathe of people everyday. It seems stifling and deadening and angry.

Christianity doesn’t just exist to work as personal fire insurance, in which you save yourself and God take the rest. It has to be more than that if it is going to be worth anything at all.

A belief in God has to serve as more than that of an anxiety-inducing apprehension of a condemnatory old man in the sky. Christianity should point us towards the things God is, which is love and mercy and compassion. Everything else Christianity does – communion, baptism, theology, ethics, orthodoxy, the church – must direct people to life, to love, and to care for others.

For too many Christians here, their faith is nothing but a personal salvation machine, a set of rules that each individual is responsible for following. If they don’t, that’s on them, and them alone, and they deserve whatever consequences God deems appropriate. God, in this conception of faith, is cruel and capricious.

But faith is not this. Faith is about knowing and desiring God, knowing and desiring love. It’s an attitude, one that should transform us. Love should always be recognizable as love. If it takes squinting and convoluted reasoning to justify your actions as some form of love, then you are doing faith all wrong.

This is why the child separation policy in America is so anti-Christian. It is a policy conceived in cruelty and fear. It places following the rules and bowing to authority over love and mercy and compassion. Any human law is never more important than actual human beings. God’s justice for the oppressed and the downtrodden always take precedence.

The first Epistle of John states, unequivocally, that “God is love,” and that “love drives out all fear.” Fear and despair are not the fruits of love. They are the fruits of evil. This policy of separation and internment produces fear. It goes against God, and it goes against humanity. It is evil. Those who formulated it, who enforce it, and who defend it, are practicing evil. They are putting loyalty to the arbitrary idea of “America” before God, and before their fellow human beings. It must be ignored and replaced. We must, as Christians and as people, do better.