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 Bookshelf: Believe Me

Of all the confounding and frustrating things that the Donald Trump era has brought us, one of the most perplexing to me has been the embrace of a shallow, insecure, and immoral businessman from New York City by white American Christians. Donald Trump, to the eyes of this aspiring theologian, is the antithesis of everything I know Christianity to be: cruel rather than compassionate, brash rather than reserved, egocentric rather than humble, incapable of introspection, or forgiveness, or self-restraint.

35224850_10216116132396646_2037149979729985536_oThis isn’t arm chair psychology, either; one merely has to watch him for five or ten minutes in almost any setting (or, even, just peruse his Twitter feed) to see that this is a person who is pure, undiluted Id, who rarely looks inward or even takes time to think things through, and who certainly rarely, if ever, thinks of others first.

Most frustrating of all to me, is that I have family members, people who are good, Christian people, full of love and grace and compassion and intelligence, who are ardent Trump supporters, or at the least, defenders of him, the party he leads, and the conservative movement that birthed him. It baffles me, how God-fearing men and women, who were so offended by the Clinton scandals, who have for so long fought so hard for family values and public decency, could make such a hard turn and support Donald J. Trump to lead our country, and, even more shockingly, to praise him as some kind of exemplar of everything they believe.

John Fea, professor of history of Messiah College, has been grappling with this same conundrum at his blog, The Way of Improvement Leads Homesince Trump burst onto the national political scene several years ago. Fea himself is a self-described evangelical Christian. Having read his blog daily for almost three years now, I can safely say he is a true moderate in every sense of the word, someone who never seems, in writing at least, to swing too far left or right from his center, but who doggedly sticks to his moral foundation that is rooted in Christianity. On his blog, you will find posts praising Barack Obama for showcasing a singularly Christian attitude during his presidency, side by side with posts condemning abortion in unequivocal terms and pushing back against the kind of secularism embodied by Bernie Sanders and the progressive movement. He always approaches these issues from the dual lenses of his evangelical beliefs, and his knowledge of American history. If you aren’t a regular reader of his blog, well, you should be.

All of that is to say, Fea is uniquely placed to think and write about the phenomena that is American evangelicalism’s rabid support for Donald Trump. And, he has done just that, in his newest book, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. In this book, Fea traces the history of American evangelicalism, and the apocalyptic fear it has always carried around, to the current situation it finds itself in, where its numbers are rapidly shrinking and its influence on the cultural conversation has diminished to the point that the need is felt to throw the weight of the movement behind a thrice-married, openly admitted adulterer and reality TV star. Its the kind of move that reeks of death throes and desperation, and that becomes clear in the pages of Believe Me.

Fea unequivocally points to existential fear as the driving force behind American evangelicalism today. The opening sentence of a chapter entitled “A Short History of Evangelical Fear,” reads,

“Despite the biblical passages exhorting followers of Christ to ‘fear not,’ it is possible to write an entire history of American evangelicalism as the story of Christians who failed to overcome fear.”

Fea traces the history of evangelical fear all the way from Puritan fears of witches and Native Americans, to fears of deism and secularism in the earliest years of the republic, through 19th century fears of Catholics and southern and eastern European immigrants, to post-bellum fears of freed and empowered blacks, right up to today’s fears of immigrants who look different and speak different languages, incomprehensible terrorists who seem to want to burn everything down, and secular leftists who want to drive Christians from the political and social realm.

Of course, fear either leads to fight or flight in human beings, and Fea shows how evangelicals very quickly realized that fighting was the only way to combat what they saw as an increasingly terrifying world. Evangelical theology was subsequently built on top of this fear and the drive to fight back, rather than the other way around. In the process, evangelical ideals were sidelined and put to use to serve the needs of a conservative movement that was reeling in the Seventies in the wake of Watergate and Supreme Court rulings that took away prayer in schools, segregation, and religious iconography in public places. Fear is a powerful motivator in democratic politics, and the Republican Party has learned well over the last forty years how to exploit the existential fear, and the desperate fighting instinct of a cornered animal, to win elections.

Donald Trump is but the culmination of this decision, something that becomes clear through Fea’s book. This is perhaps the most important work Fea does here, showing that Trump is not a one-off phenomanah or abberation, but instead, is the logical conclusion of a conservative evangelicalism that is built on a foundation of sand. Donald Trump figured out to most potent way to harness the fear of evangelical voters, by promising to take them back to some mythical past, when all was right in the world and evangelicals ruled America. Fea exposes this nostalgia, exemplified by the Trump campaign slogan “Make America Great Again,” for the sham it is, in a powerful section where he runs through the eras evoked by Trump as times of American “greatness,” and reveals instead they were also times of upheaval, racism, genocide – in short, times in which, yes, a few white people may have been doing well, but times in which the great many, including people of color, were oppressed and injustice was done. As he writes,

“For too many who have been the objects of white evangelical fear, real American greatness is still something to be hoped for – not something to be recovered from an imagined past.”

Fea ends the book with a powerful call for a rethinking of American evangelicalism in its public engagement. Instead of fear, he calls readers back to the Christian value of hope; instead of the pursuit of worldly power, he prescribes the Christ-like attitude of humility; and instead of a nostalgic but ultimately false view of the past, he encourages an honest view of history, warts and all. Ultimately, he writes,

“Evangelicals can do better that Donald Trump…Too many of its leaders (and their followers have traded their Christian witness for a mess of political pottage and a few federal judges.”

Amen. Its amazing to realize how small and uninspired the worldview of so many evangelicals has become. Reading Fea’s book is to walk through the process of how we got here, to a place where so many Christians can imagine little more from their public witness than a few crumbs in the form of federal judges and harsh words about abortion, immigrants, and political correctness.

The last two years have been profoundly disorienting, for our nation, and for those who call themselves Christians. How did we get to this place, where so many millions of our brothers and sisters in Christ have spurred the values we thought they held so dear, and embraced a brand of politics so ultimately divisive and unChristian? If you, like me, have been struggling with this question, then I can’t recommend Dr. Fea’s book enough. The answers we need in the fight to reclaim a public Christianity that looks like the form of faith we see embodied in the example of Christ are rooted in understanding our past. Believe Me explains that past clearly, and in doing so, claims an important place in the conversation about the future of Christianity in America.

Believe Me comes out June 28. You can find more info and pre-order here.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Eerdmans Publishing Company. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commissions’ 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

The Theological Bankruptcy of American Evangelicals (as explained by Tony Perkins)

John Fea, who writes the excellent They Way of Improvement Leads Home blog (are you reading it? You should be reading it), wrote a recent Washington Post Op-Ed titled “Trump threatens to change the course of American Christianity.” The excellent piece ruminates on Trump’s relationship with his “court evangelicals,” as Fea as labeled them, the small group of celebrity-evangelicals who have attached themselves to the president and who hover about the White House waiting for photo ops in the seat of power (people like Jerry Falwell Jr, Robert Jeffress, and Paula White, among others.) The mock title derives itself from the courtiers who were always to be found around the throne of medieval monarchs, always ready for scraps from the royal table and sycophantic approval of all the king’s words and deeds, no matter how immoral they may be. I highly encourage you to read the op-ed.

“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.”

Fea draws attention to a response written by Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council (himself a court evangelical.) Perkins obviously takes great umbrage at Fea’s piece. He references another op-ed by Fea, from 2012, in which Fea explores the deeply Christian language President Obama used. (For more on the Christian nature of the Obama presidency, I strongly encourage this piece by John Pavlovitz.)

Perkins isn’t convinced, and uses this opportunity to both slam Obama again, and also defend the supposed spirituality of Donald J. Trump. In doing so, he shines a clear light on the moral bankruptcy of much of American evangelicalism (something I touched on Wednesday in my MAGA piece.)

Here is Perkins:

For the last 50 years, [Fea] argues, “evangelicals have sought to influence the direction of the country and its laws through politics. But Trump has forced them to embrace a pragmatism that could damage the gospel around the world and force many Christians to rethink their religious identities and affiliations.” Fea insists that Trump has done little for evangelicals, a charge hardly substantiated by the strides the White House has made on our pro-life and religious liberty agendas. But Fea measures Trump’s sincerity on a different scale: how often he attends church. No wonder he once called Barack Obama “the most explicitly Christian president in American history.” In a column from 2012, he made the staggering claim that the most pro-abortion, anti-faith president to ever occupy the Oval Office was also the most pious.

Perkins himself reinforces a point I make often about so much of American Christianity: it can be boiled down to exactly two facets: opposition to abortion, and opposition to LGBT equality. For the court evangelicals, and for the millions of people who follow them, this is the sum total of what being a Christian in America looks like in 2017. As long as you oppose abortion and oppose gay marriage, you can brag about sexually assaulting women, show a profound lack of knowledge about Scripture, and govern in a way that not just neglects the needy, but goes out of its way to actively do harm to them. Actual beliefs about God or Jesus are beside the point; hence the growing evangelical-Catholic alliance.

Public practice of Christianity doesn’t include any theological grounding, nor does it include traditional forms of Christian social action, such as missions, or care for the indigent. The only public form of Christian action that matters is woman shaming in front of Planned Parenthood, and protests at the Supreme Court anytime they hear a case concerning the LGBT community.

The proof is in the numbers: on Election Day 2016, 81% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, despite his clear indifference to faith, his hateful and disgusting comments about just about every group in America outside of straight, white men, and his overwhelming greed and hunger for power. This from the same group of Christians who had a collective aneurysm over the moral shortcomings of Bill Clinton just 20 short years ago.

The court evangelicals are the logical outcome of an evangelical movement that has prostituted itself out to right-wing political power. The evangelical movement has simply become a church-based stamp of approval for whatever regressive piece of public policy or proclamation of hate speech emanates from the conservative movement this week. As long as a politician promises to fight anti-discrimination measures and roll back Roe v. Wade, they will get the evangelical endorsement and can go to Washington to roll back taxes and take away health care and demonize poor people and minorities as much as they like. Empire and power are the means they see to God’s kingdom, rather than the way of love and weakness shown by Jesus. And by God’s kingdom, they just mean a world with no abortion and no gays. Everything else is a sideshow.

But don’t take my word for it. Just ask Tony Perkins.

 

P.S. I’ve said a lot here, and in the past, about what Christianity isn’t. But if it’s not all these things, you may ask, then what do I think it is? Glad you asked: I’ll be writing a series on that soon!