Saturday, November 13, 2004

America is a ________ Nation

I have a friend who is fond of saying that America is a Christian nation; I have to confess that I don't know what he means.That's not just a rhetorical ploy: I think that the phrase is so overused, so general, and so thoughtlessly invoked to support one cause or another, that it is in fact unclear to me just what people mean they use it. It could mean:
Continue reading America is a ________ Nation

1) The majority of American citizens are actually Christian. This is the most straightforward meaning, and also has the virtue of being (more or less) verifiable. One could do a poll and discover that (say) 85% of Americans can recite the Apostles' Creed without flinching. But while this meaning is verifiable, it also has the disadvantage of being useless: what, precisely, follows from the fact that most American citizens are Christian? It is also verifiable that a majority of American citizens are female. Does that mean that all true Americans are actually female, or at least willing to allow females to set the national agenda, and get out of their way when they seek to make policy that affects all of us? If it is not true for females, why do we Christians feel differently? I suspect it is because we (or at least some of us) subscribe to a different sense of America being Christian than this one. Maybe it is:

2) Historically, the institutions of America were set up by Christians and were based on (Judeo-?) Christian principles. Again, we seem to be on relatively safe ground (although not as safe as #1). We can easily do a historical survey and find that a large number of the major figures in the founding of our nation were Christians of one stripe or another, mostly either evangelicals or unitarians. Of course, if we want to be really precise, we should say that America is a Protestant (and then either evangelical and rationalist) nation, for Roman Catholicism was seen as an unwelcome outside influence. Roman Catholics have struggled mightily for quite some time to show that they are true-blue Americans, think of the suspicions surrounding John F. Kennedy. They have come quite a ways, though, as the criticism by many of John F. Kerry was not that he was too closely aligned with the pope, but that he wasn't close enough. I also think it is significant that the Protestants who were most influential in the founding of America (evangelical, rationalist) had almost no sense of the church as a visible embodiment of the Kingdom. American evangelicals of either the reformed or pietist varieties have typically seen the church as a voluntary collection of believers. Rationalists were usually concerned with doing one's duty and living a good life; the church for them was more about making decent, respectable citizens than making saints. The Transcendentalists who inherited a good bit of the rationalist establishment had even less use for the church, seeing it as primarily an unwelcome accretion of hoary tradition which should be stripped away to find the "true religion of man". (I admit, the foregoing was an oversimplification; but this is a blog, not a monograph, and I will stand by them as substantially correct) All of which is to say that the institutions of America were set up by certain kinds of Christians, who were themselves products of certain historically specific conflicts. So at any rate, those who hold to this second version need to 'fess up that it is not a Christian nation, broadly construed, but a certain kind of Christian nation, and there might be certain other Christians who would not be at home here (much less Muslims, Buddhists, or atheists). But in the end we shouldn't be distracted into qualifying the claim in this way, because it is really a problem of description versus prescription: just because thus and such was (descriptively) the case at the founding of the nation, it does not lead to thus and such needing to be the case here and now. For example, the founders of the nation were also propertied white males, and yet today we extend the franchise to the poor, to people of other races and ethnicities, and to women without a thought. (Granted it took awhile, but we eventually made those changes and found that we were still Americans afterward.) It could, of course, be the case that America is by definition Christian, as perhaps one might suggest it is by definition egalitarian. In that sense, a prescription (America should be Christian) might follow from a description (America was founded by Christians). But that is not meaning number 2, it's meaning numbers 3 and 4:

3) It was the intention of the founders of America that we be a Christian nation. This is rather more difficult to establish, and even if one could establish it, it still isn't clear what follows from it. For example, it could be shown that the founders also intended that only propertied white males be able to vote -- but again, we have extended the franchise (and confounded the founders' intentions) with little or no problem. The same would hold true of their intentions vis-a-vis religion.

So far, we have looked at the following justifications for America being called a Christian nation: Most Americans are Christians, The nation was founded by Christians, The nation was founded by Christians who intended it to be a Christian nation. None of these seem persuasive, but there is one more meaning of the phrase "America is a Christian nation" which I suspect many actually hold, perhaps with some measure of bad conscience:

4) America is a Christian nation because it is God's elect nation. In this version, America has been given by God a role analogous to Israel in the Old Testament, as God's chosen instrument. America bestows and spreads God's gifts throughout the world: freedom, liberty, consumer goods, true religion. This very sense of America as elect nation has crept into our president's rhetoric about war, but he is only the most recent proponent of a longstanding American tradition. (It is also a longstanding British tradition: they did it before us, and, frankly, they did it better, though no more convincingly. They also have the benefit of having ceased this rhetoric for the most part.) The Puritans' sense of the nation being a "shining beacon on a hill" has often been enlisted in this cause, although I think it is usually misunderstood by those who so use it. Quite often, this sense of America as an elect nation owes much more to civil religion than to anything demonstrably Christian, and there's a reason for that: no such claim can be supported from the Bible, tradition, or theological reason. It is, perhaps, gnostic, a claim to a secret revelation, a secret knowledge about God's call, God's plan for the world, and the nature of this nation. Such a claim usurps the role of the actual political body which is analogous (if not quite superseding) to Israel in the Old Testament: the church, the chosen saints of God salted throughout the nations of the world. Because of this, such a claim is damnable idolatry and should be renounced by any self-respecting Christian.

America is none of these. America is not a Christian nation. America is a nation, pure and simple. It is one of the nations (the Greek word can also be translated Gentiles) that Israel and the Church are to live among, to which Jesus sent us to make disciples.

I realize that this opens up as many questions as it answers, probably more. For example, what is the proper role of the Church in America? If the Church is the primary political body for Christians, then to what extent should Christians be involved in the political doings of the nation-state? As Christians, we may have ceded to the nation-state some of our own responsibilities (caring for the poor, the elderly, the sick), as my friend Pamela suggests in a comment earlier, but does that mean we should discourage the nation-state from doing that? I don't know the answers to these questions, even for myself, much less to persuade others. I know that it is quite complex, and any response will reflect that. But I am quite dissatisfied with the present syntheses on offer, which seem to boil down like this:

1) Make the state the church, outlawing (say) the teaching of evolution, mandating prayer in schools, and so forth. As I said to a dear friend last week in an e-mail, this version seems to think that if we just overturn Roe v. Wade then the Kingdom of God will come in its fullness, which is palpable nonsense. or:

2) Check your faith at the door, leaving your convictions about that which informs (ideally) the whole of your life to one side as unimportant.

I could and no doubt will say more about this in future, although perhaps to trumpet my perplexity and ignorance as much as anything else. Maybe one of my three (!) gentle readers will add his or her comments.

But for now, this much I am sure of: America is a nation, full stop.

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Thursday, November 10, 2005 10:28:00 PM  

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