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An unchristian nation

I have never subscribed to the view that the United States is a Christian nation. It isn’t now, and I submit it never was.

It’s true that many of the founders were believers, and from 1776 to today, most Americans have self-identified as Christians. So, if by “Christian nation” we mean to say the majority of the population is Christian, I can agree with that (though it’s important to note that identifying as Christian and being a Christian are different things). But, to me, the term “Christian nation” is more political – and more toxic – than that. When I hear people say, “This is a Christian nation,” it’s almost always in defense of some political position, hearkening back to the writing of the constitution and “what the founders really meant” or trying to quash some policy reform as unAmerican, as though that were synonymous with unchristian. In this sense – the popular sense – the “Christian nation” camp seems almost to want a theocracy, in which national policy matches Christian practice (whatever that is) and the Bible is the constitution.

This latter view is dangerous, and Christians need to think twice before wishing theocracy on us. Problems immediately arise: What brand of Christianity? Which interpretation? Of which verse? And what happens when we mess up? When we disagree? When we fall away?

Many of the 16th century pioneers who braved the unknown sea before an unknown continent set out to flee persecution, to find a home where they could practice and believe as they saw fit. Too often we become the very thing from which our ancestors fled, we become intolerant inquisitors. There is nothing inherently wrong with dogma, but there is a great deal wrong with using dogma to ostracize and dehumanize those who disagree.

Remember, Christianity is not political.

The critics will be quick to point out that certain religious ideas must align with certain political ideas, and that may be true (though which doctrines and which policies is up for debate). In that sense, our faith should inform our politics. However, we cannot make doctrine and policy, religion and politics, the same. Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. We are citizens of a higher law, not one caught up in gerrymandering and partisanship and filibusters.

Anyway, all of this discussion of a “Christian nation” is, I think, beside the point. Even if the United States was at one time a Christian nation, it isn’t any longer. American culture and the Church have been parting ways for a long time, if they ever aligned at all.

I don’t say this in a dreary, lamenting way. I don’t think the American Church is evaporating, only that the contrast between Christian and unchristian may be getting bigger. Fortunately, I think there is a bright side to living in an unchristian land.

Three reasons to be hopeful

In an unchristian land:

1. We govern better. In a place where our law is not the law of the land, we become more tolerant because we must also be tolerated. We show Christian kindness and pursue understanding not out of obligation, but out of necessity. We don’t run the risk of a theocracy that, if governed by a good God would be paradise, but if run by fallible humans would be a reign of terror.

2. We take our faith more seriously. When Christianity is not the norm, it becomes more obviously a choice. When we are not expected to believe, our belief has to be intentional. An unchristian country demands that Christians know what they believe and why, because the faith will have to be defended before men. To profess the life, death and resurrection of Jesus where such beliefs are not the coin of the realm, we must be committed. Any Christian in a public school, secular workplace or Christian-minority country will know that more is required of us than a Christian confession. A Christian life is on order, because by it the rest of the world will judge the faith.

3. We return to the roots of the Church and the life of Jesus. The Church existed in a hostile environment for more than 300 years before the Romans decided to do as the Christians do. For all of Church history, it has been, either in part or in whole, persecuted and seen as foolish. Jesus himself suffered and died because he taught and lived a gospel distinct from that of the Jewish rabbis and Roman governors. We become more like the disciples when we are pilgrims without a home. We become more like the early Church when we rely on God instead of government. We become more like Christ when we are outnumbered and outcast.

The future

The Church and its redeemer were born in an unchristian land. It survived then, it will live on now.

None of this is to say that I think a small, persecuted Church is better than a large, powerful Church. Frankly, I wish everyone would come to Jesus. I wish no Christian ever had to hide or flee or suffer for the faith. But we were warned this would happen. We will face trials of many kinds, we will face persecution, we will face the same suffering as Jesus. But by the testing of our faith we develop perseverance. We become mature and complete, not lacking anything.

As American culture and the Church part ways, we can no longer hide in the crowd, we can no longer recite practiced lines. We can’t blend in anymore. As such, if we are weak, we’ll be easy prey. If we are faithful, we will be salt and light.

This testing of believers is a rite of passage, a precursor to growth. Living in an unchristian nation is just another test. By the grace of God, we won’t fail.

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