Are we a Christian nation?
Yikes! Why would I ask such a controversial question, and especially during a week when we are pausing as a nation to thank God for our blessings? Before I explain myself let me define our beginning as the day the U.S. Constitution was signed (but not ratified) in September of 1787.
You may know there are those who say we have never been a Christian nation. This line of reasoning ranges from an analysis of the deistic beliefs of some of our forefathers to the immoral behavior of some who claimed Christ as their Savior. It also involves the philosophical question of whether a nation’s religious nature should be interpreted through the filter of its constitution alone, or those who framed it. Certainly, the U.S. Constitution’s verbiage is paradoxical in this regard since the very document that insures religious liberty gives people the right to reject the fundamental presuppositions of many of its authors.
There are those who say we began as a Christian nation, but have digressed. They point to the faith of our forefathers, and the obvious reflection of biblical principles sprinkled throughout the Constitution. Were some of those who claimed affiliation with the church less than Christian in their words and actions? Yes. But the failure of individuals to live up to their religious claims doesn’t necessarily nullify their faith, no more than any believer of any generation can be held to perfection.
Personally, I am of the conviction our country was framed by Christian principles, and set in motion by a critical mass of Christ followers. It is true that many of our forefathers were influenced by the Enlightenment. It is also true some of their choices, such as human slave trade, are a blemish on our collective record. But denying one’s roots, just because the plant hasn’t always produced good fruit is like trying to ignore a family resemblance. We are as we are because of who we are, and we are who we are because of where we came from.
In light of this, perhaps another question is in order: “Did the framers of our constitution seek to create a Christian nation?” This question is harder to answer because, while we read about the faith of these authors, it is difficult to discern their motives. These brilliant individuals most certainly wanted our country to reflect the biblical values they held dear (sometimes referred to as Judeo-Christian ideals), such as justice, equality and personal freedom. But it is doubtful their goal was a religious state.
Instead, we might say biblical values have been at the heart of all great movements to elevate mankind. Even the Enlightenment, which has paved the way for modern attacks on Christianity, was ironically grounded in biblical truths. Scientific discovery presumed the order of the universe and philosophy proclaimed self-determination. Both of these disciplines indicate the presence of a Living God, such as the One described in the Bible.
So where are we now? Are we a Christian nation? It is hard to say with complete accuracy. Christ’s followers have technically lost ground to pluralism and secularism, but this doesn’t tell the whole story. We are still a nation that functions with Christian principles. Many of the important institutions begun by followers of Jesus still influence every facet of our nation. Today, on Thanksgiving Day, The Salvation Army will feed the hungry. Hospitals, started by religious orders and church denominations will be open to treat the sick. Church ministries will open their doors to the homeless.
There are also some ways in which we are more of a Christian nation than ever before. There was a time when people affiliated with a church because it was what socially conscious people did. Now some of the fat has been trimmed from the kingdom and those who walk in Jesus’ steps are more likely to have a sincere faith. This helps explain the popularity of parachurch organizations, and church ministries that interact with local neighborhoods. Believers who are serious about their faith want to make a difference in the world.
By now you might be saying, “Larry, you are living in a dream world. The research clearly shows Christians are losing ground to secularism and pluralism. If we were ever a Christian nation, we certainly can’t claim to be now.”
I get it. I believe in data, and I realize unless we are honest about the spiritual climate of our nation we won’t have the sense of urgency so vital for the days ahead.
On the other hand, there is something to be said for being careful we don’t unwittingly contribute to the problem with a losing mentality. I believe the hearts of others often turn on the signals we send. The reason some of God’s greatest leaders in the biblical record were able to restore the faint of heart is because they stood tall in the face of skeptics. I am not saying people don’t need tangible truth to support their faith. But the fact is people who are afraid and discouraged will follow the gloomy predictions of a godless world unless those who have experienced victory in Jesus share a better story.
Whether we are, or ever were a Christian nation isn’t the issue. What is more vital is the way we, as Christians, live out our faith in our nation. When we do this well, the nature of our nation becomes somewhat irrelevant for those who hear and see the grace of Jesus in our lives.
What kind of nation are you going to be?