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Friday, May 08, 2015

Too Hot to Handle: The Christian Nation

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

In America is not a Christian nation: The dark capitalist roots of our country’s most destructive myth, Andrew Aghapour quizzes Princeton professor Kevin Kruse about the “Christian nation myth”.

As with most things in the media these days, the title is a bit sensationalist and the substance of the article a little less dramatic. Basically, it’s what it purports to be: the assertion that America is not and never has been a Christian nation, with a bit of window dressing that suggests a mini-conspiracy by businessmen and evangelicals to spread that myth.

Tom: Immanuel Can, I think we can agree that America is demonstrably not a Christian nation today. Has it ever been?

Riding the Christian Bicycle

Immanuel Can: I feel a bit like you’re asking me, “Do you ride a Christian bicycle?” I hardly know how to answer such a question. The noun has no reference to the adjective. “Christian nation”? Where on earth would we get such an idea?

Tom: I feel much the same. And yet it’s a term that certainly gets bandied around. For one, it’s a favorite straw man argument of the political Left. The atheist writer Sam Harris, for instance, wrote something called Letter to a Christian Nation in which he says things like “Forty-four percent of the American population is convinced that Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead sometime in the next fifty years” and frets that “beliefs of this sort will do little to help us create a durable future for ourselves — socially, economically, environmentally, or geopolitically”. His statistics are nonsense and his worries baseless, but he clearly means something by the term “Christian nation” that he imagines his public will comprehend.

I think most people who use the term, either from the Left or from the religious Right, are not thinking of saving faith when they talk about a Christian nation. They really mean not a nation of actual Christians but a nation that has been “Christian-ized” — influenced by Christianity in some way or other.


Interests Congenial to an Agenda

IC: Yes, or even merely “A nation politically governed by interests congenial to the agenda of the Right, particularly the religious Right”. It’s a bizarre idea. But Tom, do you see any biblical warrant for the idea of a Christian nation?

Tom: It’s kind of a conflation of Christianity with the idea of a “chosen people”, isn’t it? Israel was a nation chosen by God out of all the nations on earth to be his people. But they are the only nation in history to enjoy (and endure) that particular distinction. Christianity is not national at all. We are kind of an anti-nation, really, in the sense the world uses the term. Our citizenship is heavenly.

IC: I actually worry a bit when I hear people talk about a “Christian nation”. I feel concerned that it indicates they think that belonging to some nation has particular virtue with God, and perhaps that being a member of a “Christian nation” can even confer, if not salvation outright, at least some sort of improved standing in the eyes of God — or at least some sort of health of person or of lifestyle. And while it’s true that any non-Christian living where there are a lot of Christians is likely to feel great benefits in terms of general social morality and kindness, none of these actually suggest that God has a higher view of such a person.

One passage that seems to come up a lot in association with the idea of making a “Christian nation” is 2 Chronicles 7:14. It’s often quoted in the context of Christians calling for a national repentance. What do you make of that, Tom?

Who are “My People”?

Tom: Well, context is everything, isn’t it. The verse actually says:
“... if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”
In Chronicles “my people” speaks of the nation of Israel. It’s a historical promise to a single nation unique in the plans and purposes of God. Egypt is not “my people”. Syria is not “my people”. The good ol’ U.S. of A. is definitely not “my people”.

Now if you want to apply that to the Church, and say that a similar principle is in play when Christians are in need of corporate repentance, I have no problem with that. Except you may have a little difficulty finding application in those circumstances for the words “I will ... heal their land”.

Puritans and Supersessionists

IC: What about the ideas of those theologians who seek to supplant Israel with the name of some other nation? I’m thinking of replacement theology, neo-Calvinist supersessionism or the old British Israelism movement — and, of course, in America, there’s a long Puritan tradition, following John Winthrop, of viewing the American experiment as “a city upon a hill”, a sort of New Jerusalem, a Christian light to the nations (a recurrent theme in political stump speeches for generations). So do you suppose they have any claim to that passage of scripture, even perhaps by way of secondary application?

Tom: I see what you’re saying. The idea is certainly out there and I’ve heard it before, mostly when it is being mocked by the political Left. The problem is that it lacks any sort of scriptural authority. The only “nation” and “people” we find in the New Testament is the “holy nation” and the “people for his own possession” of 1 Peter, which is the Church.

To me, a nation with 58 million abortions since 1973 has all the moral authority of a streetwalker with halitosis. Whatever the “city upon a hill” meant once (and I would argue it never gave America any sort of special status in the eyes of God), it surely means no more.

IC: Well, of course, if it’s any city at all, the “city on a hill” is Jerusalem. Even the supersessionists admit that no other city or nation could claim first billing on that.

Tom: And I would maintain that it’s not a city at all, at least not the way the Lord used the phrase. The city is a metaphor for testimony.

Supplanting National Israel

IC: But because they supplant the word “Israel” by the metaphor “spiritual Israel” every place in the New Testament where they read it, they think they get second billing: and they arrive back at the idea of a nation beloved particularly by God — their nation, of course, since it is the most “Christian”. I even had a pastor once tell me there was NO mention of national Israel in the New Testament. He was most surprised when I pointed out to him that "Israel” is flatly contrasted with (and not replaced by) “the Church” and “the Greeks” (or Gentiles generally) in 1 Corinthians 10:32. He found the verse, then stared at it like I’d handed him a toad. And he had no more to say.

Tom: You did hand him a toad ... did he croak?

Sorry, carry on.

IC: Now, on the flip side I’ll admit that a great many nation-builders, in North America, the Isles and Europe, to say nothing of the rest of the world, happened to have been Christians. They were government leaders, preachers and designers of key constitutions and charters. So there is indeed a historic relationship between prominent Christians and national well-being. But this falls a good deal short of reconstituting the entire nation as “Christian”. The national charter may have Christian values embedded in it; but at some geographical remove and several generations later, that does not make those governed thereby in any sense “Christian”.

Tom: Agreed. I think we could fairly say that American culture at one point had been “Christian-ized” to a degree. As you say, a lot of good things were done in the U.S. that have been done few other places, and the freedom most Americans used to enjoy was a rare moment in history.

Missing the Point

But those who make the argument that the founders were Christians, whether it is true or not, are largely missing the point. Even if they were, there are times when Israel had good kings and times when it had bad ones. A good leader like Moses or a generally good king like David did not make Israel immune from judgment when it sinned. Generations after it was written, even a perfect constitution could not possibly confer any special privilege on sinners living under it, frequently in disobedience to it.

IC: I’m going to have to go with that great theologian, Sting:
“There is no political solution
To our troubled evolution
Have no faith in constitutions
There is no bloody revolution.

We are spirits in the material world.”
If our problems are really spiritual ones, then so are the solutions. They’re not merely political. And anyone who thinks we can solve the world’s problems through politics instead of salvation is placing way, way too much confidence in the flesh.

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