Friday, June 26, 2009

Defining a Christian Nation

Since President Obama’s speech in Cairo a few weeks ago, there has been a renewed interest in debate over whether the United States can accurately or even aesthetically be described as a “Christian” nation and whether such a designation can be attributed to a matter of ideology or is a manner of semantics. While some polls indicate roughly 80% of Americans claiming a Christian affiliation, this surely cannot be the sole means by which we make a determination about whether America is a “Christian” nation. For the faithful, the reason why this nation should be a nation under God is biblically clear as well as by the numerous examples and quotes from the days of our founding and beyond, all as expressions of individual, rather than collective, faith. And while the “Creator” (as well as “Nature’s God”, and “Divine Providence”) is acknowledged in our Declaration of Independence, it must be remembered in this particular context that we – presumably as Christians seeking our Christian independence – were demanding independence from another Christian nation, one in which the king himself was officially not only the head of state but also head of the Church, the monarch often referred to as “defender of the faith”.

Arguments have been made that many (“many” being relative, of course) chose to flee England precisely because of the lack of religious freedom, but is it not fair to say that England was “officially” a Christian nation? If this is true, and I think it must be, then what sort of religious freedom were we seeking that we would flee a religious, if Christian, nation in search of another? If the argument is then made that we just didn’t like that religion, that it was too Catholic or too Anglican or too near to the king, then what sort of religious expression might we choose to enforce as a means and a standard by which we can be clearly distinguished as a Christian nation, especially since we were defined as such in Europe but chose to run away from it? Religionists may not have cared for a king or a pope, but were they not all commonly defined by the New Covenant?

What of the flag-waving Christian patriots who clearly love America but just as clearly hate Americans, especially those Americans with whom they disagree? White, Anglo-Saxon Protestants had a corner on “official” Christianity in the early days of this republic that was just as repressive, if not more so, than that which was experienced in Europe. How is American Christianity somehow better than European Christianity, and how has American Christianity brought a nation closer to Divine Providence? How is hating on one’s neighbor indicative of a New Covenant Christian who demands adherence to and enforcement of his or her own Christian ideals while pure, raw, unadulterated hatred burns in the pit of his or her soul? Can anyone spell A-Y-A-T-O-L-L-A-H?

Are we a Christian nation, or are we a nation predominately populated by Christians? To infer that we are a Christian nation is to suggest that official government policies and practices exist, or once existed and have since been undermined, for the sole purpose of supporting and maintaining exclusively Christianity. The existence of abortion alone (a most unholy act of human destruction!), as supported by this government and its courts but clearly and officially renounced by the Roman Catholic Church and many Protestant Christians, challenges the notion that this nation is distinctly Christian down to the very core. Even before this, however, is the absolute and constitutional reality that this nation is decidedly and officially not Christian nor Jewish nor Muslim: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …

This much, at least, seems clear. The United States government is prohibited from engaging in religious practice lest the government somehow be accused of engaging in religious establishment. It matters not whether the religion is Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, or any other number of religions existing around the world. What should matter, and what seems equally clear from history, is that disaster has usually resulted from any government engaging in the act of supporting, imposing, or enforcing any religion upon its people. By this very same token, the government is equally clearly prohibited from engaging in the act of “prohibiting the free exercise …” of any religion. In the matter of religion, the government is constitutionally compelled to remain neutral in matters of religious faith but because the government cannot prohibit the “free exercise” of religion, it seems inferred that the government is duty-bound to defend one’s right to “free exercise”.

This nation’s history cannot be ignored, however, and it is that many did choose to come to these shores to flee religious persecution, but it is the very context of this persecution that should be a cause of alarm among flag-waving Christians who would insist upon a “Christian” nation. Christianity, as practiced, is as diverse and as varied as its population. There is a reason why there are, among Christians, those Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Anglicans, Pentecostalists, etc. that cannot (or will not) agree on particular theological or doctrinal standards. There are core differences in liturgical practices and in understanding the difference between what constitutes a “holy ordinance” and a “holy sacrament” such as matrimony, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. Shall it be the majority that gets to make the call? In this context, it must be remembered that the “majority” would never have allowed slaves to be freed, let alone be granted their inherent humanity.

None of this is to say that we Christians cannot live and worship as we see fit, but all of it is to insist that we at least respect, and be respected by, those who do not agree with us. This much is constitutionally protected. However, this freedom we have has not been granted to us by Divine Providence or by man’s law as a means by which to demand anything of anyone other than ourselves. If there is anything to be proved, the burden of this proof lays squarely on the shoulders of we who insist that our beliefs and practices do indeed offer a better way of life. As it is so often said, “the proof is in the pudding”.

The United States is a nation of Christians, many of whom took upon themselves the responsibility of defending a nation’s principles and ideals. The United States is also a nation of non-Christians, religious and not, who have also borne upon themselves the duties and responsibilities of defending not exclusively Christianity (or any other religion) but, rather, a nation; a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men (humanity) are created equal”, absent any religious qualifiers. This is the fundamental principle upon which this nation was founded and built, and it is upon this principle that this nation must stand. It is a very Christian notion of freedom and liberty that offers rather than demands, that is edifying rather than destructive, that is selfless rather than selfish.

There is a substantial difference between the principles of our nation and the fundamentals of our faith; Christians especially should be grateful, rather than hateful, for these differences.

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