Thursday, September 16, 2010

Other thoughts to ponder

Why is it necessary to proclaim America a “Christian nation”?

This is, perhaps, the most important question of all. Even if we can agree that Christian principles influenced the nation’s founders, how does that inform our obedience to Christ? And what are those principles that originated during the ministry of Christ that are unique and separate from the Jewish principles that preceded them, thus keeping America from being called a “Jewish nation”? Where are these uniquely-Christian principles in the founding documents? (For example, in Matthew 5:38-39 Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ [old, Jewish principle]. But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also [new, Christian principle].” This command has never been embraced by a majority of American Christians and certainly not by the United States Government.)

One possible reason for insisting we’re a Christian nation is to assure ourselves that we have God’s stamp of approval on the things we do. Some look to the utterances of past presidents for assurance, accepting those with which they agree as “The Truth.” Some fear that if America is not a Christian nation then God will withhold His blessing or even send judgment. If they’re right, our task is not to convince others that America is a Christian nation, but to convince God. He is more interested in our obedience than our statements (such as the debatable “In God We Trust” on our currency). Since Christians cannot rely upon the cooperation of non-Christians (who are not impressed by proclamations of Christian nationhood) to help in this endeavor, it would be up to us to do a better job of emulating Christ.

Another possible reason for insisting we’re a Christian nation is fear that “our great nation” is losing its greatness. Its greatness = our greatness = our collective ego = our pride. Pride in ourselves is not a Christian virtue. We should remember this is not our home; we are resident aliens here. Our identity is in Christ and heaven is our home.

Two final motivations for insisting we’re a Christian nation might be the desire to impose Christian behavior on non-Christians or to defeat constitutional challenges to references to Christianity on public property. Until 1947 we got away with monopolizing the public square. Since then, non-Christians have pointed out that this monopoly (‘religious freedom’ to those of us in the majority) of government property constitutes government endorsement of a particular religion, in violation of the First Amendment (Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;...). Whether or not one agrees with that, the culture wars pivot on this amendment. The solution for those who believe the founders intended to retain the Christian dominance of the Christendom they’d fled and create a “Christian nation” is to make it unequivocal. The only honest way to return to the old monopoly and to impose Christian behavior on non-Christians is to repeal the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and replace it with one that will establish Christianity (defined as loosely as necessary to avoid denominationalism) as the State Religion. But this is not likely to happen in a republic, so proponents seek instead to persuade the public that the word “religion” in the Establishment Clause means “a particular Christian denomination,” but in the following Free Exercise Clause it means “religion.” An alternative interpretation of the First Amendment put forth is that it prohibits government control over the church, while at the same time inviting church control over the government.

For its part, the public prefers civil religion to governance by true Christianity, which was never intended for the governance of non-Christians (1 Cor 5:12). Anyone running for high political office must compromise Christian principles to win and hold office. Candidates seeking conformity to the image of Christ will be rejected by the electorate. Indeed, if Jesus himself came back incognito and ran for president as a third-party candidate, many Christians would not vote for him and his Sermon on the Mount platform. It is better for Christians to be ruled by non-Christians (as in Paul's day) than for Christians to compromise their principles to rule.

The problem with the concept of a “Christian nation” is the temptation to equate it to a righteous nation, defined in Isaiah 58:2 as a nation that would never abandon the laws of God. The freedom of religion established by the First Amendment effectively abandons the First Commandment, and most of the other commandments are also ignored by US law. In spite of this, we try to believe that a nation of individuals that worship whatever they please can collectively behave righteously, that the individual’s motivations can be challenged but the nation’s cannot. The assumption is that our collective will reflects God’s will. But if a “Christian nation” behaves like a non-Christian nation, what’s the point? All are kingdoms of the world. Rather than placing our hope and identity in an earthly kingdom, we should assume that we are living under the pagan Roman Empire or Babylon and place our allegiance in the kingdom of God (the true Christian nation) where God’s will is manifested, even as we seek to influence the state.

The bottom line of the Christian nation argument is this: if we as Christians are losing our influence on society it is because we are not making a compelling case for following Jesus. Ranting and demanding “our rights” in order to preserve that influence appears self-serving, fearful and hateful, and is counterproductive for humble servants of Christ. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. The kingdom of God will persevere regardless of cultural fluctuations.

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