One, if America is a Christian nation, then it is not a mission field. Conversely, we will only see and treat America as a mission field if we don’t see it as a Christian nation. Now, some would argue that is precisely the point: America is a mission field and we need to evangelize individuals and change structures through lobby and vote to return to what we once were. Of course not every single person is a believer, so evangelism is still a high priority. The results of conversion, however, are not only new life but also another step in returning the country to its golden past.
My counter argument is twofold: One, unless we see America as a mission field we will assume that our evangelism strategies and our “churchiness” of the last two hundred years will do the job of reaching our ever growing lost population. Two, regardless of one’s conclusions about the Christian Nation debate and regardless of the civil and political implications of those conclusions, the gospel of Jesus Christ is not about returning any nation back to what it was or might have been. Making the gospel primarily about a national return to an idealized past reduces the gospel to politics and propaganda, and our role to simply that of polemicists instead of missionaries. It reduces our purpose from membership in the Kingdom of God and living as disciples of Jesus to membership in the city of man and being good moral citizens. This may not be bad, but it is not enough.
Two, that means if we focus too much on the “gospel” of a Christian Nation we are in danger of diluting the Biblical gospel and what it means to live and act like Jesus. Unfortunately, the call for a “Christian Nation” has historically led to the establishment of a state church and/or civil religion. A civil religion can do no other than create the appearance of a diluted Christianity. It may lead to and even enforce a superficial morality and ethic, but it is not the gospel. Civil religion may make life easier and more comfortable for those who agree with that version of religion (Protestant? Roman Catholic? Free Church tradition? Mormon?), but overtly or covertly coerces others to follow what they do not believe. This is not the gospel. This danger of favoritism, especially if initiated or upheld by the government, is the context of Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists in which he famously argued for a “wall of separation” between church and state. Again, to argue for a bland and generic version of “Christian principles,” cultural Christianity at its lowest common denominator, is not ultimately helpful or healthy, and is not the gospel. A generic gospel leads to cultural Christianity, and cultural Christianity leads to a bored, uncommitted, comfortable post-Christian society. See Western Europe.
Three, if the content of the gospel is not recognizing that we are a Christian nation or that we should return to being a Christian nation, what is it then? Entire books have been written to define and explain the gospel. Suffice it to quote what the Apostle Paul says in 1 Cor. 15:3-8 about the gospel he proclaimed: “For I passed on to you as most important what I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve . . . to over 500 brothers . . . to James . . . to all the apostles . . . He also appeared to me.”
The gospel, therefore, is that Jesus Christ died for our sins. We may talk of our salvation, redemption, forgiveness, reconciliation, adoption, justification, eternal life, and new birth. We may speak of Christ as Savior, Lord, Mediator, Healer, Son of God, or Son of Man. Every one of these terms (and many others) are rich in meaning, but every one of them has at its core the idea that Jesus Christ did something for us that we could not do for ourselves: he died for our sins. All the Old Testament, and the entire life of Jesus, including his teaching, preaching, and healing, point to his sacrifice on the cross. All that was written in the New Testament after the cross and all that the church is and represents are because of the cross. That is, what we say and do as disciple of Christ is either the evidence or the fruit of that action on the cross. We love each other, treat each other well, pray for each other, live in peace with each other, care for widows and orphans, care for the poor, feed the hungry, stand up for justice and the disenfranchised not because these actions are the gospel, but because they are the evidence and the fruit of the gospel. A transformed life, family, community, society, or nation is not the gospel, but the fruit of the gospel. Legislation and laws, as good as important and they may be, are not the gospel and will not lead sinners to repentance. Laws can hold back the unrighteous . . . to a degree. Laws can guide us in good living . . . to a point. Laws, however, never preached the gospel or transformed a life.
Four, to argue that America is or should be a Christian nation compounds the challenge of reaching immigrants with the gospel. First, for those coming as Christians already or from countries with a “Christian” background, there is the possibility of being sorely disappointed in American Christianity or claims to be Christian. At the same time we are arguing that we are a Christian nation, we give little evidence for it. Second, for those arriving from non- and even anti-Christian backgrounds and countries, our claim to be a Christian nation only confirms their misconceptions of Christianity. We claim we are Christian, but our lifestyle is full of divorce, drug abuse, violence, and immorality. As one converted Muslim tells in her testimony, her father did not want her to come to America for he feared she would become like those other Christian women, “like Madonna.” Either way, to claim to be Christian in such a culturally generic way is unhelpful – it does not help our evangelistic task.
Finally, to argue that America is or should be a Christian nation is unconvincing to a radically unchurched postmodern generation. Why would they want a gospel that simply gives them more of what we already are? If they are aware of our historical ambiguities – genocide, slavery, racism, injustices, wars of choice – why would they want to follow Jesus if that is the fruit? The gospel, of course, is not our history. The gospel is Christ dying for sins and transforming lives. The unchurched generation (and immigrants, for that matter) is not interested in going back to anything. That is not what will call them to repentance and belief. A crucified Messiah, fulfilling God’s plan for the ages, dying for their sins – that is the message we must somehow communicate.
So, are we a Christian nation, a secular nation, or a pluralist nation? The answer is “yes,” depending on what one means by the question and how one defines the answer. Our nation, and our history, is far too complex to give a simply yes or no answer. The present reality, however, for good or bad, is that we are becoming far more secular and far more pluralistic. The message of the gospel, of the one and only crucified Christ, is seen more and more as intolerant and narrow minded.
What our country needs is a forward looking gospel. Without a doubt, looking back at what God has done in our past is a good thing. Israel was often called to remember what God had done, to reflect on and stand on His faithfulness. America needs to do the same. We can look back at His guiding hand, His blessings, and His protection and be thankful. The gospel, however, is about what God is going to do. Looking back is Biblically healthy, but looking forward is Biblically mandated. We look back at Eden with sorrow for what was lost. We look forward to New Jerusalem with anticipation for what we will gain. That is, our hope is in His promises for the future, individually and as a community of believers. Our hope is for better things to come, in this life and the next. Our hope is not in a return to what was, but in movement toward what God is going to do. Whether that means America will once again be what it was like or will grow into something completely new and different, God is faithful.