Given the previous article’s observations about the religiosity of American, what are some issues affected by our conclusions? That is, does one’s view of America as a Christian nation (or not) affect how we think about evangelism and missions in the U.S.? Five observations:
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.
Are we a Christian nation? If so, what does that mean? Can a “nation” be Christian? What does it even mean to be Christian?
On one side of the debate are those who argue that we were founded by mostly Christian men with the purpose of being a Christian nation. They point to the religious language and Bible references of the Founding Fathers as evidence. Consequently, the solution to all our problems is to return America to her traditional Christian foundation. The other side of the debate finds those who either deny or downplay the role Christianity (and even religion) played in America’s founding and history. At best, some may acknowledge the religiosity (usually deism) of the founders, but insist that they wanted to establish a religiously neutral nation. I believe the truth is somewhere in the middle. I agree with church historians Mark Noll, George Marsden, and Nathan Hatch, who argue that America has not been and is not presently a “uniquely, distinctly or even predominantly Christian” nation, if one means a “state of society reflecting the ideals presented in Scripture.” This does not mean, however, that Christian values were absent from the founding of the country and our history. These positive Christian aspects must be recognized, for they make, these scholars argue, the United States “a singularly religious country.”
Therefore, the extremes to be avoided are an idealized Christian past on the one hand and a tale of pure sinfulness, oppression, and exploitation on the other. These extreme errors, according to Noll, are committed by both secularists and “Christian traditionalists” because neither makes a careful study of the past. The secularists pick out “bare phrases” from the founding documents, from the Constitution, and from later court decisions to make their case. The Christian traditionalists pick out “bold assertions” from the founders as proof of their Christianity and of God’s providential action in the establishment of America. Both take quotations from earlier generations and use them to prove their respective points “without context, without evaluation, without understanding.” The historical truth is little more complex than either side is willing to admit.
So, is America Christian or not? Well, the answer is both “yes and no.” America was not God’s new chosen nation, a “new Israel,” if you will. Historically, there have been many nations that thought of themselves this way, claims that now seem absurd. We can, however, make the argument that many of our political and social structures and institutions come closer to Biblical principles than those of other nations. On many occasions we have, as a nation, practiced well those principles, for we have pressed for (albeit imperfectly) the dignity and freedom of human beings. We have taken part in the liberation of many nations from the grips of tyranny. We have been a nation quick to respond compassionately to disaster, famine, and have certainly led the way in the global missionary movement. Overall, we are a generous and giving people. In the broadest sense, we were founded and have been a Christian nation. We need to be careful, however, not to claim too much. As a nation we have been responsible for much good, but we cannot escape responsibility for the evil in our history: Native American genocide, slavery, out of control materialism and consumerism, several wars of choice, political corruption here and abroad, and more. If we do have a generally religious and a specifically Christian foundation, we certainly have not always lived up to it.
What can we conclude about the religiosity of America? Were we and are we a Christian nation? We need to answer by considering context, definition, and behavior.
One, we must remember the Christendom context in which the founding of America took place. For centuries the average Westerner saw no major distinction between Christianity, the state, and society in general. For the European, state churches were the norm, which is what our forefathers were trying to avoid. As to society in general, the average Westerner believed and accepted it was “Christian,” whether that individual was any kind of practicing believer or not. In fact, for most “Christian” Westerners, the conquest of pagan lands entailed no real distinction between civilizing, Christianizing, and conquest. The settling and founding of America challenged some of these Christendom assumptions to a significant degree because the Enlightenment had as much influence on the Founders as the Bible did.
We see, therefore, that both sides in the Christian America debate are correct to a degree. Our founding was the confluence of Biblical Christianity with both “state church” and Free Church flavors and Enlightenment ideals which questioned the authority of Scripture, the nature of God, the Deity of Christ, and elevated the autonomy of man. Both of these worldviews are found in the writings of our forefathers and in the founding documents. Since Christendom was the dominant environment, the average person, and especially the educated moralist, had no problem in quoting Scripture, referring to Deity, and appealing to the ethics of Jesus. That was just the way people were then, whether orthodox practicing believers or not
Two, taking it a step further, however, and something that is not done often enough in the ongoing debate, is defining what each side means by “Christian.” If America was and is a Christian nation, what does that mean? Does it mean that the majority of the Founders were believers? The majority of the general population? Most church historians note that the latter was not true; that is, the general population at the time of the Revolutionary was only about 5% church attenders, a percentage that changed significantly only after the Second Great Awakening. Still, the general population operated under a general Christendom worldview. They would probably have claimed belief in God and may even have had some Biblical knowledge. Does that qualify them as Christian? Are we a Christian nation because some of the principles upon which we were founded are Christian? Are we a Christian nation because the Founders were a majority Christian, or at least Deists?
It appears to me that the meaning of “Christian” in the debate is either left undefined or is assumed to be so broad as to mean nothing. If all it takes to be a Christian nation is a broad cultural Christianity, identified by some Biblical values and principles, or for certain founders and leaders to refer to Deity and the Bible, then every European nation with a state church is a “Christian” nation. They certainly believed they were (and still are in some cases) – remember Christendom. And what does that mean for predominately Roman Catholic countries, including Latin American countries? They are not Protestant or of the Free Church tradition, as the majority of our Founders were, but they claim to be Christian, claim the authority of the Bible, believe in the Deity of Christ, and are guided by some Christian principles. In fact, it could be argued that some of the Roman Catholic countries were more Christian than many of our Deistic Founders who quoted an emasculated Bible and believed in a purely moralistic gospel
Taking the argument even a step further, what is the relationship between Christian claims and Christian behavior? As evangelicals we often argue that an individual’s claim to be a Christian needs to eventually give evidence or show fruit. We know that sanctification is a life-long journey, but that there should be some evidence of growth and progress. Does that apply nationally? Does our national fruit give evidence that we are a Christian nation? Of course, our history is a mixed bag. That is precisely the argument from the Christian Nation perspective: We don’t give evidence anymore and we need to get back to what we were. Our crime rates, the disintegration of marriages and families, abortion, pornography, and so forth give evidence that we need to return to what we were. The mixed bag of history, however, reminds us of racism and slavery, genocide and wars of choice, abuse of children in the marketplace, and the absence of civil rights for numerous groups. It is true that many of the activists who attacked those social ills were Christian and were driven by Biblical truth – something the secularists conveniently overlook in their version of history. But, are we getting better or worse? Are we becoming less Christian, or in some senses, more Christian? Perhaps part of the answer lies in our definition of Christianity and Christian action, and that only increases the debate. In the end, Mark Noll is correct in his assessment – yes, we are a Christian nation is some respects; no, we are not in others. Without a doubt, we have been and continue to be a religious country. Next Article – America: A Christian Nation? Part 2
Politics. It’s a word some people love and many hate. Like it or not, it is part and parcel of our existence. On the one hand, we know the human race cannot survive without some semblance of political organization. On the other hand, we spit the word out in disgust when things around us get too “political.” At the same time, we can’t really help ourselves most of the time and quickly get sucked into a political debate, often wondering, even out loud, how the other person can be such an idiot. Yes, politics. Love it or hate it, politics, when defined as “the art or science of government” (Merriam-Webster online) makes the world go round.
We also use the term, however, in a broader sense. One of Merriam-Webster’s definitions of politics is “the total complex of relations between people living in society.” That is, if you have more than two people in some kind of societal arrangement, then you have politics. It has to do with levels of authority, decision making, having respect for each other and for property, due process for grievances and issues of justice, economics, and many other issues of human relationships.
So, does the Bible talk about politics? Is the Bible political?
The Bible is thoroughly political. If we use the second definition of the word, the Bible is thoroughly political because much of it deals with the “total complex of relations between people.” Much of the Law, prophetic outrage, Proverbs, the Sermon on the Mount, and a lot of Paul’s admonition to churches had to do with the level of politics as real life human relationships.
The Bible is also thoroughly political in the sense of the first definition. If politics is about “the art and science of government,” the Bible has much to say about leadership wisdom and integrity, about the responsibilities of leaders, about issues of poverty, justice, war and peace, and relationships with foreign governments. Jesus spoke about paying taxes. He spoke to Roman soldiers about not abusing their power. Both Paul and Peter spoke about submission to authorities and how to live under oppressive situations. Yes, the Bible is thoroughly political.
The Bible does not endorse a political ideology. The Bible may address politics, but it does not put forth nor endorse a political ideology. We need to be careful to read back into the Bible our contemporary political and economic ideologies. Well intentioned believers throughout history and around the world have attempted to Biblically justify capitalism, socialism, democracy, and monarchy. The problem is that each one of those ideologies does have some Biblical justification! It all depends on which passages we pull from and how we apply them and to which context we apply them. It is not my purpose here, nor do I have the space, to give examples of how each has some Biblical justification. What we can identify are the “political” issues and then ask how can these be addressed Biblically in our context. For example, the Bible is clear about taking care of widows and orphans. It is clear that the poor should not be taken advantage of. It is clear that criminals should be brought to justice. The challenge for us is to work out the implications and applications of those issues in contemporary society whatever the dominant and prevailing ideology happens to be.
The Bible judges all politics and political ideologies. Consequently, all political and economic ideologies are to be evaluated and judged by Scripture. Certainly, there are ideologies that are closer to the Bible than others (think Hitler’s National Socialism and Stalin’s Communism as some obvious examples), but all are fallen and imperfect. This also means we need to be very careful to hijack the gospel and manipulate Jesus to fit our politics. We love to ask the question, “What would Jesus do?” The problem is, we might be surprised more often than not!
The church’s hope is not in a political ideology. Taken a step further, not only does the Bible judge all politics and political ideologies, our hope does not rest in politics or a political ideology. Whether or not we live in a free country or are persecuted, or whether we dominate the culture or are marginalized, our hope is not in legislation, more Christian elected officials, boycotts, or political action. All these may are important, needed, and rights we should exercise, but we cannot legislate more followers of Jesus. We cannot outlaw anyone into belief. At best, we can restrain evil for a time and insist that justice be done for all according to the laws of the land. But, the hope of the church, and the hope of America, lies in the gospel of Jesus Christ and his politics.
Have a political ideology, but hold to it tentatively. Therefore, have a well thought out political ideology and hold it with conviction . . . with tentative conviction. I am not pleading for being wishy-washy. I am pleading for political and ideological conviction that is open to growth, maturity, and constant Biblical evaluation and judgment. Ultimately, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. It is then that the Kingdom’s perfect politics will be in place.
Next article --America: A Christian Nation? Part 1
News Flash! Human life is filled with change. Inevitable, faster and faster, radical, incremental, evolutionary, whatever – things change. Resisted or celebrated. Anticipated and planned or unexpected and dreaded. Orderly or chaotic; good or bad. The fact is change happens, and people, organizations, and churches must learn to deal with, respond to, and often create change. What does change look like in the 21st century?
n It is Discontinuous and Chaotic in Nature. Historically, change has usually been linear (you can trace its line of development), continuous (you can point to cause and effect, such that change was even predictably), evolutionary rather than revolutionary, and sporadic in its spread beyond its point of origin (it just took longer for things to be known). Change could thus be expected, anticipated, and even managed.
On the other hand, discontinuous change is disruptive, unanticipated, and challenges assumptions. That is, what we already know and can do is not very helpful in this scenario. Working harder with existing skills won’t cut it; new skills are needed for such an unpredictable environment. Bottom line, the world is becoming far more complex and chaotic every day.
n It is Postmodern in Content. The postmodern worldview is characterized by:
o A refusal to see change, and particularly technological change, as inherently good or as inevitable progress. The postmodern vision of the future is usually that of Terminator and The Matrix – technology and science gone rogue.
o A rejection of an overarching metanarrative or truth. Instead, truth is what you make it; it is a social and community construct. Rapid and discontinuous change only seems to confirm this as nothing appears to be lasting and absolute.
o Consequently, there is no such thing as an “ethic.” There are only personal values and a personal spirituality. Since there is no absolute truth, there is nothing upon which to build an absolute ethic. If reality and truth as a construct, then so are ethics and morality.
o Consumerism, which is materialism out of control.
o Fragmentation in a digital area. There is fragmentation of style, of music, of art, of tastes, of people, of attention spans, and in storytelling. At the same time, ambiguity, paradox, and even incongruity are part of the postmodern person’s cafeteria lifestyle. All is acceptable and all is in style.
n It is Global in Scope. A technologically flattened world in which distance is irrelevant means that change is global. What is taking place on the other side of the world right now is also happening everywhere right now. Digital accessibility and commentary make any event everyone’s event.
n It is Potentially Tribal in Outcome. Travel, the internet, multi-national corporations, and global markets mean that America is both changing the world and being changed by the world. That is, a flattened world, a globalized culture, and interdependent economies allow for and encourage the postmodern paradox of homogenization (one culture and one economy) and tribalism (niche marketing, emphasis on ethnic identity and pride). In some cases this can lead to violent protests and even violent revolutions by groups that feel threatened. So, do we embrace or resist change? Let’s try to think about this theologically:
1) Change is inevitable. Biblically and theologically speaking, change is essential and part of God’s creation. Creation involved change – from nothing, from the formless void, to a beautiful creation. Unlike many world views in which time is cyclical, inescapable, or meaningless, Biblical time is purposeful, forward moving, and climaxing in the fulfillment of God’s promises and plan.
2) Not all things change. First, God does not change. That does not mean He is a static, inactive, and completely unknowable God. He is, rather, relationally dynamic; that is, he is personal and lovingly and graciously interacts with his creation. To be certain, being a personal God does not mean He is the malleable God of Process Theology or the uncertain God of Open Theism. He does not change in His nature, His character, or His attributes.
Second, God’s truth does not change. As the world around us changes we may state His truth in various manners, we may express His truth in different ways, and we may live out His truth in ever changing contexts. But His truth does not change, and that includes truth about Himself and truth about ourselves.
Third, the human condition has not changed. From the fall of Adam and Eve, all humans who have every lived (save for Jesus) have been sinners by nature and by choice. No matter how good or how bad any individual person’s actions may be, all have fallen short of what God expects and demands, and the only solution is the salvific work of Jesus Christ on the cross.
3) Change, even chaotic change, can be good. Studies in chaos and complexity theory have shown that equilibrium leads to stagnation which leads to death. Change, and even moving to the edge of chaos, is what causes living systems to adapt, find new solutions, and improve. The disturbances caused by change and chaos can be, in fact, life savers. Remember how God brought radical change to Israel, often through her worst enemies.
4) The key, therefore, is how we evaluate change. Should we embrace it or resist it? We should ask the following questions:
a. Can we control it? The answer is “probably not.” I am not saying that God does not change people, systems, or structures. I am not saying the church should not stand up for justice and moral issues. Change can be brought about through persuasion, influence, and lives that reflect the salt and light of the gospel. What I am saying is that we cannot totally nor ultimately control change, either by causing it or preventing it. The world moves on, time marches forward, and life happens. We should allow for God’s control, His timing, and prayerfully act and respond according to the gospel, understanding that change happens only as the Holy Spirit moves in people’s lives individually, corporately, and structurally.
b. What is actually changing? As America changes rapidly and discontinuously, the church must clearly identify the changes worth confronting. How often are we expending energy simply resisting change that affects our sentimentality about life and culture and our preferences about the church rather than changes that destroy people’s lives?
c. How can and will God use change for His glory? As hard as it is, we need to work to see the biggest picture possible – God’s. What is He doing through these changes? What does He want to do in my individual life, in my church, and through believers in America and around the world? How are these changes moving us toward the fulfillment of His promises?
d. Can I embrace, or at least accept, this change without compromising the gospel? If not, it needs to be resisted. Now, I am not asking whether change is compromising my style of doing church, my preference of music, my particular political party, my preferred economics, or my most comfortable cultural mores and habits. It may be painful when these are challenged by change, but they are not the gospel.
Change is rarely comfortable. Our Sovereign God, however, rules over both the changeless and the changing. While we may need to confront and resist unbiblical change, I am convinced that more often than not God is waiting for us to seize the moment, “making the most of the time” (Col. 4:5b), to reach ever-changing America for Christ.
Next Article: "The Bible and Politics"
Terry Coy -- husband, father, grandfather. Trying to figure it out while on the journey with Jesus.