Is the U.S. a Christian Nation?

June 26th, 2011

Is the U.S. a Christian nation? This question comes up so often, especially when patriotic holidays and election seasons draw close. As with most questions, I don’t have the answer. But, unlike many times, I do have an answer.

But before I can get to it, we have to look at the two main answers that are floating around out there already:

  1. The U.S. isn’t a Christian nation, but it should be; and
  2. The U.S. shouldn’t be a Christian nation, but it is (or at least it’s starting to look like one).

The first answer comes from folks who believe our society to be guilty of various grievous sins that have moved us away from the vision of our nation’s founders, who intended America to be a country that honored the God of the Bible. The second answer comes from folks who aver that most of those founders were Deists, not Christians, and that they built into the Constitution a wall of separation between church and state–a wall in danger of demolition from folks in the first group.

While differing over whether the U.S. should be a Christian nation, they seem to agree on the possibility that it could be one (the former group yearns for this outcome; the latter fears it). But here’s where I want to propose a third answer:

     3. The U.S. can't be a Christian nation.
This answer has nothing to do with whether the Constitution allows the U.S. to be a Christian nation (it doesn’t, but that’s not the point) and everything to do with whether a “Christian nation” could even exist. To call an individual a Christian means that she or he has experienced the grace of Jesus’ saving life, death, and resurrection, and that he or she has committed to follow Jesus. But organizations are not individuals; they have no “soul” to save. A group--be it a knitting circle or a nation state--can only be Christian to the extent that its rules of group behavior base themselves on the way of Jesus.

At the heart of that way is self-sacrifice, giving oneself away on behalf of others. As the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr has noted, this kind of self-sacrifice is possible (albeit difficult) for individuals, but practically impossible for organizations or institutions. Why? Because inevitably in the life of organizations, the (unspoken, yet overriding) desire for self-preservation becomes the highest priority, trumping all other goals and values. This is true even in organizations founded to promote Christian ministries, like the one where I work. As Niebuhr said, the larger the organization or group, the more powerful the urge to self-preservation becomes, and the less likely altruistic or sacrificial behavior. And what organization is larger than a country? When it comes to nations like ours (or anybody’s, for that matter), we are going to pursue and promote our self-interests; there is no other choice. You can call that common sense, you can call it realism, but you can’t call it Christian.

Actually, there is one organization or institution explicitly committed to following the sacrificial way of Jesus: the local congregation. Yeah, I know; neither your church nor mine is doing the best job of this. But they are the only places that make the way of Jesus their explicit reason for being. So, why don’t we spend less time trying to create a logical impossibility--a “Christian America”--and worry more about strengthening the witness and authenticity of that flawed, yet genuinely Christian organization, the local congregation? 

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