The Myth of the Christian Country

“America is a Christian country”.

I hear it every so often from various American believers, usually as the rationale behind some example of American exceptionalism or attempt to force pagans to live like Christians by force of law.

It’s an odd statement, on the face of it, and occasionally, when I’m feeling particularly bloodyminded, I challenge people on it.

“Really? What makes it Christian?”

Certainly not everyone in it is a Christian, or even claims to be (though in Texas it sometimes seems as though they do). Some vast percentage beyond all apparent reason claims to believe in God, but so do Muslims. So do Hindus, though they conceive of God in vastly different terms (ultimate reality is impersonal spirit, not personal Being). According to the Bible even demons believe in one God, for all the good it does them.

Some other nearly as vast percentage claims to be a Christian, and an only slightly smaller percentage claims to be born again. But claims and reality don’t always match up: I could claim to be a goat, but it wouldn’t noticeably increase my caprine traits.

A staggering number of people claim to be regular churchgoers, though it’s difficult to see where they could be hiding, given the comparatively low attendance numbers that churches collectively tend to report. I think a lot of people are telling the pollsters what they think ought to be true, not what actually is. And even if they were all in church, not everyone in a McDonalds is a chicken mcnugget.

We know all this, but it bears repeating, because we’re looking at how America is a Christian country. It obviously isn’t “Christian” in the sense of all (or a majority) of its citizens being followers of Christ.

If it were, things might get a little silly. The oath of citizenship might function as a sort of Sinner’s Prayer, and standing with hand on heart during The Star-Spangled Banner might be equivalent to Communion.

As I said, “silly”.

We’re told that the Founding Fathers were Christians. I must be careful what I say here as a foreigner, but doubtless many of them were or claimed to be. I have an abiding respect for the people who could write the Constitution of the United States, but it gets argued that many of them were at best Deists: believers in a kind of Watchmaker God who set everything going in the beginning, but who wasn’t much involved with human affairs.

You can argue this point backwards and forwards. The idea that you can create the ideal society and government by human effort is a very Deistic one, but then, the Founders’ consciousness of the hand of Providence in the great enterprise of nation-building points to a far more involved Supreme Being than real Deism portrays.

I’ve not really studied it myself very much, but I just point out that whether or not they were Christians is not straightforward to judge at this temporal distance. Even if they were alive today, Scripture warns us against presuming to be in the place of God deciding who is saved and who isn’t. And even assuming they were, that’s not quite the same as the country itself as a whole being Christian.

We are told that America was founded on Christian principles. This is by far the most common argument advanced, as well as the most interesting.

I always want to ask “Which ones?”

Do not murder, do not steal, do not commit adultery, do not bear false witness against your neighbour are all fundamental to our moral laws, but they aren’t exclusively Christian principles. Every traditional moral code in existence has something like most of these.

When it comes down to it, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is the basis of punitive justice – not to go further in redressing a grievance than the original ill – but Christians are called to a higher law. I really can’t see that much evidence for specifically Christian principles like turning the other cheek, forgiving as God forgave us and not looking to our own works to achieve any standing for ourselves before God.

Admittedly, a nation’s corporate morality isn’t always quite the same as an individuals, because a nation has a responsibility to protect its citizens, and sometimes that means a soldier, sailor or airman being told to go and kill someone for the sake of the nation’s safety. But I stand by my statement: specifically Christian foundational principles aren’t that easy to find in any nation’s legal underpinnings.

And it‘s not that Britain has historically been any different. Every argument advanced for America being Christian has also been advanced at some time for the United Kingdom, and we have a state church of which the Sovereign is the earthly head, which might actually make it easier to argue the case of “Christian countryhood”. America has a Constitution specifically forbidding the establishment of one religion as the national faith.

But the Church in Britain has largely abandoned its comforting illusion that “Britain is a Christian country”. Most of the time, the people who still think this is the case are Muslims, because that’s how Islam works.

It’s a comforting idea. It allows us to feel really good about our country (and who doesn’t like to do that?), and indeed, it makes patriotism into a sacred duty. It gives us, or appears to give us, a moral basis for challenging laws we don’t like.

But it’s ultimately an illusion.

With the possible exception of Israel, I don’t believe God counts nation-states themselves as His children, and even with Israel the Bible makes a distinction between the physical and spiritual Israels: A man is not a Jew if one is merely one outwardly; the true circumcision is of the heart and not performed by the hands of men. I’d personally add in a distinction between the Jewish nation, the spiritual Israel and the State of Israel, but that’s not to say they don’t overlap, in some cases quite a lot.

Put another way, I’m not a Christian because I’m English any more than Jesus is a horse because He was born in a stable.

But so what? Even if it’s kind of illusory, it’s not doing any harm, is it?

The real danger presented by this comforting illusion is that it makes the church take its position for granted.

If we ever could, we can afford to do that no longer. There are more people than ever growing up in America without any real connection with a church. Not only do they not believe in Jesus, they don’t even have the basic concepts we take for granted: sin (many people think it means sex, or else “big” sins like murder and stealing), grace (“that thing some people do before they eat to show how holy they are”), holy (I think most people’s functioning definition is “austere, unpleasant and a killjoy”) and so on.

We can no longer assume that people know what we mean when we say “repent and believe the Gospel”. This is partly why so much of the time you’ll see me unpack the term and say something more along the lines of “good news about the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah” rather than “Gospel”. We keep on assuming that Americans are like the Jews in New Testament times: that they already have most of the foundations, and you just have to challenge them to yield control of their lives to God. In reality, increasingly Americans are like Greeks in the New Testament: they have no grasp of the Law, the Prophets, who God is or even that there really is one God. They have their own little gods that they pursue and trust in: money, sex, power, stuff, sports, music. But in increasing numbers they know nothing about God.

Britain is even further down that road. If you assume that a Brit is churched in any degree whatsoever, you’re probably in for a rude shock.

Don’t get me wrong; it would be great if people had more of a foundation. We wouldn’t have to do so much building of truth into people’s lives in order to get them to understand why the death of an innocent man is Good News. But we would be fools if we were to assume the presence of a foundation that isn’t there. No-one building a house just assumes that the foundation has already been laid; trust me, I work in construction. It takes more work and more time if we have to put in the foundations as well, but do we really want to build a temple for the Living God on foundations of sand?

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