When I touched on America as a “Christian Nation” in my last Word for Wednesday, Rebecca from Freaky Frugalite left a comment that made me realize that much of the controversy surrounding this issue results from fuzzy terminology. This post is an attempt to rectify that problem. [I also want to acknowledge that a pithy comment left by Dave from Brainbiter resulted in the title of this post.]
In my attempt to do away with the fuzzies, I’ll start with some definitions in bold taken from the 1828 Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary. My personal definitions are more narrow (and blunt), so I’ve included my thoughts on each.
- A believer in the religion of Christ. Simply believing doesn’t cut it. Demons also believe. (James 2:19)
- A professor of his belief in the religion of Christ. Many hypocrites profess belief in Christ with their lips, but their heart is far away from God. (Matthew 15:8)
- A real disciple of Christ; one who believes in the truth of the Christian religion, and studies to follow the example, and obey the precepts, of Christ; a believer in Christ who is characterized by real piety. No flesh will be justified in God’s sight by the works of the law. (Romans 3:20)
- In a general sense, the word Christian includes all who are born in a Christian country or of Christian parents. Our first birth is immaterial. We must be born again of the Spirit to enter the kingdom of God. (John 3:3-8)
- A body of people inhabiting the same country, or united under the same sovereign or government; as the English nation; the French nation. It often happens that many nations are subject to one government; in which case, the word nation usually denotes a body of people speaking the same language, or a body that has formerly been under a distinct government, but has been conquered, or incorporated with a larger nation. Thus the empire of Russia comprehends many nations, as did formerly the Roman and Persian empires. Nation, as its etymology imports, originally denoted a family or race of men descended from a common progenitor, like tribe, but by emigration, conquest and intermixture of men of different families, this distinction is in most countries lost.
- A great number, by way of emphasis. This definition does not apply.
- The etymology of “nation” shows the root word comes from the Latin nationem (nom. natio) “nation, stock, race,” literally “that which has been born.”
While the following passages are not the only definitions of a Christian, they contain the elements that are closest to my heart, emphasis added:
Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:3-8)
“Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ–this Jesus whom you crucified.” Now when they [the Jews] heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:36-38)
If being a Christian requires a second birth, a heart-piercing acknowledgment of sin, repentance from those sins, baptism, and a receipt of the indwelling Holy Spirit; and if a nation is comprised of people joined only by geography or government, who may or may not fit this definition of Christian; how can a nation possibly be Christian? A Christian is an individual who has given their life to Christ. It’s rare for an entire family to give their lives to Christ. It stretches the imagination that even a small town would be comprised of all Christians. An entire nation has never, and will never, be a Christian nation, regardless of the laws that may exist. It’s an oxymoron.
Governments are given the sword for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. (Romans 13:1-5; 1 Peter 2:13-14) Whenever government steps beyond that narrow mission, it is no longer in God’s will.
By claiming that America is a Christian nation, we claim that what is done by our government is done in Christ’s name. On a smaller scale, it’s the same principle that applies to a car with a fish on the back. If that car cuts someone off, or otherwise drives in a reckless manner, the driver brings shame and reproach on the name of Christ.
When our government tortures people and kills innocent people – like native Americans or those who live over oil fields or other coveted lands – it brings shame and reproach on the name of Christ.
Again, I have no doubt that many of those who founded our country were Christians. I have no doubt that they did their best to create a government that would please God. But that did not make us, or our nation, Christians.
In a previous post on church and state, I concluded this way:
American Christians typically approach government from one of two perspectives. Desiring to help those in need, they use the government to redistribute wealth. Others, motivated to see repentance from sin, use the government to define and enforce moral behavior.
Both positions use the coercion of the state to enforce religious practice. Neither position draws people to Christ, and in fact, interferes with the work of the Holy Spirit. In addition, it allows Christians to avoid their personal obligation to speak the truth with love, help those in need, and preach the gospel to all creation.
If Christians truly desire to draw others to Christ, they will not force society at large to fulfill their responsibilities. Moral laws do not change people, they only create self-justified hypocrites or criminals. Neither do laws save people. God changes people, and God alone, through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, can save people.
I believe the real, underlying problem in this controversy is a matter of motivation.
If our goal is to make this world a better place according to what we consider important, which is largely based on dominionism – to raise moral standards, to reduce poverty levels, to educate, to increase longevity – then passing laws may accomplish that, although a recent NY Times article by David Brooks points to a conflicting result:
Roughly a century ago, many Swedes immigrated to America. They’ve done very well here. Only about 6.7 percent of Swedish-Americans live in poverty. Also a century ago, many Swedes decided to remain in Sweden. They’ve done well there, too. When two economists calculated Swedish poverty rates according to the American standard, they found that 6.7 percent of the Swedes in Sweden were living in poverty.
In other words, you had two groups with similar historical backgrounds living in entirely different political systems, and the poverty outcomes were the same.
A similar pattern applies to health care. In 1950, Swedes lived an average of 2.6 years longer than Americans. Over the next half-century, Sweden and the U.S. diverged politically. Sweden built a large welfare state with a national health service, while the U.S. did not. The result? There was basically no change in the life expectancy gap. Swedes now live 2.7 years longer.
Again, huge policy differences. Not huge outcome differences.
I suspect that if someone could calculate the Christianity of two different countries, one of which had laws about a National Day of Prayer and many Christian symbols strewn about, and the other which completely ignored religion, the results would be the same. Governments do not make Christians. It’s not their job.
If our goal, however, is to go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation (Mark 16:15), then government laws are at best irrelevant, and at worst counterproductive. As Jim from the Chestnut Tree Cafe commented on the previous post, the atmosphere of the palace has always been deadly to the Church. Persecution is the food on which she grows.
We can fight to keep the National Day of Prayer and the other Christian elements contained in our government. Or we can fight for souls.
God gives each individual the free will to choose to repent and follow Him, or to continue on the path to hell. Government should do the same. The language of the First Amendment in this regard is God-given:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ;
Among the last words attributed to Jesus in the Bible are these, addressed to the church in Laodicea:
I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth. (Revelation 3:15-16)
Government laws, if they do anything, create lukewarm Christians. What a heart-breaking tragedy.
Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS.’ (Matthew 7:21-23)
And someone said to Him, “Lord, are there just a few who are being saved?” And He said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. Once the head of the house gets up and shuts the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock on the door, saying, ‘Lord, open up to us!’ then He will answer and say to you, ‘I do not know where you are from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets’; and He will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you are from; DEPART FROM ME, ALL YOU EVILDOERS.’ (Luke 13:23-27)