I confess that I’m puzzled by the debate on whether this country is a “Christian nation.” Apparently, it is very important to some people that this be true, including some who are not particularly vigilant in either their religious belief or practice. To others, it is neither important nor desirable, somewhere slightly above or below the level of indifference. Then there are those who take a more logical approach, viewing the idea that the United States is a Christian nation as something of a non sequitur; the conclusion is false because it simply does not follow from either the evidence or the logic of the argument. And, of course, some roundly reject the notion without hesitation.
The sources of my puzzlement come from several different areas, but they all tend to converge at one point: I simply don’t know what the proponents and detractors mean by Christian nation. I would think that at a minimum, the phrase means that this country as a body politic is grounded or established in some explicit or evident way in Christianity as either a set of distinctive beliefs, moral values, distinguishing practices or all of the above. Somehow, that which makes this nation a “nation” has to be shown to be grounded in that which makes Christianity “Christian,” and so far, I’m not persuaded by the proponents that it is. As it happens, the meanings of Christian nation as this argument is made are much more ambiguous and malleable.
So I’m puzzled by the notion that our system of government is indicative of our status as a Christian nation. If, by some stretch of the imagination, our government as articulated in the Constitution and its amendments is actually berthed in Christian beliefs and morality, it seems most odd that the document would at the same time sever the governmental infrastructure from its own theological moorings by encoding the disestablishment of religion. The notion that our government is a Christian government is misguided. The Bible does not prescribe any particular form of government or civil authority, and the types and practices of government found narrated in the Bible are as far removed from constitutional democracy as heaven is from earth.
It is no less puzzling to me that some claim that the fact that Christianity is the predominant religion in the U.S. warrants the idea that we are a Christian nation. As Pew’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey reports, 78.4% of adults in this country identify as Christian, and this is not an insignificant number. But to press the point that this warrants the nation’s classification as Christian is specious logic. Which brand of Christianity is the United States, or what form of Christianity does or should it exemplify? The fact is that there are multiple Christianities in the U.S., each with its own peculiar history, set of beliefs, moral values, traditions, and religious practices. Indeed, there is not even agreement among those who self-identify as Christian regarding what groups should be included in the circle of Christians. And who gets to decide which Christianity is the true one, or the truer one?
Moreover, there is no generic Christianity available, no Platonic eternal form of Christianity, incarnated in multiple types in our context, to which one can appeal to warrant the view that we are a Christian nation because Christianity predominates. Rather, supposing that there is one universal Christianity, of which particular types in the United States are but misshapen approximations or plausible variations, is simply the reification of a non-historical, non-cultural Christianity, a notion that has to be abandoned when one looks at the concrete varieties of Christianity in our nation’s history. What good is a generic or transcendental Christianity if we can’t have it right here among us, seeable, touchable, hearable, tasteable, feelable?
Even if we supposed that all those who brought leadership to our nation’s founding were acting intentionally out of a recognizable Christian faith, we still face the problem of discerning clearly the connections between their faith, their political philosophy, and the actual system of government they developed. Their writings come down to us as social, political and philosophical essays rather than theological treatises. We encounter something of an enigma when we read references to the “Creator” and to “Nature’s God” in these writings; it is not self-evident whether the referents of such terms would be recognizable as identical, compatible, or contradictory with ideas of God or deity more commonly found among Christians today. Arguably, most if not all of such terms in the writings of the founders are oblique references to deity, unlike the ostensible references to be found in the theological literature. But supposing that these references and the thinking behind them establish the Christian foundation of the nation overlooks the need to elucidate the connections between faith, political philosophy, and governmental structure.
So we have a substantial number of adults in this country who self-identify as Christian. But not all of them believe that this country is a Christian nation. According to a Pew Research Center survey in 2006, two out of every three Americans believe this (67%), slightly down from the number in 2005 (71%), but certainly up from the number in 1996 (60%).
What puzzles me about this is the apparent incongruity between the substantial number of Christians who believe we are a Christian nation on the one hand, and the shifting views on whether communities of Christians should keep out of politics. If we suppose that we are a Christian nation, should we not also suppose that our Christianity warrants our political activity?
Yet interestingly enough, according to another Pew study, between 2004 and 2008, the number of Americans who believe that churches and other houses of worship should stay out of politics rose from 43% to 52%. Among Republicans, the increase was 14 points (37% – 51%), and for social conservatives, the increase was 20 points (30% – 50%). Among Protestant Christians, the increases ranged from 11 to 13 points. The Pew report notes: “This pattern is equally stark along ideological lines. In 2004, liberals were twice as likely as conservatives (62% vs. 30%) to say churches should keep out of political matters. Today, the ideological divide is much smaller, with 57% of liberals and 50% of conservatives holding this view.”
Our recent midterm elections were an ideal occasion for religionists who believe this country is a Christian nation to give evidence of this notion. At the very least, it was an opportunity for Christians to show the correlation between their religion and their social and political views. Sadly, this can only be said of a tiny minority. As we move from the number of people who profess to be Christians, to the number who believe this is a Christian nation, to the number who think churches should be engaged in matters of politics, to the number of people for whom their faith plays an influential role in their voting, we see the numbers get smaller and smaller.
In their analysis of their post-election survey of voters, researchers at the Public Religion Research Institute 2010 Post-election report FINAL.pdf found that 73% of voters declared that their faith or religious values played an identical role in their voting in the 2010 election in comparison to previous elections, while 6% claimed that their faith played an even larger role. On the surface, these figures appear to represent a very high percentage of voters. The problem, however, is not that religion played a role, but what role religion played. In comparison to other influences on voting, religion was acknowledged as the biggest influence by only 9% of the voters. For those 73% who declared that faith played the same role this election as in previous elections, this effectively means that faith played no role.
What, then, were the biggest acknowledged influences on voters in 2010? For seven out of ten voters, the biggest influence was common sense and personal experience. Slightly more than one out of ten indicated it was what they had read or heard in the media. Apparently, the influence of friends and family is miniscule for it was acknowledged by only 4% percent of the voters, slightly less than those who acknowledged their religious beliefs.
Another anomaly in the notion that we are a Christian nation has to do with the thinking regarding the role of religious communities in our society. In a 2008 survey, Pew Research Center discovered that 75% of Americans believe that churches, synagogues and other religious organizations contribute to solving important social problems. When one thinks about “social problems,” one can identify a panoply of problems that rank as important: the economy and jobs, energy, terrorism, education, immigration, the financial system, health care, the environment, war, abortion, same-sex marriage, and budget deficits come to mind. But it is not entirely clear in what the contribution of religious communities consists or how it solves social problems.
On the other hand, the 2010 Post-Election American Values Survey, conducted by Public Religion Research Institute 2010 Post-election report FINAL.pdf found that 56% of Americans believe that, whatever one may focus on in terms of social problems, they would effectively be resolved “if enough people had a personal relationship with God.” Even so, it is difficult to imagine how this alteration would achieve resolution apart from some system or structural change in our society, and that puts the matter of personal relationship with God into the public sphere (i.e., politics, which most Americans believe is not a domain for religionists, as we’ve seen).
Thus it should not come as a surprise that faith and religion play very little if any role for a significant number of self-professed Christians when it comes to voting as an exercise of their civic responsibility. Apparently, it also plays very little role in how they think and engage various issues of public moment, whether or not they are identified as “social problems.” On a range of issues identified just prior to the 2010 election, the Pew Research Center found that invariably only a small percentage of Americans indicate that religion has influenced their thinking and views on certain social and political matters (environment, 6%; immigration, 7%; government assistance to the poor, 10%; death penalty, 19%; abortion, 26%; same-sex marriage, 35%).
So I’m puzzled by all the discussion about a Christian America. I have my own ideas about other indices of Christianness in our society, but the measures so far on offer leave me more annoyed and confused than anything else. At the same time, just as I have come to doubt there ever was a Christian nation on this continent, I’m not certain I would like for there to be one, now or in the future. I would like a country where all may thrive and where equality and justice prevail, where diversity matters richly and mutual regard and respect are characteristic of every social exchange. I could do with a lot less greed and egotism, and a lot more devotion to, and compassion for, one another.
So far, though, I’m not seeing it. So the claim that we are a Christian nation rings hollow for me.