In our most recent presidential campaign the motto “America First” won the day. However, Jesus said that we should seek first the kingdom of God. Although I have some sympathy with the concept of the USA as an exceptional nation, I am uncomfortable with the concept of the United States as a “Christian nation.” Why?
First, for theological reasons. God loves the world (John 3:16). I don’t believe that any nation has a “favored status” in the heart of God. In Christ, God has formed a new people from all the nations of the earth and in this present age God’s new people are “aliens and strangers” in exile (1 Peter 2:9-11). No single nation can claim the right of divine statehood. The “people of God” transcends borders, cultures, and national politics.
Second, for political reasons. If we define “Christian nation” as a nation-state in which Christianity is the historically predominant religion, then there are many Christian nations – the United States, Great Britain, Russia, Italy, Spain, etc. But history reminds us that even though Christian nation-states have made great contributions to humanity, they have failed to produce the utopian Kingdom of God. We should never forget Germany is a historically Christian nation that has produced some of the greatest Christian theologians in the world; but it also produced one of the greatest evils in the world – Hitler.
Third, for historical reasons. It is commonly asserted that the United States was founded upon biblical principles. The truth is more complicated. Yes, many came to the American colonies in search of religious freedom – ironically, freedom from the intolerant Christian nation-states of Europe. Yes, it is true that many of the founders were devout Christians – Anglicans, Catholics, Quakers, Baptists, etc. It is also true that many of our founders were more influenced by the political philosophies of Enlightenment thinkers and viewed religion with great skepticism. The founders gathered together in Philadelphia in the summer of 1776 were a religious and political milieu representing the combined European traditions of Christianity and Renaissance Humanism. Therefore, the debates in Philadelphia were often very contentious.
Also, if we are willing to be truthful, we must confess that the founders’ declaration that “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” did not include women, Native Americans, or African slaves. The Constitution defined African slaves as 3/5 human and enshrined slavery. The pursuit of the “Manifest Destiny” of the United States resulted in the genocide of Native Americans. Women were not politically enfranchised until 1920 with the passing of 19th amendment to the US Constitution (ironically, opposed by the Democrats!). Christians were on both sides of the issues. Some demanded the abolition of slavery, sought to protect the rights of Native Americans, and encouraged women’s suffrage. Others defended the institution of slavery, embraced Manifest Destiny with no concern about the rights of Native Americans, and argued against a women’s right to vote.
The history of the United States is also filled with great religious significance. There have been several “awakenings.” The Great Awakening occurred in the early 18th century, prior to the French and Indian War, and spread across the thirteen colonies. The “Second Great Awakening” was sparked by in the late 1790’s and continued for about three decades. After the Civil War the country was captivated by the Holiness Movement; and then at the beginning of the 20th century the Pentecostal Movement began throughout the United States and quickly spread throughout the world. These revivals sparked various socio-political movements; including public education, the abolition of slavery, prohibition of alcohol, and women’s suffrage.
The United States has been profoundly influenced by the Christian faith. As we celebrate another Independence Day, the questions before us are: How will the United States (and the world) be favorably influenced by the Christian faith in the future? And, how can we promote religious tolerance in a culture that is increasingly suspect of religious political influence?
We must practice great discernment as we promote the mission of Jesus Christ without bowing before the idol of Christian nationalism.
As ambassadors of Jesus Christ, we must be ever mindful that our primary allegiance is to His mission, representing His kingdom before the nations of the world.