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A Christian Nation

by Tim O'Hearn

There it was again. A meme on Facebook saying, “America is a Christian Nation. Share if you agree.” First off, I never share such things, as a matter of principle. But then, there was also that other thing. I couldn’t share, because I couldn’t agree. I don’t object, as some do, to using “Christian” as an adjective; but is/was/ever will be America a Christian nation?

The first argument that some would make is that America was founded by Christians on Christian principles. Historically, that is an argument based on scanty evidence. America was founded principally on British civil law, with some modifications. At the time, most British subjects were nominally Christian, but even that demographic was shrinking. Of the American “Founding Fathers,” a few were Catholics and several were deists. Deism, in its simplest definition, is a belief that God exists as creator but has little or no interest or control in the lives of the creation. It denies the existence of miracles, but may allow for “providence.” It denies the infallibility of scriptures and relies on human reason. Some historians claim that the religion clause of the First Amendment was put there not to save Christians from government control, but to prevent Christians from denying Deists a portion in the new nation. In other words, it was established to combat the sentiments expressed in the “America is a Christian nation” meme.

Well, maybe Mr. Madison and his companions were not exactly Christians. Hasn’t America been historically predominantly Christian? Ah, there is a little word there that makes a big difference. Predominantly. By including that word, one admits that there have always been atheists, deists, pantheists, and other “ists” among the population. For a person to claim to be Christian, they have to be fully Christian. Just as a person cannot be a Christian and an atheist, neither can a nation. In fact, no nation can be characterized by any religion. America is no more a Christian nation than Iran is an exclusively Muslim nation or China is a purely Communist nation. There are Christians in all those nations, and non-Christians, and even anti-Christians. As Will Shakspere would put it, “Aye, there’s the rub.” A nation cannot be characterized as belonging only to a portion of its membership. It would be difficult, even, to say that America is an American nation.

The worst part about the “America is a Christian nation” meme is that it is used in a non-Christian way. Usually it is an expression of hatred, or at least of exclusivity. Often the sentiment seems to be that because it is supposedly a Christian nation, all other religions should stay out. If early Jewish Christians had maintained that attitude, where would most of us be today? In fact, some expressed the same thought. In Acts 15 some Jewish Christians were saying “Christianity is a Jewish religion. Share if you agree.” This led to a meeting of their elders and the apostles, in which it was decided not to take that view.

For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. (Acts 15:28-29)

These “necessary things” preceded the Jewish religion. In essence, they were saying that Christianity was open to all believers. If there were such thing as a Christian nation, and if America were one, then America could take no less of an attitude than that of the apostles: welcoming to all who would come.