Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Is America a Christian Nation? Further thoughts

Is America a Christian nation? If one means by that question: Which religion is dominant in America? Then yes, one can rightfully say that America is a predominantly Christian nation, with a decidedly Protestant cast. But that’s not the way the question is usually asked. To put it more precisely, the question appears to be: “Is America a Christian nation the way Saudi Arabia is a Muslim one?” That may be putting it a bit too starkly, but the way the question is usually asked concerns the role Christianity should play in determining the cultural, legal, and political dimensions of American life. There are a great many Americans who believe that Christianity should have a privileged place in American society and that it should set the tone for American life. Others would disagree vehemently, even suggesting that religion should have no place in public life.

This debate has become increasingly bitter in recent years as the poles have become increasingly stark. In the course of these debates, there is a tendency to look to the Founding Generation for precedents. We ask such questions as: Were the Founders believers? Or, did they believe in the separation of church and state? Just as many Christians, left and right, seek to defend their own positions with biblical references, partisans left and right seek out historical proof texts that they believe will support their viewpoints. For some, George Washington is the epitome of Christian piety, while for others the Founders not only were skeptics, but even despised Christianity.

Much of what we hear and read, unfortunately, is more myth and legend than facts of history, and these myths are told and retold largely for political benefit. The truth, like America itself, is much more complex.

Fortunately there are resources that help set the story straight. Books such as Jon Meacham’sAmerican Gospel (Random House, 2006), David Holmes’s The Faiths of the Founding Fathers (Oxford University Press, 2006), and more recently John Fea’s Was American Founded as a Christian Nation? (WJK, 2011), tell a much more nuanced story, one that recognizes the contributions of Christianity to the nation’s history, but which also acknowledge other important contributors such as the Enlightenment.

A noted historian and an Episcopalian, Holmes suggests that the first five Presidents, along with Benjamin Franklin, were Christian Deists. By his definition of Christian Deist, he means that these Founders belonged to their respective Protestant Churches, but weren’t orthodox in their beliefs or practices. Their God was largely disinterested in our personal daily lives, but this Creator did guide the broad currents of history (providence). They believed in life after death and revered Jesus as a teacher, but they weren’t Trinitarians nor did they believe in the divinity of Jesus. Their wives and daughters, on the other hand, tended to be quite pious – the exceptions being Abigail Adams and Dolley Madison. Still, this Deism was balanced by other very orthodox expressions of Christian faith on the part of people like Samuel Adams (cousin to John), John Jay, and Patrick Henry.

Whether in their orthodoxy or in their skepticism, the Founding Generation recognized the need for religious freedom, and they also understood something that seems lost today – we can work together to accomplish great things, whether spurred on by faith or not, and our differences needn’t get in the way. I’m a person of faith and my faith is the driving force in my life and in my political convictions, but I know that there are people of good faith who differ from me in their religious perspectives and their political perspectives. I should be able to work with them when and where it’s appropriate.

So, is America a Christian nation? Only in the sense that Christianity is and has been the dominant form of religious expression, at least among European Americans, from the earliest days of settlement. David Holmes makes the point that contemporary American authors needn’t “revise history to align the founder’s beliefs with their own.” Rather we must tell the story, “warts and all,” for to do otherwise is to “be untrue not only to history but also to the founders themselves” (Holmes, p. 164). America is, in my mind, bigger than these attempts to manipulate our history for political gain. We will be better off if we’re willing and able to hear and abide the truth of our own history.

Excerpt from Faith in the Public Square (book under construction)

26 comments:

Gary said...

I disagree that Christians can work together with non-Christians. We see the world, and our place in it very differently. Our differerences are irreconcilable. We disagree on almost every issue, from the appropriate size and scope of government, economics, morality, levels of freedom, origins, science, religion, education, and the list goes on. When policy favors one side, as it almost always does, the other side will be displeased.

The nominal "Christians", and they are the majority now, have far more in common with the atheists, skeptics, and agnostics than with real Christians. And I hate to use the term "nominal Christians" because it isn't accurate. Most will insist they are Christians when they are really not believers. They don't believe Christian doctrine, which is a requirement to have any claim to being a real Christian.

I don't believe that this situation can continue for much longer. But then, I don't think America, as it has existed, can last much longer. Major changes are coming.

Glenn said...

I'm wondering if back in the "good ole days" when America was a Christian nation, it was the "real" Christians or the "nominal" Christians that fought so hard to uphold the God given institution of slavery?

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

Glenn,

According to John Fea's excellent book, one of the key scars on America's history -- and the claim of its Christian origins -- is slavery. What kind of Christianity was it that gave support to this horrific institution?

Gary said...

I don't know how American-style slavery can be justified from the Bible.

Glenn said...

Oh yes Gary, I forgot. Biblical slaves led lives of luxury. Why did those silly Israelites want out of Egypt so bad when their lives of forced servitude was all peaches and cream? Not to mention all those biblical stories of entire populations of people being wiped out in the name of the Lord with any survivors just begging to be taken back to serve their remaining days as slaves to the victors. Oh what happy endings!! And who knows what Onesimus was thinking when he ran away to Rome in his attempt to escape from Philemon. He had it made as a slave in those days. And I certainly can't conceive why Paul would have felt it necessary to write to Apphia to request leniency for Onesimus when he sent him back to fulfill his fortuitous lot in life. It wasn't like the penalty for runaway slaves in those days was crucifixion or being branded with the letter F for fugitive. Not at all. In those days, runaway slaves were usually just punished by being sent to bed without any desert. Biblical slavery was nothing like American slavery in the good ole days.

Glenn said...

Oops, I meant dessert. Desert is what the Israelites were punished with for running away from their masters.

Gary said...

For it was of the LORD to harden their hearts, that they should come against Israel in battle, that he might destroy them utterly, and that they might have no favor, but that he might destroy them, as the LORD commanded Moses. Joshua 11:20

What do you think of that Glenn?

Glenn said...

I think all others pale in comparison to you when it comes to avoiding the subject at hand. Well done sir!

Gary said...

Glenn,

You don't see the relationship of that Scripture to your last post?

John said...

Gary, I see the connection: you are suggesting that the hearts of our slave-supporting founders were hardened, just like Pharoah's in order eventually to cause God to bring divine destruction on our nation.

Then do you agree with the proposition that the United States is not a Christian nation? If we were ever a "Christian nation" it is hard to understand why God would have planned our destruction from the nation's vary creation?

Or are you merely suggesting that God is planning on destroying our nation because we have perverted Christianity and failed to love God and one another as commanded - and that our fatally self-destructive failure to love God and one another began with the institution of slavery?

John said...

Gary,

I disagree with you: I think people, as humans and as children of God were created to work together in community, and they are called by Jesus Christ to constantly work toward reconciliation - and to never give up, even if the fail in 7 times 7 attempts.

As a believer, you are not allowed to give up trying for reconciliation, without first forfeiting your claim to be a believer.

Gary said...

John,

In answer to your first post"

No, I wasn't thinking of the Founder's hearts.

As I've already said, I do not think the USA is now a Christian nation. Most of the people in America are not Christians, the government, and most of the churches, schools, businesses, etc. do not operate according to Scripture, but in defiance of it. And you reap what you sow.

Glenn said...

I understand how you see the relationship of that scripture to my post. What I don't see is how you could so easily ignore the unspoken question contained in the overall content of that post. But O.K., I'll play. What I see in the scripture that you referenced is the inescapable conclusion that those who came against Israel in battle had no choice in the matter because God "hardened" their hearts. That speaks of the possibility that those people might have chosen not to oppose Israel, except for the actions of a God whose purposes required the genocidal slaughter of a people. They were used as pawns in a celestial game of chess. If I accept that at face value, I admit to feeling that the scripture portrays God in a somewhat unfavorable light. But I certainly understand how it explains away the genocide in your mind. So now that I've addressed your question, I would be interested in your answer to the question posed by my post. Why do you feel that slavery in biblical times was any less brutal of an institution than American slavery when the historical as well as biblical record indicates otherwise?

Gary said...

Glenn,

I never said that slavery in Biblical times was different from the American version. But, I never said it wasn't either. I know a little about American slavery, and a little about the slavery of the Hebrews in Egypt, but not much about it in any other context.

That you would think that God is portrayed in an unfavorable light, in any Scripture, demonstrates your perverted theology and your perverted morals. That you would ever think that God shouldn't have done something that he did, or should have done something that he didn't, shows that you are trying to hold God to a moral standard of your own making, instead of acknowledging God's right to do as he pleases. God holds you to a moral standard, you don't hold him to one.

John said...

What is the appropriate human response is to Scriptural representations of God which appear to challenge God's commtment to justice or compassion. Do we conclude that God's justice is different from human justice? Do we step back and conclude that the ways of God are a mystery? Do we leave open the possibility that humans are more just or more compasionate that God? Do we question the integrity of Scripture?

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

I think it might be worth going back to the question that I asked, and that Gary responded to -- and that was whether the Founder's allowance for slavery serves as a negative mark on the claim that the nation, at its founding, was Christian. Gary answered that there is no biblical defense of American slavery. That is a key point, as proponents of American slavery sought to ground the practice in the biblical text -- that is, the assumption that the New Testament writers approved of slavery. Gary noted that these texts can't be used in defense of the American practice. I would agree.

Thus, the next layer of questions concern why the NT gave instructions for Master/slave relationships. One of the resources for that conversation might be my study book on Ephesians!!

John said...

Bob,

OK, I will bite.

While there seems that there is general agreement from both sides that America is not a truly Christian nation, and also the institution of American slavery has no support in the Bible.

However, I will disagree on both counts. America is culturally Christian; even practitioners of other faiths doff their hats to American Christian customs and practices - no matter how well we attempt to camouflage them (how can we ever forget "spring spheres"!?!"

Moreover, we espouse the ethical teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Atheistic Democratic Liberals, while disavowing (and perhaps even unaware of) any connection with teachings of Jesus hold their commitment to social justice as the highest ethical obligation of humanity, the same social justice which Jesus preached from the Mountain). And even the most hardened Republican will acknowledge that as individuals we are obliged to personally give generously to the poor.

And practitioners of other faiths likewise lift up those very same values as core values of American society and citizenship. While they are quick to claim that these values are common to their own faith traditions, my perception is that these values are not highly regarded as public virtues in the countries from which they came.

My point is that Christian virtues and values, and Christian traditions have been internalized as American virtues, values and traditions.

Even Christian Doctrine has been Americanized - that is we all believe that as rugged and self-empowered individuals we are free to determine what doctrines are true and what doctrines we will abide with. So we have at least 26,000 Christian denominations.

Not only has America been Christianized, but Christianity has been Americanized.

Slavery next.

Glenn said...

Bob,

I agree that scripture, read in historical context, cannot be used to defend slavery. But If you ask someone today about the proof texts that were used to defend the practice of slavery in America what I often hear is that while slavery was seemingly accepted by God's people in the Bible, slavery wasn't the same back then. This is a favorite argument of Christian radio host Bob Dutko. They will say that while slavery is wrong, biblical slavery wasn't so bad because it was somehow less brutal and less institutionalized. I assumed that was what Gary was saying when he stated that the BIble couldn't be used to justify "American-style" slavery versus slavery in general.

John said...

The proponents of American Slavery relied on their interpretation of Scripture to defend the practice.

It might be conclusively argued that America Slavery, and slavery in general are anti-biblical, but it must be acknowledged that the writers of the Bible would not have agreed.

While the Bible was being composed slavery was a part of the social fabric of virtually every nation and the Biblical writers very likely could not have conceived of a society without some form of slavery. Their intent was not to write slavery out of existence, but to manage it, and to ameliorate the worst manifestations of it.

I do not think it was necessarily unBiblical for early Americans (especially those who were inclined to more literal interpretations) to interpret the Scriptural acceptance of institutional slavery as evidence of divine approval of the institution. Those who would ban musical instruments from worship because they are not mentioned in the Bible would be hard-pressed to argue against slavery on Biblical grounds.

I am sure that slavery's historical proponents would have argued that the fact that American slavery was particularly brutal, while evidence that the institution needed to be reformed, did not void what was otherwise solid biblical acceptance of institutional slavery.

The Mosaic attack on slavery was not on its existence as an institution but arose from God's response to Egyptian brutality with regard to enslaved Israelites. God determined that God's Chosen should be freed (to be reformed in the Exodus), not that the institution should be eliminated. Mosaic law in fact goes on to provide all sorts of approving language intended to manage the institution in ways which the Mosaic writers believed would address and redress God's concerns about abuses of otherwise acceptable institutional slavery.

I am not arguing that slavery should be revived, I am merely shining light on the fallibility of the writers of Scripture. They were human, writing in human circumstances about human issues, from very human perspectives.

While God's unrelenting call for compassion and God's empowerment of humanity and Jesus' teachings about kingdom living should have been a floodlight exposing and blotting out the scourge of slavery, the writers of the Bible were not able to make that connection and see a world without slavery.

Today we see things differently, and we have undertaken to bring the Kingdom into this world, and in the process we have recognized as sinful, an institution of which the Biblical writers approved.

John said...

Bob,

You stated in a deleted post:

I think it might be worth going back to the question that I asked, and that Gary responded to -- and that was whether the Founder's allowance for slavery serves as a negative mark on the claim that the nation, at its founding, was Christian. Gary answered that there is no biblical defense of American slavery. That is a key point, as proponents of American slavery sought to ground the practice in the biblical text -- that is, the assumption that the New Testament writers approved of slavery. Gary noted that these texts can't be used in defense of the American practice. I would agree.

Thus, the next layer of questions concern why the NT gave instructions for Master/slave relationships. One of the resources for that conversation might be my study book on Ephesians!!

OK, I will bite.

There seems there is general agreement from both sides that America is not a truly Christian nation, and also the institution of American slavery has no support in the Bible.

However, I will disagree on both counts. America is culturally Christian; even practitioners of other faiths doff their hats to American Christian customs and practices - no matter how well we attempt to camouflage them (how can we ever forget "spring spheres"!?!"

Moreover, we espouse the ethical teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Atheistic Democratic Liberals, while disavowing (and perhaps even unaware of) any connection with teachings of Jesus hold their commitment to social justice as the highest ethical obligation of humanity, the same social justice which Jesus preached from the Mountain). And even the most hardened Republican will acknowledge that as individuals we are obliged to personally give generously to the poor.

And practitioners of other faiths likewise lift up those very same values as core values of American society and citizenship. While they are quick to claim that these values are common to their own faith traditions, my perception is that these values are not highly regarded as public virtues in the countries from which they came.

My point is that Christian virtues and values, and Christian traditions have been internalized as American virtues, values and traditions.

Even Christian Doctrine has been Americanized - that is we all believe that as rugged and self-empowered individuals we are free to determine what doctrines are true and what doctrines we will abide with. So we have at least 26,000 Christian denominations.

Not only has America been Christianized, but Christianity has been Americanized.

Slavery next.

John said...

The proponents of American Slavery relied on their interpretation of Scripture to defend the practice. They thought American Slavery was Biblical defensible.

And, while it can be conclusively argued that America Slavery, and slavery in general are anti-biblical, it must be acknowledged that the writers of the Bible would not have agreed with this conclusion, and may have agreed with those Americans who sought to use the Bible to defend slavery.

While the Bible was being composed slavery was a part of the social fabric of virtually every nation and the Biblical writers very likely could not have conceived of a society without some form of slavery. Their intent was not to write slavery out of existence, but to manage it, and to ameliorate the worst manifestations of it.

I do not think it was necessarily unBiblical for early Americans (especially those who were inclined to more literal interpretations) to interpret the Scriptural acceptance of institutional slavery as evidence of divine approval of the institution. Those who would ban musical instruments from worship because they are not mentioned in the Bible would be hard-pressed to argue against slavery on Biblical grounds.

I am sure that slavery's historical proponents would have argued that the fact that American slavery was particularly brutal, while evidence that the institution needed to be reformed, did not void what was otherwise solid biblical acceptance of institutional slavery.

The Mosaic attack on slavery was not on its existence as an institution but arose from God's response to Egyptian brutality with regard to enslaved Israelites. God determined that God's Chosen should be freed (to be reformed in the Exodus), not that the institution should be eliminated. Mosaic law in fact goes on to provide all sorts of approving language intended to manage the institution in ways which the Mosaic writers believed would address and redress God's concerns about abuses of otherwise acceptable institutional slavery.

I am not arguing that slavery should be revived, I am merely shining light on the fallibility of the writers of Scripture. They were human, writing in human circumstances about human issues, from very human perspectives.

While God's unrelenting call for compassion and God's empowerment of humanity and Jesus' teachings about kingdom living should have been a floodlight exposing and blotting out the scourge of slavery, the writers of the Bible were not able to make that connection and see a world without slavery.

Today we see things differently, and we have undertaken to bring the Kingdom into this world, and in the process we have recognized as sinful, an institution of which the Biblical writers approved.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

To all involved in this conversation -- I didn't delete anyone's contributions. Blogger took down everything published yesterday (Thursday) from the system. Hopefully things will be restored. Please be patient!

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

On the issue of slavery there are several points that need to be taken separately:

1. We need to ask the question about whether the presence of slavery in America -- and among some founders of the nation -- should be seen as a mark against the nation being Christian at its founding. That is, is there a moral dimension here that the Founders, if they were Christians, should have known.

2. There is the question of how biblical texts were used and interpreted by abolitionists and slavery defenders. John Fea goes into some detail on this issue.

3. Then there is another question that relates to the way slavery was understood in the first century and earlier. There are some differences between 1st Century slavery and the race-based slavery of ante-bellum America. But however this is understood, can we, as Christians today, accept this teaching as divinely given, even if found in Scripture. Consider the reading from the lectionary for this week from the letters. It's 1 Peter 2:19-25. The creators of the lectionary separate this text from its context, which is the instruction to the Christian who is a slave, telling them how to behave regarding the master. The creators of the lectionary have tried to help the preacher by making this separation, but is it helpful? Or, should we simply face the reality of this text and decide that either God is pro-slavery or not? If not, then perhaps we must reject this particular text as a word from God.

John said...

1. Moral dimension?

Before we judge, we need to incorporate into\our assessment an understanding of how thew cultural pressures cointributed to how the founders approached slavery. If enough fiends,neighbors, and ministers claim that slavery is consistent with Scriptural, it would be unfair to judge such people by contemporary standards.

The real value of examining the moral, politca, ethical and religious limitations under which our founding fathers labored, can help us to see their cultural constraints as an object lesson regarding the cultural limitations which inform, if not control, how we interpret Scripture.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

John, I know that you didn't mean to do this, but by leaving out the r in friends, you have accused the pro-slavery folk of being "fiends." That may be true, but it is a little funny!!

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

John,

Let me respond to the point, however. The reality is that there was at the time the feeling that slavery was wrong, but that, at least in the south, it was not something that could be dealt with. It was too deeply ingrained in the culture and to address it made it impossible to unite the colonies into a nation. So the question that we have to ask is -- was this worth it?

And further, did it compromise the nation?

75 years later the nation fought a bloody war that resolved the question and saved the union, but would that have been necessary had this been dealt with in the beginning.