I teach a course in which the central thesis is that but for the Western religious traditions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, etc.), the Western world would not look the way that it does today. There is much in our culture—fundamental respect for human rights, affirmation of the dignity of human life, an emphasis on common humanity and equality before God and the law—that would not necessarily have existed had the dominant religious influences been Norse or Greek paganism. And so, there is some truth to the claim that our nation was founded based on religious principles, even if those principles were of the more implicit kind noted above than explicit ones.
But there is an oft-repeated refrain that America was founded as a “Christian country” and there is happiness in some quarters over the belief that it is “returning” to that intended state. Let’s leave aside for the moment the question of whether the Founders intended to erect a Christian state (they didn’t) or whether a state that privileged one religion over another would violate our fundamental democratic precepts (it would). Let’s look simply at the question of what do we mean when we say “a Christian country” and whether such a thing is even possible.
It is necessary to distinguish “a Christian country” from “a country of Christians,” though, I suspect that in many people’s minds the two concepts are conflated. (We will leave aside for now the even more dangerous conflation of Christian and American.) But when we look at it, it’s clear that the two ideas must be different. If “a Christian country” is the same thing as a “country of Christians” then in what way is the United States presently a Christian country? As of 2014, Christians only make up 70% of the U.S. population. Is a simple majority of citizens enough to make the country one religion or another? And if the U.S. as presently constituted is not a Christian country, then how is this vision for our country to be achieved? Is the state supposed to serve only the interests of Christians? Are the remaining 30% to be driven from our shores? Converted using state coercion?
With rare exception (one hopes) most Christians would not want to see any of those tactics employed—especially if it means wielding the power of the state to achieve those ends. What that means is that if “Christian country” means “a country of Christians” then the U.S. has never been, and never will be, such a country. We have always had non-Christians living on our shores and we always will. A concept of Christian country that is simply a country privileging its largest religious group is incompatible with the American ideal.
And so, what does it mean to speak of “a Christian country” that doesn’t mean “a country of Christians”? Can a nation be baptized? Can the state place its trust in Christ and in his grace and profess the ancient creeds? Can a nation as a whole experience the assurance of salvation and begin amendment of life? The definition of “Christian” for an individual makes no sense when applied to the entire body politic.
The only possible meaning, aside from the narrow tribalistic one earlier discussed, is that “a Christian country” in some way embodies Christian principles. But which ones?
At the heart of Matthew’s gospel, in chapters 5 through 7, is a theological masterpiece. It is the cornerstone of Christian ethics, a particular set of Jesus’ teachings that are admired by Christian and non-Christian alike: the Sermon on the Mount. It is one of five major discourses of Jesus that Matthew presents in his gospel, but it is the most famous of them. And it has some of the most powerful verses in all of scripture:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy…
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called Children of God….
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”
One could reasonably ask how on earth a nation-state is meant to live out this ethic. Are evildoers not to be resisted? Is a state supposed to turn the other cheek to invading armies? Is our justice system to be devoid of judgment? Notions of Christian perfection are very difficult to translate into the reality of statecraft. It was for that very reason that the church developed Just War theory—out of a recognition that a Christian prince might have to use violence in defense of justice, something that an individual Christian not responsible for the security of the body politic could not do.
Perhaps it is out of recognition that these warrants are unattainable that many Christians have settled for a less ambitious approach that focuses on a legislative agenda concerning certain issues of morality. Or perhaps it’s a reflection that “Christianity” is very popular in the abstract but isn’t really ever applied in any meaningful way beyond the superficial. As G.K. Chesterton famously put it: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”
As I said at the outset, I do believe that our world has been shaped by deep-seated religious ideas. But the expression of those ideas must be something more than merely claiming the identity of religion. A “Christian country” is not achieved simply by having every last citizen purport to be a Christian. Nor is it achieved by narrow legislative victories in one policy realm or another. If a “Christian country” were even possible, it would be as a nation that sought to live out the most deeply embedded values of what it means to be a Christian: those principles in the Sermon on the Mount and the definition of what it means to be a follower of Christ. And when it comes to the latter, Jesus also gave very clear indication of what that looks like:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”Matthew 25:31–46 NRSV, emphasis added
I am still dubious as to whether it is possible for any country, any nation-state, any body politic to be “Christian” in any meaningful sense. But if it were, at the very least it would have to start not with tribal identity or creedal confession, but with a very real commitment to following in the way that Jesus called his followers to go: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the captive, giving voice to the oppressed. Only then would any country have any business declaring itself “a Christian country.” And given where we are in our nation today, that is a point we are not going to be reaching any time soon.