Thursday, August 02, 2007

A Christian Nation?

A friend of mine told me recently that ours used to be a Christian nation, but that sadly it no longer is. He was miffed. He was longing for a national return to our Christian roots. I told him that in my opinion ours never was a Christian nation. That bothered him a little, as if I were questioning one of the verities, and our conversation was not very productive. Consequently, I’ve been thinking the matter over, wondering what we mean when we say something is "Christian." We sometimes use that adjectival label to describe books, movies, nations. It seems that we mean that the book, movie or nation embodies certain presumptions that we associated with a "Christian world-view." Prominent among these: presumptions about the world (i.e, that it was created), about human nature (i.e., that it is fallen), and about God (i.e., that he actively rules over his creation); presumptions that are distinctly Biblical, or Christian, or (often) Judeo-Christian.

And yet, of course, the word "Christian" means, at its most fundamental level, "of Christ." When we look at American history, we do not find a nation of disciples, committed to following Jesus in all things. Well, yes, you do find a nation rife with Christianese, and leaders that refer to "the God of the universe" early and often in every speech, but what you see upon looking closely, if you are honest, is a nation of sinners bent upon their sinful pursuits. There is no point in our history as a nation that was in some sense a golden age of purity, humility, and Christlike behavior.

Now, this is not to say that we did not have some great leaders. Some, like George Washington, were models of humility. But what God, pray tell, did Ben Franklin worship, and wasn’t it Thomas Jefferson who cut all the miraculous passages out of his New Testament because they did not conform to his rationalist world-view? What a mixed-bag Hamilton was, and let’s not get into the beliefs of the most popular polemicist of the revolutionary period, Tom Paine.

But what’s really going on here, I think, is a confusion of terms. The way we use the term "Christian" in application to a person is quite different than the way we use it in application to a nation. When we speak of a person being a Christian, sometimes we simply mean that he goes to church? But other times we mean that he counts Jesus as his savior, and himself as saved by God’s grace and nothing more? In other words, in the latter instance we are speaking not of a man’s church-attendance (even though everyone agrees that church-attendance does not save), but of the state of his immortal soul. But hardly ever do we refer to a man or woman as "Christian" simply because they have a Christian world-view. That’s a usage we reserve for books, movies, and nations.

Was the "Christian world-view" more widely held (and indeed more or less unquestioned) in the early days than it is now? Certainly. But that’s all. Was Jesus glorified in our founding documents? No. Was the behavior of our populace morally purer then than now? Maybe, maybe not. Read if you will about the widespread brawling and alcoholism of the period; the keeping of mistresses among the well-to-do, the conspicuous consumption of the rich, and the national economic dependence on the enforced enslavement of Blacks. Hmm, some Christian nation!

In my opinion, it would help if we settled what we really mean by "Christian." According to my personal lexicon, the word simply refers to a follower of Jesus Christ. Not simply a good person, nor a person with certain views and allegiance to certain ancient virtues, but a person who has cast his lot with Jesus in answer to his simple call, "Follow me." A Jesus-person. According to this definition, a nation cannot ever be called Christian. It can be sort of Christianish, yes. But God saves individuals, not nations. We are better served when we see the past without our rose-tinted shades.


Anonymous said...

the word or label "Christian" has gotten to have a perplexed meaning for both believers in Christ and nonbelievers. That is why i have attempted to use a different way to describe my belief now, instead of relying on that one deformed word.

Milton Stanley said...

Excellent points, Bob. I don't remember where I ran across the idea some years ago, but someone brought to my attention that, biblically, "Christian" is a noun, not an adjective. It cannot accurately describe a nation, movie, television station, song, or store but only a person. That distinction may be extreme, but it prevents a lot of muddled thinking. Peace.

Bob said...

Yes, and I think that's the way I intend to use the word from now on. It refers to a person, and at that to the state of a person's soul, not to a lifestyle or a set of "family values," etc. Thanks for your input, Milton and Nancy.