What Defines a “Christian Nation”?

Is it dependent upon the percentage of the population who struggle daily to obey Christ (Mat 7:21-24, 1 John 2:3-6)? What percentage would be acceptable to the founders? Can anything less than 100 percent qualify (e.g., can a Christian be 75 percent Christian)?

Is it founded by armed rebellion (Rom 13:1-2, 1 Peter 2:13,18) against a nation that acknowledges the lordship of Christ or does it refuse to war against fellow Christians (1 Peter 4:8)? Is it a theocracy - God’s choice for the nation of Israel? Does it recognize that freedom of religion allows the building of temples and shrines to other gods (think: Asherah poles), thus constituting a state-given right to violate the First Commandment of our jealous God? Does it require immigrants seeking citizenship to be Christian, as does the kingdom of God (John 14:6)? Do its founding documents establish Christianity as the state religion and cite the Bible as its source of law? Do they make reference to either "Jesus" or to "Christ"? Does its flag bear a cross? Is a lamb its national symbol? Is there a requirement that its leaders be Christian? Does its government literally adhere to the teachings of Christ (a basic requirement for any nation claiming to be founded on Christian principles)?

Does it place obedience to Christ above life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness (Mark 8:34-35)? Does it love its enemies and not resist evil persons or does it respond to them the same way as do non-Christian nations? (If the latter, is its ruler infallible in all areas or only in the decision to go to war?) Are its weapons different from the weapons of the world (2 Cor 10:3-4)? Does it refuse to possess weapons that can destroy entire populations indiscriminately, or to to export conventional weapons to other nations to use for their own agendas? Does it overcome evil with good? Does it feed its enemies when they are hungry and give them drink when they are thirsty? Does it refuse to rejoice at the downfall of its enemies? Does it trust in God rather than the pre-Christian rationalization that the end justifies the means? Does it reject torture regardless of its effectiveness? Must it have a strong military in order to “trust” in God? Or can it even be an authority that bears the sword if all who take up the sword will perish by the sword?

Does it love its neighbors as itself? Does it respect the lives and property of citizens of other nations the same as those of its own citizens? Does it extend the same legal protections to non-citizens in its custody as it does to its own citizens? Does it refrain from intimidating, coercing, or deceiving other nations or supporting foreign dictators? Is its foreign policy free of the vices that start most wars: fear, pride, vengeance or greed, masquerading as justice? When it refers to “our interests” is it understood to be referring to the kingdom of God?

Does it need to convince anyone that it’s a Christian nation or is it obvious? Does it reject pride for humility? Does it give all glory to God rather than taking the credit for its successes? Are its monuments to God rather than men (or Liberty)? Does it confess its sins and repent of them? Does it value cooperation over competition? Is it skeptical of economic systems that are driven by greed? Does it eschew the accumulation of wealth and status and instead seek holiness (Mat 5:48, 1 Peter 1:15-16)? Does it honor “those who do the will of my Father” above entertainers and sports stars, including the observance of a Martyr's Day? Is it diligent to avoid pagan traditions in its holidays (mixing the profane with the holy) and is The Resurrection its primary holiday? Is it exemplary in its low crime and divorce rates? Is it more interested in reconciling murderers to God than in putting them to death, desiring that none should perish? Do its citizens refuse to sue one another? Does its history reflect respect for ethnic minorities? Does its citizens’ love for one another make it stand out from other nations and draw them to Christ?

Or does a “Christian nation” just have to be founded by “Christians”?

Why is it necessary to proclaim America a “Christian nation”?

This is, perhaps, the most intriguing question of all. If, as many of us assert, it is self-evident that we are a Christian nation, there is no point in trying to prove the obvious. But even if we could all agree that Christian principles influenced the Founding Fathers in establishing the nation, what expectation would that place on Americans today - an acceptance of Christian domination? Would it make us favored above European nations that converted to Christianity a millennium before our founding? Are we to assume that Christian-run governments dating back to the fourth century had failed to incorporate Christian principles until Americans “got it right” in the late eighteenth? And what are those principles that originated during the ministry of Christ that are unique and separate from the Jewish principles that preceded them, thus keeping America from being called a “Jewish nation”? Where are these uniquely-Christian principles in the founding documents? (For example, in Matthew 5:38-39 Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ [old, Jewish principle]. But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also [new, Christian principle].” This command has never been embraced by a majority of American Christians and certainly not by the United States Government.)

One possible reason for insisting we’re a Christian nation is to assure ourselves that we have God’s stamp of approval on the things we do. Some look to the utterances of past political/spiritual leaders for that assurance, accepting those with which they agree as The Truth. When assessing those utterances it is important to remember that there’s a difference between prophetic speaking and wishful thinking, and a difference between vows and covenants. In 1630, John Winthrop wrote hopefully, “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill.” Let me paraphrase that in a way that is not in conflict with Matthew 5:14. “For we Christians establishing a new colony of the British Empire must consider that we shall be as a colony of the worldwide kingdom of God – one of many (e.g., convents, monasteries and other intentional communities).” But what he probably meant was, "We Puritans are the only true Christians." Of course, as soon as unbelievers come in it’s no longer a colony of the Kingdom, but a society that includes Kingdom citizens. Some cite the Mayflower Compact as evidence that America has a covenant with God. But in that document, the colonists make a vow to God (We, … having undertaken for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith…a voyage to plant the first Colony in the northern parts of Virginia…) and make a covenant with each other (…covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick…). A vow is a one-way commitment and a covenant is a two-way commitment, with both parties acknowledging their responsibilities. But even if the colonists had been able to establish a covenant with God for the future United States, it would have been broken by the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment to the Constitution and by Article VI, Clause 3 of the Constitution itself: “…no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States." Clerics at the time would have known how disastrous such actions would have been for Israel or Judah, and therefore been alarmed if they actually believed their nation was in covenant with God. Under U.S. Law, you have the right to make and worship idols, build temples for them, and publicly blaspheme God. The Treaty of Tripoli, containing the words “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion…” was unanimously ratified by the U.S. Senate without debate on June 7, 1797, taking effect June 10, 1797 with the signature of President John Adams.

Some fear that if America is not a Christian nation then God will withhold His blessing or even send judgment. If they’re right, our task is not to convince others that America is a Christian nation, but to convince God. He is more interested in our obedience than our statements (such as the debatable “In God We Trust” on our currency). Since Christians cannot rely upon the cooperation of non-Christians (who are not impressed by proclamations of Christian nationhood) to help in this endeavor, it would be up to us to do a better job of emulating Christ. 2 Chronicles 7:14 is a popular scripture: “…if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” ‘My people’ is now the worldwide kingdom of God. The New Covenant makes no mention of land, so what is 'their land'? What they personally own? After all, they’re pilgrims here.

‘We the people’ ≠ ‘My people’

Another possible reason for insisting we’re a Christian nation is fear that “our great nation” is losing its greatness. Its greatness = our greatness = our collective ego and prosperity = our pride and personal wealth. Pride in ourselves and fears of lost wealth (such as from taxes, illegal immigrants and climate-change legislation) display a lack of faith in God's provision (Mat 6:31-33). Rather than seeking glory and wealth, our motive for wanting to please God should be simply because we love Him. Again, we should remember that this nation, great or not, is not our home; we are resident aliens here. Our identity is in Christ and heaven is our home. Our great nation is the kingdom of God.

Two final motivations for insisting we’re a Christian nation might be the desire to impose Christian behavior on non-Christians or to defeat constitutional challenges to references to Christianity on public property. For example, many who otherwise reject government intrusion worry that unless the state inculcates in schoolchildren a reverence for God, other people’s children may grow up without a moral compass. Until 1947 we got away with monopolizing the public square. Since then, non-Christians have pointed out that this monopoly (‘religious freedom’ to those of us in the majority*) of government property constitutes government endorsement of a particular religion, in violation of the First Amendment (Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;...). True religious freedom would provide space for the idols of other religions next to any Christian symbols on public property, thereby increasing the number of idols in the land. Or, no religious symbols at all. If Christianity is truly voluntary rather than coerced, and is desired by the people, there should have been no moral decay resulting from court decisions. (An alternative possibility is that the more wars in which a nation engages, the more its morals decline.) Those who believe the founders intended to retain the Christian dominance of the Christendom they’d fled and manifest it in a “Christian nation” seek to persuade the public that although the founders didn’t explicitly state in the Constitution their intention to establish a Christian nation, the need to do so never occurred to them despite their awareness of other religions. This leads to such rationalizations as: the word “religion” in the Establishment Clause means “a particular Christian denomination,” but in the following Free Exercise Clause it means “religion.” Or that the First Amendment prohibits government control over the church, while at the same time inviting church control over the government. And some assert that the First Amendment acknowledges freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. This suggests that worship of a god, any god, is better than no god at all. But I wouldn’t be surprised if God actually prefers atheism to the worship of false gods.

The only honest way to return to the old monopoly and to impose Christian behavior on non-Christians is to repeal the Establishment Clause and replace it with one that would establish Christianity (defined as loosely as necessary to avoid denominationalism) as the State Religion. Ratification shouldn’t be difficult if Christian Nation proponents are correct; the resulting political parties could be the Old Testament Party and the New Testament Party (two warnings though: [1] it would be an admission that the Founding Fathers never established a Christian nation in the first place and [2] alliances between the state, which doesn’t bind itself to the commands of Christ, and the church have always corrupted the church). Failure, on the other hand, would give indignant Christians an opportunity to gain some humility. There is always the option of accepting the consequences of choosing conscience over civil law when the two conflict. (As an aside, I'm at a loss to explain why many who decry the removal of references to Christianity from public property don't embrace the opportunity to display a Kingdom of God flag on their own property.)

For its part, the public prefers civil religion to governance by true Christianity, which was never intended for the governance of non-Christians (1 Cor 5:12). Anyone running for high political office must compromise Christian principles to win and hold office. Candidates seeking conformity to the image of Christ will be rejected by the electorate. Indeed, if Jesus himself came back incognito and ran for president as a third-party candidate, many Christians would not vote for him and his Sermon on the Mount platform that would not bring us national glory, but national humility.** It is better for Christians to be ruled by non-Christians (as in Paul's day) than for Christians to compromise their principles in order to rule.

The problem with the concept of a “Christian nation” is the temptation to equate it to a righteous nation, defined in Isaiah 58:2 as a nation that would never abandon the laws of God. The freedom of religion established by the First Amendment effectively abandons the First Commandment, and most of the other commandments are also ignored by US law. In spite of this, we try to believe that a nation of individuals that worship whatever they please can collectively behave righteously, that our will reflects God’s will. The self-proclaimed “Christian nation” seeks to usurp the worldwide kingdom of God by presenting itself as the manifestation of God’s will, accompanied by a self-delusion of moral superiority amounting to hubris. American exceptionalism is American idolatry. (With the highest incarceration rate in the world we're not exceptional in virtues.) Jesus said that "everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." (Luke 18:14) And Jesus’ metaphor, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” suggests that wealth is no indicator of righteousness.

If a “Christian nation” behaves like a non-Christian nation, what’s the point - by what criteria is the designation impressive? All are kingdoms of the world with self-serving agendas (1 John 5:19). Rather than placing our hope and identity in an earthly kingdom, we should assume that we are living under the pagan Roman Empire or Babylon and place our allegiance in the kingdom of God (a righteous nation) where God’s will is manifested, even as we seek to influence the state.

The bottom line of the Christian nation argument is this: we want being a Christian to be easy. But if we are losing our influence on society it is because we are not making a compelling case for following Jesus. Sadly, many of us look more like Pharisees than Jesus. Ranting and demanding “our rights” in order to preserve our influence (domination?) appears self-serving, fearful and hateful, and is counterproductive for humble servants of Christ. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. In the face of persecution, either suffer in silence or sing.

Rather than blaming non-Christians for our fears let us repent of them and trust in the Lord (1 Peter 4:12-14). The kingdom of God will persevere regardless of cultural fluctuations.

* - If you support freedom of religion and if, during this time of a Christian majority, you support Christian prayers and Bible-reading in public schools, Christian prayers at sporting events and governmental legislative sessions, and Christian symbols on public property, then if Muslims ever outnumber Christians here you would support Muslim prayers and Quran-reading in public schools, Muslim prayers at sporting events and governmental legislative sessions, and Muslim symbols on public property instead of Christian ones. Of course, that’s not really freedom of religion; it’s freedom of the majority religion.

** - A Christian campaign speech might sound something like this: “My highest priority is not the American people. It is God. Since loving our enemies is not compatible with killing them, on my first day in office as president I will call upon Congress for an amendment to abolish our armed forces and for legislation to abolish the CIA. If we are attacked, as we were on 9/11 and 12/7, we will remember that God said: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay’. For my part, I will lead our nation to do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us, and pray for those who persecute us. To those who strike us on the one cheek, we offer the other also. We will not repay evil with evil. If conquered, we will set a godly example for our new rulers and overcome evil with good. In the meantime, our response to genocide in the world will be to provide transport of the despised to our country to remove them from their persecutors - in contrast to our refusal to accept a shipload of Jews from Germany in 1939. Of course, we will likewise bless our friends in Israel, but ultimately, Israel's salvation lies in God, not America, and He will receive the glory, not America. Also on my first day in office, I will issue a formal apology on behalf of the American people to the British monarch for our sinful rebellion in 1776 and will rescind the July 4th holiday.”