The National Association of Evangelicals recently polled its leadership as to whether they felt the United States was a Christian nation.
The answer was overwhelming.
68 percent said “no.”
“Much of the world refers to America as a Christian nation,” noted Leith Anderson, the association’s president, “but most of our Christian leaders don’t think so.”
“The Bible only uses the word ‘Christian’ to describe people and not countries,” added Anderson. “Even those who say America is a Christian nation admit that there are lots of non-Christians and even anti-Christian beliefs and behaviors.”
This, however, is not the real issue. It’s not whether America is currently a Christian nation; the question is whether it ever was. And if so, whether it should return to those roots.
As I wrote in Christ Among the Dragons, this lies at the heart of the “recapture” approach to cultural engagement. Rooted in the idea that ours was once a Christian nation, the idea is that we should actively work to return our governing bodies and laws back to their original intent.
Even among those who would not espouse a sense of “returning,” there is often a deep sense of, at least, fulfilling a Christian destiny. The idea of “chosen-ness” and “special blessing” from God has been a constant theme throughout the history of the United States, beginning with the Puritans and their desire that, in the words (and spelling) of John Winthrop in 1630, “wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill.”
When America’s second president, John Adams, and America’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, both died on the same day in 1826 – and that day being none other than the Fourth of July – it was seen as a sign of God’s favor on the United States. As historian David McCullough noted in his widely acclaimed biography of Adams, it “could not be seen as mere coincidence.” It was a "visible and palpable" manifestation of "Divine favor," wrote John Quincy in his diary that night, “expressing,” McCullough adds, “what was felt and would be said again and again everywhere the news spread.”
As historian Conrad Cherry writes, “Throughout their history Americans have been possessed by an acute sense of divine election. They have fancied themselves a New Israel, a people chosen for the awesome responsibility of serving as a light to the nations. ... It has long been ... the essence of America’s motivating mythology.”
The vision of a Christian America was again popularized in the late 1970s by evangelical authors Peter Marshall and David Manuel in The Light and the Glory. Marshall and Manuel held that America was founded as a Christian nation and flourished under the benevolent hand of divine providence, arguing further that America's blessings will remain only as long as America is faithful to God as a nation.
In 1989 a team of evangelical historians (Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch and George Marsden) attempted to lay this somewhat dubious thesis to rest. Yes, Christian principles played a role in America’s founding; no, it was not designed to be a Christian nation. Yet it continues as a popular framework for viewing American history among American evangelicals.
Consider the recent writings of David Barton, one of the more popular Christian history writers. His most recent book, The Jefferson Lies, goes so far as to attempt to establish even the deist Thomas Jefferson as being much more sympathetic to orthodox Christianity than most historians would allow.
The Moral Majority of the 1980s found its genesis in such sentiments, and accordingly formed a “top-down” strategy for cultural change. If we could only have Christians in the White House, Congress and the Supreme Court, or populating other leadership elites, then morality would be enacted and faith would once again find the fertile soil needed to establish its footing in individual lives.
The moral majority “won” through the election of Ronald Reagan as president, and his subsequent Supreme Court appointments throughout the 1980s brought great anticipation for substantive change. Yet there has been little real change to mark as a result. Even the prime target – the striking down of the Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion – remains the law of the land to this day.
Further, the “culture wars” of the 1980s and 1990s is now widely viewed as one of the more distasteful episodes in recent memory, and many younger evangelicals want nothing to do with what was often its caustic, abrasive and unloving approach toward those apart from Christ.
So the effort to recapture the nation failed as a strategy, and alienated a younger generation.
But the larger dilemma is how such a view shapes strategy.
Even if one chooses to believe we were founded as an explicitly Christian nation under the divine hand of God’s favor, we have clearly chosen to depart from our calling. Yet as long as an exalted view of America’s current adherence to the Christian faith remains in force, the true nature of the challenge will not be addressed.
I believe that the ideas which lie at the heart of the West, and particularly the United States, are Judeo-Christian. Yet America is at great spiritual risk. This has rightly led some to call for a “third” mission to the West before all is lost.
The first mission was the apostolic mission that eventually resulted in the conversion of the Roman Empire.
The second mission followed the fall of Rome as missionaries refounded Western civilization and essentially reconverted the West back to Christianity from paganism, what Thomas Cahill referred to in the title of his book How the Irish Saved Civilization.
A third mission would seek to restore America as the leader of the Western world to her Judeo-Christian roots, ensuring continued vibrancy and influence for years to come. Not through politics, mind you, but cultural renewal and personal evangelism.
It is difficult to think of America as a mission field, having been the exporter of faith for so many generations. But that is precisely what it has become.
So is America a Christian nation?
But it could still become a nation of Christians.
James Emery White
“Evangelical leaders echo Obama, say U.S. not a Christian nation,” Mitchell Landsberg, Los Angeles Times, July 31, 2012; read online.
“United States: Christian Nation or Mission Field?,” National Association of Evangelicals, news release July 31, 2012; read online.
James Emery White, Christ Among the Dragons (InterVarsity Press).
“The David Barton controversy,” Thomas Kidd, World Magazine, August 7, 2012; read online.
John Winthrop, A Modell of Christian Charity (1630).
David McCullough, John Adams.
Conrad Cherry, God’s New Israel: Religious Interpretations of American Destiny.
Mark A. Noll, Nathan O. Hatch, George M. Marsden, The Search for Christian America.
On a third mission to the west, see the writings of Os Guinness.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is A Traveler's Guide to the Kingdom: Journeying through the Christian Life (InterVarsity Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.