To the degree that this nation (U.S.A.) is, or has ever been, a Christian one, is the degree to which one can question such a “fact.” For to be called “Christian” is to bring along all that that name implies, evokes, and requires. But that is a very dicey proposition at best. What nation would want to be judged by the Sermon on the Mount? What nation would want to be compared to the example of Jesus? What leader would want to be evaluated by Jesus’ definition of hypocrisy? When we examine this country, its history, its foreign policies, its current events and current leaders, the facts say otherwise. Regardless of the hagiographic mythologies of this country’s creation and of its “fathers”, this is not, nor has ever been a Christian country that has lived up to that name. But from the political stump and from its pulpits this country grasps at that label as though it were some ultimate and magical brand that can whitewash any tomb. And Christians go along with the charade. Maybe it is because modern American Christianity is only a pale shadow of its Christ. Maybe we have lost sight of what Jesus taught us. Maybe most of us never really knew. I am reminded of something Wendell Berry wrote:
Despite its protests to the contrary, modern Christianity has become willy-nilly the religion of the state and the economic status quo. Because it has been so exclusively dedicated to incanting anemic souls into heaven, it has, by a kind of ignorance, been made the tool of much earthly villainy. It has, for the most part, stood silently by, while a predatory economy has ravaged the world, destroyed its natural beauty and health, divided and plundered its human communities and households. It has flown the flag and chanted the slogans of empire. It has assumed with the economists that “economic forces” automatically work for good, and has assumed with the industrialists and militarists that technology determines history. It has assumed with almost everybody that “progress” is good, that it is good to be modern and up with the times. It has admired Caesar and comforted him in his depredations and defaults. But in its de facto alliance with Caesar, Christianity connives directly in the murder of Creation. For, in these days, Caesar is no longer a mere destroyer of armies, cities, and nations. He is a contradictor of the fundamental miracle of life. A part of the normal practice of his power is his willingness to destroy the world. He prays, he says, and churches everywhere compliantly pray with him. But he is praying to a God whose works he is prepared at any moment to destroy. What could be more wicked than that, or more mad?
~ Wendell Berry, “Christianity and The Survival of Creation” (1993)
Before Constantine it took courage to be a Christian. After Constantine it took courage to be a pagan. The Roman empire became the Holy Roman Empire. Conquering by conversions is not quite the same as leading people to truth. But then, once everyone was a Christian, there arose the idea of the invisible church, that is, that group of individuals who were truly “believers” not merely playing the part. Many so-called Christians did not behave as Christians should so there was a need to, in effect, say there are two kinds of Christians, the real and the fake. This is an important distinction. However, it is easy to claim membership in the invisible church. Who is to say you are wrong? If we look for evidence it must come from the outward actions, the visible behaviors that represent the inner heart (I think of the book of James). So we look at each others actions, and what is it we should see? Consider this passage from the book of Isaiah, chapter 1, verses 16 & 17:
make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow’s cause.
These words are directed at a certain people – the “people of God.” Many Americans today would also say these lines describe what the U.S. is all about, along with saying this is God’s country, etc. But they are misinformed. These words are part of a passage calling for repentance. They are so simple and yet they are the opposite of so much that is done in this nation’s name. Think of the genocide of native Americans, or the labor struggles and their often brutal suppression, or the struggle for civil rights. U.S. foreign policy in Latin America alone of the past 50 years is enough to be ashamed for this country. And this is a remarkably un-repentant country. A case could be made that the U.S. is the most prideful country on earth today. I am reminded of President Obama’s inaugural speech where he stated, “We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense.” We have heard the same kinds of statements from all presidents. Bush said the same kinds of things on numerous occasions. But the true Christian – the one with the eyes to see and the ears to hear – will not be surprised. Just as the religious leader thanked God he was not like other men, so goes the way of the self-righteous nation.
So, is this a Christian nation? Yes, but not of the so-called invisible church – the one trying to live out the example of its Christ in fear and trembling. That church has no nation – only a kingdom for which it waits. This is a Christian nation in the Constantinian sense. And its Christ is now the one with the sword, and the checkbook, and the influence, and the self-righteousness.
There are three problems with my statements above. First is that I am implicated along with all of you. It is easy to point fingers and criticize, but I have benefited from all the good things this country offers and I am glad I was born here. I live in what was once called the frontier – a land taken from the indigenous peoples through force, cunning, and broken promises. And yet I love living here and will continue to do so. I am grateful for the role this country has played in securing freedom, yet I also benefit from many atrocious actions it has taken in securing that freedom. In short, I eat from a morally compromised harvest. The second point is that for all its faults the U.S.A. is not significantly different in its wickedness than other countries. The scale of its influence and global impact is often more staggering than most, but its moral nature is that of others. One cannot point the finger at this country without also pointing the finger all countries. (The reverse is true as well.) But this is the country I know best, and I am confronted by its apparently pivotal role in the world – for good and for wickedness. So I am compelled to criticize. Thirdly is the fact that one cannot really speak of a unrepentant country, for a country is really only a concept, a theory with a tenuous physicality. To speak of a country in moral terms is to get us all off the hook. When we speak of a foreign policy we are speaking of real actions based on real decisions made by real people and supported by other people. A country cannot be held accountable for its actions. For a country does not act. It’s citizens, leaders, bureaucrats, politicians, workers, and captains of industry do the acting. What we see on the whole is an aggregate of actions that, when taken together, appear to be a country acting. But it is each of us, as individuals who must cease to do evil, learn to do good, seek justice, correct oppression, bring justice to the fatherless, and plead the widow’s cause. And as we come together corporately we must create institutions that reflect those same values.
Again, is this a Christian nation? Christianity did not die off in America as many predicted a hundred years ago. In fact it has flourished. And yet, if we take a broad view of Christianity today we see a wildly mixed bag of cultural shallowness, tepid convictions, ignorance, political myopia, and a laundry list of conflicting statements of faith that more or less reflect a shadow of Christ. But we also find people profoundly challenged and changed by the life and teachings of Jesus. Some of these individuals may not fit into the standard, culturally defined aesthetic of our cultural Christianity. They may not fit into the visible church. And they may not (probably cannot) fit neatly into the commonly accepted cultural role of the citizen without challenging many of it assumptions. In other words, that invisible-church Christian living out her faith will likely come into deep conflict with the prevailing winds of this country’s politics, economics, and culture. And if we use that as our working definition of a Christian nation then any nation can be (might be, probably is) a Christian nation – but you’d never know.