God of our fathers, known of old—
Lord of our far-flung battle line—
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!
This is the first stanza of the poem “Recessional,” written by Rudyard Kipling for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. Although British might was still so “far-flung” that it was said “the sun never sets on the British Empire,” in his poem Kipling worried that the nation might become “drunk with sight of power” and forget the God whose hand had given them “dominion over palm and pine.”
More than 60 years later I stood with my high school choir to sing a choral setting of this poem at an Armistice Day celebration commemorating the ending of World Wars I and II. Just as Kipling and many of his contemporaries were certain that England was a chosen nation whose destiny was to carry the Christian gospel and civilization to the dark places of the world (“the white man’s burden”), I and my fellow students on the stage of the Pocahontas Theater in 1960 were equally sure that the United States was a nation chosen by God to spread abroad the twin virtues of democracy and Christianity—but were we right?
As a people chosen to carry the light of the knowledge of their Creator to other nations, biblical Israel alone had a divinely prescribed covenant with God. By what right does anyone transfer to the United States—which has no special covenant with God—the concept that this nation has been divinely chosen to carry the light of Christian faith and democracy to other nations? The “chosenness” of Great Britain and the United States has been a staple of political speech for many generations, but the question of what it means to call a nation “Christian” receives remarkably little attention in public discourse.
What Is a Christian Nation?
Here are three possibilities:
• A Christian nation is one that has been declared to be so, established, by its ruling powers. In AD 313 the Roman Emperors Constantine and Licinius issued the “Edict of Milan,” which ended the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. By 381 the Christian faith as taught by the bishop of Rome was the official state religion. Although “conversions” occurred by the thousands, many of them were coerced.
The power and privilege bestowed on the church under the Constantinian settlement eventually gave rise to the so-called Holy Roman Empire, in which church and state were virtually indistinguishable; one entered the church by virtue of being born. Without question the resulting “Christendom” bequeathed much of lasting value to civilization (great architecture, art, music, and education, as well as hospitals, orphanages, and even modern science). And we have no reason to question the depth of conviction and faithful living of many who came into the imperial church. But it is hard to reconcile the scandal of the cross with the privilege of political power.
During the Protestant Reformation, the established church became a regional phenomenon; the strong arms of princes determined whether the official religion would be Roman Catholic or some form of Protestantism, whether Lutheran, Zwinglian, Calvinist, or other. Dissenters often faced death by horrible means. The notion that those who governed could “establish” the church in their respective regions was carried over into the New World, where many English colonies had established churches, including Virginia and Massachusetts.
• A Christian nation is one whose territory was settled by a Christian majority and whose founding documents were crafted by leaders largely in this Christian majority. On this basis, many historians and political analysts in the United States have understood this to be a Christian nation. (Of course the views of the original settlers—the native tribes—as well as the thousands of slaves are not taken into consideration!) Many other scholars have questioned the religious commitments of “the founders” of this republic. They have claimed the founders were mostly Deists and religious skeptics. After all, the First Amendment to the Constitution (1791) forbade Congress to pass any law “respecting an establishment of religion,” and it is well known that the Constitution does not mention God.
But, in fact, the story is not as simple as either side would have it. In truth, the dozen or more founders represent a spectrum of religious belief and practice, including pious Christian orthodoxy, nominal Christianity, Deism, and skepticism. Some of the “forgotten founders” were devout and outspoken Christians, as attested by their private correspondence and public speeches.1 Even among the “big six” (George Washington, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin) probably only Franklin truly fits the picture of a Deist. The others, although deviating in various respects from “orthodox” Christianity, probably all were considered by their contemporaries to be members of the church. Even Jefferson, who rejected miracles and did not consider Jesus to be divine, insisted he had been from birth a member of the Anglican church.
As for the absence of the word God in the Constitution, the words democratic and democracy are also absent, although clearly most of the founders aimed to establish a democratic republic. But, however fervent some of the founders might have been in their Christian profession, they kept such commitments out of the founding documents, referring not to “Jesus Christ our Lord,” or even to “God,” but to “Nature’s God,” “the Creator,” and “The Supreme Judge of the World” (The Declaration of Independence) and to “the Great Governor of the World” (The Articles of Confederation).
Natural law is more in evidence in the founding documents than Christian principles. The First Amendment, which forbade Congress from passing any law denying the free exercise of religion, did not favor one religion over another.
• A Christian nation is one in which a majority of its citizens self-identify as Christians and various public officials confirm this national identity. National polls consistently find that some three-quarters of Americans identify themselves as Christians.2 Many public officials have declared that the United States is a Christian nation, and even the Supreme Court in 1892 defined the nation as Christian. But the Court and the officials have based this definition on cultural and ceremonial evidence rather than specific Christian practices or virtues.
In 1892, the Supreme Court cited the taking of oaths in the name of God, Sunday blue laws, the observance of religious holidays on the national calendar, the presence of large numbers of churches, and the support of chaplains at public expense in Congress and the military.3 This sounds like “civil religion” rather than Christian faith. Throughout the mid-20th century the “Judeo-Christian heritage” came to be the favored way of talking about America’s civil religion. During Dwight Eisenhower’s years as president the “Judeo-Christian tradition” was often cited as the surest defense against atheistic communism. It was during this time that the phrase “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance (1954) and “In God We Trust” was mandated for U.S. coinage (1956).
There Is No Christian Nation
Without doubt, multitudes of Christians have come to faith and have thrived under all of the arrangements summarized above, but in my opinion there never has been and never can be a truly Christian nation. There is a considerable difference between being a religious people and being a Christian nation. Nations are constituted through political action and their causes are always and necessarily advanced by force of law, but Christian faith can never be enacted by law. Americans have generally been a religious people, the majority of whom continue to identify as Christians—although when it comes to religious knowledge and practice, we have to set the bar pretty low to continue to describe the American population as religious, let alone Christian. Be that as it may, the United States was the first nation on earth specifically to forbid an establishment of religion.
Many Christians are dismayed at the loss of vital cultural and moral standards in the United States, and are tired of the open mocking of Christian teachings often heard in the mass media. So am I. The separation of church and state does not mean the silencing of moral and religious convictions in the public square, even in politics. We Christians—in high places or low—should earnestly do all within our power to commend the gospel and the Christian way in hopes that those who see and hear us will also become believers, but not so that America will become (or “again” become) a Christian nation.
William Blake wrote of building “Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land,”4 in much the same way many American leaders have insisted that the United States is “a city set on a hill,” like Jerusalem of old. But the New Jerusalem will not be built by human political action; it is the kingdom of God. That kingdom, when it comes, will be made up of “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7:9, author emphasis).
1See Daniel L. Dreisbach, Mark David Hall, and Jeffrey H. Morrison, The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009).
2Richard Hughes, Christian America and The Kingdom of God (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois, 2009) 185.
4See William Blake’s poem, “Jerusalem.”
Robert Hull is professor emeritus of New Testament at Emmanuel School of Religion in Johnson City, Tennessee.