Is There a Christian Nation?

By Robert F. Hull Jr.

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.

3Ibid., 1-13.

4See William Blake’s poem, “Jerusalem.”

Robert Hull is professor emeritus of New Testament at Emmanuel School of Religion in Johnson City, Tennessee.

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9 Comments

  1. March 1, 2011 at 10:02 am

    “Amen” should be said by all true Christians. Professor Hull is entirely right in urging us Christians to realize that the NATION is not Christian, even as has been declared by our current president. Our dream is that all prudent and thoughtful people would accept the claims of Jesus Christ and make Him their savior. Our job is to so live and proclaim that the truths of God will be clear to all. But some who hear the gospel reject it. It’s not our job to try in any way to force anyone to be a Christian. We rejoice when laws of the land are shaped to cause us all to be honest and thoughtful of other’s rights. Attempts to force everyone to quit drinking intoxicating liquor were tried and failed. But the closer any citizen lives to Jesus as Lord, the less likely it is that the citizen will become drunk or break any godly law of the land. What we Christians ARE called to do is to proclaim Jesus as Lord and to live as He did, caring about and helping others. Non-Christian citizens also should care about and help others and avoid drunkenness and riot. Professor Hull writes well. Did we all say “Amen”?

  2. March 2, 2011 at 1:40 pm

    Yes, there is certainly a difference between making disciples of all nations and making nations of all disciples. Thanks for the reminder that our primary citizenship in the kingdom of heaven transcends national patriotism.

  3. David Timms
    March 2, 2011 at 7:26 pm

    Thanks, Dr. Hull for a thoughtful, concise — and yes, just a touch provocative — article. You write with a gentle pen that nevertheless moves (and perhaps overturns) the appplecart.

  4. March 3, 2011 at 12:11 pm

    I am grateful for this article because it is a sensible voice among the many others clamoring for a place at the “big boy’s table” of political influence. When the church takes its eyes off being a counter cultural Kingdom community and instead seeks through political dominance to bring about its agenda, we inevitably compromise our effectiveness to be salt and light and wind up in the hip pocket of the culture we had hoped to transform. It is also sad when churches so closely affiliate with a political agenda that they alienate themselves and the gospel from the people who often need it the most. If our congregations are viewed as puppets of the political machine we will not be able to represent the good news of Jesus to all people. Thanks for the insight, Dr. Hull, and its important implications for the church today.

  5. Paul McDorman
    March 3, 2011 at 10:28 pm

    Although he comes close, Robert Hull fails to mention a fourth possible definition of a Christian nation: A country whose laws and governing documents are based upon Christian principles. Of course for the United States, this is a much debated issue in itself. But I think historical documentation supports the notion that we fit this definition.

    Over time the majority of people in a country could abandon much of its Christian heritage but still be called a Christian nation because of its founding documents. If the trend away from Christianity continues in the United States, inevitably its laws will become less supportive of Christianity and even anti-Christian. Anyone who has watched the trends of judicial rulings over the last several decades, or has read a sampling of laws that existed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries will realize the rapidity with which the United States is abandoning Christianity. While no doubt the courts are helping to facilitate the drift away from Christianity, they are also reflecting what the people want. In my opinion, they feed off of each other.

    Professor Hull stresses the point that because nations which have claimed to be Christian have typically acted in a very un-Christian manner, this should make them unfit to be called a Christian nation. If this un-Christian-like behavior is sufficient enough in his mind to disqualify a nation, then it should be pointed out that even though biblical Israel was the chosen nation of God, it certainly had many grievous faults as well. Nevertheless, God still claimed Israel as His own. God took quite a bit of abuse before He declared that Israel was “Not my people” (Hosea 1:9), and even then He eventually reclaimed them.

    I’m not suggesting that America is chosen by God, but Scripture does seem to imply that a nation can and should put their allegiance in God and Christ. Consider Psalm 33:12; Psalm 67; Psalm 72:11; Psalm 79:6; Psalm 144:15; Zechariah 2:11; Zechariah 8:22; Micah 4; and Galations 3:8. If a country, acting as a unit, is included in any of these passages, then a nation can be a Christian nation – at least by God’s reckoning.

    All this is to say that it is desirable that Christians should try to make the country they live in a “Christian nation”, primarily by using evangelism, but also by political influence. Although a Christian’s political activity can be carried to extremes and become un-Christian, resulting in terrible consequences, so can his lack of political activity have the same outcome. It seems naive to purposely allow a country to slide into paganism because of a personal belief that Christians shouldn’t be involved in politics. There is middle ground. Ideally, it is always best to change hearts rather than to legislate morality, and while governments should not advance Christianity by force, it would be good if they encouraged it.

    A government makes laws in accordance to the world-view that it has, and today we are seeing more and more laws that are calling evil good and good evil (Isaiah 5:20). Romans 7:7 says that if it wasn’t for the Law, we could not know sin. So should we not work to establish laws that are in accordance with God’s Law? It would benefit the Christian and non-Christian alike. Since we in America are blessed with many political resources at our disposal, it would be foolhardy to stand by and let non-Christians make laws that would eventually destroy us both.

    While we still have the freedom to do so, we should let our voices be heard by voting for candidates that promote Christian ideals, petitioning the government, boycotting anti-Christian businesses, running for offices, financially supporting pro-Christian causes, writing letters-to-editors, and doing anything else that promotes a Christian-friendly government. If we don’t do it, we may eventually find ourselves looking at laws that forbid preaching against homosexuality or the proselytization of Muslims.

  6. Jim
    March 4, 2011 at 2:04 am

    Dr. Hull,

    Thank you for your thoughts.  As incredible as it may seem, there are many Canadians, and recent immigrants to Canada (some in my church), who think that any expression of evangelical Christianity is an American distortion of Biblical Christianity.  We are grateful for the support and strength of the American church yet dismayed by platforms that fly the U.S. flag alongside a so-called Christian flag.  Of course, Canada in general is a less patriotic nation than America, and I for one am appreciative of the U.S.A., and somewhat sympathetic to the foreign policy of the United States. That said, let’s dispel of the myth of the Christian nation (any nation) and loose any bonds to even the greatest political and social inventions of men. The kingdom we are a part of is simply and completely “other than” the best government humans can conceive of.

  7. Erik
    March 9, 2011 at 10:25 am

    Let us not say Amen, but lovingly rebuke Mr. Hall’s conclusions. His arguments are effectively challenged in the following article: “http://americanvision.org/4122/if-there-cant-be-a-christian-nation-can-there-be-anything-christian-at-all/”

  8. Pepper Bruce
    March 9, 2011 at 10:47 am

    It looks like Hull’s second option for a Christian nation is valid for the US: “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.”

    During the revolutionary period, around two thirds of the population came from a reformed Christian background and created documents based upon those Christian principles. The Declaration of Independence in particular virtually draws the Bible into itself with its reference to “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” This phrase is rich with Christian meaning dating back at least as far as Thomas Aquinas. Another document that stands out is the Constitution with its First Amendment. That article was based upon George Mason’s Bill of Rights (section 16) which based its prescription for the free exercise of religion upon “Christian forbearance.” This concept about the freedom of the conscience dates back at least as far as Luther, Calvin, and many others.

    Thus it appears that Hull has clarified the basis upon which American can be seen as a “Christian nation.” However, if this is not sufficient and if Hull is correct in his resulting claim that there can be no Christian nation, then neither can there be anything else “Christian” such as a church or even an individual.

  9. Gary DeMar
    March 9, 2011 at 10:55 am

    For a rebuttal to Mr. Hull’s article, go to http://bit.ly/f4ZPNL

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