Years ago, I was angry.
I was angry about the way liberals and their allies were dismantling our nation’s Christian heritage, and I wanted to do something about it. So I joined the “Religious Right.” I went to work for a large, national Christian broadcast ministry. My hope was that we could awaken Christians to what was going on and “take back” our country through politics and evangelism.
Notwithstanding the vital importance of evangelism, was this the right thing to do?
In the intervening years, I came to the realization that it was not. What led me to this conclusion? And if I was wrong, then what is the proper role for Christians to play in our culture? How should they view the United States of America in light of God’s sovereign plan?
The Right Task?
“America was founded as a Christian nation!” This was the mantra of ours and other organizations. And since the “Christian” part of that was slipping away, it was our job to get it back.
The verse most cited to prove that our cause was just was Christ’s call to be “salt” and “light” (Mt. 5:13-16). While “light” refers to the gospel, salt is a preservative. Hence, it was concluded that we should “preserve” our culture through political activism. But the problem with this is that there is no hint that Christians being salt was to be accomplished by calling their Congressmen on the issues they care about and getting out the vote (more on this later). Rather, the New Testament is clear that the charge to be salt is based upon our character (Mt. 5:3-12, Eph. 4:17-32, Col. 3:5-17, etc.), rearing Godly families (Eph. 5:21-6:4, Col. 3:18-21), and working an honest day for an honest wage in whatever our vocation might be (Col. 3:23-24, 1 Thess. 4:11, 2 Thess. 3:9).The fact of the matter is that many nations in the past have claimed to be “Christian.” Ironically, this would include England, from which the thirteen North American colonies separated. But the only earthly nation that God ever specifically sanctioned was Old Testament Israel.
When I realized that, other questions began to nag me: what is a “Christian nation”? More specifically, what does the Bible have to say about how and whether God ordains “Christian nations” in the post-Apostolic era? The only nation which God endorses in the New Testament (with all due respect to my dispensationalist friends) is the Church, which Peter called “a holy nation” in his first Epistle (1 Peter 2:9). Furthermore, Peter has this to say to Christians in the present era:
“Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” (1 Peter 2:11-12)
The words that Peter uses to describe believers are telling: a “sojourner” is a foreigner who is temporarily in that area; he’s just passing through on his way to his final destination. An “exile” is a permanent resident alien. So Peter’s point in using these words is that this world is not our final destination; we belong somewhere else.
Rather, much like Israel wandered in the wilderness, we are seeking the promised land. Only, ours is far grander than a piece of real estate in the Middle East; our final resting place is “a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:16).
As Christians, we are not called to find our hope and final resting place in an earthly nation; rather, as we are here, we are always looking forward to our final destination.
This is not to suggest that we should close ourselves off from the world around us as the Medieval monks did; as Christ prayed of His disciples, “I do not ask that you would take them out of the world…” (John 17:15). Rather, while we are in this world, there are certainly tasks which we ought to perform as we seek to glorify God as citizens of this nation. These will be addressed later on in this essay.
A Christian Nation?
What about the United States of America, then? There can be no doubt that Christians played a role in our nation’s founding. But the extent to which this is so is a matter of debate. One can certainly find quotes from Benjamin Rush, Fisher Ames, John Jay and other founding fathers that attest to their Christian faith. Conversely, one can also find comments from influential founders like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Paine which affirm different conclusions.
Attached to this are some basic questions which American Christians need to work through: with regard to America’s founding, how does one reconcile the American colonies’ conflict with England that primarily had to do with taxes with Christ’s clear command to pay them (Mt. 22:15-22; cf. Rom. 13:6)? And, how does one reconcile the colonist’s call for independence with Paul’s call to submit to our governmental leaders (Rom. 13:1-7), while bearing in mind that the circumstances under which the Apostle wrote were far more difficult than the ones which led to the Revolutionary War?
Here is what I’m getting at: before jumping to conclusions about whether or not the founding fathers were biblically correct in their action, and by extension whether or not America was in some sense founded as a Christian nation, we would do well to pause and reflect about what the Bible itself says on this topic. It is this writer’s opinion that far more often than not, this has not been the case.
To be sure, there were also historical issues at stake that may have justified the actions of the parties involved; not the least of which included the allegation of the Continental Congress that King George III had broken his covenant with his American subjects by taxing them without representation. But from the perspective of the Crown, these actions were justified given that England was in financial trouble, in large part because of the tremendously expensive French and Indian War (1756-63) with France for control of the North American continent. English Parliament reasoned that since the Americans benefited the most from this, they should be willing to pay more in taxes to offset the government’s financial troubles–which would certainly be to the benefit of the thirteen colonies, should other attackers come in the future. And even while England repealed the hated Stamp Act, other taxes would follow. Furthermore, since news traveled very slowly–it would often be several months before one side heard from the other in this ongoing conflict–this caused hostilities between the parties to build.
All of this to say, historians know that such controversies are never as black and white as some make them out to be; there are always going to be degrees of right and wrong on both sides. Therefore, it behooves Christians to take the time to study all of the facts involved (and not just relying upon propaganda that suits their fancy) before reaching hard and fast conclusions on topics like this.
This is especially the case since recent scholarship has also served to disprove some of the myths perpetrated about America’s founding.
For instance, it has long been claimed by David Barton and others that as president, Thomas Jefferson signed legislation into law that used federal funds to evangelize the Native American Indians.
Why does this matter? The thinking went like this: as the principle author of the Declaration of Independence and as an intellectual giant of his day who influenced other founding fathers, Jefferson favored using taxpayer funds to evangelize an indigenous group. Surely, then, this undercuts liberals’ arguments that he (and by extension others) advocated a strong separation of church and state.
But as Warren Throckmorton and Michael Colter document, such was not the case. The history of this legislation is far more complicated; it had to do with settling borders for an Indian tribe that had previously been evangelized and were about to have their land taken away from them.
We should also not forget that Jefferson was a politician; a profession notorious for compromising when the need calls for it. And incidentally, Throckmorton and Coulter present evidence that Jefferson was working behind the scenes to drive the Indians into debt so as to reduce their bargaining power and hence drive them off of their land. Furthermore, nowhere in any of his voluminous writings did Jefferson ever speak of the need to evangelize the Indians. So, even if this legislation did what Barton and company claimed, it clearly was not a priority for Jefferson.
Additionally, many of the quotations that allegedly attest to America’s Christian heritage have been proven to be fraudulent at worst and questionable at best. These include the quote attributed to James Madison that the Constitution was founded, at least in some sense, on the Ten Commandments of God, and Patrick Henry’s declaration that America was founded “not on religions, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
The fact of the matter is that many nations in the past have claimed to be “Christian.” Ironically, this would include England, from which the thirteen North American colonies separated. But the only earthly nation that God ever specifically sanctioned was Old Testament Israel.
Where to Go from Here?
So then, where does this leave us? If America was not founded as a Christian nation, or if at the very least the facts upon which this claim is made are questionable, where do we go from here? How are believers to relate to this country in which God has placed us?
The following are four points for how to have a proper Christian patriotism:
First, blind patriotism (i.e., “My country, right or wrong!”) should not be an option for the believer. While our nation has done great things (e.g., rebuilding Europe after World War II via the Marshall Plan, correcting institutionalized racism via the Civil Rights movement), it has also gotten other things very wrong (e.g., interring Japanese-Americans during World War II, condoning slavery and its brutal practices for nearly 100 years, legalizing abortion, having a $17 trillion national debt, etc.).
A few years ago, liberals openly questioned then-President Bush’s handling of the war in Iraq. Their mantra was, “Dissent is patriotic.” While this sentiment has been conspicuously absent from their rhetoric since January 21, 2009, it is correct, provided that our dissent as Christians is peaceful and respectful.
Here is the bottom line: while the Church should maintain its prophetic voice in calling sinners to repentance, and while politics is a legitimate calling for believers, there is always potential for great harm whenever it becomes too closely aligned with one political party. There is great temptation to overlook questionable actions of the favored party and to highlight the same bad fruit of another. When this happens, the Church gets the “hypocrisy” label, and so loses its integrity in the eyes of the world. Just because a particular leader or political party takes a particular stance, that alone does not make it right or wrong. Therefore, believers should be very discerning when it comes to the political arena, while holding fast to their principles.
Second, we should take a cue from Old Testament Israel. Prior to their exile in Babylon, they were given instructions for how to live in this foreign, pagan land: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer. 29:4-7).
In short, they were to be productive, responsible, and respectful citizens. Their calling was to work with excellence, be good neighbors, and let their godly behavior stand out from the culture around them.
In a modern context, might this include contacting your elected leaders and voting? I believe so; this would fall under the category of “seek[ing] the welfare of the city,” while bearing in mind that we do not put our hope in men.
New Testament counterparts would be Titus 3:1-2: “Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.” Additionally, 1 Thessalonians 4:11 says that we should “aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with our hands, as we instructed you.” Texts like these should apply to all Christians regardless of which nation they call home.
Third, we should pray for our leaders, whomever they might be. This was part of God’s charge in Jeremiah, and it’s also seen in 1 Timothy 2:1-2: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.”
Isn’t it difficult to pray for leaders whom we despise, or just don’t care for? How much more reason, then, to pray for them? Conversely, as John Piper has pointed out–albeit in a different context–it is very difficult to hate someone whom you are praying for regularly and passionately.
When believers are tempted to loathe a political leader (or anyone else, for that matter), they would do well to remember Christ’s warning that hatred is actually a violation of the Sixth Commandment (Mt. 5:21ff). All the more reason, then, to pray, whether the object of prayer be George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Chris Christie, Joe Biden, Rand Paul, or Ted Cruz.
Fourth, there is nothing wrong with loving our nation, provided that (a) we remember that we are also citizen of Heaven (Phil. 3:20), which is our final destination, and (b) we humbly acknowledge that it has made mistakes.
And while you may not agree with all of its past actions, decisions, and leaders, there is nothing wrong with being a proud citizen of America. After all, its Constitution guarantees your right to freely worship God–something many nations do not have. We can also be thankful for the number of missionaries that American churches have sent overseas, that so many have access to jobs to provide for their families, that our government does provide a system of checks and balances, and for citizens to peaceably assemble and bring forth their grievances.
But we should also be wary of jumping to conclusions about its founding. I eventually came to realize that, as an older friend once said about matters of history, religion, and politics, “It ain’t always neat and tidy.”
Simply put, it is wrong to romanticize about the way things were when the narrative presented has several holes in it, as the idea of America being founded as a “Christian nation” so clearly does.
Coming to terms with it was difficult. But when I realized that the narrative presented by Barton and others had real problems, that the only nation specifically sanctioned by God in the New Testament is the Church, and that the Church’s calling is to call sinners to repentance, proclaim the gospel of grace, and to edify and build up its people into holiness, this opened my eyes. It was a lesson that the Church must exercise extreme caution in partisan politics, so as not to alienate anyone from the gospel (while remembering that politics is as legitimate a venue for believers as any other). Lastly, pastors and elders need to be very wary of their churches being led astray into areas where they were never intended to go–such as spending precious time and resources trying to restore a heritage that was not necessarily there to begin with.
At the same time, these realizations were liberating. I now knew that seeking to restore a nation’s religious heritage was not part of my calling as a Christian. I also learned that in God’s eternal plan, nations come and go–and this includes the U.S.A. But due to the many blessings we have in this country, we can be thankful that at least for a moment in time, God brought our nation into existence, that we can enjoy the freedoms inherent in it, and use them to better glorify our Father in Heaven.