In his February 16th post Wise Turks, Foolish Christians, and Less-Than-Ideal Candidates, Shane Vander Hart concludes with the following questions:
…what if the person who lines up the closest in worldview is less competent candidate? Somebody also may line up in beliefs and “values,” but not necessarily character. What to do then? Sometimes their conduct and treatment of others is less than Christ-like even though they say all the right things.
I’m reminded of a quote often attributed to Martin Luther – “I would rather be governed by a wise turk (non-Christian) than a foolish Christian.”
Is that a correct position to have? What say you?
The intent of this post is not necessarily to attempt to answer the questions. Rather, it is to discuss the matters involved in a bit more detail, and raise a number of additional questions. The subject that Shane has raised is one that evades a simple assessment.
When considering what the responsibilities are for the Christian in relation to his citizenship, the first order of business might be to determine what kind of nation he’s in. Is it a Christian nation? And in order to answer that question, we need to ask another: What precisely constitutes a Christian nation? The position one takes on these two questions, as we shall see later, may have a great deal to say about what our duties and responsibilities are as Christian citizens.
It is commonly asserted among Evangelicals that the United States of America is (or certainly was) a Christian nation. Is this assertion true? In the opinion of the author, the best answer may be yes and no.
Positively, there can be no question that America was founded and settled (generally speaking) by people that were, at the very least, nominally Protestant Christians. Nowadays you hear this notion dismissed out of hand by skeptics who suggest that the Founding Fathers weren’t really Christian, but that they were “Deists and Freethinkers”, with Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and others held up as examples. This is nonsense. First of all, whatever the defects in their theology, both Franklin and Jefferson both understood and valued the Christian consensus of the Colonial society they belonged to. Franklin, for example, was raised in a Puritan home, deeply admired Cotton Mather, and early in his life actually considered a career in the ministry. Secondly, John Witherspoon, Patrick Henry, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and others give us ample examples of Founding Fathers whose orthodox Christianity is reasonable to affirm.
In any case, the religious consensus of the day was indeed Christian, and Christianity’s affect on the Colonial culture was profound. It was the clear result of primarily Anglican, Congregational, and Presbyterian church influence. Charles Hodge, the great 19th century Princeton theologian wrote, “The proposition that the United States of America are a Christian and Protestant nation, is not so much the assertion of a principle as the statement of a fact. That fact is not simply that the great majority of the people are Christians and Protestants, but that the organic life, the institutions, laws, and official action of the government, whether that action be legislative, judicial, or executive, is, and of right should be, and in fact must be, in accordance with the principles of Protestant Christianity.”
Again, positively, there is the fact that the individual states were allowed to establish religions and include religious tests in their respective constitutions. It was understood by the framers of the Federal Constitution that the Establishment Clause was only a prohibition of establishments at the federal level. A number of states, indeed, had establishments (ten of the thirteen colonies had established churches) as well as religious tests for their office bearers. Even to this day, there are still eight states that have constitutional clauses which prohibit atheism for those holding public office, although these clauses have been ruled by the U.S. Supreme Court to be unenforceable.
So we have the Christian consensus and influence in the culture, the Christian influence upon the Founding Fathers, the Founding Fathers that were themselves Christians, and the formal establishment of the Christian religion at the colonial and state level. Taken together, these make a compelling case that the United States certainly was a Christian nation.
Negatively, however, it can certainly be said that the Establishment Clause of the Federal Constitution does, in fact, negate the idea of a formal religious connection at the federal level. And although some dispute the historicity of the section in question, there is also to be considered Article 11 of the US Treaty with Tripoli, 1796 which says the following: “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.” This is a powerful piece of evidence (assuming its validity) demonstrating the formal irreligion of the United States. But even if article 11 is historically dubious, the Establishment Clause remains. It simply cannot be ignored.
Further, through 19th century developments (such as the ratification of the 14th amendment), establishments, financial support of churches through taxation, and religious tests at the state level largely became historical footnotes. Religion eventually became purely a voluntary matter left to the conscience of the individual. It’s true, of course, that the Christian consensus remained generally intact, but it would seem the religious identity of the people became more local or regional. And, given human nature, it would have been folly to assume that the Christian consensus would remain indefinitely.
Thus we have the United States of America with no formal religious identity (except perhaps Pluralism), and a Christian consensus that would eventually erode away. This consideration makes it difficult to argue without qualification that the United States is (or ever was) a Christian nation.
Again: The best answer? Perhaps yes and no.