Thoughts on Kingdom, Church, and Grace from an American living in Hong Kong

Friday, July 24, 2009

A Christian Nation??

One of the themes I have consistently seen arise while viewing the blogs of my peers is the notion of whether America is a "Christian nation" or not. What I find interesting is that the debate's contestants are (typically) not American Christians vs. non but conservative Christians vs. their more liberal brethren.

Those espousing a Christian nation viewpoint produce a plethora of quotes, letters, and articles from America's Founding Father's proving (in their minds) that their intention was to be Christian from the start. The Left then (of course) counters with their arsenal of ammunition arguing that the Founders were more Deist than Christian and producing their own documentation cementing (in their minds) the notion that America is a secular, religiously neutral nation.

There in lies the crux of the issue. There is no singular proof that you can point to and say, "Ah Hah!" that is the end of the debate and the reason for that is because;

The Founding Father's were deliberately vague!

I took a Constitutional law class in grad school and realized that things would be much less argumentative if the Founder's had been a little more specific...but they weren't, and I believe that was intentional. The vagueness, frustrating as it can be sometimes, helps keep issues in balance. Neither side has enough ammuntion to score a touchdown. Instead there is an ongoing scrimmage near the 50 yrd line...which is where it should be

I must admit though that this particular post is inspired by a book I am currently reading by Richard Hofstader entitled, The American Political Tradition.

Hofstader, who certainly was not advocating Christianity, nevertheless begins the book on page one by claiming that the U.S. Constitution was inspired by the idea of original sin and the Fall of Man. Says Hofstader:

Long ago Horace White observed that the Constitution of the United States is "based upon the philosophy of Hobbs and the religion of Calvin." It assumes that the natural state of Man is a state of war and that the carnal mind is at enmity with God. The men who drew up the Constitution in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787 had a vivid Calvinistic sense of human evil and damnation and believed with Hobbs that men are selfish and contentious.

I wouldn't say this proves America a "Christian Nation" but the idea that our founding document was arguably written with the Judeo-Christian belief of original sin should at least give pause to consider where our cultural heritage lies.

I find most people's notions of culture and nations overly simplistic. Americans like to view themselves as this diverse mosaic of culture, ethnicity, and religion. To non-Americans though we are a "white", "Christian" country. Some years ago a missionary I knew was applying for a teaching position in China. The application asked for the applicant's religion and my friend asked what he should put. I answered, "Christian. To the Chinese we are a Christian country, to put anything else is what will get you unwanted scrutiny."

Americans are just as guilty of this overt simplicity. I often get comments from my compatriots like, "China? They're all Buddhist over there right?" When I remark that by 2050 China will have the largest Christian and Muslim populations at the same time, they appear shocked. They've seen David Carradine and Kung Fu and no fact is going to spoil the image that China is populated with millions of wisdom dispensing Shaolin priests.

Is America a Christian nation? Yes...and no. And thats the way I like it. I like the tension it produces. This side of heaven, I'm not looking for a theocracy. When Jesus sets it up, I'm in...until then thanks but no thanks.

On the other hand...

I don't like the direction this country is taking which tries to delink America from its Judeo-Christian underpinnings. We may like to "celebrate diversity" but I have lived and traveled in many places which have as their country's foundations the quaint "diversity" we celebrate here.

It usually isn't pretty!


Andrew said...

I think many folks who want America to be a "Christian" nation need to learn the meaning of the phrase "a rose by any other name smells just as sweet".

If the values that were laid in our founding were primarily of judeo-christian ethic and can arguably be shown to be a good thing... what more is needed? what is this drive some christians have to label things and claim ownership? It reminds me of the rights to ownership arguments I hear perpetrated by my 6th grade students on the playground at recess. They will spend their entire time arguing who brought the soccer ball out and whose room it belongs to... rather than just playing the dang game and using the ball for its intended purpose.

Redlefty said...

Great post!

Why I've usually come with the "left" approach is that my church members seem to think that not only were the founders Judeo-Christian, but they were from the exact same denomination as our church.

Logan said...

Hey Steve,

Great to see you posting again. While I'm more or less on a hiatus from posting deep reflections myself it won't stop me from posting a few responses here and there...besides I just tackled this subject myself. So...

I agree with the Founding Fathers being vague. My own belief is that these men were not of one mind on the subject. The 'core' founders (Jefferson, Adams, Washington) seemed to have held unorthodox beliefs...I think an examination of ALL the evidence shows that they clearly appreciated the value of religion to society but they spoke of it in vague terms, and indeed their private writings suggest they had more than a few qualms with orthodox Christianity-these guys were not precursors to Jerry Falwell anymore than they were of the ACLU. To piggyback off of what Andrew said, they seemed to place value in simple, universal values that transcended sectarian boundaries.

I'm more familiar with the Declaration of Independence than I am the Constitution in terms of its philosophical underpinnings, and I think it is readily apparent that the Declaration has deism/liberal Christianity written all over it (Nature's God). The notions of liberty that these documents are based on were derived primarily from Enlightenment philosophy, a la John Locke-there isn't much there that can really be tied back to the Bible. But the Declaration is not a law. The Constitution is the supreme law, as it were.

The Constitution is really a blueprint of government, so I'm missing where the whole 'original sin' piece comes in. I know Washington had rejected such a view of human nature in one of his writings, but the personal beliefs of the founders aside the notion that mankind is 'naturally wicked' isn't limited to Christianity-several Eastern philosophers expressed similar views toward government (indeed Chinese philosophy on the subject is fascinating). I think the Constitution expresses a view of liberty that is most similar to modern libertarianism-that government is the real evil. Other than the notion that power corrupts I don't see any real commentary on the nature of humanity in that document or its foundation.

Not to say that I reject everything you've said-America was founded in the Judeo-Christian tradition (statement of fact, we weren't born of a Buddhist culture), and I agree with Andrew that good ideas can transcend a particular culture. I think you're 100% on the ball that a theocracy is bad and yet we need to be honest about our cultural roots.

I'm just iffy on the notion that the Constitution is an example of some philosophical/spiritual rumination on human nature-it is a contract between the states and the federal government, a code of liberty, but little else-as Justice Scalia once pointed out it is not a document on which to draw conclusions about the Mystery of Life.

As for the Founders..brilliant men they were. Clearly men of faith...everyone it seems to me wants to "claim them" as their own. In reality my guess is they transcended all of these.

By the way, I'll post a comment in response to yours on my political blog. Hope your journey through the Bible Belt is going well!

Steve H. said...

Thanks for the feedback everyone:

Logan: The Constitution is a blueprint and there is indeed no reference to "original sin" or the like. Hofstader's book though goes into the history of the men's reasonings with various letter excerpts and the like. As I mentioned, his book was not a treastie on Christianity (far from it) he was trying to dispel some of the overly romantic notions associated with our founding...namely the deep distrust the founder's actually had in democracy. In their minds liberty was tied to property not democracy.

He also notes, "They (the Founders) did not believe in man but they did believe in the power of a good political constitution to control him"

I had heard of Richard Hofstader for years as the Boulder High School required his book for political science and when I saw his book here in a used book store I grabbed it. Can't believe it was written in 1947....its really facinating.

Logan said...

I'll need to get my hands on the sounds like one I'd like.

I have read a handful of the Federalist Papers...that's also a good read. Madison summed up this issue fairly simply when he said "If men were angels, no government would be necessary" (Federalist #51). Well said!

Bob said...

Great points here. I have tried to convince my 'brethren' over the years that, were we to spend more of our time and energy on loving our neighbor than trying to pick apart the Constitution and somehow 'prove' the U.S. is a 'Christian' nation, our Heavenly Father would be much better served.

By the same token, the far-lefters drive me absolutely insane with their attempts to take God out of every facet of society, as if any of our founders ever intended such, which they did not.