Tuesday, June 16, 2009

McGrath on "Christian Nation Irony"

James F. McGrath, Associate Professor of Religion at Butler University, Indianapolis, nails the problem with the "Christian Nation" thesis as articulated by Barton, Marshall, Federer, et al.:

It seems unlikely that at any point in the past the vast majority of inhabitants of the United States were devout Christians with a personal faith, as opposed to nominal Christians for whom their Christianity consisted largely of a "tribal identity" including churchgoing and assenting to some doctrinal beliefs and moral precepts.

Does it not seem ironic, then, that the notion of American having once been a "Christian nation", and nostalgia for that bygone golden age, is found largely among Evangelicals, those very Christians who emphasize the need for a personal faith, and the inadequacy of a Christianity that consists merely of church attendance, denominational affiliation, or even moral living?

Am I missing something? Why would the very Christians who deny the adequacy of such nominal Christianity today, depict its heyday as a sort of golden age for American Christianity?

That's the problem: There was no Golden Age. Arguably the evangelical view of the Bible teaches there never will be a Golden Age until Christ returns as their faith is a "narrow path." Roger Williams, ironically, understood this and in doing so was one of the first Christian political leaders to reject the "Christian Nation" thesis and, consequently, promote "religious liberty."

Williams was clear, it is only by rejecting that a nation is "Christian" in a civil, governmental, covenant sense (in the sense that the Puritans like John Winthrop articulated and tried to put into action) that government could recognize religious liberty. And key to Williams' assertion was the inevitable existence of large numbers (perhaps, probably a strong majority!) of "unregenerate" (i.e., nominal Christians) existing in any nation, even those whose population consider themselves "Christian." The inevitable existence of large numbers of unregenerate everywhere before Christ's return makes the idea of a "Christian Nation" blasphemous.


Tom Van Dyke said...

I suppose there's some truth to McGrath's opinion. Certainly the majority of Americans weren't Jerry Falwells. But in going after the evangelicals, it misses the larger truth.

"...there is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America."---Tocqueville

More Tocqueville [cribbed from the internet]:

(1.) “The philosophers of the 18th century explained in a very simple manner the gradual decay of religious faith. Religious zeal, said they, must necessarily fail the more generally liberty is established and knowledge diffused. Unfortunately, the facts by no means accord with their theory. There are certain populations in Europe whose unbelief is only equaled by their ignorance and debasement; while in America, one of the freest and most enlightened nations in the world, the people fulfill with fervor all the outward duties of religion�?

(2.) "The sects [different denominations] that exist in the United States are innumerable. They all differ in respect to the worship which is due to the Creator; but they all agree in respect to the duties which are due from man to man. Each sect adores the Deity in its own peculiar manner, but all sects preach the same moral law in the name of God.... All the sects of the United States are comprised within the great unity of Christianity, and Christian morality is everywhere the same ... There is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America."

(3.) “The revolutionists of America are obliged to profess an ostensible respect for Christian morality and equity, which does not permit them to violate wantonly the laws that oppose their designs ... Thus while the law permits the Americans to do what they please, religion prevents them from conceiving, and forbids them to commit, what is rash or unjust�?

(4.) "On my arrival in the United States the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention; and the longer I stayed there, the more I perceived the great political consequences resulting from this new state of things"

(5.) "Religion in America takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must be regarded as the first of their political institutions ... I do not know whether all Americans have a sincere faith in their religion - for who can search the human heart? - but I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions. This opinion is not peculiar to a class of citizens or to a party, but it belongs to the whole nation and to every rank of society."

John said...

I have recently discovered this blog, and have very much enjoyed reading it. I think you (and Professor McGrath) are exactly right in your analysis.

I wrote my own take on this a few days ago, if you are interested: http://honeyandlocusts.wordpress.com/2009/06/13/is-america-a-christian-nation/

Thanks, and I hope you'll stop by my blog!

King of Ireland said...

Two points here:

1. The founding was right in between two Great Awakenings so when he says that this was the the heydey for nominalism that is way off

2. The term "Christian Nation" is like "Creationist" I thought creationist meant someone who believed that God created the world and that that people who believed in evolution were stating that it was proof that there was no creation. Then I found out that "Creationist" means someone who eliminates all possibilities in Genesis 1 except a literal 6 day creation.

Most tend to lump all people who believe God created this whole thing into one lump and call us all "Creationists". There are numerous differences among many groups who would fit this label. It is like lumping all Libertarians with Right Wing Republicans too.

So what exactly does "Christian Nation" mean. Why? Because if the definition is too narrow we can label everyone with the label of follower of David Barton and thus "secularism' takes the day when the truth is some where between:

1. A nation of all Christians
2. A nation void of any connection to the God of Nature/Bible

Mark D. said...

I think King of Ireland is spot on here. This is a question of defining who or who is not a "Christian." When dealing with questions of identity, one can take a theologial view or a sociological one. The idea that only "born again" believers or people who a fervent faith life qualify as "Christians" is a theological definition. From a sociological perspective, what makes somebody a "Christian" is that they identify as such. Might not be my type of Christianity, for exameple, but that doesn't really matter.

Let me provide you with an example. I'm a Catholic. Catholic teaching as found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines a Christian generally as someone who affirms the Nicene Creed. That would exclude religious believers who identify with Christianity but who are non-Nicene in their understanding of the Godhead -- Christian unitarians, for example, or members of the LDS church. But such excluded believers would, under a sociological definitation, be considered Chrsitian. Why? Because they identify as such, regardless of what the Catholic Church might say about the orthodoxy of their views!