A Christian Nation
The United States of America began as a particularly Christian nation, and subsequent generations have been blessed accordingly. Today, a great falling away is in progress. The blessings may end. Indeed, many of the militant atheists leading our falling away predict an end to America’s exceptional wealth and power – and gloat.
I worry about our future. I’d prefer to keep the blessings flowing. To that end, I conclude this series with a possible plan to reverse our slide towards Post-Christian status.
No, I’m not talking about legislating morality, nor remixing Church with State. I’m talking about creating a new generation of Christian thought leaders to offset the militant atheists who dominate academia today.
What I Mean by “Christian Nation”
The United States were never completely Christian. From the beginning the early colonists included a rogue’s gallery of adventurers, fortune-hunters, pirates, slavers, and land barons. Even the Mayflower had non-Pilgrims on board.
But some of the original colonies began with an unusual concentration of sincere Christians, Christians who cared enough about the particulars of worship that they crossed the Atlantic in wooden boats rather than attend state-approved churches. Whether Puritan, Quaker, or Roman Catholic, they were filtered for fervor by revealed preference.
It is one thing to go to church when everyone else is doing it. It is quite another to defy state and society, or cross an ocean in order to worship in a particularly way.
Such proven Christians were true “salt of the earth.” This nation was extra salty at its beginning. And we are blessed to this day in part due to past piety.
5 if you carefully obey him by keeping all these commandments that I am giving you today.
6 For the LORD your God will bless you just as he has promised; you will lend to many nations but will not borrow from any, and you will rule over many nations but they will not rule over you.
This is not to say that Early America was always saintly. From the beginning, this land has been defiled by slavery, treachery towards the natives, and racism in general. We are paying some of the price for these crimes to this day. Our blessings could have been much higher.
But we are truly blessed, beyond most nations. These blessings are not guaranteed to continue, however. We are becoming a Post-Christian nation. We haven’t sunk as far as much of Europe, but that is the trend: rampant promiscuity, broken families, militantly secular education, sacrilegious entertainment, idolized celebrities, and babies sacrificed for convenience’s sake.
Storm clouds are on the horizon. We are a debtor nation, with a huge cohort of retirees to support soon. Bureaucracy and lawyers flourish. Yankee ingenuity is eclipsed by Asian engineering. The prison population explodes. Courage and self-reliance give way to whiny calls for police state protection from a few ragtag barbarians. Could these be the last days of American greatness?
Christianity vs. Democracy
Many of my liberal and libertarian friends celebrate the coming Post-Christian America. They cite the blue laws, sodomy laws, dry counties, censorship, and drug wars frequently supported by the Religious Right. They claim the genius of our system of government came from the Enlightenment, not the Bible. Many followers of Ayn Rand go further, claiming that we will not have liberty until philosophy displaces religion. Meanwhile, some neo-pagans claim that belief in multiple gods begets tolerance of multiple ideas, multiple religions, multiple lifestyles.
Are they correct? Let us look at some data. Take a globe and note the countries which have achieved relatively stable democratic/republican governments. Overlay this with a survey of countries with a strong Bible-based (Protestant) Christian background. The correlation is impressive. (For whatever reason, countries with predominately priest-based Christianity have had less success establishing stable democratic governments. That said, the Roman Catholic Church can claim many examples of success checking the power of monarchs throughout the centuries.)
Look at a map of the Middle East. Note the one country with a stable democratic tradition, one that has survived over a half century of conflict: Israel. What does Israel share with the predominately Protestant nations? Answer: a population conversant with (most of) the Bible.
Now, let’s look at some modern attempts at replacing Christianity with philosophy. This was first tried during the French Revolution, resulting in price controls, rolling heads and a quick descent into dictatorship. Not pretty! Then we had the various attempts at Marxist governance, resulting in labor camps, mass starvation, thought police, poverty, and environmental destruction. Today, we have Western Europe’s slide into Post-Christian status, along with democratically elected governments ceding power to the bureaucracy in Brussels.
As for neo-paganism, the closest modern attempt at New Age government was Nazi Germany. Snazzy uniforms and impressive pep rallies; otherwise, not pretty.
The data above are indicative, not conclusive. Stable democracy also correlates well with Teutonic population. The ancient Germans and Nordics had democratic traditions well before being introduced to Christianity. (Germany proper is a huge outlier for this explanation. It is also an outlier for the Protestant Christian explanation as well, given that it is the home of Martin Luther.1)
Nonetheless, I do believe that a population steeped in Bible-based Christianity has more potential for stable, liberty-protecting, democratic government, for several reasons including:
- Rule of law vs. rule of men. Without this factor, democracy can degenerate into “whoever has a majority gets all the cookies.” Some type of shared philosophy might be able to provide this service, but I’ve yet to see it happen.
- A shared basis for law. If different sectors of society have deeply opposing views of right and wrong, democracy degenerates into factionalism.
- A shared basis for law compatible with liberty. Islamic countries also have book-based law, and this does provide constraints on the rulers of said countries. However, Old Testament law is far more libertarian than Sharia law. Temper the Law of Moses with New Testament concepts of mercy and a narrow path, and compatibility with liberty is greater still.
- Ethics enforced by God. Who governs the governors? Rational self-interest on the part of leaders leads to pork-barrel politics and croney capitalism. Our Founding Fathers worried about this and predicted that our republic would be destroyed by special interests should we cease to be a moral nation. (It’s happening.)
- Charity apart from government. Some generalized system of largesse from government might be compatible with liberty and the rule of law. A complete takeover of charity is not. Caring for the needy requires dealing with a myriad of special cases. Doing so with government workers necessitates either reams of regulations to deal with all these cases, or government worker discretion. Either path undermines the rule of law.
- And finally, divine intervention. We in the United States have been lucky. We’ve survived corrupt and crazy leaders. And when we really needed good leadership, we got it. We got George Washington instead a Napoleon. To this day, we are reaping the blessings of earlier piety. But for how long?
A Post-Christian America
The storm clouds of a Post-Christian America loom large. Blasphemy is commonplace on American television. Taking the Lord’s name in vain is so routine as to escape notice; use of the F word generates 100 times the shock value. First Amendment secularism has been extended from the federal to the state governments, and even unto private businesses. The definition of Public Square has grown at the same time religion has been banned from the public square. School vouchers are opposed by many on the grounds that many private schools are religious. Separation of Church and State is morphing into Separation of Church and Statesman.
Some of the political trends are positive. I favor religious freedom and dislike state-imposed religion. Blue laws at any level above the neighborhood ordinance are inappropriate. The public schools should be secular, since they are shared by all, atheist and Christian alike. But to deny educational choice in the pursuit of secularist brainwashing goes too far. To force poor children to go to dysfunctional inner city schools in the name of secularism is sick and depraved. Ditto for legal abortion. Gay marriage wouldn’t bother me so much save that we also have anti-discrimination and hate crime laws. I look to Canada and see preachers prosecuted for quoting un-PC scripture. No thanks.
The anti-Christian trend will continue unless Christians deal with the source. And that source is not the courts. Nor is it government per se. It isn’t even Hollywood. And it’s not Barack Obama. The source is academia.
The American intelligentsia is rapidly becoming Post-Christian. Some would say it’s already there.
It begins on campus. Contempt for Christianity is common on campus, especially by the faculty. I witnessed some of it myself a quarter century ago when I went to a small liberal arts university originally founded by the Baptists. The chairman of the religion department had recently gotten into a brouhaha with the Baptists over declaring that Jesus never claimed to be divine or some such. (I don’t recall the exact details.) At the time, I thought such things pretty cool, as I was in a state of youthful rebellion and distaste for moral restrictions on hedonistic pursuits.
Today, the contempt is more blatant. Colleges that had once been religious institutions now feature coed bathrooms. Where I recently lived, the Asheville Daily Planet featured a weekly column promoting liberal values over scripture written by the chairman of the religion department of Mars Hill College – a Baptist affiliate.
As noted above, attacks on Christian values are very seductive to horny young adults newly released from parental oversight. The anti-Christians in academia are winning the hearts and minds of the intelligentsia: lawyers, writers, reporters, teachers… If the trend continues, sincere Christians will become a despised underclass. The elite will come after Christian children to “rescue” them. Come to think of it, they already are.
A Different Kind of Revival
Religious fervor has waxed and waned repeatedly through American history. Today’s downward trend could simply be a call for another wave of revival, another “Great Awakening.”
But past awakenings may be a poor model for what’s needed for the next wave of religious revival. The term “Great Awakening” is associated with tent revivals and loud emotionalism. People attracted to such worship forms are already well served. Modern mega churches can provide the tent revival experience on a weekly basis. The market is saturated.
1 Corinthians 9:
20 To the Jews I became like a Jew to gain the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) to gain those under the law.
21 To those free from the law I became like one free from the law (though I am not free from God's law but under the law of Christ) to gain those free from the law.
22 To the weak I became weak in order to gain the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that by all means I may save some.
23 I do all these things because of the gospel, so that I can be a participant in it.
Rock concert style Christian worship is appealing to many young people; it is an important part of campus Christian outreach. By all means, keep it up! But another style of outreach is needed to inspire quiet contemplative types – including many professors and that nerdy minority of students destined to become professors and thought leaders. Speaking for myself (a member of this target market), I find hyperemotional praise and worship music about as inspirational as a car alarm at four in the morning. For me, the best Christian music stations are National Public Radio affiliates. (But I don’t like their “sermons.”)
The music and worship style is not the biggest factor, however. The bigger problem is the preaching. We quiet contemplative types don’t take too well to being shouted at, especially by those who spout illogical babble. Such sermons inspire annoyance or even contempt.
Harsh words, I know. Call me a snob. You don’t have to agree with me or like what goes on in my mind in response to certain styles of worship. Just recognize that this happens inside the heads of many of that minority with a certain temperament, a minority easily despised and bullied on the playground, but dangerous and powerful as we grow older. If you want Christianity to remain the dominant religion, you need outreach to include this minority.
Some of the older, more sedate, denominations do a better job of reaching academic types, but unfortunately many offer a watered down brand of Christianity. The Episcopal Church is an example, one I know well as I grew up in this church. When I was young, the Episcopal Church featured artistic churches, choreographed ceremony, arcane language, and lots of trivia on church language and proper vestments for each phase of the church calendar – all tasty food for the mind that likes high art and the arcane.
But then the Episcopal Church dumbed down its prayer book, got sloppier in its ceremonies, and weakened its membership requirements (no longer does one need to be confirmed to receive communion). Instead of triggering growth, these measures reduced the church’s appeal to its niche market; interest waned on the part of many. Many parishes are “walking dead,” with few children and many gray heads. Many parishes and bishops have dumbed down further to endorse gay marriage; the Episcopal Church is becoming the spiritual home of those who want ceremony and fellowship without the bother of following the Bible.
We contemplative types do not need watered down Christianity to be brought into the fold. But we do need a different type of outreach to get interested, and a different type of spirituality to stay interested. Here are some possibilities:
- Forget big tent revival; go for the seminar. Academics enjoy a good lecture, especially if followed by some spirited Q and A.
- Teach! Don’t bore us with the verbal equivalent of home movies. Don’t stretch three minutes of scripture into thirty minutes of synonyms. Tell us something we can’t figure out on our own with a quick reading.
- Self-contradiction is not acceptable. Logic is our stock in trade. Stand by your contradictions and you lose authority.
- Admit your error bars. The Bible is not clear on every point. God left us some mysteries to chew on.
- The Bible has noise. So does every other scientific dataset. So what? The Bible is the account of human witnesses to divine actions; like all witnesses, their stories diverge in places. Do not say every word in the Bible is true. You’ll only lose authority when we prove you wrong. (Quick example: Jesus is given two different genealogies. Perhaps one is through Mary, but that’s not what the text says. At least one word is false.)
- Don’t turn speculations into creeds. The Trinity, Seventh Day Adventist pictures of Heaven, and assorted theories about the Lost Tribes are all human speculations, not instruction from God. Let each generation make its own speculations. God gave intellectuals mysteries to puzzle over; let us puzzle.
- Open the floor. We intellectual types love a good argument. We’re not going to agree wholeheartedly with any speaker. The New Testament records a much less passive order of service. Jesus and the apostles frequently got into rancorous debates in synagogues and the Temple.
- Have contemplative worship services available. Slow chants and other meditative worship practices are boring for many (including many intellectuals), but for some essential. We can do it in church, or we can go to yoga class. Which do you prefer?
- But keep it Christian! The purpose of Christian spirituality is to make the congregation more Christian: more loving, appreciative of divine blessings, obedient to divine laws, and eager to do good works.
In the beginning of this chapter I condemned the practice of watering down Christianity in order to bring in reluctant new members. In this day when knowledge is much increased [Daniel 12:4], we might well bring in some people back by distilling Christianity, purging questionable old doctrines and pagan compromises.
- Anti-Semitism is no longer popular. Let’s revisit the strong connections between Old and New Testaments that were downplayed in ancient times to distance Christianity from Judaism.
- Sol Invictus is a mostly forgotten god. Why worship on Sunday in his honor when the Bible calls for remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy?
- Visions of a fiery underworld for sinners were once compelling to pagan populations used to dealing with capricious gods and who already believed in an underworld. In this gentler age, such frightening images are at odds with the idea of a just and loving Creator. Why not revisit the question and study what the Bible actually says about the afterlife?
- Santa Claus and Xmas trees are fun for small children, but lead to disillusionment and skepticism once they grow up. How about celebrating the holy days found in the Bible? [Leviticus 23]
With each purge of inconsistent doctrine, Christianity becomes more palatable to the logical mind, while still being Christianity. By taking such measures, we might turn the tide and regain some respect on campus. We won’t convince all intellectuals – The Gate is Narrow – but we might get enough to keep America as a Christian nation.
1The observant reader will have noticed that I have some deep theological disagreements with Martin Luther, especially regarding grace and Judaism.
- For good examples of preaching to reach the intellectual class, go to Born to Win, and listen to some of the programs. It’s a rare program that doesn’t teach me something when I hear it. I sometimes disagree, but am rarely bored.
- To get a feel for what happens when the floor is opened up, see BibleStudy.org and some of the links therein. You’ll find a wild variety of Bible studies and speculations, some enlightening, some mere speculations.
- In this article I emphasized the need for logical consistency as a means to bring more of the intellectual class back into the faith. However, sometimes logic and deep study can yield truths that are important for all Christians. Did you find any in this chapter? On this website?
- I suggested that preachers should admit their error bars. Where have I been too bold in my interpretations? (Do note that the appendices which follow this chapter highlight some error bars for this series.)