A Christian Nation
Anyone make it this far? This chapter turned into a huge Bible study, without much politics after the first page. If you got this far (without skipping), it’s a good bet you take your religion seriously. At the beginning of this chapter I promised you a treat, a bit of political implications of high value to those concerned with morality and stable democracy. Here it comes.
Though I have just written an extensive chapter opposing laws requiring all to live up to Christian standards, though I have criticized much of the Religious Right’s agenda in other chapters, I agree with the moral conservatives in this: the United States is a Christian nation. Moreover, I want to keep it that way.
Here’s the treat: I have the beginnings of a plan to do just that, here on this web page.
But first, some definitions, some laying out of goals. When I say “Christian nation” I don’t mean that all Americans are Christian, or that this was ever the case. Quite a few of the Founding Fathers were Deists. The early colonists included adventurers, fortune-hunters, pirates, prisoners and land barons. Even the Mayflower had non-Pilgrims on board.
Here is what I mean by “Christian nation:” the U.S. started off with an unusually high fraction of devout Christians, and it still contains more than most developed nations. The piety of many of the early colonists can be measured by revealed preference. To call oneself a Christian in a land which mandates church attendance reveals little; medieval displays of piety should be thus discounted. Similarly, church attendance in a land with social pressure to do so provides little outward evidence of piety; even atheists might opt to attend for the social benefits. But to stick with a brand of Christianity which is deplored by the government, or to risk a dangerous and expensive ocean voyage in order to worship as one sees fit, is clear evidence of religious fervor. Such were many of the early colonists: Puritan, Quaker, Roman Catholic and more.
Such devout Christians are “salt of the earth.” This land was salty from the beginning. And to this day we are blessed as a result of their piety.
This is not to say that they were all saints. From early on, 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.
5. Only if thou carefully hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to observe to do all these commandments which I command thee this day.
6. For the Lord thy God blesseth thee, as he promised thee: and thou shalt lend unto many nations, but thou shalt not borrow; and thou shalt reign over many nations, but they shall not reign over thee.
But we are truly blessed, beyond most nations. These blessings are not guaranteed to continue, however. We are drifting towards 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 religious, multiple lifestyles.
Are they correct? Let’s 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 nearly perfect. (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 government 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 itself 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. It’s federalize or fight. Or, there’s always the possibility of dictatorship; divide and rule…
- 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 are looming. 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 do favor religious freedom and don’t like 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 funded 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 with 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. And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law;
21. To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law.
22. To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.
23. And this I do for the gospel's sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you.
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. 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 is what happens inside the heads 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 gone on to dumb 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 my suggestions:
- 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 divulge 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 more people 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 learn the truth. 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 – Christianity is a narrow path – 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 next page contains some error bars for this chapter.)