America Is Not and Cannot Be a Christian Nation
William Sloane Coffin said, “There are three kinds of patriots, two bad, one good. The bad are the uncritical lovers and the loveless critics. Good patriots carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country.” The same could be said of adherents to any religious tradition.
I’m not a loveless critic of Christianity. I’m an insider who has a lover’s quarrel with fellow Christians who distort both Christianity and American democracy when they conflate the two. This country is founded on religious freedom and the strict separation of church and state, and it’s perilous to play fast and loose with that fact.
But there’s a peril on the other side of this coin. With religious freedom comes a responsibility to find non-doctrinal ways to address deep questions of meaning and purpose in places like our public schools. Many young people flounder because they get so little companionship from their elders as they try to understand what their lives are all about.
If we could do a better job on that front in the year ahead, we’d have even more for which to give thanks this week in 2015…
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
—The Declaration of Independence
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…
—First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
These foundation stones of American democracy were laid a century too late to save Mary Dyer’s life. Dyer, a middle-aged mother of six, was hanged in 1660 for defying a Puritan law that banned Quakers from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Christians who cruelly deprived this woman of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were dead certain (so to speak) that they were on a mission from God, protecting their “divinely ordained” civic order against Mary Dyer’s seditious belief in the Inner Light.
As a spiritual descendant of Mary Dyer, I’m profoundly grateful that America is not a Christian nation. If it were, my Quaker convictions might get me into very deep oatmeal. As a Christian who does his best to take reason as seriously as I take faith, I find it impossible to understand America as a “Christian nation.” And I believe that there are vibrant possibilities in the fact that it is not.
Whatever America’s founders believed about Christianity — and they believed a wide range of things — they clearly rejected the idea of an established church. That’s strike one against the curious conceit that we’re a Christian nation. If being a Christian nation means asking ourselves every day, “What would Jesus do?” about a political issue, then doing it, that’s strike two. To take but one example from Stephen Colbert (without forgetting things like slavery, justice for those who can afford it, and peace through war):
“If [America] is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”
If a Christian nation is one whose popular culture is dominated by Christian convictions about what’s good and true and beautiful, I’m afraid that’s strike three. Just look at the fact that our nation-wide Christmas festivities begin on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, a day that celebrates consumerism, our true civil religion. If anyone wants a fourth swing of the bat in hopes of getting on base, let me pitch this brief theological reflection. If, as Christians believe, God is the Creator and Redeemer of All, then there’s no way God favors Americans above people of other nationalities. Strike four.
As a Christian, I’m passionately opposed to American pretensions that we have special standing with God, to political office-seekers who play on our religious differences, and to the religious arrogance that says, “Our truth is the only truth.” But I’m equally passionate about the urgency of creating a culture of meaning that responds to the deepest needs of the human soul. This is a task we have been neglecting at great peril, a task that demands the best of all our wisdom traditions, a task on which people of diverse beliefs can and must make common cause.
Viewed from this angle, the fact that America is not and cannot be a Christian nation is very good news. America’s freedom of religion, and freedom from religion, offers every wisdom tradition an opportunity to address our soul-deep needs: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, secular humanism, agnosticism and atheism among others. These traditions are like facets of a prism, each of which refracts a different wavelength of the light that overcomes darkness, including the darkness created from time to time by every nation and every tradition.
The philosopher Jacob Needleman has said that “one of the great purposes of the American nation is to shelter and guard the rights of all men and women to seek the conditions and the companions necessary for the inner search.” In this society, where religious and philosophical diversity is one of our most precious assets, we can take a big step toward opening our culture to the “inner search” by shaking off the mistaken notion that this is code language for the search for God.
Inner-life questions are the kind everyone asks, with or without benefit of God-talk: Does my life have meaning and purpose? Do I have gifts that the world wants and needs? Whom and what shall I serve? Whom and what can I trust? How can I rise above my fears? How do I deal with suffering: my own, that of my family and friends, and that of the larger world? How can I maintain hope? What does any of this mean in the face of the fact that I’m going to die?
These are not questions that yield to conventional answers. They are the big questions that must be “lived,” Rainer Maria Rilke writes, so that we might “gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answers.” Do our schools give young people a chance to wrap their lives around questions of that sort? Do our religious communities listen for the questions that are alive among us instead of answering questions that few are asking? Do we offer spaces of public life that are safe for vulnerable explorations of meaning, spaces that are not Roman arenas where demagoguery slays reflective, rational, and factually grounded discourse?
American democracy gives us a chance to do all of that and more, free of ideological restraints. That’s why I’m grateful that America is not and cannot be a Christian nation.
Of course, we can continue to have pseudo-theological food fights over questions like, “How can we save our nation by making all Americans into God-fearing souls?” or “How can anyone be so ignorant as to believe in God or the soul?” Or we can take advantage of the fact that American democracy offers us an open space in which to pursue questions of personal, communal, and political meaning, illumined by multiple sources of light.
Which will it be? That’s a question worth wrapping our lives around, with gratitude for our political inheritance.