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A Nation of Christians Is Not Necessarily a Christian Nation
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A Nation of Christians Is Not Necessarily a Christian Nation

We cannot equate Christian power with Christian justice.

Of all the remembrances of January 6, the most searing for me was a simple tweet thread. It came from a Presbyterian pastor named Duke Kwon, and it was a photo compilation of Christian imagery on January 6. There were crosses, Bibles, public prayers, and Christian flags amid the tear gas. In fact, Christian flags and symbols were on the front lines of the fighting, carried like men used to carry regimental colors into battle. 

It’s hard to think of the worst image, but the picture below—which combines the Christian flag with an American flag and a Trump flag—almost perfectly captures the syncretism of Trumpist Christianity:

I’ve written at length about Christian nationalism generally and the specific version of Christianity that was suffused throughout Trump’s effort to steal a national election. But I want to write about something a bit different, about the definition of a “Christian nation” and the sense that America is (or was) a Christian nation that is now moving to a “post-Christian” future where it will become increasingly difficult for faithful Christians to find a home here and to feel welcome in their own communities.

This idea—that America is moving from a Christian past to a post-Christian future—isn’t precisely “Christian nationalism,” but it does lend an enormous amount of emotional urgency to Christian political engagement. But let’s unpack these thoughts for a moment. Is America a “Christian nation”? Has it been a Christian nation? And is it harder to live life publicly, openly, and authentically as a Christian than it used to be? 

I know that’s a lot to unpack. One essay can only scratch the surface. Books have been written on the subject. But let’s have the conversation anyway. First, let’s try to define what a Christian nation is.

We know that the United States does not meet one definition of a Christian nation. It does not have an established Christian church, and our Constitution explicitly rejects any formal religious establishment. There is nothing like the Church of England here. Our nation’s head of state is not also the “defender of the faith.”

But formal establishment is only one way to define a Christian nation, and it’s perhaps the least instructive. There’s the rather important matter of the religious faith and practice of its citizens. But does the mere fact that a majority of a nation’s citizens identify as Christian render a nation a “Christian nation”? 

I’d argue that a nation’s religious character is defined by the interaction between the individual faith of the citizens and the institutional expression of the nation’s values. A functioning “Christian nation” is going to combine both a robust private practice of faith with a government that is committed to basic elements of justice and mercy. In other words, when determining the identity of a people and nation, by their fruits you shall know them.  

For example, I’ve argued that American classical liberalism, at its best, not only respects and reflects the inherent God-given dignity of man by protecting our most fundamental human rights, it also recognizes and seeks to mitigate the inherent sinfulness of man by recognizing our capacity for tyranny and oppression. In other words, “One way of reading American history is as a reflection of the central theological tension inherent in the gospel: the push and pull between humans as made in the image of God and humans still trapped in sin.” 

But we know enough about America’s experiment with classical liberalism that it has often fallen profoundly short of its professed values and has long engaged in behavior that its own founding declaration decisively rejects. 

By this more exacting definition of Christian nation, which combines both individual faith identities and collective, national expressions of justice and mercy, then it’s far less clear that America has been a “Christian nation” or that our future looks to be more “post-Christian” than our past. In fact, a more fair reading of our history is one of conflict between Christians, where all too many times one set of believers sought to oppress others and used the power of government in the most profoundly un-Christian of ways. 

In Lincoln’s second inaugural address, he famously said of the Union and the Confederacy, “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.” That was true most dramatically in the Civil War, but it’s been true in countless conflicts before and since. 

In fact, in the present day, it’s still true. As Republicans and Democrats hate each other with increasing ferocity, both parties utterly depend on the two most churchgoing demographics in America to attain and hold power. While Democrats are more secular than Republicans, it’s a rump party without the black vote, and black voters are among the most devout and churchgoing citizens in the United States of America. Republicans of course depend on the white Evangelical vote, and white Evangelicals attend church and believe in the God of the Bible at rates similar to black Protestants.

And what of America’s religious past, the good old days that so many Republican Christians seem to remember and long for? Reality is far more messy. One can make a good argument that white Protestant religious power may well have reached its American apex during Prohibition. A religiously infused temperance movement was so powerful that it succeeded in passing a constitutional amendment essentially imposing morals legislation throughout the United States.

Yet what else was happening in the United States during that era? Well, the entire southern United States (the Bible Belt, by the way) was essentially an apartheid sub-state within the larger United States. It brutally oppressed America’s black citizens, including its black Christian citizens. The Tulsa Race Massacre happened in 1921, at the peak of white Protestant power.

At the same time, white Protestants were also busy persecuting Catholics. The late 19th and early 20th centuries were the heyday of so-called Blaine Amendments—state constitutional amendments that were explicitly aimed at protecting Protestant political and cultural power against perceived Catholic political and cultural encroachment.

So do we want to claim America as a “Christian nation” in that period? Even though there were millions of American Christians who possessed and wielded power to an extent not seen before or since? Where was the justice? Instead a nation of Christian was proving that it could act in affirmatively un-Christian—even anti-Christian—ways. 

And what about the idea that it is increasingly difficult to live out your Christian faith in this new, “post-Christian” era? I do think there are communities in the United States that are more hostile to authentic Christians expressions than in years past. I spent years of my life defending Christian liberty in higher education, for example, and I can give you chapter and verse on blatant anti-Christian hostility. I’ve seen it. I’ve experienced it. 

There are influential people and institutions in this country who’ve taken the position that orthodox expressions of Christian sexual morality represent nothing more than bigotry and hatred. 

But as much hostility as I’ve seen and experienced from some secular leftists in response to the public expression of my Christian values, nothing compares to hostility I’ve seen and experienced from self-identified Christians when I rooted my opposition to Donald Trump in the same Christian values that sometimes earned me scorn in the Ivy League. 

In other words, Christians were more hostile to my public expressions of my values than the secular left ever was. And I’m far from alone. Where does that cut on the question of whether it’s easy or hard to publicly and authentically live out your Christian faith? And who’s hostile to that faith?

Let’s think for a moment about the Bible Belt. Here’s a pop quiz—was it more or less difficult to be publicly and authentically Christian in the South in 2022 or 1952? The answer is easy. The South is far more welcoming of orthodox, authentic Christianity now. Why? Because orthodox, authentic public Christianity—which would necessarily include opposition to the racial oppression of Jim Crow—carried profoundly greater risks even in the relatively recent past. 

If you were black, it could get you killed. The Civil Rights Memorial lists the names of 41 martyrs of the movement, and the overwhelming majority are black. The victims include pastors and four young girls killed when white supremacist terrorists blew up the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963. These terrible losses represent a fraction of the thousands of black Americans lynched in the South after the Civil War.

If you were white, you could face economic retaliation and physical violence that could make modern cancel culture look tame. White Christian and Jewish allies also risked death. For example, segregationists beat a white pastor named James Reeb to death in Birmingham. An Alabama sheriff’s deputy shot and killed an Episcopal seminary student named Jonathan Daniels. The infamous “Mississippi Burning” murders of 1964 claimed the lives of a black Mississippi man named James Chaney and two Jewish men from New York named Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. 

These men were just a few of the casualties of a movement that called for racial justice in the heart of one of the most “Christian” regions in the nation. 

Here’s a challenging reality: America has become more just—and thus closer to the ideals one would expect of a Christian nation—as white Protestant power has waned. The United States of 2022 is far more just than it was in 1822 or 1922 or 1952 or even 1982. And while white Protestants have undeniably been part of that story—they were indispensable to the abolitionist movement, for example—the elevation of other voices has made a tremendous difference.

In the civil rights movement, the sad reality is that all too often the person wielding the fire hose and the person facing the spray both proclaimed faith in Jesus and both went to church, but only one of them was acting justly. And any account of American civil rights has to include the vital contribution of the American Jewish community.

Once again, the same theme pops up: “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.” 

Even one of the most defining moral issues of modern Christian conservatism—the fight against abortion—arose largely out of the Catholic Church, the same church that Protestants spent decades vigorously trying to suppress. The pro-life alliance between Evangelicals and Catholics is a relatively recent phenomenon. 

I make this observation not to state that white American Protestants are uniquely problematic. The history of Christian power wielded by virtually any Christian faction anywhere is replete with examples of injustice and abuse. Nor are Christians uniquely terrible. We’ve seen the awful consequences of corrupt religion throughout world history and throughout world religions. We still see it today. 

The Christianity of the United States of America, both as a matter of individual expression and institutional justice, is an enormously complex topic, but one thing I can say with confidence—there was no golden age of American Christianity. And we cannot look back at any moment and say, this is when America was a Christian nation.

What conservative Evangelicals are “losing” today isn’t so much liberty as power. Christians of all theological stripes enjoy more religious freedom now, in this nation, than virtually any group of believers anywhere in the world. Yet even so it’s always uncomfortable to lose power.

And that brings me to my last thought—since when is comfort our goal? The Kingdom of God is upside-down, remember. The last shall be first. To save your life you must lose your life. There is no higher calling than taking up your cross to follow Christ. If you’re living a life where your Christianity is comfortable, and anything remotely resembling a cross is far, far from your experience, that’s when we should wonder if we’ve conformed to the culture. Because we know the culture has not conformed to the cross. 

There is a misplaced emotional urgency in parts of the church today. There’s a longing for a past we shouldn’t seek to recover, panic over a present that is still laden with privilege, and fear of a future that is in the hands of a sovereign God. We saw that all on January 6. We see it still in rhetoric that blankets our Christian political discourse.

Yet if our history teaches us anything, it is that we cannot equate Christian power with Christian justice, and while we’ve always been a nation of Christians, we have not always borne Christian fruit. 

One more thing …

In the latest Good Faith podcast, Curtis and I talk about the relationship between justice and power and also about the relationship between Christianity and the American founding. We take the themes of this week’s newsletter and go deep. 

Give it a listen. And please rate us! We’re trying to get to 1,000 recommendations (then 2,000 of course). Your ratings make it easier for new listeners to find us and The Dispatch. Thank you!

One last thing …

This is so good. I’ve linked to Tenielle Neda’s music before, and I listen to it all the time. This is a favorite. Enjoy:

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.