Acton Institute Powerblog

Life in Exile: Has America Ever Been a ‘Christian Nation’?

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Evangelicals are known for referring to America as a “Christian nation,” sometimes as a nod to its basic demographic disposition, but more often as a deeper theological statement about the country’s founding and spiritual status.

Whether viewed through the mundane misapplications of Old Testament scripture or the more highly entrenched revisionism of Christian “historians” like David Barton, there is a popular view among evangelicals that America has access to a sort of pre-New Testament covenant. Given such a mindset, we shouldn’t be surprised when our political activity aligns accordingly, pursuing the common good far too often from the (political) top down.

In a new video from The Gospel Coalition, Russell Moore explains the theological error that underlies such thinking, pointing the way toward a proper Gospel understanding.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cYtwU7dLMEo

As Moore explains:

The idea that we are living in a ‘Christian nation’ in that [faulty] sense, is really a form of theological liberalism. It assumes that a person or a nation can be a Christian apart from the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, apart from new birth. That is contrary to the gospel we have received in Jesus Christ.

Instead, we must say we are Christians who live in a nation among many people who profess to be Christians, some of whom are and some of whom aren’t, and we must be the people who give a faithful gospel witness in those days.

Which begs the question: What does “giving a faithful gospel witness” look like as it relates to the public square?

Yet as we resist the temptations of civil religion and “Christian-nation” rhetoric, there is an opposite temptation to disengage altogether. Drawing these distinctions needn’t mean that we abstain from the public square or dilute our prophetic voice. Indeed, quite the opposite.

In their book, One Nation Under God, Bruce Ashford and Chris Pappalardo offer a thorough exploration of how this ought to take shape. Drawing from Kuyper’s analogy of the church being rooted and grounded, they paint a helpful picture of what proper political engagement looks like:

OneNationUnderGod_CVRWe as Christians must never allow the specter of theocracy to prevent us from shaping public life in light of God’s Word. One helpful way to conceive of our task is by recognizing a distinction between the church as an institution and the church as an organism. As a structured institution, the church’s mission is to gather for worship, to preach the Word, to share in the Lord’s Supper, and other similar activities. The institutional church’s mission is to make us disciples of Christ rather than to control the state or dictate public policy.

However, the church is not merely an institution. It is also an organism. After the church gathers on the weekend for worship, it scatters organically into all of society. Members of a church find themselves acting and interacting in the public square throughout the week. They find themselves speaking about matters of public life and working for the common good of their fellow citizens. Certain members of the church have the competence and opportunity to shape public policy and should do so by drawing on the wealth of the Christian tradition. And when they seek to influence public life, they should do so by reasoning and persuading but not by coercing.

The Christian’s capacity to influence without coercing will become increasingly important as the United States becomes a “post-Christian” nation. We are entering a new era and must prepare ourselves to live as faithful exiles in our own country.

American Christians have always been living in exile, whether we’ve known it or not. It’s about time we do the digging and planting that such a position requires, which means means living boldly and faithfully in the spaces and spheres to which God has called us, offering the Gospel and our gifts from the bottom up.

For more, see For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles.

Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Charisma News, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

Comments

  • Larry Linn

    “This nation of ours was not founded on Christian principles.”— John Adams

    “Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise.” – James Madison

    “Question with boldness even the existence of a god.” – Thomas Jefferson (letter to Peter Carr, 10 August 1787)