What is Just?

Should the United States Be a Christian Nation?

Lately in the news, I have heard various people claim that the United States should be a Christian nation.

Some folks also argue that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. I will return to this point shortly.

Now, I am a Christian from the Quaker Christian tradition. And sometimes when I hear people argue that the United States should be a Christian nation, I think “YES! Let’s do this!”

That means we will stop fighting in wars, and we will work for peace. And we will voluntarily relinquish our weapons. We will love and bless our enemies. Also, we will reform prisons so they are rehabilitative rather than punitive. And we will work to eradicate poverty, racism, and inequality in our country. That sounds awesome.”

Quaker and peace worker Helen Montasier, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Quakers historically championed all such causes because they believed that God commanded them to do so. For example, consider these verses in Matthew 25:34-36:

 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”[1]

Quakers read such verses and understandably argued, “Well, it looks like God commands us to treat the imprisoned and poor like they are Christ himself. So, we better visit folks in prison and feed the poor and give them clothing.”

The Quaker Synod, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

But folks who argue that the United States should be a Christian nation don’t, in my experience, usually mean we should take up such endeavors.

So, perhaps they mean we should do things like this:

Hold worship services in which people handle poisonous snakes as a test of their faith in God. This is what some Pentecostal Christians do. Or perhaps they mean we should all speak in angelic tongues, as other Pentecostal Christians do.

Maybe they mean that women should wear head coverings and stay completely silent in churches. This is what some Christians in the Plymouth Brethren denomination argue women should do.

Or perhaps they mean people should take a vow of poverty. This is what some Christians in the Catholic and Protestant tradition do.

Perhaps they mean we should venerate icons as Orthodox Christians do. Or perhaps they mean we should kiss the hand of the Pope. This is what some Catholic Christians do.

An icon of Andrew the Apostle, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Maybe they mean people should live in community and do contemplative practices. And they should extend radical hospitality to the poor and oppressed. This is what Christians in New Monastic communities do.

 What People Probably Mean

However, I suspect if I were to suggest such practices to folks who want to make the United States a Christian nation, they would likely reject them. Instead they would argue that the United States should make the clear teachings of scripture the law of the country.

But the problem is that all the Christians I mentioned above believe their practices represent the clear teachings of scripture.

And this illustrates a very important point about Christians, Christianity, and the Bible.

Christians tend to disagree on what basic scriptural teachings mean or on how to implement them. Perhaps one reason for this is that it is very easy, and a very human thing, to use the Bible to serve our purposes. We often do this rather than living out the principles of the Bible to serve other people.

Or perhaps another reason Christians disagree is that our experience influences our understanding the Bible. Therefore, we interpret the Bible very differently from folks with other experiences.

Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

And unless we are willing to listen carefully to them and empathize, we are unlikely to understand their interpretation of the Bible. After all, even Christ’s own disciples disagreed about how to live out his commandments.

In fact, for hundreds of years in Europe, Christians fought bloody wars over whose  interpretation of the Bible would become the law of the land. You can read more about this here: The Wars of Religion.

If you had ever been through a church split or rancorous religious disagreement with someone, it is not difficult at all to imagine such wars breaking out again today. This would certainly happen if one person or group tried to mandate their interpretation of Christianity as the law of the land.

Maybe People Mean  . . .

But perhaps when people argue that Christianity should be a Christian nation, they mean the United States should adopt the values of the Founding Fathers. And certainly, from what we read in historical records, many of the Founding Fathers were indeed Christians.

However, it appears that the Founding Fathers held a variety of Christian beliefs. For example, among the Founding Fathers there were Catholics, Quakers, Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Dutch Reformed Christians.

And Christians from these denominations interpret the Bible in different ways.

“Scene at the Signing of the Constitution” by Howard Chandler Christy, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In addition, some of the Founding Fathers, it appears, were Unitarians (who tend to doubt the Trinity) or deists (who tend to doubt the notion of a personal God).

In fact, some contemporaries of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams denounced them as atheists because of some of their beliefs.

I don’t think Jefferson and Adams were, in fact, atheists. However, it does appear that the Founding Fathers held a variety of views and some of those views alarmed other Christians of their day.[2]

So that would make it extremely difficult to mandate the Christian beliefs of the Founding Fathers. They held a variety of beliefs, some of which various Christians in their community opposed.

Perhaps What People Mean

But perhaps what people mean is that we should follow the basic principles of the Founding Fathers, which were Christian principles.

There is certainly some truth in this claim. One of the most important ideals of Christianity is the notion that all human beings possess dignity.

For instance, one such verse that communicates this is Galatians 3:28,

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

The idea of the dignity of all human beings inspired the Founding Father’s philosophy.  (Of course, the Founding Fathers did not apply this principle universally.)

A belief in human dignity also inspired many of the ideas in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

The Declaration of Independence, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

For example, the Founding Fathers definitely believed in the right to resist tyranny and the right to self-rule.

And certainly we need to respect human dignity, resist tyranny, and practice self-rule.

But if such principles are Christian ideals, then it is hardly Christian to force people to accept doctrine they don’t believe. And that is what we would do if we made the United States a Christian nation. It is, in fact, more Christian to defend people’s rights, including their right to be free of religious coercion. You can read more about this here: A Tricky Thing about Rights.

In addition, making Christianity the law of a nation, or the official state religion, can undermine the example of the church and church teachings.

For example, at the end of the Roman empire, Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of Rome. On the one hand, this was a good thing in many ways. Under Constantine, Christians no longer suffered persecution for their beliefs, as they had under previous Roman rulers. And Constantine made provisions to care for the poor as Scripture commands.

However, once Christianity became the official state religion, a lot of money and power flowed into the church.  This wealth and power often affected it negatively. In addition, as joining the church became a trend, many people joined it out of social pressure. They did this instead of joining because of sincere conviction. You could say that joining the church became politically correct.

St. Constantin and Helena, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Therefore, many new church leaders and followers were not familiar with scriptural teachings. And some of them didn’t necessarily care about understanding scriptures clearly. Consequently, a lot of inaccurate teachings made their way into the church. (Gene Edward Veith explores these problems in his article for Ligonier Ministries: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.)

History suggests that trying to make Christianity the official religion of a country often ends up in bloody war. Or it results in compromised church teachings. So, trying to make the United States a Christian nation would undermine the goals of folks who sincerely care about Christianity.

But perhaps when people say the United States should be a Christian nation, what they mean is that they wish people would love God and love each other more. And if this is the case, there is good news.

Good News

The book of Acts describes a time this happened. We read in Acts,

“All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”[3]

Now, if you are like me, you might read a verse like this and worry that you need to go out immediately and sell all your possessions, give your money to the poor, and become a nomad. In fact, I contemplated selling all my possessions for a while when I was younger.

“Encampment of Gypsies with Caravan” by Vincent Van Gogh, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

But I don’t think the purpose of this verse is to suggest that selling all one’s possessions is the only way Christians can encourage people to follow Christ. And, in fact, some of Christ’s followers were wealthy.

What is noteworthy about this verse is that there is nothing in it about making Rome, the nation in which the writer of Acts lived, a Christian nation. In fact, this passage suggests that love, care for the poor, and building loving relationships with other Christians—not empire-building—is the way Christians encourage other people to faith.

And this isn’t too surprising. Very few (if any) people develop genuine religious faith because someone forced them to do so or because a ruler made it the law of the land. Rather, people develop genuine religious faith most often because of a genuine encounter with love.

And this is certainly why Jesus said,

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”[4]

And the good news about this is that if Christians in the United States want to encourage people to love God and each other more, there are very practical ways they can do this, recommended by scripture. For instance, people can demonstrate love to each other and serve people, especially the poor and needy.

“Farmer in Despair Over the Great Depression”, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

And I think such reminders are important for any person, Christian or not, who wants to create a more just and moral nation. When we want the country we live in to be better in some way, it’s much easier to focus on empire-building rather than care-taking.

When we empire build, we focus on what we want, rather than what people need. But it’s the second kind of relationship (the one of care) that changes hearts and lives for the better. And that’s always the basis of a just and moral nation and one more in line with Christian values.


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[1] NIV

[2] Sometimes when people argue that the United States should be a Christian nation, they mean that society should look more like it did when the Founding Fathers lived. And there were indeed some wonderful things about the time in which the Founding Fathers lived. For instance, I wouldn’t mind recapturing the more agrarian, slow-paced society, with closer communities, in which the Founding Fathers lived.

However, it’s important to note that the Founding Fathers also lived in a time in which women and minorities did not have the right to vote. Nor could they pursue higher education or work in most jobs. In addition, People of Color suffered slavery.

In addition, the Founding Fathers lived in a time in which the government could take indigenous children from their parents. And the government could forced these indigenous children to attend re-education schools. In addition people (even government officials) could openly make anti-semitic remarks and laws. None of these practices were Christian.

Therefore, simply returning to an era like that of the Founding Fathers  does not necessarily ensure a more Christian society. However, expressing love to one another and caring for the poor does make a society more Christian.

[3] Acts 2:44-47 (NIV)

[4] John 13:35 (NIV)

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