Find Me

Find new posts at!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Is America a Christian Nation?: A Letter from a Friend

The e-mail just contained this:

Dear C,

Thank you for sending me this video. Since you didn't make a comment on it, I don't know if it was just for my information or if you wanted my thoughts on it or something else, but since I do have some thoughts on it I thought I'd pass them along.

When it comes to the question, "What is a Christian nation?", Stuart Shepard clearly isn't satisfied with what he calls President Obama's "demographic argument"—the idea that a Christian nation is a nation composed entirely of Christians, and therefore, since America has lots of people that aren't Christians, it's not a Christian nation.

In its place, Mr. Shepard asserts what I would call the "origin argument"—the idea that a Christian nation is one that however long ago was founded by Christians for Christian reasons on Christian principles with Christian hope. He doesn't tell us why that's a better definition than President Obama's; he just puts it out there. But he does tell us that America's origins are Christian, and he gives examples on display around the National Mall to prove his point.

To a great extent I agree with him. Christianity has shaped this nation immensely, especially during particular periods (like the decades before the Civil War and the 20 years after World War II). It's sad and even disgraceful how often people try to tell our nation's story without talking about the huge influence of Christianity. In fact, I would go so far as to say that anyone who talks about our nation's history without talking about Christianity doesn't understand it.

But the argument Mr. Shepard makes has some big flaws. One of them is this: Of all the inscriptions in Washington that Mr. Shepard says proves that we're a Christian nation, how many of them mention Christ? None of them (although one inscription in the Lincoln Memorial quotes Jesus twice without mentioning him by name). The fact is, all those inscriptions just mention "God." But lots of people talk about God—Mormons, Jews, Muslims, and others as well as Christians, not to mention people who call themselves Christians but have no idea what the Christian gospel is.

And that's really the point. A Christian isn't someone who believes in God. A Christian is someone who has placed their entire reliance on the story of Jesus Christ, preexistent, incarnate, perfect, having died and been buried, risen, reigning, and coming again to save us from our sins and their consequences. You won't find that message on a single monument in Washington, D.C. You won't find it in the writings of many of our Founders and our most influential historical figures. Now, you will find it in some, and you will find in others (like Lincoln, for example) glimpses of some of it without embracing all of it. And you find it among huge numbers of people in our history who were never elected to high office but made a big impact on America. But "In God We Trust" in the House chamber and on the coinage does not make us a Christian nation, because you can't have a Christian anything without Christ.

So what does make a nation Christian? Is it the demographic argument, the origin argument, or something else? Fortunately, God answers this question in the Bible, so that's where we should look.

Before Christ, there was one nation that was specifically God's: Israel. Just before appearing on Mt. Sinai to give Israel the Law, God said to Moses, "And now, if you will listen to me and keep my covenant, then you will be my special possession out of all the nations, for all the earth is mine, and you will be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Ex. 19:5-6).

But it happens that after Christ came, Peter was writing to a group of Christians and he said that this promise by God applied to them: "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may proclaim the virtues of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. You once were not a people, but now you are God's people. You were shown no mercy, but now you have received mercy" (1 Pet. 2:9-10). This group of people he called "a holy nation" wasn't from one nation, and they didn't have their own government or their own flag. They were a group of ordinary people who happened to live in the Roman provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia (1 Pet. 1:1). What made them distinctive from their neighbors in those provinces was that they were "chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father by being set apart by the Spirit for obedience and for sprinkling with Jesus Christ's blood" (1:1-2).

Peter shows us that once Christ came, God's nation wasn't an ordinary nation anymore. God's nation is a group of people from all nations scattered all over the world. God's nation is the group of people that he chose by the Holy Spirit to obey him and be forgiven through the death of Jesus Christ. That is the Christian nation—that is the only Christian nation.

So, is the United States a Christian nation? According to God's definition in the Bible, no, it certainly is not. A portion of the Christian nation happens to live in America; its members have dual citizenship. But the only Christian nation is scattered among all the nations, and none of those nations is wholly Christian.

Nevertheless, members of the Christian nation within this nation have for centuries wanted our nation to be as Christian as possible, and that's a good thing. Because "Christian/non-Christian" might not be just like "on/off." It might also be like "hot/cold"—you can always get hotter or colder. And we always want this American nation to be "hotter" than it is now—more Christian in its laws and its execution of its laws, its relationships with other countries, and the attitude and behavior of its people. I know that I want that, and I believe that you want it too.

So my concern not only for the President but for all American citizens is not that they admit that they are a Christian nation because of what our Founders said about God (and only sometimes Christ). I want him and all of us to see things in a more Christian way and to govern ourselves accordingly. But far more than that, I want him and all of us to be part of the only truly Christian nation—the nation that is bought by Christ and will, when he returns, be the only nation left standing when all others, including America, dissolve into ashes.

Grace and peace, and see you Sunday,
Pastor Cory

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Do You Know the Holy Spirit's Name?

Here's a profound meditation by Francis Frangipane on what the person of the Holy Spirit teaches us about humility. Check it out.

Thursday, July 5, 2012


A few mornings ago I read 1 Thess. 3:12-13, which says, " . . . and may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we do for you, so that your hearts are strengthened in holiness to be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints."

When I read this, I was struck by the connection between love and holiness. Paul prays that the Thessalonians would love people more, with the result that they would exhibit holiness in their thinking. Love is an essential characteristic of holiness.

Then I got to thinking about how sometimes I've heard people say that the supreme attribute of God is his holiness, because it is the only one predicated of him three times ("Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty”—Isa. 6:3; Rev. 4:8). Sometimes I have contested that claim with the proposition that if we have to pick a supreme attribute of God (which I don't think we should) that attribute is love, because love is the only quality that the Bible says God is (in "God is love,” not merely "God is loving”—1 John 4:8, 16). One could argue that God's triple holiness shows that that attribute uniquely reflects the Trinity. But on the other hand, the statement "God is love" reveals that the singular God is essentially plural, because love requires multiple persons, and therefore as a community God is love in his essence. Predictably, these arguments didn't go anywhere very productive.

But anyway, as I meditated on this text in 1 Thessalonians this morning, it occurred to me: What if God's holiness is his love? What if God's love is his holiness? This idea is mysterious and profound, but it also makes sense. We are told to be holy as the one who called us is holy. Likewise we are told that the greatest commandment, to love God, is inherently realized in loving people the way God loves.

I think sometimes people are prone to prefer God's holiness or God's love over the other, even when they know they're not supposed to and claim they aren't doing it. Most of the time it's accidental—we naturally gravitate toward what we were raised hearing emphasized or conversely toward what we believe has been neglected by the people around us or maybe just based on idiosyncracies of our personality. And when people gravitate toward one or the other, they usually don't reveal it in a broad, bold statement like, "The supreme attribute of God is ________," but in the general tenor of what they say when they're talking about God or about people (or perhaps in the pattern of the titles of the books on their shelves). To put it most crudely (please forgive this statement), people often seem to prefer a holy "Daddy God" or a loving "Mommy God." But of course, God is both triply holy and love-in-essence. And maybe by the common tendency to fix our attention on one or another aspect of God we miss that they are also aspects of each other, because the one-of-a-kind Triune God is the only, original, perfect actualization of both.

I think Jonathan Edwards got this, not just intellectually but experientially. He described one of his momentous mystical experiences with God around the time of his conversion at age 17 as "a sweet conjunction: majesty and meekness joined together: it was a sweet and gentle, and holy majesty; and also a majestic meekness; an awful sweetness; a high, and great, and holy gentleness.”

Monday, July 2, 2012

Don't Call Us Conservative

As I’m laying the groundwork for my research on Mansfield French I’m learning a lot about American slavery, such as, for example, how much of American life in all sections of the country in the first half of the 19th century was affected by it and even depended on it. I’m also learning about the brave people who began speaking out to oppose slavery. For example, I’ve learned that not all people who publicly opposed slavery were considered abolitionists. Many in the North and even in the South publicly opposed slavery; most were in favor of gradual emancipation by some means, and many were in favor of blacks leaving the United States to colonize Africa (which actually happened in Liberia). Only those who demanded immediate, universal emancipation with no compensation for slaveowners were called abolitionists, and they urged this radical solution at considerable risk to their lives.

As we look back on slavery today, it’s easy to view its end as an inevitability. “Of course slavery would end somehow—what, did they think it would really last forever? Of course there would be a civil war during which all slaves would be freed. Of course the United States would follow the pattern of emancipation set by all other nations of the ‘civilized’ world in the 19th century.” But as I read more about the antebellum era, the end of slavery does not seem inevitable at all. It certainly didn’t seem that way to those who fought to end it. In fact, the odds were extremely long. The political and economic might of those who relied on slavery in the South and the North was immense. The bulk of Americans who thought that it should end nibbled around the edges of the problem or thought that it was someone else’s duty to solve it or that it would get fixed in the undefined future. The balance of power arrayed against the first abolitionists could have made the cause seem hopeless.

But the abolitionists weren’t hopeless—in fact, anything but. They had great hope. Some of that hope was, in my view, misplaced. They had hope that God had birthed America with a special mission to usher in a millennial era of liberty, justice, and peace in the whole world and that he would see it through in fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Most believed that once God perfected the world through America’s example and action then Christ would return. I think that this is a misreading of biblical prophecy, and as it happens there aren’t many today who still hold this view (a born-in-the-USA version of postmillennialism). But for the most part I think that their bold hope was well-founded, because their hope for the cause of abolition rested in the God who was strong enough to raise Jesus Christ from the dead, the God who enabled David, who defied Goliath, to slay Goliath, who defied God. Because as a matter of fact, although an important number of abolitionists were Yankee Unitarians and liberal Quakers, the bulk of the movement consisted of Bible-thumping evangelicals.

I mention their Bible-thumpingness to correct a common misunderstanding about that era. It is frequently observed that prior to the Civil War, Northerners would quote the Bible to denounce slavery while Southerners quoted it to defend it. This observation—which happens to be true—is used to prove a number of things, like that religious people never agree or that the Bible is self-contradictory or that anyone can make the Bible say anything they want so there’s no point in listening to anyone who quotes it or that the Bible is a tool of oppression and that Christians are always on the wrong side of progress and justice. (Oh yeah, and they’re hypocrites too. People love saying that.) But even though it is true that the Bible was employed both to criticize and to defend slavery, that truth standing alone is misleading.

When Missouri applied for statehood in 1820, a full 40 years before the Civil War, there was an unprecedented debate over slavery so intense that the Union seemed to be in severe danger of rupturing. During that debate, antislavery voices employed the Bible as one of their bases for argument. Proslavery voices did not, however; their arguments came entirely from the Constitution, public safety, and economics. It wasn’t for another ten to 15 years that defenders of slavery would appeal to the Bible, and that was simply to provide a rebuttal to the biblical arguments marshaled against them. Even then, Southern evangelical defenders of slavery argued that slavery was biblically permissible; they did not argue that slavery was a positive moral good. That argument, which emerged in the 1830s, was put forth by other Southerners on dubiously scientific racial grounds. Meanwhile, Southern evangelicals who defended slavery against Northerners simultaneously preached to slaveowners to treat their slaves humanely and with dignity and to teach them to read so that they could read and understand the Bible and be saved. It was not unusual for masters to hear this challenge while sitting in the very same worship services as their own slaves. However, most masters refused to teach their slaves to read (it was even against the law in some places) exactly because they were afraid that by reading the Bible slaves would learn their worth in God’s sight and then refuse to comply with the slave system.

In sum, evangelicals were leaders of the progressive side of the single most crucial moral and social issue in America in the 19th century. Even those evangelicals who fell on the conservative side of that issue took a nuanced position with profound potential consequences if it were implemented. But on the whole, evangelicals pushed America toward progress to become a more free and just nation, to become better than Americans thought they could be.

In light of this progressive heritage, it is truly remarkable how (white) evangelicals today—especially over age 30 or so—are so strongly identified with conservative politics. This is to some extent unfortunate. There are some issues in which I think our biblical faith demands that we stake out a progressive position or at least engage in some criticism of boilerplate conservatism: I’ve written on immigration as an example. Nevertheless, I think that there are other issues in which we are right to be conservative: I’ve written on same-sex marriage as an example of that. But as I compare the 19th-century evangelicals and slavery with evangelicals today, one issue seems more and more curious and paradoxical: abortion.

Are evangelicals truly “conservative” when it comes to abortion? That depends on how you mean it. In common parlance “pro-life” has gotten stuck with the “conservative” label, so in ordinary speech I guess evangelicals are conservative about abortion. But at its root, to be “conservative” means to “conserve” what is, to preserve the status quo. Roe v. Wade has been around for almost 40 years; it’s safe to say that abortion on demand is now the status quo. By that reckoning then, those whom we call progressives are the true conservatives. And obversely, conservatives who annoy and push the nation to be better than it is to the unborn are the true progressives.

In at least one respect, 19th-century defenders of slavery and 20th-/21st-century defenders of abortion/“a woman’s right to choose” are very different, and that is their convictions about the Constitution. The 19th-century planter aristocracy championed a strict construction of the Constitution, which would keep the federal government (especially the legislative branch) weak enough that it could not impose its will on the states and alter their slavery-based societies. Today, by contrast, pro-choice advocates believe in an expansive interpretation of the Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment so that the federal government (especially the judicial branch) might be strong enough to impose its will on the states and prevent them from altering women’s access to abortion. The one thing that these utterly opposite constitutional theories share is that in both cases they fit conveniently with the policy objectives of the people that profess them.

In some other respects, however, these two groups, separated by a century and a half, are disturbingly similar. They both employ the natural-rights language of liberty to justify their use of power to revoke the liberty of people who are weaker than they are. The two groups are not exactly alike in how they do this. Revolutionary-era planters did not claim that their practice of slave ownership was in itself an act of defiance against oppressive tyranny the way that pro-choice advocates claim that aborting a baby or the right to do so if one wants constitutes a stand against the patriarchy. But the heirs of the Southern patriots did argue that a government that would deprive them of slaves—whose bodies generally made up the largest portion of planters’ wealth—would be a tyrannical government that unjustly tramples citizens’ freedoms. In other words, the naturally self-evident freedom won in the Revolution and enshrined in the Constitution is the freedom to dominate the destinies of certain other people if one so chooses. This is essentially the position of defenders of abortion as well. Moreover, in both cases the argument is buttressed by the contention that those who are thus dominated are not quite human, and that’s what makes the domination acceptable. Finally, all but the most extreme in both groups maintain(ed) that in a perfect world the thing defended wouldn’t exist, that it isn’t ideal, and that there should be less of it. Yet in this imperfect world they do not tolerate the slightest limitation placed on it though they express hope that somehow, someday, there will be no need for it so that in future generations it will fade away with no sacrifice required.

Meanwhile, evangelicals locked in an exhausting and frustrating struggle against bitter odds persist in making the same case as our spiritual ancestors. A human is a human. No just law grants a person the liberty to revoke liberty from another, and neither does the Constitution. Oppressors can’t justify oppression by pleading that they themselves are being oppressed. We cannot make our nation better by clinging to what is wrong. God is watching and will judge.

I pray to God that someday people will look back and think that the abolition of abortion was inevitable. They’ll say, “How could they have been so barbaric? How could they have argued that preserving the constitutional rights of women justified denying the constitutional rights of children? How could so many have gone about their lives and not taken a stand?” But those who look closely will also note the irony that evangelicals, called by their contemporaries “conservatives,” were the progressive voice of their time, the ones calling their nation to be better than Americans believed it could be.