It has often been said that America is a Christian nation, a statement that is invariably met with vehement insistence of the opposite.
In popular discourse, advocacy for Christian nationalism among some Republicans has reinvigorated the belief that the American government ought to be defined by Christian values—or at least the set of morals they have branded as “Christian.” Led by congressional representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, some politicians and pundits have begun an attempt to remove the stigma associated with Christian nationalism, advocating for a strong national identity that revolves around Christianity.
Nevertheless, these attempts have been fraught, as some of the policies for which these public figures have advocated stand in contrast to the deeply held convictions of a large swath of Americans, including some who object on the grounds of their own Christian faith.
It is beyond dispute that the founding of America was undertaken by men whose religious inclinations informed how they structured the nation’s governmental systems and values, and that those religious inclinations, while not always explicitly or orthodoxly Christian, at least existed within the framework of a Judeo-Christian superstructure. Further, a number of them believed that the success of the American project was dependent upon adherence to Judeo-Christian ethics.
But does that mean that America is a Christian nation? Is that even a goal that Christians ought to pursue? If so, what does it even mean to have a Christian nation?
By the Numbers
If we look at the proportion of citizens who identify with one Christian tradition or another, America has always been a Christian nation. A majority of people who live in America identify as Christian, and it has always been that way.
It doesn’t seem that it always will be, though. According to recent research conducted by Pew, Christianity could lose its majority status in America as early as 2050. While Christians would likely maintain a plurality thereafter, even that would likely begin to slip toward the end of the century.
These projections do not take into account the possibility of a Christian revival in America, but they do play out a trend that has been observable since the 1990s. What this means is that by the time my children are my age, they will likely be living in a country that cannot claim to be a Christian nation, if we are judging the moniker by “majority rules.”
Then there is the matter of the actual belief systems of those who identify as Christians in America. The State of Theology study, which was conducted jointly by Ligonier and Lifeway Research, recently found that an alarming number of self-described evangelicals affirm teachings that have been considered heretical by almost every Christian tradition, dating back to the Nicene Creed.
For instance, the study found that 65% of self-identifying evangelicals believe people are born innocent, which contradicts orthodox Christian teaching regarding the inherent sinfulness of fallen humanity. 56% deny that Jesus is the only way to salvation, which runs counter to a core tenet of the entire Christian message. 43% deny the divinity of Christ, which is an ancient heresy that dates back to the third century and has always been roundly condemned by the church.
This of course leads to questions about who ought to be considered a “Christian” in America and whether self-identification is an adequate measure.
Who Decides Who the ‘Real’ Christians Are?
Leaving aside the question of large numbers of self-identified Christians holding to anti-Christian theology, for Christians who are within the range of orthodoxy, who decides the “Christian” policy stances or guiding philosophies that shape the culture and governance of the nation? Given the theological diversity in America, even among orthodox Christians, there exist many open questions.
To illustrate, an overwhelming majority of White Evangelicals identify abortion as an evil that must be stopped. However, if we were to take a snapshot of the national landscape four or five decades ago, a strongly anti-abortion viewpoint was far more a Catholic distinctive than a Protestant rallying point. And whereas divergent Christian traditions have come to an agreement on the issue, there are a number of other issues where they have not.
For instance, a majority of Catholics believe that climate change is a result of human action and that legislation should be passed to ameliorate those effects. Conversely, White Evangelicals largely stand opposed to such legislation. Both groups find theological justification for their stance within their Christian belief system.
The same goes for issues of racial justice and healthcare reform. Black Protestants, who hold to many of the same theological convictions as White Evangelicals, are far more likely to support reforms with regard to expanding access to healthcare or mitigating past and present racial injustices. Often standing opposed to them are White Evangelicals who point to the same Bible as Black Protestants and come to opposing conclusions on these issues.
Thus, when many pundits and politicians say that America is and ought to be a Christian nation, what they invariably mean is that the nation’s culture and governance should be defined by their own specific vision for Christian civic engagement, which is often defined inside a framework that is influenced by the surrounding culture as much as it is theological contemplation. Further, it often stands in contrast to other traditions that exist inside the circle of Christian orthodoxy.
Christian Tradition as Political Ploy
When arguing that America is a Christian nation, many will cite the country’s motto: “In God we trust.” Nevertheless, it is worth noting that until 1956, the nation’s motto was E pluribus unum, which is Latin for “Out of many, one.” That motto was adopted by an act of Congress in 1782.
“In God we trust” was adopted without much controversy in the mid-twentieth century, as was the addition of “under God” to the pledge of allegiance two years prior.
While these newly added references to God were fairly broad and nonsectarian in nature, they were part of a larger effort to differentiate America from the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War. Whereas the USSR was an atheistic society, America was a Christian nation. Whereas the Soviets were communists, Americans were capitalists. Whereas freedoms were restricted from East Berlin to Siberia, America was defined by liberty from sea to shining sea.
Central to the effort to paint America as the hero in light of the USSR’s villainy was the use of Christian imagery. Not that there was anything inherently wrong with this tactic, particularly in light of the looming threat of nuclear annihilation. However, it would be prudent to see these measures for what they were: part and parcel of a war of ideas regarding political and economic systems rather than a full throated advocacy of the historic Christian faith.
And therein lies an important distinction. Calling for adherence to a Judeo-Christian moral system or even the belief in a Creator God is not the same thing as being a fully devoted follower of Jesus Christ. A number of America’s founders, including Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, believed in Christian values (a glaring exception being chattel slavery), yet they were not Christians. The same could be said of many political leaders throughout the life of the nation.
So, Is America a Christian Nation?
Is America a Christian nation? To quote former president Bill Clinton, “it depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” In other words, it’s complicated.
Nevertheless, what remains uncomplicated is that when the Christian faith is weaponized for political control, it is always corrupted and turned into something different than, even oppositional to, what Jesus and his apostles proclaimed.
While American Christians ought to vote and legislate in accordance with the values derived from their commitment to following Jesus, turning America into a “Christian nation” may be a fool’s errand. God never called us to form a liberal western democracy in his image. Rather, he has called us to build his Kingdom, which is not of this world.