Christian Nation Debate
What would it mean if the United States were officially declared a "Christian Nation"? How would it affect you in your everyday life? Would you have increased opportunity to practice your faith more freely? Would the government use its power to make moral laws that line up with your Christian beliefs or would it favor the 'Christian beliefs' of your neighbors?

Our best example might come from a time when much of Europe was a "Christian Continent."   The Holy Roman Empire lasted from Emperor Otto's coronation in 962 to 1806 when it was dissolved during the Napoleonic wars. For all intents and purposes it was considered the ultimate "Christian" political system.

The Empire was afraid what would happen if people began to compare the activities of its political and religious leaders with the Bible. There was tremendous power in the idea that a political leader could advance policies, not through debate, but by virtue that "God wants it this way, and if you disagree you are in opposition to God."  To put this in perspective, imagine that President Obama could win the healthcare debate by simply saying that "God wants it this way, and if you disagree you are in opposition to God."

Around 1419, John Huss began to speak against some of the customs of the Church, and because the Empire and the Church were so closely aligned, they spent a lot of energy trying to silence the "heresy." The Empire was threatened because if Huss won the debate, he would show that the Church could be challenged and if the Church could be challenged, then it threatened the Empire itself, which based its power on the idea that God considered the Empire to be correct on all issues.

When people heard what Huss was saying, they began to doubt their old idea of a unified corpus Christianum and consider that people did not have to agree on everything when it came to faith.  A century later, in 1517, Martin Luther initiated the Reformation in an attempt to bring the Church around to his ideas.  People ended up siding with Luther or against him along geographic lines and Germany was split along these lines from which it never fully recovered until the Empire dissolved.

Added to this was the fact that popes and emperors tended to distrust each other, and felt that they had to fight to remain in control of the situation.

Many people believe that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prevents the formation of a "state church" such as the Church of England.  While there are good reasons to believe that this was intended to be much broader, let's assume for the sake of argument that Congress would still be free to declare that Christianity is the official religion of the country and that our laws were supposed to mirror God's law.

Christianity has struggled with issues of power and control since its inception.  Throughout Jesus' ministry, His disciples often asked Jesus, "Who is the greatest among us?"

They probably thought that Jesus would name John or Peter or Mathew and make this honored disciple a Vice President of the Kingdom.  But Jesus turned their question upside down.  

In Matthew 18 we read His answer. "Jesus called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said, I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven" (NIV).

In recent months as I've read various calls for America to be declared a Christian nation, I've been surprised at some of the language used.  Tom Snyder on World Net Daily said that the idea of separation of church and state is promoted by "theophobic atheists, neo-pagan fascists, radical liberals, socialists, Marxists, anti-Christian bigots, sexual perverts, Christophobic politicians and journalists, and other such people who wish to obliterate the European Christian foundation on which America was built."  See http://www.wnd.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=45069

Snyder concludes that, "separation of church and state does not mean separation between politics and religion or politics and the Bible. As Gary DeMar points out, there is a big difference between an ecclesiocracy' where the church rules society through religious leaders with preachers and priests as the government officials, and a theocracy' where God rules the outward behavior of all people through the civil government chosen by the people. Thus, the Founding Fathers did indeed establish a Christian theocracy, but they did not establish a Christian ecclesiocracy."

But who will tell us how God would rule the "outward behavior of all people"? Would some people claim to be closer to God and that they could tell everybody else how to live out their faith in their everyday lives? 

History tells us that it would not be a debate between Christians and atheists.  If Christianity won predominance over every other religious system in the nation, it would be a debate between Baptists, Episcopalians, Methodists, Lutherans, Catholics, Seventh-day Adventists, Pentacostals, and any other denomination you could name. Then it would be between the liberals and conservatives, and ultimately between conservatives or between liberals, the powerful – not the faithful – would control.

People interpret faith differently, and while most people think they believe the right thing, history tells us what to predict what would happen if one person's right thing and the other person's right thing were in disagreement.   Anybody who has served on a church board can tell you how much debate goes on about the smallest issues – churches have split over the color of carpet, whether somebody could play a guitar in church, or whether a woman can make an announcement in front.  Even the Protestants in Europe during the Reformation went to war and killed each other over whether the Eucharist was really the body and blood of Christ.

If America were declared a Christian nation, would this tendency to fight over the smallest differences in faith change? Would churches that uphold traditional marriage gain power over those who performed same-sex marriages? Would those who view national healthcare as a Godly objective fight with those who found problems with it? Would the liberal churches or conservative churches dominate the landscape? 

And what about those who were not Christian? Would they find themselves pressured to convert or face losing their rights to hold office, vote, or even own property?

Looking at history, the only way the idea of a "Christian America" that is envisioned would ever be able to "succeed" is by seeking power, suppressing dissent, and persecuting those who disagreed.  It might not follow a particular denomination, but because Christianity itself is so diverse there would need to be a central core of beliefs. There might be a few "true believers" who would carry their message forward without feeling upset by this change, but the majority of the people, including most Christians, would live in constant fear and frustration.

In an age when many Christian conservatives argue that the government cannot properly handle the issue of health care, many of the same people seem to have confidence in the government's ability to handle matters of faith.  For that reason alone, separation of church and state should be a conservative cause. Religion does best when it stands on its own two feet and does not rely on the crutch of government.  Just as conservatives argue those who receive a lifetime of government funding cannot handle the open market, they should recognize that once churches depend on government "marketing" they will cease to be as productive.

 After a thousand years of religious leadership, the former Holy Roman Empire is now one of the most secular places on the globe. People look at churches as irrelevant antiques. And many government-funded churches in Europe are dying on the vine. This was because religion depended on the government and when the government pulled back, religion folded. If Americans want faith to thrive, it should grow on its own – not be stifled or forced by government. Faith does not need a government handout or increased bureaucratic overhead that would inevitably result.  Imagine if churches were run like the DMV!

This is not to say that there aren't times when churches, synagogues, mosques, and other religious organizations can't partner with government for humanitarian purposes, but rather that the government should stay out of matters of faith and doctrine.

Rather than seeking power in order to turn the United States into a Christian Empire, it would be better for individual Christians and churches to follow Jesus' words, "Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven" (NIV). The best way to grow Christianity is not through achieving power but through caring acts of kindness and mercy. Evangelical Christians should not seek to become a Christian nation, but they can seek to be a nation of Christians who have been attracted to Christ through their faith and freely chosen to follow Him. If Christians must rely on the power of government to increase their impact on the world, they are doing something very wrong.

Declaring that this is a "Christian Nation" would not make America better – it would make America a nation of robots and would misrepresent the freedom that faith can bring.  America should be a nation where people can choose their own faith and not have to be afraid that they will be marginalized or at a disadvantage when it comes to how their government treats them. America is a big place, and is definitely big enough for all peaceful people of faith as well as those who choose not to follow any faith. That's what freedom of religion is all about.

 

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