A few months ago, the good folks at Free Inquiry magazine asked me to write an article debunking the “Christian nation” myth. I decided to pen a breezy piece listing five reasons why the United States is not an officially Christian nation, but I could have left it at just one: The Constitution doesn’t say we are.
The lack of references to Christianity in the Constitution has to me always been fatal to Christian nation adherents. Nevertheless, the myth is still widely believed and in Religious Right circles has taken on near-cult status. Just as Religious Right leaders invented a phony “science” because they refuse to accept evolution, they have also crafted a made-up “history” of our glorious Christian character.
Thankfully, not everyone is falling for it. The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) recently surveyed it leadership and asked if they believe we are a Christian nation. Sixty-eight percent said no.
There are a couple of caveats here: Number one, the NAE has always been a fairly moderate body that should not be confused with the Religious Right. I recall talking with one of the group’s staff members a few years ago, and he told me how embarrassed he was to learn that one of his summer interns refused to believe that the Grand Canyon was more than 6,000 years old.
Secondly, only 101 people were surveyed. That’s not a huge sample. Still, the NAE represents a broad swath of evangelical denominations, so these results give us some cause to celebrate.
I was especially heartened by this comment made by one NAE board member: “The ‘state’ cannot mandate religion, nor should it. If I lived in another country where the majority practiced a religion other than Christianity, I would not want those religious beliefs dictated to me through the country’s government. I hope others will learn to love Christ as I do, but that will happen more authentically through the Church and individual Christians sharing the Good News and demonstrating the person of Christ through our words and actions.”
Bingo. If you want people to follow your religion, tell them about it and set a good example through your own life. Don’t expect the government to impose theology on anyone. Not only is that wrong, it rarely works out in the long run.
Some of the NAE leaders who reject the Christian nation myth went on to say that they see the United States as a “mission field” – that is, they’d like to spread their religious views more widely and persuade people to adopt them. Perhaps then, they say, the country will become more “Christian” as more and more American accept these ideas.
They have the right to try it, using their own money and their own resources. But they won’t be the only ones out there. In our free marketplace of religions, lots of different groups are eager to compete for your attention. (I had a brush with this as recently as Saturday morning, when two Jehovah’s Witnesses stopped by my house and sought to engage me in a conversation about eternal life.)
You have the right to align with whatever theology seems to be the best fit – and you can always change your mind later. You’re also free to ignore them all.
No “Christian nation” can guarantee freedom like that. Such liberty comes only from an officially secular government backed by the separation of church and state.
No, the United States is not an officially Christian nation. Our founders knew better than to try that. All Americans – evangelicals, Catholics, Muslims, atheists, Buddhists, etc. – should be thankful for their wisdom.