Evangelical culture warriors long for days gone by when America was a nation uniquely blessed by God. Many, especially in the Bible belt of the south, patriotically voice their pride in being a Christian American.
Beyond the oxymoronic concept of a ‘proud Christian’ and the counter-Christian synthesis of parochial nationalism and the Christian ethos of the redeemed as being citizens of another Kingdom, one not of this world, we may find, at times, a confusion of civic religion with authentic Christian faith in the rhetoric of the public square. We find at times, too, a core and deadly confusion of Law and Grace.
I believe that, to a substantial degree, the primary religion of America has always been one of moralism and patriotic hubris more than a humility-inducing love for the Gospel. Many pulpiteers and parishioners have waxed nostalgic for the days when prayers were recited in classrooms and the Ten Commandments were posted in public buildings. While I think the display of the Decalogue is a very good thing, my question would be this: What actually was the prevailing faith of those days?
I cannot help but think of the old song, The Last Kiss by Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers. Follows is an excerpt:
The Lord took her away from me
She’s gone to heaven
So I got to be good
So I can see my baby
When I leave this ol’ world”
This song, written in 1964, a vestige of waning ‘50’s sentimentality and idealized white-bread wholesomeness and innocence, encapsulates, I think, the overarching civic religion of evangelical America’s assumed golden years. Wrapping itself with Biblical language and allusions, we find a religion where ultimately we have to be good to get to heaven, obeying the Ten Commandments, so we can enjoy unending delights in the afterlife. Religion was, and most often is, defined as adherence to moralistic principles.
I believe much of the church of American history felt their call, and not entirely incorrectly, was to uphold ethical mandates and suppress the darker impulses of humanity. We were to shoulder the providential task of elevating the stature of America’s greatness on the world stage, of building a New Jerusalem, of realizing our God-ordained Manifest Destiny. I find it interesting that we could oft find, in America’s most recent evangelical Golden Age, the Ten Commands posted in court houses, but did one ever find the Gospel proclamation hung on a wall? I think that if you asked the typical man on the street in any American city, someone who probably was raised in a church, about the core of Christianity, you would receive a reply that implied Christianity was about performing good deeds and exhibiting moral behavior, essentially moral imperatives. The Gospel declarative would probably be absent. Sometimes I think the ‘pull yourself up by your own bootstraps’ religious ethos of America’s golden years has more in common with Andrew Jackson that Christ.
I find so many ironies in the religious history of America. Many colonists and clergy thought it God’s will, even in light of Roman’s 13, that they secede from England over the issues of taxation without representation, but a following generation of clergy and parishioners thought it wrong that the South secede from the Union. The South, champions of state’s rights, with much of the southern clergy proclaiming to be Biblical literalists and using such to validate the supposed civil right to keep slaves, claimed a Biblical mandate to secede, and the North laid hold of a moral mandate, based both on Biblical and Enlightenment ideals, to abolish slavery and to maintain the integrity of the Union. Using Biblical proof-texts, two bitterly and diametrically opposed factions voiced ownership of God’s favor.
When we look at the documents that give foundation to the American experience, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence for example, we find ‘God’ words, but we do not find Christian words. We find flattened allusions to a God that could be honestly approved of by a Deist, by a Unitarian, or by an orthodox Christian. In fact, one of the observations by some clergy of the Confederate States was that the American Constitution was far too secular for a nation that declared itself to be ‘Christian.’
I think, too, of the first settlers from the new world, the Pilgrims, who, by virtue of being both early settlers from the Old World and being Christian, are used as rhetorical fodder by culture war pundits to bolster the claim, correct or not, that America was founded as a Christian nation. Persecuted Puritans from England, their practice of Christianity, their ethos, would probably not be recognized by the average church goer of today. While I do not infer that all their practices and attitudes were correct and all contemporary practices and attitudes are inferior, their focus, I think, on eternal things were a bit sharper than ours. One need only peruse the literature produced by the Puritans and compare it to what we find on the shelf of the typical American bookstore to discern their focus was far more Christ-centric than the human-centric ‘best-life-now’ fodder typically found on contemporary bookshelves. I think the Pilgrims, in their austere practices, understood more clearly than we that the human heart was an idol factory. For example, they did not celebrate Christmas or Easter, holidays not appointed in Scripture. Pilgrim pastor John Robinson taught that “It seems too much for any mortal man to appoint, or make an anniversary memorial” for Christ. Perhaps with some irony, only certain cults think in such terms, now.
Ultimately, it does not matter to me if America is or is not a self-identified ‘Christian’ nation. My only skin in this game is that history is being revised by both the secular and the religious to bolster sectarian arguments.
Sometimes I think the idealized America of many moralistic religious pundits is probably more dangerous for authentic Christianity than some alternatives. An America where the streets are safe from crime, where there is no poverty and prosperity is achieved by all, where America is the sole super-power, where the American churches are full every Sunday with people basking in the light of moral imperatives achieved, and there is, of course, a Christ of sorts there to help us, an America satisfied with herself would be a place Satan would approve just as easily he would a pagan nation. Perhaps persecuted Christians in hostile lands understand the need for a Savior more dearly and are more satisfied with Christ alone, with faith alone, with Grace alone. They have no need for nationalistic hubris.
The primary inspiration for this post is this: On the way home from work a few days ago, I was listening to the radio, listening to a Christian culture warrior, a talk show host. After bemoaning all the social ills du jour, as he always seems to do, and rallying the listeners to take America back by judicial means, he shilled for something called The Patriots Study Bible (available in a camo addition!)
Sometimes the church loves to engage errant syncretism and idolatry when she wraps the Cross with a flag. As an aside, in the few times I have listened to the aforementioned Christian talk show, I have never heard the Gospel proclaimed.