I’m sure you’ve heard someone say before that America is a Christian nation. Maybe you don’t think twice when you hear that statement, but oftentimes, my ears perk up. I am always curious as to what people think that means, because I find it to be a confusing thing to say. What does that even mean? Are we really a Christian nation?
Surely people recognize that America is not literally a Christian nation, as the Constitution clearly prohibits the establishment of any national religion. In fact, religious freedom is typically considered a fundamental aspect of American democracy. I doubt many people actually have this in mind, though, when they say that America is a Christian nation.
I think there are two primary explanations most people would give. The first would be that America must be a Christian nation since its first settlers and founders were overtly Christian. This idea, I think, is best expressed through the words of John Winthrop, who famously asserted that “we shall be as a city upon a hill.” Winthrop’s desire for America to become a model of Christian community has inspired generations of Americans, determined to honor this noble vision. I think the problem here lies when this vision of a model Christian community dangerously slides into the identity of our nation as a whole. Jesus’ imagery of the “city set on a hill” from Matthew 5 is surely for the global Christian community at large. It would be a mistake to try and wrap this divine covenant up with the identity of any singular nation. America is not Israel. The salvation of the world does not hinge on America’s collective ability to follow the God of Abraham. While it might appear harmless, this type of thinking represents a distorted view of both Christianity and America and should therefore be avoided.
The other explanation I expect many would give for why America is Christian is that Christianity is the dominant religion practiced in America. Sure, most people can probably admit that America is no Israel, but look around! You can hardly drive five minutes without passing a church! Maybe our underlying political structure is explicitly secular, but Christianity is undeniably a major part of American culture. Again, though, I find this to be a dangerous claim to make about our national identity. Whether it is intended or not, praising America as a Christian nation comes as a backhanded slap in the face to any other religious or non-religious group in America. This need to place Christianity above other religions is completely unnecessary and can actually repel other Americans from Christianity for reasons that are entirely unrelated to essential Christian teaching. Christian nationalism gives a black eye to true Christianity.
Please don’t get me wrong. I am not attacking American Christianity. I hope that Christianity, along with any other peaceful religion, will always have a safe place for expression in American society. What I have a problem with is unfounded, unnecessary claims of Christian nationalism. I think this type of rhetoric harms Christianity, as well as our national identity. The truth is that America is a multicultural basket of diversity — a melting pot open to people of all nationalities and religions. American Christians can celebrate that and still whole-heartedly follow Jesus. You can do both. It is my suggestion then that it would be in the best interest of Christians in America to stop insisting that America is, in fact, Christian.