Christianity in America

I’m not one for politics, but we live in politically-charged times, and every now and then even folks like me who desperately try to stick to biblical, devotional, and theological topics end up digressing into the political implications of our faith in this culture and age.

the political situation

Do I believe America is a Christian nation?  I haven’t a clue.  It means so many things to different people…

  • America is not a Christian nation because it has no official state church.
  • America is not a Christian nation because it is dominated by non-Christian values and beliefs.
  • America is a Christian nation because its population majority self-reports as “Christian.”
  • America is a Christian nation because it was founded on Christian values and principles.

That, to me, is a word game.  The bigger question behind this is of more importance anyway: what ought to be the proper place of Christianity in America?  This is a touchy subject with a lot of potential answers:

  • Christianity should be the driving force of our nation’s ideals (once again).
  • Christianity should be understood as one of many religions in this country but nevertheless the dominant/majority one.
  • Christianity should be understood as one of many religions in this country with no special legal privilege or handicap.
  • Christianity should be understood as one of many religions in this country, particularly belonging to the dustbin of history rather than the present age.

Obviously, the range is huge; I just want to focus on the Christian perspectives from here on.

From the generation or two older than mine, I’ve noticed an increasing level of what I would term as restorationism – a conviction that things were better in the past and that we need to restore the old order before it’s lost forever.  America was once a Christian nation (or some similar term, depending on whom you ask), and we need to get back to that (through a Third Great Awakening or something) before it’s too late and our culture destroys this country.  Having grown up in the 80’s, 90’s and 00’s, I never personally witnessed that Christian America they’re all talking about.  Perhaps it’s the jade of my generation, but I’m getting increasingly uncomfortable with the rampant restorationism of American Christian culture.  And my reasons are not primarily political, but historical and ecclesiological.

the historical situation

American history is weird, compared to most other pieces of world history.  At first, it’s an off-shoot of European history: exploration, colonization, war with less technologically advanced native peoples, imperialism.  The new world (and later Africa and Asia) was Europe’s chessboard.  But in North America the situation became fairly unique fairly quickly.  The Spanish brought Christianity to Florida and what would become the Southwest USA.  Englishmen brought Christianity to the Eastern seaboard, including an early wave of radical puritans.

Massachusetts, in particular, was founded first by Separatists (who didn’t want to live alongside the national church in England) and then by Puritans (who eventually gave up trying to change the national church in England after their violent government coup & civil war in 1649 came to an end eleven years later).  These folks, in particular, had the idea that they were forming a new order.  In a sense they were putting themselves in a bubble – separated from the rest of the world – but they had the vision to see their society expand indefinitely.  Indeed, puritanism (better known in subsequent centuries as congregationalism) remained the official state church of Massachusetts until 1833.

Depending on how they were settled, different colonies (and eventually, states within the Union) had different religious characters.  Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, for example, all were religious havens for groups that were persecuted minorities in their previous homelands.  Some colonies/states (such as Virginia) were established for more economic reasons, and the religious landscape was not as prominent in forming the local culture.  As a result of this diversity, the USA decided to forbid the federal government from having an official church; individual states, instead, had their own.  That’s all the infamous “separation of Church and State” concept was, at the time: a national compromise to allow individual states’ preferences.

With no nationally-endorsed church to influence the government “officially,” the USA could only be influenced by Christian “values” instead.  Even then, though, one has to question the nature of America’s “founding principles.”  The very concept of human rights is a set of Christian values clothed in Humanist terms.  Certainly, Humanism started out as a Christian phenomenon during the Renaissance (and Protestant Reformation), but the secular brand of humanism was already well on its way to the mainstream, as the French Revolution aptly demonstrated not long after the USA became a country.  And although I am not one for conspiracy theories, I do find it rather concerning that this supposed Christian nation allowed pseudo-Christian movements and religions such as Freemasonry and Mormonism to thrive and prosper in its midst.

the ecclesiological situation

Looking at all this from a Church-centered (hence, ecclesiological) perspective, it recently occurred to me that not only is the USA still “the new kid on the block” in world history as a nation, but the culture of Christianity in America is also still pretty young.  It was born out of its European mother into a sort of bubble in the New World where its various denominations could grow up under a regularly Christian-friendly government.

But now we’re seeing the government influenced by non-Christian values and culture.  What to do?  This is where my animosity against restorationism comes in.  I see no reason to bring back that bubble wherein we could pretend that we were the only ones here – in the country or in the world.  First of all, the global state of affairs makes that impossible today, and secondly and more importantly, such a thing would be childish.

And I mean childish very seriously.  Christianity in America was well-protected in its infancy, and I’m just as grateful for that as the next guy.  But we’ve got to see that we, as a broad and disparate culture, are finally coming of age.  The parent-like protection of a friendly government is being removed, bit by bit.  The privileges of being “the favorite kid” of America are ending.  It’s time, now, for us to grow up a little, act our age, and deal with the real world.  The real world is ruled by Satan, and thus is in need of healing.  Jesus is the great physician, and we are his ambassadors.  This is no time to crawl back into the womb of the so-called Christian America, however real or imaginary, authentic or phoney, it was.  Rather, this is our turn in world history to face our trials, rejoice, and be who Christ has called us to be in this culture in this age.  Amen?

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About Fr. Brench

I'm a Priest in the Anglican Diocese in New England interested in spiritual formation, theology, and the growth of God's Kingdom.
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7 Responses to Christianity in America

  1. I really enjoyed your thoughts on this. I, too am troubled by the “Take America Back” mantra that we’re hearing so much of within the Christian community. But, as Stephen King wrote in his Dark Tower series, “the world has moved on”. I like your admonition that Christianity needs to grow up, to come of age. I agree and I think we’re witnessing just that in terms of the emerging church and other progressive Christian movements.

    • Dcn. Brench says:

      Thanks for the comment! I’d like to clarify, though, that I think the church in the USA needs to grow up. Christianity overall, I believe is quite matured, and a key part of the solution to the American Christian situation will be how well we draw back upon two thousand years of wisdom and experience. The emerging/emergent church movements are on the right track with this, but so far I’ve found them largely unequipped to receive the fullness of what historic Christianity has to offer them. They’re still approaching tradition like a make-your-own adventure, rather than a rule to guide them.

      Whateverso, interesting times are afoot!

  2. Beth M says:

    Matt, one of your best posts! (in my opinion.) As to referring to Christianity as childish the US, how do you think it can avoid the “old age” of the European church which is increasingly diminishing… I’d like to have an invigorated maturity, not a turning away. What do you think?

  3. Kristina D says:

    I think religion and politics go hand in hand as far back as man has known how to exploit and deceive other men.

    It reminds me of this video I recently came across– it’s a cute little song about how Jesus and his followers actually Occupy Jerusalem.

    Anyways, here it is: http://youtu.be/a6akkb_afqs

    • Dcn. Brench says:

      There certainly is an inextricable link between politics & religion in society – both deal with people and communities. That song, however, is quite an oversimplification of the scope of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Indeed, his actions involved what may be considered an “Occupy the Jerusalem Temple” movement, but ultimately he was preparing his people for a whole new way of life not just in political, social, or economic terms, but in spiritual realities and theological truths.

  4. Pingback: 8 Challenges of our Day | Leorningcnihtes boc

  5. Ron Friesen says:

    Deacon Bench, American Christianity’s childishness would be cured by a good persecution. Every Sunday I worship with refugees. The spiritual maturity that marks these fellow worshippers was fired in the crucible of a difficult, hostile environment.

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