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What’s your reaction to President Obama’s recent statements to the Muslim world that “the United States is not, and never will be, at war with Islam” and that “we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation”?
When the legislature in Virginia in 1786, as it passed Thomas Jefferson’s bill of religious freedom, James Madison report, someone offered an amendment to insert the word “Jesus Christ” after the word “Lord.” It was defeated, not because the majority in the legislature did not revere Jesus Christ, but because they were honest about the present-day realities, far-seeing about the future of the republlic, and fair-minded. Jefferson saw that the rejection of the amendment was “proof” that the legislature “meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and Geintile, the Christian and Mahomtan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.”
That judgment has served us well. Once or twice the Supreme Court, shall we say almost by accident, called this a Christian nation, but the many efforts to pass a “Christian Amendment to the Constitution” (and always failed) showed that the court’s slip was not an accurate or reasoned statement about the United States in intention or reality.
That the United States is not at war with Islam is a simple statement of fact. That’s it.
Whether it is a Christian nation is a question that demands some pondering. As a Christian, who celebrates contributions of Christians and their texts to positive features of national life (and who grieves over the negatives, such as the use of the Christian Bible o justify slavery and Indian-removal), I rejoice when the biblical calls to justice and mercy resonate and find response among citizens.
so far so good. But does that make it a Christian nation? Even if 99.9% or, to be on the safe side, 100% of the citizens “accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior,” there is still no way to translate that into ours being a Christian nation. For a first embarrassment, Jesus (whose title, the Anointed, the Messiah, Christ) gives the first syllable to Christian, in the founding documents of the faith, made emphatically clear that his kingdom is not of this world, and he would not let Herod or Pilate or the leaders of his own claim the nation or the nations.
Wherever the affirmation of Christian values is voluntary, a response to persuasion: fine. Wherever there is a hint of establishment or legal (and thus coercive) privileging, the act of naming corrupts state and church. It is used for exclusion; it’s “in your face.” “this nation belongs to us, and you are at best a guest and more likely a misfit, unwelcome.” The record of using a religious adjective to identify a nation or a polity, as it produced war, conflict, jealousy, bitterness, and reaction to the claims for the divine, ought to be clear. So it is good to have it reaffirmed: we are not as a nation a Christian nation. We are nation with a couple hundred million Christians, and if they live up to their charter in the gospels, they will be good and generous and free and value-rich citizens, who will contribute to the public good “in church and state”