Monday, January 28, 2008

The Myth of a Christian Nation, Part 7

Chapter 5 of Myth... is entitled "Taking America Back for God," and there are three major challenges Boyd offers in this chapter to widely held assumptions. Here are his main points and the assumptions he is challenging:

1. No political view should ever be labeled Christian.

Boyd would argue that labeling a candidate or a particular view as the Christian view is ridiculous, and perhaps even manipulative (for why are candidates and views ever labeled as the Christians way except to coerce Christians to vote in that particular way?). He would also say that holding a particular political view is "not part of your distinctive kingdom of God calling." That is not to say that a person's faith does not influence their views. Boyd says, "Of course our political views will be influenced by our Christian faith. We may even believe that our views, if they are implemented, will help facilitate the advancement of the kingdom. But we must also recognize that people who have diametrically opposing views may believe they too are advancing the kingdom, which is all well and good so long as we don't christen our views as the Christian view."

2. To Declare that we need to "take America back for God" assumes there was a time America was for God.

Boyd would ask the following question:

Were these God-glorifying years before, during, or after Europeans ‘discovered’ America and carried out the doctrine of ‘manifest destiny’—the belief that God (or, for some, nature) had destined white Christians to conquer the native inhabitants and steal their land? Were the God-glorifying years the ones in which the whites massacred these natives by the millions, broke just about every covenant they ever made with them, and then forced survivors onto isolated reservations? Was the golden age before, during, or after white Christians loaded five to six million Africans on cargo ships to bring them to their newfound country, enslaving the three million or so who actually survived the brutal trip? Was it during the two centuries when Americans acquired remarkable wealth by the sweat and blood of their slaves? Was this the time when we were truly ‘one nation under God,’ the blessed time that so many evangelicals seem to want to take our nation back to?

"There is nothing distinctively Christlike bout the way America was 'discovered', conquered, or governed in the early years."

3. Evangelicals are quick to assume that America was founded as a Christian nation.

Boyd would disagree. "There has been a great deal of debate about the extent to which the founding fathers were Christian in any historic, orthodox sense of the term. My own research inclines me to conclude that most were more deistic than Christian, and that they collectively had no intention of founding and explicitly Christian nation." As a matter of fact, John Adams had this to say: "the government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion." Interesting, no?

Now, I must confess, I was one of those people who held to the view that the founding fathers were solidly Christian. Honestly, it is what I had been told for years and I believed it. I was very interested to read Boyd's discussion of the topic in this book, as well as this article talking about the same topic. It appears the issue is not as settled as pastors led me to believe. There is some evidence that would lead one to believe that the founders were Christians, like the fact that about half of the signers of the Declaration of Independence had seminary degrees. But, it seems it is a mistake to project our current brand of Christianity onto the founders several hundred years ago (by the way, this is no slam on the founders of our country. I'm thinking for what they did and the courage it took. I'm just searching for the truth). And certainly one of the reasons for coming to America was religious freedom, though if that is the case, it makes no sense that they would set up a "Christian nation" as a form of religious freedom.

Nonetheless, I am still wrestling with this issue. I certainly take the words of John Adams above as truth, but I guess I'm still not crystal clear on what the religiosity (or lack their of) of the founding father and to what degree they held certain beliefs. I'm hesitate to say they were "Christian" in any current sense of the word. Do you have any further info or thoughts on this?

I think Boyd makes three great challenges to widely held assumptions in Evangelicalism. The first is perhaps one of the central points of the book, that as a Christian regardless of your particular political views, one should never tack the label Christian onto a view or a candidate.

What is your response to these? Do you see these assumptions creeping up in your circles?

Nest time we will look at chapter 6, ironically titled "The Myth of A Christian Nation."


ZZMike said...

[First-time visitor, responding to your piece on "Zeitgeist"]

I've yet to read your whole series, but I've been in more than a few arguments about this one. I finally settled down to a position that no, we aren't "a Christian nation" (in the way that England is an Anglican nation), but rather that we are a nation of Christians. But even that is shrinking, with the rise of secularism.

On the other hand, I see signs of a Christian resurgence all around here. There are contemporary Christian churches all over here (Southern Caligornia) - many of them big churches - not just big like the Crystal Cathedral, or Jim Warren's mega-churches, but still, churches with buildings spanning a city block, and ministering to youth groups and young adults.

Back to what we are a nation of: up until the beginning of the 20th century, we were definitely a nation of Christians. De Tocqueville came through in the early 1800s (when the wild wild west started about the Mississippi), and noticed that every town and village had a schoolhouse and a church, and every frontier home had besides a hatchet, a newspaper and a Bible. We were a nation of Christians.

We may yet again be one.

(Now I'll go off an read your series.)

ZZMike said...

Just as an afterthought: Given that the Founding Fathers weren't "evangelical Christians", very few of them were atheists (Tom Paine is probably the best example), and they were all rooted in the Judaeo-Christian tradition.

I really believe they would be repelled by the modern stance that says that there must be no mention of God or religion in the public sphere. They granted us freedom of religion, not freedom from it. They wanted only to insure that the state would not merge with any one religion - in order to exclude others.

Nick said...

Thanks for the comments Mike (I saw your comment on the zeitgeist post as well).

I would say that even though there are a lot of Christians in the USA, that doesn't make it a "Christian nation" by Boyd's definition.

And as far as getting rid of mentioning God in the public sphere, I certainly dont think we are headed towards that or are anywhere close. We still have freedom of speech, and with the President still using religious rhetoric and quoting scripture in speeches, I don't think "God talk" is going anywhere anytime soon (fortunately or unfortunately).