I think this is one of the underlying issues with the claim that America is a Christian nation and/or the desire to make it one. We can’t agree on what it means to be a Christian.
As anyone who has read many of my posts by now will know, I grew up firmly in the conservative evangelical church community. I have pastors in my family, we volunteered at church, and I spent 13 years in AWANA earning all the way up to the Citation award (the highest one).
I don’t say that to brag (although at one point in my life, I very much did); I say it to create context for where I’m coming from. I grew up knowing that being a Christian meant asking Jesus to be your personal Lord and Savior. That’s all it took. Super simple.
Except that’s not true. Because I remember participating in many conversations with friends and family members about people from other church backgrounds and communities who might think they’re Christians, but they weren’t “real Christians.” This was usually referenced on an individual basis, but in some cases included entire denominations/communities that were either outright not included or maybe included with some level of skepticism (let’s be real, they’re probably not included, but we can’t be sure).
Various examples of these people included Catholicism, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, plus some varying degree of Lutheranism, Anglican, Presbyterian, and more. Oh, and most definitely “anyone who places a ‘D’ next to their name.” That was an absolute: you cannot put a ‘D’ next to your name and be Christian.
It was quite the exclusive Christianity, but then again, Jesus told us that the gate and road that lead to life are narrow, and only a few find them (Matthew 7:14). And, of course, we were and are part of that few. The next verses in Matthew right after that point to recognizing a tree by its fruit, so we would point to our exceptional fruit (carefully crafted to look as beautiful as possible and hide any blemishes that might bring shame upon us).
Now you might have read the past few paragraphs and thought, “Wow, that’s a super harsh way to lay out my beliefs,” while simultaneously acknowledging that they align with yours and are, therefore, correct. Or you might have read them and thought, “Wow, you’re a horrible person and the exact image of a hypocritical Christian.” Or you might have thought something somewhere in the middle.
Looking back and reflecting on this theology raises my issue with this desire to proclaim America a Christian nation (aside from the fundamental contradiction of the First Amendment and the long historical line of nations that misused Christianity as a state religion). We can’t even agree on what it means to be Christian, so how do we establish that as a core tenet of our nation?
It doesn’t take much research to find news about Christian infighting, both within denominations and among denominations. We disagree on a lot of things, and we all claim to know for sure what the answer is. I believe that self-assuredness is a level of arrogance and disrespect for God’s greatness beyond our own finite beings that completely undermines our professions of knowledge, but that’s a topic for another day.
But America is a Christian nation, and any suggestion otherwise is blasphemous and falling for the liberal media narrative that’s all a conspiracy to remove God from God’s chosen land. Or something like that. So what does it mean to be a Christian?
This is an honest challenge that I can’t seem to find an answer for. Because the people pushing so hard for the idea of America as a Christian nation seem to emphasize only a few specific things: marriage is only between one man and one woman (oddly referred to as a “Biblical” definition of marriage, which seems to ignore the majority of marriages and marriage laws in the Bible); plastering the 10 Commandments and “In God We Trust” wherever we can; Outlawing abortion; lowering taxes, especially for the wealthy (#trickledown); removing entitlement programs that allow people to be lazy; restricting the religious rights of Muslims (both within our country and for immigrants trying to come to our country); deregulating pretty much everything (#freemarket); and overturning the socialism that is universal healthcare. We can probably add in not infringing on any gun ownership rights (#secondamendment) and restoring prayer to public schools (since clearly that’s the cause of mass shootings).
A couple issues with this. First, among all the different sects and communities of self-proclaimed (because, as I mentioned above, a lot of them clearly aren’t real) Christians, a lot of these focuses aren’t universally desired. Second – and most importantly – I actually don’t find any support for almost any of these in the words and deeds of Jesus. And if the “Christ” in our term “Christian” is supposed to be Jesus, shouldn’t His words and deeds warrant at least some consideration?
Further, this idea of “asking Jesus to be your personal Lord and Savior” as the only qualifier to be a Christian (aside from, well, all the other spoken or unspoken ones that apparently a lot of those other groups don’t adhere to) doesn’t really line up with what Jesus said qualified as being one of His followers. And I think that’s part of our issue: we’ve chosen to call ourselves “Christians” instead of “Christ followers.” It’s a small shift, but since Jesus explicitly talked about what it means to be His followers (and never said a word about what it means to be a Christian), it’s a lot harder to avoid the unpopular, hard truths.
Another key aspect of my community growing up was the belief that the culture around us is hell-bound and that the “popular” thing is to go along with these easy ideas that water down the Gospel. But we are called to eschew the popular for the truth, regardless of the changing tides of culture and the persecution we might face. And, in fact, that persecution was to our glory because it showed our steadfast support for the truth.
So what is that truth? What does it mean to follow Jesus? If we look to the assembling of Jesus’ 12 closest followers – whom we refer to as His disciples – we see that each literally dropped everything they were doing, left the only life they knew and physically followed Him everywhere for the next three years. That’s pretty hardcore. But Jesus doesn’t say literally going with Him everywhere is how people will recognize His followers. He says it is the love we show for each other that will reveal our status as Christ followers to the world (John 13:34-35). And He compares the love they are to have for each other to the way He loved them, which, you know, was unconditional and included dying for them even in the midst of their failures.
Further, Jesus says the single greatest commandment is to love God and the second is like it, to love our neighbors as ourselves. Using the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), He proceeds to make it clear to His audience that our neighbor is, quite literally, everyone. So we are to love the way Christ loved us (unconditionally and to the point of sacrificial death), and the people we are to love has no exclusions.
That should pretty much sum it up, but in our culture we’ve redefined “love” as some sort of mushy feeling rather than an active verb that requires work, dedication, and humbling yourself while exalting the other. So to make it a bit more clear what He means when He says to love people, Jesus told us about the sheep and the goats, who will be split from each other and sent their separate ways in eternity (Matthew 25:31-46).
In a very sobering message, Jesus tells us that what we do or do not do for “the least of these” we do or do not do for Jesus Himself. And he’s explicit about the details: feeding the hungry and thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, healing the sick, visiting and caring for the prisoner. While much more goes into the private life of a follower (prayer, fellowship, study, etc.), these are the ways Jesus said both He and others will recognize whether or not we are His followers.
Jesus doesn’t seem too concerned with plastering the 10 Commandments on as many monuments as possible. In fact, He tells us that his two great commandments essentially override the 10 Commandments, all the other Old Covenant laws, and the words of the prophets (Matthew 22:40). Further, Jesus never seemed too worried about legislating the moral guidelines He commanded people to follow, recognizing that moral living is not determined by the laws of the land (which makes perfect sense based on the immoral attributes of Roman life in that time). Finally, closing off our resources to the poor, the stranger, and the sick literally contradict his exact words.
What does it mean to be a Christian? And therefore, what does it mean to be a Christian nation? Maybe I should abandon the word “Christian” and start describing myself as a Christ follower instead, because I don’t see the priorities of those so focused on making America a “Christian nation” lining up even slightly with the priorities of Jesus. And when comparing the two, I’ll take Jesus’ priorities.
Now based on the theology I grew up in, I’m fairly confident what I just said would definitely mean I’m not a “real” Christian. But if that’s what it takes to follow Jesus, so be it. Let those who are going to judge our hearts and determine in their minds who is the real Christian do as they please. I’ll be over here agreeing with Jesus and Paul that my master is God and that humanity’s approval is a waste of my efforts (Galatians 1:10).
And thankfully, the First Amendment means the “real” Christians can’t do anything to stop me.