I hold strongly to the notion that America is a Christian nation. So when John Mark Reynolds remarked that President Obama was correct in stating that America is not a Christian nation, I took immediate notice.
Recently President Obama made a series of important speeches in Western Europe and in Turkey. He said that “the United States is not, and never will be, at war with Islam” and that “we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation.” He is right on both counts. These passages must be understood in the context of his sophisticated view of the role of religion and government.
So what is President Obama’s sophisticated view? Boiled down, John Mark believes that President Obama understands that the thing which unites us as a citizenry is our common adherence to the US Constitution. The Constitution, John Mark argues, cannot be a member of any religious organization and is therefore not “Christian.”
However, simply because the United States is not (strictly speaking) a “Christian” nation does not mean that America is without Christian influence. John Mark goes on to note,
U.S. Christians are a good example for religious people around the world about how to act on one’s faith in public affairs. Christians like President Obama govern as Christians without forcing others to be Christians. We know a good bit about President Obama’s values, for good and bad, by knowing the form of Christianity he embraces.
I see John Mark’s point and he has challenged my thoughts on American as a Christian nation, but I do think that John Mark has overlooked something important. Even though the Constitution, as a document, cannot be a member of any religion, that does not mean that the Constitution itself is without Christian influence. Insomuch as the Constitution is a set of principles, one should trace the roots of the principles found in the Constitution to determine where the Constitution grounds its authority.
One place where the Constitution grounds its authority is in Christian assumptions about the dignity of the human life and liberty. Read the preamble, terms like Liberty and Justice have a cornucopia of meaning. Those terms hearken to the writings of John Locke and others whose arguably Christian worldview shaped the value sets of their political philosophies. If I were to examine the Declaration of Independence, the influence of Christianity would be even more explicit. So, though the Constitution as a document is not a member of any faith, it is deeply influenced by the Christian faith. Therefore, in some ways, the Constitution is a Christian document and this is a Christian nation.
To say that the United States is not a Christian nation, then, is true IF one means that we are not a theocracy governed by the Christian God. That is a good thing, most Christians I know would be enraged to see the federal government assume special knowledge and govern as though they were the mouthpiece of God. However, I think it is only partly true to argue that America is not a Christian nation because the Constitution as a document cannot be a member of a faith group. It is partly true because an extension of that point seems to lead one to argue that Christian principles play no part in the core principles that unite the people of the United States. That argument is simply incorrect. One cannot ignore the Christian influence behind the principles of the Constitution. One cannot be true to history while dismissing the important role Christianity played in shaping the thoughts, and ultimately the form, of the Constitution. ‘