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Is America a Christian Nation?

Posted in Christianity, philosophy, political by dingodonkey on September 9, 2009

Every now and then, I get into a debate over whether America is a Christian nation.  Pres. Obama says we’re not, but also seems to imply that we used to be.  I actually more or less agree with him on both of those points, but I’m quite certain that our reasons are very different and fundamentally irreconcilable.

Most people who say we are not a Christian nation are referring to separation of church and state.  I would urge them to distinguish between “nation” (unit of society) and “government” (system of imposing order on that unit of society).  Our government is not Christian.  It derives from Christian ideas about God, man, government, and rights, but it’s not a Christian institution in anything approaching the same way the Church is, and neither is its legitimacy derived from the Church.  Christianity has historically recognized a clear distinction between between Church and State, something that other major world religions (Islam in particular) have not done.  Even Christian kings claiming divine authority (with the nod of the Church, I might add) were not understood to preside over the affairs of the Church, and vice versa (of course this has not stopped individuals from stepping outside their roles).

Nevertheless, we have, and historically have had, a Christian nation with a secular government.  The government derives its authority from the consent of the governed (i.e. the Christian nation), so all this stuff about the government’s authority having its root in Christian thought is perfectly sensible despite its being essentially a secular government.  And that’s a good way for it to be.  It works for America and it works for Christianity.

This distinction has been lost, and that’s something I like to argue with people about.  But I’m beginning to look at that debate as largely academic, at least within this context (government vs. nation more broadly is still a very important distinction, one that I think lies at the heart of our political divisions).

The real question, as was pointed out by Monte Kuligowski, is whether or not we are still a single cohesive Christian nation (give me the benefit of the doubt for now on that nation vs. government distinction).  And that’s a question I’m not yet ready to answer with confidence, but, as my opening suggested, I lean toward “no, we are not”.  I’m still working through that, though, so I’ll save it for another day.

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