I think the term “Christian nation” is ambiguous and asking for a useless fight. The question is not a binary “should we apply Christianity in public life or not?” ; it is more of a spectrum of “how much and how should we apply our faith to public policy and life?”
I have previously outlined how we move from our faith and values to public policy (Hint: not all Christian values are within the purview of legislation if you subscribe to limited government), but here is another way to view and limit our approach so that we are not theocrats. 1
1. Five Levels of Christian Nationalism
Here is a helpful list of lessening degrees of applying our faith to public life:
1.1 Christian Reconstructionism (CR)
CR is as close to theocracy as Christians actually get, although technically it is considered a theonomyfrom theos (God) and nomos (law), a hypothetical Christian form of government in which society is ruled by divine law. Theonomists hold that divine law, particularly the judicial laws of the Old Testament, should be observed by modern societies. However, on economics, most theonomists are laissez-faire capitalists, not biblical theocrats. More approach, where the civil laws should come from both the Old and New Testaments, but the economic model can be capitalist or laissez-faire.
1.2 Christian Nationalism (CN)
This is less clear, but a narrow definition might be that this view denies a secular separation of church and state powers, and may be in favor of declaring an official state religion.
1.3 Christian Patriotism (CP)
This view also supports a separation of church and state powers, but not of church and state values. It recognizes both our Christian history and the values the country was founded on. Adherents may or may not consider the country to have a special calling from God in his providential plan for the nations (a so-called City upon a Hill)
1.4 Christian Citizenship (CS)
This view supports legislation congruent with Biblical values, but includes secular separation of church and state powers. Being a good citizen means applying Christian values to public policy, but not requiring religious observance nor legislating religious concepts apart from common ethics (e.g. support for penalties for murder because this is a commonly held and reasonable ethic, not just because the Bible says “thou shall not murder.” Unlike Christian Patriotism, however, it does not consider the country to have a calling from God.
1.5 Christian Pietism (CI)
This view encourages not participating in cultural formation or legislation, but living as if the world’s system is not our affair and not part of the Kingdom of God. It subscribes to the NOMA principle (Non-overlapping magisteria).
2. How is the United States a Christian country?
I think the country was Christian in these ways:
The culture was roughly evangelical in nature.
2.2 Founding Documents
The founding documents were at least congruent with biblical anthropology and ethics, if not explicitly based on Christian values.
2.3 Government Design
Our government was “designed for a religious people” in that minimal government and maximal freedom depends on public virtue which can only be successfully inculcated and implemented with the Christian faith.
3. How is the United States NOT a Christian country?
I think the country is NOT Christian in these ways:
Though the founding documents of the US may have set the grounds for human rights, especially for slaves, it inherited the existing historical global culture of slavery, and it took a few generations (though not many in the scale of history) for abolition to take place. Our current culture is extremely ungodly and worldly, promoting materialism, greed, sexual promiscuity and gender confusion.
3.2 Founding Documents
The founding documents DENIED a state religion, and emphasized a secular separation of church and state powers (but not privatizing Christian values).
Our founding documents were not only influenced by great Christian thinkers like Locke, but by enlightenment humanism and emphasis on reason (though that too had a strong Christian parallel starting with Aquinas). I think , however, that the emphasis was on Christian thought, not enlightenment.
3.3 Government Design
A strong argument can be made from scripture that besides a theocracy, the Bible might recommend a benevolent monarchy.
But even if we believe that the limited government model (of any form) is congruent with scripture, the current US government has growing beyond what I think is a meaningful limit, encroaching on biblical emphases on individual virtue, replacing it with “state virtues” that hide behind the need to implement biblical kindness in all of life. It’s congruent with kindness but not with a biblical view of mankind or government, and so is counter-productive.
I think I fall into the Christian patriotism and citizenship categories. And I think that is proper for all Christians.
In many important ways, the successful, though imperfect American experiment is a beacon of the best of human thinking, much of which is grounded in and centered in Biblical thinking. However, the colonists, as religious as they were, were escaping the tyranny of a country with a state church, and so emphasized freedom of religion, but not freedom from religion, which most, even the less biblical deists among them, appreciated.
But the term “Christian nationalism” is probably unhelpfully ambiguous, and good for nothing more than initiating bar fights.
- Four Stage Model for Creating Public Policy from Faith (wholereason.com) ↩