Christian Nation?

June 8, 2010

The History Channel’s new “America: The Story of Us” is a pretty fascinating documentary series detailing major moments in American history. The format mixes reenactments with commentary, analysis, and narration.  Early in the series, Tom Brokaw says with a smile that, “We’ve never been a nation to turn the other cheek,” commentating on the Boston Tea incident and the beginnings of the Revolutionary War.

We’ve never been a nation to turn the other cheek. He seemed to be saying it with pride. He’s right, though. The series does mix in glowing narration from key and celebrity Americans, and the tone often does the glorifying, the exciting and noble recounting of the nations past. Yet it doesn’t pull back from the bad, the dark, the unsavory aspects of Americans or their history. Early on we see that certainly, the Mayflower folks wanted religious freedom and came here with hopes to find it. Yet before them, concurrently with them, and after them, the majority of people braving the dangers of travel and resettlement in “the new world,” were looking for something a bit more tangible– most who risked life and limb did so with hopes to find wealth and riches. “The Story of Us” shows the first waves of explorers as those seeking fortunes in tobacco and farming, in mining for diamonds and treasures.

America was built by wealth seekers. Thanksgiving was born out of an alliance between a group of settlers and a Native American tribe who used British firepower to eradicate another tribe of indigenous people who were dead before they knew what had hit them. Paul Revere was a “self made man,” a wealthy individual who along with many other wealthy individuals didn’t feel like paying taxes to the crown and had no desire to be told by the crown what they were to do with their money in any way whatsoever.

Now, there are big issues of government, of individual rights and responsibilities, of representation and election to consider; there was good and bad behavior on both sides of the fence, so to speak. This is not an article to critique or evaluate the Revolutionary War or the beginnings of the American Nation. I don’t question the states decision to break away from the crown, there are many valid and important reasons such a thing occurred. But Brokaw’s comment made me think further about a “Christian nation.” Because oddly enough, most who opine that this country used to be but no longer is a Christian nation would applaud Brokaw’s observation as true and good. Yet isn’t a key commandment from Jesus to “turn the other cheek,” a thing apparently we’ve never done as a nation? We have never been a Christian nation. Perhaps the bigger question is should we have been? Should we be so now?

People get riled up over the separation of church and state. It’s always an issue that comes back to provoke intense feelings whenever someone perceives the separation gap to be growing or lessening. The thing for me is, that I can see both sides of this argument defensibly. It’s highly obvious that those who are religious should desire that the state stays out of their religion–most wouldn’t want the government telling them when, how, and where to worship. Yet it becomes difficult when reversed…if one is religious, how can that not affect one’s politics? If you are an individual in a church or a church body as a whole, you will react to things in the political sphere. There is no separation when it comes to justice or Spirit…what you feel in the temple translates to how you act in the public sphere, or at least it should. By this c0unt, if an issue is moral–and what issue isn’t in one way or other– then a church goer must respond to that issue morally. This affects how a religious person votes and what government policies such a person advocates.

Granted, religious perceptions can lead to drastically different political advocacy–Brian McLaren in his “Generous Orthodoxy” book recounts a friend’s observation that the Christian Left were the go to advisers in the ’50s through the ’70s and their ranks swelled the Democratic party, but the Religious Right through various means overtook them in the ’80s and ’90s and settled into Washington–an event that McLaren’s friend wryly speculated left the Left spinning with a Power Hangover and the Right tripping on a Power Buzz with neither side accomplishing much these days. It’s unavoidable that the type of faith one practices will lead to the type of politics one advocates and these gaps can remain securely between folks in both spheres. It seems to be obvious that it’s not really possible to not let one inform the other.

The brilliant writer in World Religious studies, Huston Smith, writes in “Why Religion Matters,” about the push and pull of Science and Religion, arguing that in the postmodern world the general public has handed over to Science what they once gave to Religion–faith. Smith argues against what he terms Scientism at length– a type of blind faith in Science that gives Science a blank check for answers to all of life’s largest questions despite the many times when giving ascent to such answers requires as much of a leap of faith as giving that assent to Religion. Smith compares this to the push and pull between Business and Government in the 1920s and onwards as Big Business fought against regulation, unions, welfare, safety laws, taxes, etc. My question and speculation leads to whether this push and pull is really still between State/Government and Religion, as much as there is still Religion in the West. Can any nation ever truly be “Christian?” If a natural outcome of Christianity leads to “turn the other cheek,” to pacifism (granted, a natural outcome that many Christians will argue against), then is it possible for an entire nation to adopt such a stance and survive?

The bottom line for me is that I do and will always advocate a strong “wall of separation” between Church and State as I believe the “founding fathers” intended. I do not want any church controlling the government to the peril of those whose faith is different than theirs. I do not want any government controlling any church except in extreme cases which involve safety and security. I feel any government meddling in how a congregation gathers and worships can lead to nothing good. Yet I do feel all who feel religiously should and must vote, advocate, and politically work for policies and laws that affirm their morality and spirituality. I wish all such people could learn respect for and tolerance of all other faiths and thus advocate for laws and systems that protect and serve all people equally– such laws and systems affirm the centrality and best essence of all enduring faiths–but many do not recognize this and I can only hope that in time education and exposure can make great leaps in this regard. As another final note, I don’t believe this nation has ever been a Christian nation, and I do not believe it was ever intended to be. Yet I believe it was intended to be and can still be a Nation filled with heartfelt and compassionate Christian people—as well as heartfelt and compassionate Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Secular Humanists, etc—all working together to serve the best part of each.

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