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A Third Way in the "Christian Nation" Debate
A new study showing that
most Tea Partiers say America is a "Christian nation"
has reignited an age-old argument about our nation's roots. Traditionally, the debate has been polarized with social conservatives like Fox News host Glenn Beck claiming our country was founded as a sacred Christian nation and left-leaning thinkers asserting that America was and should stay a non-religious country. Proponents of both views can drum up quotes by historical figures to support their position.
Recently, however, a third way has emerged among a surprising demographic: younger Christians. In the last three years,
I've conducted hundreds of interviews and focus groups with the next generation of Christian leaders
and found a new view that threads the needle between the left and the right.
Rather than view America's founding as either wholly secular or sacred, many claim to believe that we are a country influenced by Christian ideas. On the one hand, they recognize that many early patriots and politicians were deeply influenced by their faith. No doubt such influence can readily be seen in the many American icons and traditions where God is acknowledged.
On the other hand, they are quick to point out that being influenced by such ideas does not equal the establishment of a Christian state. They uphold that the founders did not mean to legislate or authorize any one religious viewpoint over others. As the Treaty of Tripoli, signed by John Adams and ratified unanimously by the U.S. Senate in 1797, states, "the Government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion..."
In times past, religious Americans have been some of the most vocal opponents to this way of thinking. The now-deceased former Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell was famous for publicly claiming that America "was founded by Christians as a Christian nation." Evangelicals of that day followed him in droves. And according to Barna Research, today
some 43 percent of Protestants still believe
it would be good to pass an amendment to the Constitution making Christianity the official religion of the United States.
But support for such views is waning among the general public. According to a 2009 Newsweek poll, the number of people who consider the United States a "Christian nation" has fallen nine points in the last five years, seven points in the last year alone. Public sentiments in this debate are shifting, and the next generation of Christians is too -- albeit to a new paradigm.
READ THE FULL ARTICLE at The Huffington Post
What do you think? Was America founded as "a Christian nation?"
Great post, Gabe. Thanks for sharing.
I wrote a similar article a few years ago, but from a Canadian perspective.
Gabe: To the question as you posed it: Your phrase "a country influenced by Christian ideas" goes the right direction. To support "founded as a Christian nation," we must look to where the nation is brought together in formal agreement: the two founding documents. One might take the first two sentences of the
" target="third_refs">US Declaration of Independence as a strong indication that the USA was founded as a
nation. Such language is not carried over into the US Constitution, but one might argue that the phrase "no religious Test" (
" target="third_refs">Article VI) assumes a theist backdrop. Still, there is nothing definitive here, and so we battle in the courts yet today for a definitive answer.
The legal conversation centers, of course, on the phrase "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" in
" target="third_refs">The Bill of Rights. With the oft-used phrase "separation of church and state," (a) "religion" implies "theistic belief," which (b) leads some to work toward banishment of theistic expression from the public square, which in turn (c) leads to the Christian counter-reaction questioned in your post. Neither (b) nor (c) models tolerance, pluralism, or love.
The way out, I believe, centers on two interpretations of the First Amendment. (1) In a pluralistic society, especially one that includes atheistic belief, "religion" is best understood as "views on the question of God." I think it fair to say that atheists are religious about their beliefs (see
" target="third_refs">definition 4). (2) Under this view, the strictures of non-establishment (a more Constitutional phrase than "separation of church and state") prohibit the de facto establishment of non-theistic "religion" that results from theistic banishment. In any case, the First Amendment word "religion" needs further conversation (particularly if one holds to notions of a
" target="third_refs">Living Constitution).
A practical example: My resolution to the old
" target="third_refs">Ten Commandments monument controversy would have been to invite Muslims, Hindus, atheists, Buddhists, et al to place similar monuments to
foundations of justice. True tolerance is not "agreeing that no one has the answer" — that's
. True tolerance is, though we radically disagree, yet saying, "I will nonetheless love and defend you."
Well written. However, know that in the 2nd Treaty of Tripoli they removed that line and inserted that we were. It is thought by historians they did so to convince the other nation to sign the Treaty, which they would not have done otherwise had they thought the US was a "religious group".
Many "Christian" principles were foundational to the creation of our nation. However we have never been a "theocracy" basing our life together on the Christian God revealed in Jesus Christ.
Steve brings up a great point that though our nation was founded with many Christian principles, we were never designed to be a theocracy. Our nation was founded in such a way to escape the tyranny of King George III as well as a government with an official religion. Also, founders like Thomas Jefferson were deists (believed in "a" God who was more of a divine clock maker who made the world and then stepped back from it with little or not intervention from himself) and though they had a Judeo-Christian belief system, they were not necessarily Christian.
I think that tragically many Christians in the U.S. feel that it is more important to have our country identified as a Christian nation more than Christians in our nation actually being the hands and feet of Christ. It is hard for me to believe that when Christ returns his first question will be, "So...did you guys make sure America was "officially known as a Christian nation?"
Christians often are misguided in the belief that to legislate morality is the right thing to do as opposed to showing the love of Christ to individuals and changing lives through our actions instead of the President's pen stroke. Instead of trying to ban abortion, what if we reached out to one woman at a time and financially assisted and counseled her to keep her child. That would be more beneficial than changing a law.
All in all, instead of being overly concerned how our nation is labeled by ourselves and the outside world, we should be more concerned about the lives we are changing through our faith in Christ.
Do you actually believe that the authors of the Constitution intended to include what you characterize a "non-theistic "religion"" when they penned the Establishment Clause?
Well put. Thank you for writing this and for taking the time to speak to the next generation to get their input.
Jonathan: Against the backdrop of an overwhelmingly theistic society, when the framers said "religion," I believe they assumed, by and large, that
was theistic and they wanted to prevent the sanctioning of one form of theism over another. So, in direct reply to your question: No, but also I think the framers did not intend the Establishment Clause to be used toward the suppression of nominal theistic expression (e.g., court cases against "one nation, under God").
Against the backdrop of our current society, the framers' assumption is no longer valid. Thus, although a Living Constitution approach enters slippery territory, I find appropriateness for it in relation to the word "religion" -- and I find adequate support from Merriam-Webster to cast atheism as a religious belief. Atheistic and theistic beliefs are fundamentally of the same type: They are religious in nature, grounded in preterphysical/preternatural discourse. Based such discourse, theists conclude that the preterphysical exists, atheists that it (or at least God within it) does not.
But more important than all that, I believe that applying the Establishment Clause in a manner of "atheism as religion," by leading toward solutions such as my "pluralistic foundations of justice" example above, can play a part in fostering true tolerance and true love in the USA.
I would suggest that we need to get the word "legislate" out of our discussion about this issue. Aaron's last two paragraph's come close. I was taught that we Christians are like yeast. Yeast, in a loaf of bread, is probably the least of the ingredients; yet, it influences the whole of the loaf. Through a lifetime of ministry I have found this description to be very satisfactory in defining who the Christian is in our society -- or any society. Legislation is not the way of the Lord God. Rather, we are to witness to our faith --- not convincing anyone as that is the Holy Spirit's work -- in such a way that others are 'moved' to consider further the claims of Jesus Christ. My task is to evangelize; that is, to tell others my story about my experience with Jesus. I don't think that the Great Commission of Matthew 28 is about legislating anything, but it certainly is about my sharing what Christ means to me in such a way that the other person considers seriously the claims Christ upon his/her life! Yes, we are to love them ---- but we are to influence them so that they respond positively to Jesus and this is our testimony --- which needs to be done with love!
This third way of thinking seems more to the intention of the founders of the country. However, one concern with "pluralistic foundations of justice" and the living Constitution issue. The slippery slope here becomes the introduction of Sharia law in some Detroit areas and Islamic communities in the US and Canada. Does this represent another ". . . foundations of justice" that is able to inform our future understanding of governance?
LE: If it were an either/or dilemma between "yeast" and law, there would be absolutely no question which path Christians should take. Yet I believe that Matt 18, 1 Cor 6, and other passages add up to there being a place for legal action. It was appropriate for legal action to play a part in redressing oppression of African-Americans. However: (1) legal action to establish a "Christian nation" runs into heavy concerns about love and (2) our actions at law should be "yeast" every bit as much actions in other realms. Underlying all this is that, if it comes to it, Christians should rather be oppressed than become oppressors.
Ron: Your reply well represents a tightrope: A key question is whether the "3d way" should have a (yeast-infused) legal component. The dominant understanding of the Establishment Clause works against the 3d way (case in point: the volume of vociferous negative response to Gabe's post of this at Huffington Post). Moving our legal understanding of the Establishment Clause toward inclusiveness supports the 3d way, yet also carries risks of being taken too far. To walk the tightrope, we must indeed be "shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves."
I belive we are called to use the ballot box as a way to express the heart of God on issues such as abortion. Abortion is a horror that grieves the heart of God. Gabe Lyons refers to the next Christians as restorers. I believe that restoring justice for the innocent unborn is a part of what restoring is about. At the same time we should (as many of us do) work to change the hearts and minds of men and women through our actions of love. I believe in a both/and approach, rather than either/or.
@aaron, you should see Chapter 6 of Gabe's current book where he tells a very personal story of how he and his wife have engaged the abortion issue in a restorative way. The link to the "Understanding Down Syndrome Diagnosis" book he describes can be found at
I actually heard Gabe tell the story at the Catalyst 2010 conference in Atlanta. It was so powerful that I tell people more and more how we have to be creative and not reactive as Gabe put it. Super powerful story!
I totally agree with the both/and approach. I think that what I was attempting to convey was that I feel an over-emphasis on legislature has been taken in Christian circles as opposed to a human to human interaction that changes peoples' hearts. As the people of God who usher in his Kingdom, I think we need to emphasize changing hearts and not just changing legislature. But both are important, I agree.
I completely agree with your assessment. While an both/and approach is necessary, an emphasis on personal interaction, simply living the life, would be the most effective option. This approach is built on genuine relationships of sustained trust and honesty, rather than trying to impose a belief, however valid that belief may be, through legislation. This view is more difficult, but will yield better results.
I couldn't agree more with your opinion here of the way it should make approach for both of them.
Gabe I understand your desire to break free from the stereo typical christian mindset and open up a dialogue for the benefit of the many, a unique point of view bro but maybe the Love your neighbor thing should extent to your other neighbor too! I mean can't you make your point without using class warfare! That's uncool bro.
There are a thousand rabbit holes to chase down when we get political and I don't mind chasing down a few of them. I get it Gabe, politics can be divisive, and yet the Holy Spirit moves freely between these groups that are opposing one another.
Unity is the new paradigm shift and it is a beautiful thing. Young and old, liberal and conservative , gay or straight, Christian Nation or not, tea partier or social Liberal, Christian or Muslim, Love supersedes knowledge and bridges the gap from the lack of our understanding. Unity is a powerful sign of unselfishness and If we are to have any credibility at all as believers of Christ then we need to love one another above all else or we risk getting "gonged" from the big show.
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