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In Theory: Was America ever a Christian nation?

The setting sun illuminates an American bald eagle perched atop the steeple at the Winchester Church of God in Winchester, Va. Monday, June 13, 2016.

The setting sun illuminates an American bald eagle perched atop the steeple at the Winchester Church of God in Winchester, Va. Monday, June 13, 2016.

(Jeff Taylor/The Winchester Star via AP)

According to a majority of white evangelical Protestants in a recent survey, America is not a Christian country anymore.

The Public Religion Research Institute, in partnership with the Brookings Institution, conducted the survey, which also found that Americans overall are split on whether the United States can be considered a Christian nation or not.

About 41% say America was and still is Christian, 42% say it was in the past but is no longer and 15% say the U.S. never has been a Christian nation.

Q: Can America be — or could it ever have been — considered a Christian nation? Why or why not?

I believe America can still be considered a Christian nation because of the solid biblical, moral and ethical foundations upon which our country was built. Our “founding fathers” were not ashamed to mention God’s name or to acknowledge the fact that every good thing we have is due to his providence.

This foundation has not changed — you can’t really change a foundation after it has been built. But in recent years many in our country are turning a blind eye to, or simply defying, or even foolishly denying the existence of this foundation of faith, which has been the primary source of our blessings for more than 200 years.

God has greatly blessed us, but now we are greatly denying God. Our country will be weaker and poorer because of this disowning of our creator. In what ways have we disowned him? We have banned prayer to him in schools. We have allowed the unborn, created in his image, to be destroyed in the womb. This week we watched women literally dance in the streets because the Supreme Court made it easier to destroy unborn children. We have banned public displays of the Ten Commandments, the most basic of moral tenets ever recorded. We have corrupted the definition of marriage, which he made to be a pure illustration of the church’s relationship to Jesus Christ. We are a backsliding Christian nation, a Christian nation currently headed toward the reaping of the corruption we have sown.

The prophet Isaiah announced: “For thus the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, has said, ‘In repentance and rest you will be saved, in quietness and trust is your strength’” (Isaiah 30:15). One thing will make our nation great again: repentance. Isaiah added: “But you were not willing …" Let’s pray to God our nation will be willing to return to him, the only source of life and liberty and blessing.

Pastor Jon Barta
Burbank

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I reject the term “evangelical” to describe only politically and socially conservative Protestant congregations and their members, as opposed to “mainstream” churches and believers. The Evangelical (hello!) Lutheran Church in America is my religious heritage forged in countless church basement carry-in dinners. The ELCA along with Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians and other Protestant sects share a core goal of proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ which is what evangelical means. That they do not qualify as such in the topsy-turvy vocabulary in current use is absurd.

So let there be no more misuse, and thanks, I do feel better now.

It is correct to call the U.S. a majority Christian country, since about 70% of our population claim some level of affiliation with Christianity. But the 41% declaring and the 42% denying the “Christianness” of the U.S. are referring not to demographics but to the mythical idea that we were officially founded as a Christian nation, which we have either maintained or rejected.

The Founding Fathers spoke loudly and clearly in the U.S. Constitution in Article 6 banning religious tests for holding office and in the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment. Christians were of course among those whose ideas formed our founding documents and institutions, along with assorted deists and a few actively hostile to, or at least skeptical about, Christianity. All of them wanted strict church-state separation. Today’s religious landscape of mega-churches, moneyed media empires and institutionalized political activism would be unrecognizable as Christianity to these founders.

The title of the report is “How Immigration and Concerns about Cultural Change are Shaping the 2016 Election.” Questions about Christianity comprised a tiny part of the survey, and the percentage reporting a concern about whether or not we are a Christian nation pales in comparison to the number of respondents having economic concerns.

The researchers say: “On the economic front, roughly two-thirds (65%) of Americans are at least somewhat worried that they or a family member will become unemployed. Seven in 10 (70%) Americans continue to believe the U.S. is still in an economic recession, while about three in 10 (29%) disagree. These views have remained remarkably stable since 2012.”

It is these concerns that we must address, along with clarifying a profound misunderstanding among many Americans about our nation’s formation.

Roberta Medford
Atheist
Montrose

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It obviously depends on what one means when he/she says the term “Christian nation.” In one sense, perhaps we once were because most of us identified as Christians and most of us — a heck of a lot more than right now — went to church on a regular basis. But such a term has always been tough for non-Christians to swallow, because there have always been non-Christians in North America from the beginning, or almost the beginning.

There is a famous letter from George Washington to a Jewish synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. The members had written him a letter congratulating him on his election or reelection as President, and he wrote back a very warm response, even using some of the same words and phrases that the letter from the synagogue to him contained.

MORE: Read previous In Theory discussions>>

So were the Jewish members of the Rhode Island synagogue comfortable with the idea that they lived in a “Christian nation?” Probably not, because the Founding Fathers never thought in those terms. The idea that we are a “Christian nation” is a relatively recent concept, I believe — and anyway, even if we were a “Christian nation,” I don’t think we should consider ourselves as such now because we have so many other religions represented in these United States, and atheists, too.

By the way, Thomas Paine, one of our founders, wrote a book called “Common Sense,” and Paine was an atheist. So the concept of “Christian nation” should be retired, like a 1950s Edsel, like the “Leave It to Beaver” America that never existed, except in the minds of those reactionaries among us who want to bring back “the good old days” that actually never were. God bless America, and the rest of God’s creation, too.

Rev. Skip Lindeman
La Cañada Congregational Church
La Cañada

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This is one of those two-sides-of-the-coin questions. On one side, we are a Christian nation, if you mean that our majority faith is identifiably so. If you mean, our Founding Fathers (those who signed the Declaration of Independence) were overwhelmingly Christian, with one, John Witherspoon, being a minister, then yes, we are Christian.

To borrow the observational question-answer set-up of comedian Jeff Foxworthy, “You might be a Christian Nation if...”: If you had some Pilgrims write a Compact declaring the specific reason they came was for “the advancement of the Christian faith,’ then you might be a Christian Nation. If all your documents and patriotic songs declare allegiance to one “God,” rather than many, like the ancient Greeks or modern Hindus worship, then you might be a Christian nation. If every citizen is familiar with a man named Billy Graham, then you might be a Christian nation. If you’ve sent more missionaries abroad and dispersed the Christian message more than any other, then you might just be a Christian nation. If you ask foreigners what religion is the USA, and they answer, “Christianity,” we might be a Christian nation. And if our presidents are inaugurated by placing their hands on the Bible, and those in court swear by the same, then by golly, we’re a Christian nation.

Now let’s flip the coin. While our majority may identify with Christianity, let’s be real about this, they are not filling the pews on Sunday, but filling themselves with kids’ soccer, car shows and myriad diversions that don’t direct their focus heavenward for even a moment. And while we recognize the contribution of our Christian heritage, it’s more popular now to denigrate our history, and inflate the contribution of paganism and secularism.

Today, if someone objects to facilitating sin based on Christianity, they will be sued by a godless system that doesn’t value them. Instead, virtually any opposing religion would be preferred and legally protected, no matter their lack of good or contributions to America. While our motto is “In God We Trust,” our people are molding that God into their own image rather than the reverse. And today, it’s not uncommon for faithless preachers to play down their Christianity, the only faith that saves, to flatter every other false religion. Why? Because they don’t believe anyone needs saving anymore. All beliefs are OK, as are all behaviors, no matter how destructive or perverted, so long as they are morally popular. Can’t we all just like and be liked?

Given today’s state of affairs, we might not be a Christian nation, really; just another pagan one with a few Christians living here until we get rid of them once and for all.

Rev. Bryan A. Griem
Tujunga

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It’s always interesting to hear what people actually mean when they use the word “Christian.” Some mean adherence to a certain set of religious beliefs and practices, having to do with the divinity of Jesus; Others mean commitment to certain moral values; still others mean a socio-cultural mindset — ideals of how people should live together, as a community or a nation.

I suspect that a majority of those 15% who say that America has never been a Christian nation, mean the first definition, the more technically religious one – and they’re right; you couldn’t say that all Americans have ever adhered to a single religious belief (kinda the point of America is that we don’t have to).

Maybe some of the people who think America was and still is Christian mean it in the sense of the third definition, cultural ideals – and sure, we’re still about looking out for our neighbors, doing kind things unto others, running good hospitals and schools and so forth.

And finally, many of those who say that America is no longer a Christian nation – white evangelical Protestants, according to the survey – probably mean the middle definition, that it’s our moral values which have so utterly changed, and become so diffuse as to lose the (assumed) center of homogeneity.

Language about a ‘Christian nation’ is probably code for still other presuppositions. Darkly, it can tip toward religious bigotry, racism and xenophobia. Optimistically, it can stand for shared commitment to general uprightness and integrity – which some have, in America’s past, experienced as wonderful, but others as stifling and oppressive.

I for one would love for America to renew its sense of commitment to a human decency and integrity which everyone, not just a comfortable majority, would experience as a wonderful thing, and a helpful offering to a hurting world.

The Rev. Amy Pringle
St. George’s Episcopal Church
La Cañada Flintridge


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