“The nation with the soul of a church” is what British journalist G.K Chesterton called America as he toured the former American colony. He was right then, but now it’s not so certain.
I remember the first time I saw a presentation from David Barton affirming the main thesis of his career: that our nation was founded by godly, church-going, Bible-believing men. I remember thinking at the time that Barton was probably right, but I wondered what that has to do with today’s increasingly post-Christian America. It was 1991 when I first encountered Barton and his thesis, and my question is even more pressing today: what does our Christian founding have to do with the way things are now?
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Not that Chesterton would hesitate to offer the same observation in 2013: I counted no fewer than five Baptist churches in a one-mile stretch of road in a nearby town the other day, as we were on our way to the Nazarene church on the same street. Our nation’s pledge includes the phrase “under God.” Our currency announces that we as a nation trust in God. Our state’s motto, “With God all things are possible,” is straight from the lips of Jesus.
But there’s also no question that this rich Christian heritage is not the subject of universal admiration. There has been a concerted effort, mostly by disgruntled secularists, to rid our public life of the vestiges of our Christian heritage. A few years ago a California father’s objection to “under God” in the pledge to the flag percolated all the way to the US Supreme Court, where everyone expected some sort of landmark ruling on the religious language included in one of our most cherished institutions. (The Court never really ruled on the question, bouncing it back on an odd technicality.)
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The courts have handled other such cases over the past several decades. Recall Madelyn Murray O’Hare’s spectacular and successful bid to kick school-sponsored prayers out of public education in the 1960s. Courts since then have been asked to rule on the public display of crosses and the Ten Commandments and religious-themed Christmas holiday decorations. In each case, the courts have had to deal with their own version of the culture wars: how to balance the sensibilities of religious citizens with the rights of citizens of other faiths or no faith.
The assumption that this is a Christian nation (and that Christianity should therefore enjoy a privileged position) is clearly on the wane, both in the courts and, more significantly, in the national imagination. Recent surveys indicate that as many as one in five people — a record number —now indicate “none” when asked about their religious preference. We have known for some time that it is not safe to assume that every American not affiliated with some other faith is “Christian.” It’s clear that the demographics of this nation are shifting rapidly.
This shift in public and legal allegiance brings up two questions: What does this mean? And how should we respond?
What does the eroding influence of Christianity in America mean? This has everything to do with how we read the culture. The United States is exceptional. But in precisely what sense are we exceptional? Since the demise of the Soviet Union, the United States has stood as the world’s lone superpower. We have the biggest economy and oldest democracy in the world. We are certainly an exceptionally rich and powerful nation.
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But many conservatives see a deeper, more significant factor in play here. One popular interpretation of American greatness is that God has chosen our nation, much as He did Israel, to be a shining light to the nations. Witness the great missionary endeavor springing from this nation over the past two centuries and our nation’s continuous outpouring of benevolence and generosity. If we view the United States as God’s chosen people, the fading of Christian influence in our nation is very bad news.
Some Christian leaders see the judgment of God in our nation’s drift from its Christian roots and its slouch toward Gomorrah (to borrow Robert Bork’s colorful phrase). Jonathan Cahn’s best-seller Harbinger, drawing on parallels between the U.S. and the ancient kingdom of Israel, takes this tack, arguing that the 911 attacks and the ensuing economic meltdown are both indications of the coming judgment of God on a godless nation.
On the other hand, some argue, the fading of Christian dominance in America may not be such a bad thing. The persecuted church in Eastern Europe and in China may paint a different picture of the role of Christianity in our nation’s future. Remember the role of the church in the Velvet Revolution that unhinged Communism in Eastern Europe. Consider the vitality of the church in Communist China. It could be that the fading of Christendom in the U.S. is the harbinger of a much more vital and significant role for the church not as a culturally dominant force but as a potent and viral minority.
Which leads us to our second question: Given that Christianity is losing its dominant position in our public life, how should we respond? Here’s where it gets interesting. The way we answer the second question depends on how we answered the first question.
If America is God’s chosen nation, and if the decline of Christian dominance is an indication of our nation’s turning its back on God, then we must do something to reverse that trend. The late D. James Kennedy was the voice and the face of the “reclaim America” movement, arguing that what this nation needs is a return to its ideological and theological roots. What we need is another Great Awakening to bring us back to God. Although Kennedy is gone and no one has stepped up to take his place, that sentiment is still alive. (David Barton doesn’t have Kennedy’s stature among evangelicals, but he has provided much of the historical perspective underlying that view.)
Dominion theology (“Christian reconstructionism”) goes even further, proposing that it is the role of the church to dominate public life. Some reconstructionists even go so far as to suggest that criminal and family law should reflect the Mosaic legal code: criminalizing sexual sin, making divorce more difficult to obtain, imposing harsh penalties on criminals.
If some version of “reclaiming” or “reconstructing” America is our goal, these are bleak days indeed. The signs are all pointing the wrong direction.
But if the fading of Christian cultural dominance is the beginning of a new, viral Christian presence in our nation, if the church in China is a glimpse of the emerging role of Christianity in America, this undoing of the Christian consensus could be the birth-pangs of a much more significant role for Christianity in the United States, one that might look less potent but could actually be far more significant than before.
What’s this have to do with the political process? How we answer these two crucial questions determines what hills we choose to die on. How much political capital should we expend in response to the eroding of Christian symbols in our public life? Is the attack on “under God” in the Pledge, for instance, another example of the attack on the religious liberty of Christians, or is it merely an inevitable indication of shifting demographics?
It is not known what role the church in America will play in the future. It seems pretty clear that that role will be different from what it used to be. Conservative voters, especially Christian conservatives, must do some soul-searching to determine exactly what we want that role to look like.
Paul William Pyle has taught high school for 36 years and serves as an elder in a Dayton-area church. He studied English and music at Evangel University and holds the M.A. in Biblical Studies from Dallas Theological Seminary. He and his wife have four children, ages 18-33. His blog, “Noticing,” can be found at paulwpyle.blogspot.com.
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