Friday, June 26, 2009

Christianity: A "common belief system" basic to America?

Recently, I was sent an online commentary in which the author, radio personality Peter Heck, laments (as many conservative pundits seem to do these days) the apparent loss of America's grounding in the Christian "belief system", and the inevitable degradation of our society which will surely result - if it hasn't already - from such a turning away from our supposed founding principles.

As Heck asserts in his article, "Our Founding Fathers were wise and learned individuals who were students of political philosophy. When crafting the basis for our civilization, they could have chosen any of a number of belief systems, but they chose Christianity for a reason... it was because they understood that the absolute, moral principles that come from Christian scripture – respect for life, private property rights, charity, frugality, stewardship, benevolence, peaceful living, responsible liberty – were the best friend to a free society and should be encouraged."

Now I recognize that, in many ways, our society has become far more morally lenient than we have been in the past, and I agree that this leniency sometimes leads to unfortunate consequences. On the other hand, the status quo has often led to just as many negative ends. Christian virtues alone do not mean a nation will avoid making terrible mistakes.

However, Heck seems unaware of the possibility that such an ethical limit-expansion is precisely the result of the American experiment. For one cannot establish a nation founded on the core principles that "all men are created equal" and "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights" including "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" and that governments must derive "their just powers from the consent of the governed," and reasonably expect the members of that society to stand idly by and ignore what they see as limitations to their own achievement of such aims.

Those who abide by a certain moral guideline may certainly disagree with those who seek to change that guideline - in fact, that is to be expected. However, we live in a nation where it is also expected that, as we grow and change, there will be challenges to the system. Some of these will be accepted by the society at large and some will not. One might choose to lament the loss of a particular moral grounding, but we should hardly be surprised that, in a nation that prizes individual freedom and "unalienable" rights above all else, each of the myriad humans who inhabits our society will seek to have their own rights and freedoms firmly established in both the public and private arenas.

Further - and far more important, in my view - while I am sure that Mr. Heck is well-versed in political theory, I am not convinced he has an equal grasp on the essence of Christian theology.

For the above list of "Christian" virtues, as valuable as they are, are NOT particularly Christian values. In fact, the majority of the world's religions could claim them as their own. (Indeed, even the majority of Muslims, whom Heck seems to set apart as one of the religions who wouldn't be a good foundation for a free nation, would appeal to their own Scriptures in defense of their respect for life, charity, frugality, etc.) No, what separates Christianity and makes it unique is not a list of virtues that can be nationally claimed. Rather, the unique claim of Christianity is that followers of Christ ought to be willing to give up all their rights, not for the sake of a political agenda, but for Christ's kingdom. That is, Christ asks us for an allegiance greater than our allegiance to any nation.

The type of "Christianity" that Mr. Heck longs for is not Christianity at all, but a form of civil religion that is subjected to the all-encompassing American ideals that have made our nation a place of freedom, tolerance, and respect for the rule of law. This political system has many great qualities, to be sure. But being equatable to the Christian faith is not one of them. In fact, it is safe to say that if Christians were to truly follow Christ's teachings and live his Gospel, many more of them would be branded as "enemies of the state." For what nation wants to have as its majority belief system the willingness to lay down one's life for something higher than the safety of the nation?

More to the point, do we really believe that American individualism and the accompanying "pursuit of happiness" would be heralded by Christ as values to which his followers should aspire? And yet, many Americans seem to be unaware of any distinction between the values of our nation and the values of Christ.

Now, of course, this is not a simple either/or dichotomy. It is certainly possible to be a faithful believer in Christ while also living as a productive member of our American society. But while one can, in some circumstances, be dedicated completely to Christ and also live as a faithful American, one cannot be completely dedicated to America and also live as a faithful Christian. Why? Precisely because America is not founded on Christianity. It will often fail to maintain the image of a "Christian nation" which has been foolishly foisted upon it by so many well-meaning Americans.

When America fails to look like a Christian nation, we ought not look to some previous time when we were morally upright, and seek to bring back that era. Rather, we ought to grieve in our idolatry and foolishness, call ourselves to repentance, pray for the healing of our nation, and look to the One who is our true source of hope: not a belief system, but a person -- Jesus Christ.


cynthia r. nielsen said...

Another nice post.

Thelonious said...

How does one as a Christian participate in American society which has from it's beginning and continues to exalt some (i.e., White males) at the expense of others (everyone else)?

This nation was built on the foundation of and perpetuated by genocide, slavery, rape and torture. These are not Christian values. The aristocratic founders had time to be students of political philosophy because their Black slaves were plowing their fields, tending their property and giving suck to their own children. While slavery was condemned formally, the national system continues to marginalize women and privilege White males.

Frankly, as a Christian White male myself, I have trouble knowing how to participate in a society that refuses to acknowledge substantively (reparations and public apology) that it has and continues to participate in such systematic atrocity.

I appreciate the balance to your post. Perhaps the idea that this country was founded as a Christian country becomes plausible so long as we accept genocide, rape, torture and kidnapping as Christian values.

phil said...

Thelonious: your comments are, for the most part, generalized at best and downright incendiary at worst. They really detract from Geoff's thoughtful blog post.

I'm not trying to be offensive, but it looks like you've really missed the point of the post.

Geoff said...

Thanks, Cynthia!

And Phil, I understand your frustration with inflammatory language, but let's not be too hard on Thelonious, he may have a good reason for his perspective.

Thelonious, I would just say that, in spite of the many horrendous things that have taken place in the U.S., we create a false dichotomy if we paint the U.S. as a place "built on the foundation of... genocide," etc, and ignore the rest of the history of nations. All nations are a mixture of good and evil, unfortunately.

I certainly don't say this to excuse America's behavior, but this is not strictly an American problem, it is a human problem. As long as humans ground their ethics in systems that are self-serving, these sorts of atrocities will occur.

The question then becomes, how do we find a nation, where we can live with integrity as Christians, that doesn't commit acts of evil? I don't think we can.

As much as it may cause us grief, we aren't called to live in a "Christian" nation. We are called to be God's people in the midst of whatever situation we find ourselves. This applies regardless of where we fall on the political spectrum. Christians are supposed to support their government when it follows Christ's leading, and stand against it when it doesn't. Unfortunately, that proves to be extremely difficult, so many people just quit struggling and settle for the status quo. Because, after all, it's easy to look after your own needs and ignore the needs of others.

As I hinted at in my post, this is the truly subversive aspect of Christianity vis-a-vis nationalism: Whereas a nation CANNOT remain viable unless it provides for the needs of its citizens, Christianity becomes viable precisely by trusting God with all of our needs, even when everything else is screaming "Trust in national strength/wealth!" This could be truly revolutionary if we really took it seriously.

I appreciate your thoughts!

phil said...

It is not just my frustration with the inflammatory language, but the downright inflammatory position of which Thelonious is espousing--and especially so from a self professed Christian. Whatever his reasons, whether they are experientially driven, whether they are derived through meditation, or whatever, I think they are untenable and unwarranted. That's pretty much it; christus victor! I don't think I'm being too hard per se, but just honest.

Anyhow, nice response.

phil said...

Note: Christus Victor is what Barth said to his good friend, Eduard Thurneysen, who was complaining about all the horrible things going on in the world.

Roy said...

I'm not sure I understand Phil's reaction to the remarks of Thelonious. These are all parts of our history whether we like it or not. It upsets the waters of those who think God just handed America over to us but the truth is rarely that pretty or easy. A lot of people died (and likely continue to die) so I can drive 3 blocks and get a Big Mac. I don't think the answer is checking out (as if that is even possible) but to ask how I can live now knowing what I know.