A “Christian” Nation Wouldn’t Act This Way

What’s your reaction to President Obama’s recent statements to the Muslim world that “the United States is not, and never … Continued

What’s your reaction to President Obama’s recent statements to the Muslim world that “the United States is not, and never will be, at war with Islam” and that “we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation”?

I welcome and celebrate President Obama’s statement, because not only is it true, it can help us confront some dangerous religious myths that we have grown too comfortable with.

The United States is not a theocracy. It is a democratic republic that upholds as its unofficial motto “e pluribus unum.” The “pluribus” not only refers to many states, races, regions, or political views, but also to many religions.

The original Americans — the Native Americans — were not Christians. The early European colonizers were Protestant Christians, soon joined by Catholic Christians (my state, Maryland, was originally a Catholic-friendly state) … but together, their greedy and racist behavior often betrayed their religious rhetoric about being a “city on a hill.”

Soon, people of many religions made the United States their home, and today, just on my street, you’ll find American atheists, American Jews, American Hindus, and American Muslims, along with American Christians like myself.

I agree wholeheartedly with historian Richard Hughes, author of “Myths America Lives By” and of the upcoming “Christian America and the Kingdom of God.” When we in the US flatter ourselves with a mythologized national identity — seeing ourselves as the Chosen Nation, as Nature’s Nation, as a Christian Nation, as a Millennial Nation, and as an Innocent Nation — we make it more likely not only that we will behave unjustly, but that we will be ignorant and un-self-aware as we do so. So I was glad when President Obama simply told the truth.

When people tell me that we are or have been a Christian nation, I want to ask, “When?” Was it in the colonial era or during westward expansion, when we began stealing the lands of the Native Americans, making and breaking treaties, killing wantonly, and justifying our actions by the Bible? Was it in the era of slavery or segregation, when again, we used the Bible to justify the unjustifiable? Was it in more recent history, when we dropped the first nuclear bomb and killed hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, when we overthrew democratically elected governments in the Cold War era, when we plundered the environment without concern for the birds of the air or flowers of the field, or when we sanctioned or turned a blind eye to torture earlier this decade? Was it earlier this week, when I turned on the TV or radio and heard people scapegoating immigrants and gay people and Muslims?

Yes, our founding fathers (and mothers), even those who were Deists and not traditional Christians, drew deeply from their European-Christian history and heritage. Yes, our nation, like every nation has much to be proud of in our heritage, and I’m sure there are elements of Christian virtue to be found in nearly every neighborhood from coast to caost. But no, it would be inaccurate to look at American history and say it consistently and accurately has reflected the ethic of Jesus or even the highest ideals of the Christian religion. I don’t say this to downgrade America, but rather to uphold my belief that the label “Christian” means more than we have understood it to mean … and that in its best sense, a humble, Christian ethic upholds the motto “e pluribus unum” by respecting all people of all religions as neighbors and as equal bearers of the image and love of God.

In fact, I would say that the more we claim America is a Christian nation, the less we uphold the highest ideals of both authentic Christian faith and authentic American democracy

Brian D. McLaren
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  • Nosmanic

    Too long people have said anything and as long as they said “it’s God’s will” or “that is what Chirst believes” you can’t disagree or you aren’t a “true” Christian as if not believing in the flat tax makes you a satan worshipper.

  • ripvanwinkleincollege

    We have to consider what it means to be a Christian in the modern world, as opposed to what it meant to be a Christian in the ancient world. There are too many so-called religious people all over the world who cling to ancient pre-modern beliefs that have nothing to do with the core Christian values written down in the four Gospels. If Jesus were alive today, he would not be trying to insist that the world is 6,000 years old. He was not alive when all the millenialist clap-trap was written in the Book of Revelations. But there are many things which Jesus was not, and according to the Gospels he was not tolerant of those who clinged to their own version of dogmatic religion. He was not tolerant of sinners, but accepted those who sincerely repented of their sins. The best modern-era role model we can look to for guidance today is John Wesley and his early Methodist movement in England, or to Christianity as it exists today in many eastern Orthodox communities.

  • arosscpa

    Thank you, Rev. McLaren, for your thoughtful essay, As a Catholic I think we are less Catholic Americans and more the Catholic Church in America than we were a century ago. This transition has required not only the interior renewal of individuals, but we have reflected on how our Church influences and changes the nation on larger social and cultural dimensions, From Apostolic times until now, the Church has given her best when, accourding to St. Paul, she “was in the world, but not of the world.” Or in the words of the alledged “other Jesuit motto,”

  • ecglotfelty

    Here is my definition of irony:America considers itself a “Christian nation” because the founding fathers were mostly Christian or Deist, and because Christianity is still the dominant religion. Yet for all the fancy buildings, high-tech presentations and self-sustaining media, we are becoming callow in our spirituality. And many are falling away from the faith. Contrast that from other countries that are definitely not “Christian nations” where people could be beaten, raped, tortured, and even killed for saying they are a Christian. Yet in places like China, Vietnam, and the Muslim world, Christianity is growing by leaps and bounds. In China alone, more than 3,000 people give their lives to Jesus every day. Here in the Christian nation, people don’t even have the stamina to sit through an entire service, while there they are experiencing Pentecost daily.That’s ironic.

  • norriehoyt

    ANOTHER INCONVENIENT TRUTH:If the U.S.A. were truly a Christian nation it would not have fought any of its wars. It would have let its enemies have their way.Betweeen “thou shall not kill”, “turn the other cheek”, and “love thine enemy”, the only appropriate response for a Christian nation faced with attack is to accept a pacifist martyrdom, just as Jesus did.

  • MikeP2

    I’m disappointed by McLaren. By asking “when?” he gives the phrase “Christian nation” respectability. The very concept of a “Christian nation” should be questioned. A straightforward reading of Jesus and Paul in the New Testament reveals that the idea of a “Christian nation” is contrary to their ideals and to their visions for their followers. In fact, both Jesus and Paul are deeply suspicious of the state and seem to want to keep it at arm’s length.This does not mean that they saw religion as a private matter that is apolitical. By contrast, they understand the religious movement they fostered as deeply political. It offered an alternative way of living that contrasted with the power of Imperial Rome. It offered an alternative community that contrasted with Roman citizenship. But it was not supposed to set up a competing empire: “a Christian nation.” Instead, to use Jesus’ imagery, Christians were supposed to be spread throughout the nations of the world like yeast in bread, offering a different vision of human life.But in the fourth century Christians achieved political power and started to adjust Christian ideals in order to justify empires. This has been one of the primary dilemmas in Christianity ever since, and Christians needs to re-read the New Testament to be reminded of the distinctive vision of Jesus and Paul. I think that a Christian’s response to the phrase “Christian nation” should be: “I hope not, because building Christian nations is not in our mission statement.”

  • coloradodog

    The US became a “Christian Nation” when right-wing fanatics like Falwell, Robertson, Dobson, Haggard, et. al. hijacked the name Christianity, rallied their lemmings behind it and established a theocracy under Cheney. Let’s hope we can restore our democracy in spite of the constant cynicism, negativity and intolerance of Limbaugh’s hate radio and RNC Fox News. Let’s hope the brand Christianity can be restored to the loving words of Jesus.

  • BillSamuel

    The quote from the Federalist papers illustrates part of the problem. It reflects a view that some, such as those enslaved from Africa and all the Europeans from countries that don’t speak English, don’t even count as people. The quote is, in fact, a lie. The “common religion” of which it speaks must be some sort of domesticated servant of the elite, not the radical message of Jesus Christ.