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