Ultimately, evangelism is our only hope. A Christian nation must come from the bottom up (the hearts of a converted people), not from the top down (political legislation). Neither will it come from heavy-weight books. America must be discipled again with the gospel before we can begin to think about being a Christian nation. Jesus commanded us to disciple the nations (and not just a few elect from among the nations), and that includes America. Here is where we must begin.
The debate is hot as I predicted (Christian Nationalism – Dump the Term While We Still Can). Dr. Steven Wolfe has led the way with his book titled The Case for Christian Nationalism. Most critical reviews of his book have been hard-hitting (The Rise of Right-Wing Wokeism by Kevin DeYoung). I do not think the popularity of the book will survive. I hope Dr. Wolfe does.
The phrase Christian Nationalism sounds like a political movement. I suppose this is one reason I do not use the term. I prefer the term Christian Nation which is much more rooted in the Bible. The title “A Case for a Christian Nation” would have been more to my liking.
As I view the landscape of the culture behind the book, and the cultures behind the critical reviews, it appears to me that there are some fundamental issues missing in the whole discussion. Maybe it is my training in mathematics, but from all that I have read, I do not think those on either side are asking the right questions.
Let us deal with two main issues that are missing in this whole discussion.
The Definition of a Nation
Before the rise of modern America, defining a nation was not a difficult task. I think we have made things too complex. Maybe, because we live in America, we have become unable to define a traditional nation. The Bible assumes that we know what a nation is because it commands us to disciple them. Biblically, a nation was defined by four components – language, borders, religion, and common ancestry.
First, In Acts 2:6, on the day of Pentecost, each nation could be identified by a distinct language. Secondly, in Acts 17:26, Paul tells those on Mars Hill that God has determined the “times and boundaries” of the nations.
Thirdly, all nations have a god or a religion that determines their civil laws and culture. As Rushdoony said years ago, the source of law in any nation is the god of that nation. National customs and traditions are often the application of the religion of a particular nation. For example, Christmas is still a national holiday in secular America. In a post-Christian society, I suppose it is a holiday just too good to give up. My wife and I are the only ones on our street that go to church, but nearly everyone has their house decorated for Christmas.
Lastly, the word “nation” is derived from the same word from which we get the word “nativity.” It is the root word for birth. Nations or countries in history, before America was born, were formed from people with common ancestors like the nation of Edom, the nation of Ammon, or the nation of Moab; or from a common region of people who shared common traits, like the land of the giants (Anakim). In the time of Christ, Rome was an empire, but Israel was a nation. The recent world wars were fought by nations mostly defined by these four markers, perhaps except for America. Sadly, the mere historical recognition of this attribute today harbors the risk being called a racist.
Although originally the United States consisted of white Europeans, we have decided that we can dispense with the ancestor marker and create a land mixed with different ethnicities and nationalities. This is often justified by an appeal to the universality of the gospel. The universality of the gospel may be ideal for the church community, but in my opinion, the universality of the gospel cannot hold together a multi-ethic nation unless that nation is first a Christian nation.
America is still an experiment in process, and the last chapter of our history has yet to be written. We are becoming an Empire that holds subservient nations (ethnic groups) together by the force of law. Today, we define our nation by an idea (democracy will keep us together) rather than by the four attributes previously mentioned. Whether we can defy these four historical makers, we will see. Right now, with the rise of CRT, BLM, Wokism, and open borders, our future looks dim.
Was America Ever Christian?
To answer this question, we must go back and define some concepts (my mathematics background again). There are three markers in the United States that could be used to consider whether we were ever a Christian nation. I call them social, command, and legal.
First, socially America was indeed a Christian nation at her beginnings. Christian values permeated our people and our institutions. This is generally considered beyond debate. We do not need a new book pleading for something we want to be (a Christian nation), when we have plenty of history of what we once were (a Christian nation).
I remember not long ago when marriage was only between a man and a woman, abortion was illegal, and locally owned businesses were closed on Sunday and Wednesday evenings (for church prayer meetings). Church steeples still cover the landscape of our nation. These were a just a few of the many attributes that made us a Christian nation. Thus, from a social perspective America was originally a Christian nation. With the rise of Neo-Marxism coming out of our universities and the decline of the church, the Christian social fabric of our nation is dying.
Secondly, I use the word command to describe the structure of the American governmental system. Most state constitutions originally had a religious test in order to hold office which included oaths to the Triune God or to the Bible. When America was defined as a confederation of states with civil power posited in those states, America was a Christian nation.
The States were the loci of power. The States could command their people in accordance with their own constitutions and Christian principles. It is interesting to note that the State of Tennessee today codifies in its Constitution that marriage can only be between a man and a woman. However, in essence, this is null and void because state constitutions are basically irrelevant in the present system of civil government where the power of command is now lodged at the federal level.
As a result of the Civil War, the pivot point of the command component shifted from the States to Washington, D.C. With this shift, America ceased to be a Christian Nation. Thus, if we use the command component as a baseline, and the fact that at one time America consisted of nation-states, we can conclude that America was originally a Christian nation. With this change in the command component, we are no longer a Christian nation.
Thirdly, from a legal perspective, since the loci of command has shifted to the federal government, the United States Constitution is now the dominant legal document. It is the final reference point for all legal matters, as it is interpreted by the Supreme Court. Originally, from a legal perspective, America as a confederation of states was a Christian nation. Not so now.
It is my view that the United States Constitution was never a Christian document. We must realize that our founding forefathers had clay feet just like us. I believe George Washington (who presided over the Constitutional Convention) was a Christian man, but I think his commitment to the Masonic Lodge (with its unitarian god) was greater than his commitment to the Church. Ben Franklin, a prominent presence at the Convention, was a deist in addition to being a Mason.
James Madison (not a Mason) studied under Rev. John Witherspoon at what is now Princeton University, but he graduated with a commitment to the perspective of Scottish Realism and Natural Law (learned from Witherspoon). Religion was good for civil order, but Christian denominations served America best by fighting with each other. In his mind, this would keep them from establishing a national church.
Christianity so permeated society in early America that our founders could not foresee what would be happening in a little over 200 years. In predicting the long-term consequences of present actions, we all have our blind spots.
I believe this decision to become legally a secular nation on the federal level during the Constitution Convention was deliberate. There was a real disconnect between the lawyers at the Convention and the clergy in their pulpits. There was no reference to the Triune God of the Bible or his law in the Constitution. No religious test was allowed on the national level as it was required on the state level in most states.
Luther Martin, a delegate to the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention from the State of Maryland, said of the debate on this issue:
“The part of the system, which provides that no religious tests shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States, was adopted by a great majority of the Convention, and without much debate. However, there were some members so unfashionable (like Mr. Martin) as to think that a belief of the existence of a Deity, and of a state of future rewards and punishments, would be welcome security for the good conduct of our rulers, and that in a Christian country, it would be at least decent to hold out some distinction between the professors of Christianity and downright infidelity or paganism.”
Some argue that a religious test was not needed because the Constitution was intended as a procedural manual only (Rushdoony). Others argue that since the states had religious tests then none was needed in the U. S. Constitution (DeMar). Some, like myself, reject both these arguments. I think those who authored the Constitution knew exactly what they were doing. They were creating a secular national government based on what they conceived as Natural Law. Thus, welcome to modern America, the product of a secular United States Constitution.
A religious test in the United States Constitution would have made America legally a Christian nation on a national level, but our forefathers chose a different structure. With the rise of power in the hands of the federal government supplanting the state governments, America legally forfeited its status as a Christian nation. Legally, the God of the Bible no longer exists, and if he does exist, he is no longer relevant.
One Christian clergyman saw it all very clearly in his own day. In 1788 the Rev. Henry Abbot was a member of the North Carolina State Convention which was called to ratify the proposed United States Constitution. Representing his constituents, he spoke to the body of delegates and prophetically said:
“The exclusion of religious tests is by many thought dangerous and impolitic. They suppose that if there is no religious test required, pagans, deists, and Mahometans might obtain offices among us, and that the senators and representatives might all be pagans.”
His constituents saw the issues very clearly. Prophets indeed! The United States Congress in our own time has members who are homosexuals, transgenders, and Muslims. They are voting on laws to regulate Christian thought and action. Since there is no religious test, the concept of positive law (the law is what I say it is) has replaced biblical law in both judicial and legislative processes. This does not bode well for our nation.
Foundational definitions matter. This is what is missing in the current discussion on topics like Christian Nationalism. One thing is for certain, from what I call the social, command, and legal perspectives, America is no longer a Christian nation. The alarm is now being heard very clearly. Christians are dealing with grief, and are scrambling to do something about it. Some like Dr. Wolfe are writing books. Some, reluctantly, are adopting his terms. Others are attacking the writers of such books without offering foundational definitions.
Yes, ultimately, evangelism is our only hope. A Christian nation must come from the bottom up (the hearts of a converted people), not from the top down (political legislation). Neither will it come from heavy-weight books. America must be discipled again with the gospel before we can begin to think about being a Christian nation. Jesus commanded us to disciple the nations (and not just a few elect from among the nations), and that includes America. Here is where we must begin.
Larry E. Ball is a retired minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is now a CPA. He lives in Kingsport, Tenn.