14 May 2009

The Patriotic Heresy

I ended up having a really good conversation after Bible Study yesterday. We had just finished reading through the first 4 Psalms, and given the whole opposition to the King theme, one member raised some conflict she had with President Obama - who doesn't seem to be a good Christian and didn't really do anything for the day of prayer.

The conversation quickly moved to whether or not this is a Christian Nation. That was the key thing - that President Obama was moving us away from being a Christian Nation. Now, as we are probably well aware, we are not and have never been a Christian Nation - we are a nation where Christians are free (or ought to be free) to be Christian. The founders weren't pictures of theological virture - and the country hasn't been an overly Christian place. . . if it were, we wouldn't have had the history of revivals and famous preachers that we have (if everyone's a Christian, why do there need to be public revivalistic preachers?). And we can think about points in our history, how openly wicked things were (anyone like westerns, you know, the WILD west - that bastion of Christian living?) There has been a presence of a Christian moral ideal - but we haven't been a Christian Nation.

But this is what we've thought for the past few decades. I don't know when it really started - maybe in the 50s, maybe really in force in the 80s. . . but we developed this idea that we are a Christian Nation.

The member who started the discussion was shook - she saw and understood, but her world view was shifted (worry not, it was a safe landing - and actually things made much more sense). Other people who were there said that they had the same shock, including the member's daughter (in college) and then a fellow in his 30s. . . and I myself as well.

That was where we went in class. Now I have been thinking, pondering back to my friends in college, how many of them were raised in the Church, even raised Lutheran, yet who wandered off to random other things. I thought about the impact that happened to plenty of folks I know who fell off the "Christian Wagon" in college - and I'm wondering how much of this has to do with the American Heresy. We end up thinking that this is a Christian Nation - and then when people see that it isn't, doubts arise -- but they end up not being doubts about the wonderfulness of our country (or not primarily), but about God, about Christianity. Does the idea that seems to be present in pop Christianity of a Christian Nation set people up for falling away from the faith?

Of course, there's more impact - why talk to others about Christ - they are American, of course they are Christian! But here, I'm thinking about how this effects our own when they go off on their own. Just some thoughts.


Rev. James Leistico said...

Excellent insights. The disillusionment you speak of is very real. Dietrich Bonhoeffer identified the same thing in a slightly different context:

Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what what it should be in God's sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise given to it. The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community the better for both... By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world.... Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to the genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial. God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his idea picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself. (pp. 27,28 from "Life Together")

WM Cwirla said...

Good post. My eyes were opened by Prof. Leroy Vogel who was quite the expert in American "civil religion." When people say that America was/is a Christian nation, they are really referring to America's civil religion which is more Enlightenment Deism than it is Christian.

Pr. H. R. said...

Next time share with them the 11th article of the Treaty of Tripoli, between the United States and the Barbary States, signed by Pres. Adams and ratified by the Senate in 1797:

Art. 11. As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.


WM Cwirla said...

There's the solid evidence.
Of course, that never convinces anyone of anything these days.

Editor said...

Just stumbled upon your blog, and hope you won't mind an Anglican interloper and lawyer weighing in on this topic.

The most oft-cited evidence suggesting the United States is in some official sense a Christian nation is the 1892 Supreme Court opinion in Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States, 143 U.S. 226. That was an immigration case that interpreted the Immigration Act to decide the question of whether a certain Anglican clergyman should be granted entrance to the States. In what can only be termed dicta, Justice Brewer in his opinion notes "that these, and many other matters which might be noticed, add a volume of unofficial declarations to the mass of organic utterances that this is a Christian nation."

Those who cite this language as imprimatur for the notion that the United States is officially a Christian nation seem to read over the word "unofficial."

More ironically, however, in citing this case they cite one of the most outrageous examples of judicial activism and bending of a statute's plain meaning, blinded by the result which was religion-friendly. Those who (rightly, in my view) object to the lawlessness of cases like Roe v. Wade should be careful about endorsing a case like Holy Trinity that very much ignores the law to achieve a particular result.

SBG said...

Interesting; I'd never really thought about "America-as-a-Christian-nation" having much to bring to bear on my personal experience of disillusionment with my Lutheran upbringing. It had very little to do with America, really; my disillusionment had to do with my sexuality, and with seeing that most "Christians" are Paulists and proclaim themselves followers of Christ while being far too morally lazy to really follow Him. In matters of faith, religion, and spirit, I am most interested in seeking people who recognize that "Faith without works is dead", that to love and help one's neighbour is the highest commandment, and whose theology is driven not by orthodoxy, but personal, direct, gnostic experience. After that, I believe all details are superficial. And, though I don't identify as a Christian, I think I follow Jesus/Christ and understand the Holy Spirit better than most. The Congregational Churches around here and many radical Catholics seem to me to be doing a much better job of really living in a Godly way.

I agree with Leistico that visionary dreaming can divorce one from reality and make things worse, but I think it's absurd to say God hates it. God gives us visionary dreams so we can work in the world-as it is-with hope of the world as it could be. I would be more likely to say that "it drives God nuts when we insist on trying to overlay our reality with our preconceptions", but also that "God doesn't really care, because the longer we attempt to violate the laws of this reality, the more we bang our head against the wall, and, eventually, the more we will learn from the experience."

Kevin Faulkner, free-lance research thealogian