Full disclosure: I’m a Christian pastor who believes in the traditional gospel that, as far as I can tell, has generally been believed by Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox for 2,000 years. For many Christians today and throughout history, this statement that “America (or fill in your country) is not a Christian nation” - is basic and non-controversial. For others, it’s a necessary and critical reminder. Here are four reasons why.
1. There’s no such thing!
If there is a quintessential American “heresy”, surely it is taking out of context the biblical promises about the church - “you are a city on a hill” and a “holy nation” that will never perish from the earth - and acting as if they apply to America. To say the obvious, those promises were made in the 1st Century to the Church because it is the body of Christ on earth. Regardless of the faith (or lack thereof) of America’s founders, the Constitution, the demographics of America, or even the faith of America’s legislators and president, there will only ever be one “Christian nation” and it is not a nation at all, but a trans-national body made of sinners saved by grace alone. In other words, a “Christian nation” (unless all we mean is some lame point about demographics) is an oxymoron and category mistake.
2. The Church, by its very nature, cannot be partial to nations.
As soon as the church begins to take sides with certain nationalities or states, it undercuts the very charter of its own existence, which is to proclaim and embody the good news of Jesus to all nations. The apostle Paul’s proclamation that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free…” was as bold then as it is now - worldly and political allegiances take a distant 2nd to being a Christian. Precisely because everyone deserves condemnation in their rebellion against God AND precisely because everyone can only come to God through the universal offer made by the one Mediator, any privileging of a nation, language, culture, or politic inherently diminishes the work Christ accomplished on the cross. You are not in less need of Jesus if you are American or speak English. It may, or may not, be fine political strategy to adopt immigration strategy according to national bias; there is certainly nothing “Christian” about it. There may be good political reasons for certain immigration policies, but it is either regardless of being a Christian, and therefore far subordinate to one’s true identity, or is sub-Christian. An American flag belongs in city hall, but has no place in a church.
3. And that’s good news!
What a terrible gospel it would be if our hope rested upon the status of America and its triumphs. There is only one hope and one faith, because there is only one Lord and Savior. What may seem exclusive is actually universal and most gracious because it means we can all come to the God of the universe, bringing nothing of our own accomplishments, and giving over our burdens to the only One who can bear them. Regardless of President Trump’s policies, every Christian can confidently speak on behalf of God to any refugee: welcome, brother or sister! Or: you are welcome and invited to come to Him alone who can bear your burdens, and who can set you from bondage, oppression, and guilt; come to the mighty Savior who died the death you deserved; the Father of all mercies and comfort is the real “President of the world”, Jesus is Lord - not Caesar or Trump. The Church is your taste of heaven, America is not.
4. Leave the “sword” to the state.
History testifies to the fact that religious entanglements with the state only incite more violent rhetoric and more self-righteous wars. A Christian may - in their secular vocation - serve in the military or occupy political office, but that does not make the cause “holy” or “Christian” precisely because the gospel does not advance by violence, but by God’s Word and Spirit. Jesus himself became the victim of God’s “holy war”, so there’s no more blood to be shed in establishing His kingdom. He wins now through repentance and faith. What is more, there may be policies that are more or less consistent with biblical values, but that too is a confusion of institutional mission if we invest the state that upholds certain values with prerogatives that only belong to the church. The state has no power to redeem us from sin, to proclaim transcendent mercy to the brokenhearted, or create a loving community that transcends all differences of race, nationality, wealth or status. It may approximate it to some degree, but can never become a “Christian nation.”
America will continue to be confused and self-righteous in its purpose if it tries to play the role of a Christian nation or Savior. There is no rival to the one King. Despite any American policy, there is no rival to the one Kingdom - a community made up of the poor and powerless, the refugees and “enemies of the state”, the brokenhearted and hopeless, who live by pointing to the King who says “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” We all need that King now, as always.