Duke Divinity School professor Norman Wirzba wrote recently about why he thinks we ought to declare the end of “Christian America.” A link to that essay was emailed to me by a friend who thought it was an excellent read, but I was underwhelmed by the work. Wirzba opened with a basic grammatical error, and never really recovered. He is, it seems, disappointed with the country to which he moved 30 years ago. More specifically, the long run-up to the election has drained Wirzba of whatever tolerance he once had for the hypocrisy of American voters.
“Though voters may speak piously and rather vaguely about Christian values and ideals,” he wrote, “polls and election results communicate clearly that this is a nation consumed by fear, anger and suspicion, none of which are Christian virtues.”
“Consumed” seems a dire verb in this context, but even if he’s right, Wirzba’s thesis only lends an academic gloss to the “Hate is not a family value” bumper sticker that retired to the Straw Man Hall of Fame a few years ago. (Brief recap for leftie friends: 1) Nobody said it was; and 2) To decry something that other people see no problem with does not mean you “hate” those other people.)
Wirzba wants Americans to “paint with the colors of love, joy, peace, and patience,” and he means that as an alternative to opposing truly progressive policies, or supporting any of mean, dishonest people now vying for spots atop the Democrat and Republican tickets. He does not think we will take his advice, which is why we he says we ought not be calling ourselves a “Christian” country.
Remembering the “Judgment of the Nations” verses in the gospel according to Saint Matthew, Wirzba wonders how we will fare before the throne of God, “especially when we admit as evidence the millions of Americans (many of them children and the elderly) who do not have enough good food to eat, or the millions of Americans who have to drink water polluted with lead and industrial/agricultural pollutants.”
To ask the question is to answer it. If the Last Judgment is collective rather than individual (something that Wirzba does not get into), then we have reasons to be nervous, even without mentioning such blots on our national character as legally permissible abortion. But conspicuous failure to live up to a Christian moral code is not reason enough to abandon all thought of the American religious heritage when we describe ourselves.
After all, it wasn’t Muslims, Buddhists, or Sikhs who first fled England for the New World, or left comfortable lives in France to preach the gospel to indigenous people near the Canadian border as Isaac Jogues and his companions did. To whom besides Christians would Wirzba attribute the missions built up the length of California, or the religious heritage of cities as different as Philadelphia and Santa Fe?
Following Wirzba’s advice would accelerate a kind of collective amnesia about those parts of American history, not to mention both the Civil War and the civil rights movement, each of which were attempts to find and secure a durable interpretation of the principle that “All men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”
Thomas Jefferson’s magnificent preamble for the Declaration of Independence was the only part of that document that his colleagues in the Continental Congress let stand unedited, and they were all educated enough to recognize that his paraphrase of “Enlightenment” values had Christian roots. Even the “wall of separation” between church and state to which Jefferson later gave voice in a letter reassuring nervous Baptists in Connecticut has Christian antecedents. What could that wall be, other than a Constitutional blueprint for working out how a free people might enjoy liberty enough to “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but to God what is God’s”?
“What matters is not what you say, but how you live,” Wirzba asserts. In that, he is partly right. But he forgets that words mean things, and that how you live is shaped by what you say. Christianity itself understands that those of us who identify with it do not always live the way Jesus says we should. But that means we are sinners; it does not give Wirzba or people like him license to decide who is or is not Christian.
If, demographics aside, we are not now a Christian nation, then let us at least remember that we once aspired to be. Laying that dream aside would douse the last embers of American exceptionalism for no good reason.