A recent poll of the hundred or so board members of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) found most denying America is a Christian nation.
“Much of the world refers to America as a Christian nation, but most of our Christian leaders don’t think so,” explained NAE President Leith Anderson in a news release. “The Bible only uses the word ‘Christian’ to describe people and not countries. Even those who say America is a Christian nation admit that there are lots of non-Christians and even anti-Christian beliefs and behaviors.”
About 68 percent agreed America is not Christian while 32 said it is, according to the June 2012 Evangelical Leaders Survey. Both pro and con agreed America is a missions field.
“America is one of the world’s great mission fields that the Church has been called to reach in this generation,” said George Wood, General Superintendent of the Assemblies of God denomination, which is one of NAE’s largest member churches, if not the largest, with over 2 million members.
Evangelical and other church leaders of 50 or 100 years ago probably would have said America was both Christian and a missions field. But for many today, one seems to preclude the other.
There is also some confusion over what a “Christian” nation is, with some evangelical leaders seemingly persuaded by secularists that it can only mean a coercive theocracy.
“The ‘state’ cannot mandate religion, nor should it,” offed one NAE board member who evidently voted no on Christian America. “If I lived in another country where the majority practiced a religion other than Christianity, I would not want those religious beliefs dictated to me through the country’s government.” He expressed hope that the church and it’s individual members would “more authentically” witness to their faith.
Some other evangelical respondents suggested “perhaps the United States was a Christian nation, but it is no longer.” And others denied any country could be “Christian.” One asserted: “Only the individuals of a nation can ascribe to personal faith in Christ.” He granted that America was “founded in part on Christian principles.” But most Americans “no longer follow them to an extent that differs noticeably from those who do not claim to be Christians.”
Of the 32 percent who said the United States is a Christian nation, most indicated that they did so because America was founded with Christian principles or because there are more Christians here than other religionists.
One NAE board member in the minority cited American history to insist America is Christian. Another asserted: “The United States remains far more Christian than any other worldview.” Presumably the NAE poll made no effort to define what a “Christian” nation is. Is it defined theocratically by law? Is it simply demographic? Or does it describe the sum total of culture, habits, history and attitude of a people?
With about 75-80 percent of Americans saying they’re Christian, America is about as demographically Christian as India is Hindu or Israel is Jewish. We’re almost as Christian as Egypt is Muslim. Some evangelicals insist Christians are only born again believers, of whom 30-40 percent of Americans profess to be. But such converts have always been a minority and actually are more numerous now than for much of our history.
The late public intellectual and Catholic priest Richard John Neuhaus famously insisted: “America is, as it always has been, an incorrigibly, confusedly, and conflictedly Christian society.” He readily admitted: “It is undoubtedly true that many Christians are mediocre in their faith and its practice. Ordinarily, most people are ordinary. And there is surely a strong streak of gnosticism in popular spiritualities.” But Neuhaus was struck by the persistent disposition of so many cultural elites to ignore the large majorities of Americans who consistently profess to be religious and Christian.
Neuhaus cited the constancy of American religious practice in surveys dating to 1920s. Even today only about 4 percent of Americans specifically identify with non-Christian religions. He noted the propensity even of evangelicals to talk of “post-Christian” America. “My own view is that it’s a self-serving cop-out on the part of Christians to pretend that this is not continuingly, incorrigibly, confusedly a Christian nation,” he said in 2005. “It’s easy for us to say, whether on the conservative side, the evangelical side as Christianity Today does, or on the left as Stanley Hauerwas, a very influential theologian and a dear friend of mine, says from the left that America is post-Christian, that the church is now in some sense in exile. I don’t believe that. And I think it’s an abdication of responsibility.”
Counseling a broader and more demanding view of “Christian” America, Neuhaus urged: “We have to accept the fact that, however embarrassing the state of American Christianity may be — and it is deeply embarrassing — this is the community of which we are part and for which we bear an important measure of responsibility in terms of defining the relationship of the community that says, ‘Jesus Christ is Lord,’ to the continuing American experiment.”
Too many religious Americans romanticize America’s religious past while obsessing over the deficiencies of the present. Heeding Neuhaus, who regrettably has no clear successor as Christian public thinker in America, they need to recall history more realistically. And they need to accept responsibility for today’s burdens and opportunities.