I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Sunday, May 17, 2009

Is America a Christian Nation?

Barack Obama is on the record as saying, "Whatever we once were, we're no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers." In response to this, a group of 41 congressmen have introduced House Resolution 397, a bill that basically says, "We are too a Christian nation, so there!" In the body of the bill are a long list of arguments explaining why and how our founding fathers specifically established America as "Christland," and it was only a clerical error that resulted in the name "America" getting into the official record. Or, whatever.

This is just the latest response to the increasingly popular notion that Christianity is under attack by the government, despite all evidence to the contrary. I am unaware of a single church in America that was surrounded by armed policemen this morning preventing people from going inside. Christians enjoy the same rights that I do to print their own newspapers and books, to rent billboards and advertise their spiritual products, and even to go door to door and spread the good news. The few restrictions that are in place are restrictions placed on the government, not the citizens. The principal of a school, as a representative of the government, cannot go on the intercom each morning and read the Bible to all the students in the school. But, that same principal, as a private citizen, is free to read the bible out loud to anyone in earshot when he's not serving in his official capacity. The man can be Christian, but the office can't.

This seems like splitting hairs to a lot of Christians. But, the "America is a Christian nation" crowd seems, to me, to be a little unclear on what, exactly, the central tenents of Christianity are. From a theological standpoint, can a government even be Christian? Does a government have a soul that can stand before the Lord on Judgment Day? Does a nation? Or does it all come down to individuals? It seems to me that the concept of group salvation is specifically dismissed in the scriptures. The notion that a nation can be Christian is as spiritually meaningless as the idea that a cat can be Christian.

The central dogma of Christianity is summed up in good ol' John 3:16: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, and whosoever believeth in him shall not perish, but shall have everlasting life." The contract between God and man in the New Testament isn't a group contract. In the old testament, the pact was between God and a collective nation or race. But in the New Testament, being a Christian is a contract between God and a specific individual. Your salvation doesn't depend on the actions of your neighbors. If you live in the heart of, say, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and your neighbor to the left is a lesbian wiccan who dances around naked in the pentagram in her backyard during full moons, and your neighbor to the right is a full-blown radical communist atheist with a hammer and sickle tattoo on his bicept, and the family across the street has just moved in from some country you can't pronounce, and you aren't sure exactly what their religion is, but it seems to involve doing horrible things to chickens... it doesn't matter to God. When the rapture comes, God isn't going to pass you by because he doesn't approve of your neighbors. All he cares about is whether you're a "whosoever."

I suspect I would get much less frustrated with the more vocal proponents of Christianity on the right if they would show some glimmer of understanding of their own religion. It matters not one whit to Jesus if America is a Christian nation. Nations aren't the functional spiritual unit that he cares about. They are doing nothing to advance the work of Jesus by introducing these bills. If these congressmen really want to spread the gospel, I'd like to suggest they've chosen the wrong profession. They might be more effective evangelists as preachers or missionaries. Their attempts to legislate Christianity into the hearts of their fellow citizens is just sad. If someone can give me even one good reason why they should be wasting a dime of their tax-paid salaries worrying about this, I'd love to hear it.


Loren Eaton said...

It probably would make more sense to speak of "America's Judeo-Christian Heritage." That avoids the problem of sounding like one is claiming that everyone in the nation is a believer.

On a different note, I downloaded a bunch of the Odyssey podcasts the other day to listen to as I drove up and down I-95. All of a sudden you came on! It sounded like a great talk; wish I could've heard the whole thing.

James Maxey said...

Loren, it's funny you should mention me and podcasts. I just recorded an interview yesterday with Stephen Euin Cobb who hosts the award winning "the Future and You" podcast. We had a truly wide-ranging interview that ran way, way over time... I'll be curious to see how he'll edit it down to his normal show length. I'll post the news here when it goes live.

As for "Judeo-Christian Heritage," sure, maybe. I personally have a Judeo-Christian Heritage. But, there are millions, probably tens of millions, of Americans who don't come from Christian ancestors. The thing that bugs me is that anyone would use our shared laws to label all citizens collectively as Christian. There's an implication that I am less of an American because I'm godless. I reject that notion, and will fight against those who would seek to use our laws for sectarian purposes with all the sarcasm and snark I can muster, which isn't all that much some days, admittedly.

e-Persona said...

It's hard for most people to admit defeat. I think Christianity was a way of life for many of the "founding fathers," albeit probably a different form of Christianity than what Christians are familiar with today. Not just the founding fathers, but a majority of the population. In our republic, the majority is supposed to rule, so it was natural that Christianity was the "ruling religion" back then. But the ratios have changed. The evidence is clear. To say America is still a Christian nation, which is to say that the majority of Americans are Christians, is very likely not true anymore, no matter what the surveys say.

I'm a Christian and I still think such bills are silly. You can try and enforce rules, but trying to enforce beliefs is a very bad idea. The beliefs of the majority will naturally find their way into legislation, or so they're supposed to, don't you think? Admittedly not on an election-by-election basis, but over a period of time.

The Bible clearly spells out the idea of the rise and fall of nations (in God's eyes). America is no different.

James Maxey said...

E-Persona, it's true that in the old testament, God was all about nation building (and tearing down). I just went and searched the online Bible and see that there are 609 verses in the Old Testament that deal with nations, but only 61 verses in the New Testament that mention nations.

I think this reflects a fundamental difference between Judaism and Christianity. The old covenant that God had with the Jews was a race/nation covenant. God would punish or reward the entire Jewish race based on their collective behavior. He apparently just didn't give a damn about the rest of the races or nations. Pretty much, if the Isrealites made good with the sacrafices, they could go out and slaughter their neighbors without fear of retribution. Unfortunately, the ancient Isrealites really had to be some of the dumbest people ever to live, since pretty much ever story in the old testament is about them screwing things up in the eyes of God and bringing on his wrath. Someone would whittle a ram or an eagle or a fish out of stick of wood, and every Isrealite in a fifty mile area would drop what they were doing to come worship it. A thick, slow-learning people, were the Isrealites.

The New Testament seems to be the story of God just giving up on groups and nations, and turning to deals with folks on a one by one basis. If he was still judging cities the way he judged Sodom and Gamorrah, how long do you think NYC would have lasted? Vegas? DC? Plainly, he's got out of the nation judging business.

Also, historically, do Christian nations have any better track record of longevity than non-christian ones? Some Chinese dynasties stuck around for centuries. The most avowedly Christian nation was probably the Holy Roman Empire. You can see how well that worked out.

Why did Constantinople get the works?
That's nobody's business but the Turks.

e-Persona said...

Haha, I love your description of the Israelites. No doubt the Old Testament and the old covenant is very strange, and I struggle with understanding it all the time. Sometimes I wonder how much those books are really just big stories meant to convey big ideas through the eyes and thoughts of a people who thought very differently than we do. How much of it really is about a completely different religion or even a different god, and how much of it is maybe just a different paradigm? Maybe it's a completely different genre and literary style than the New Testament. In other words, they're not histories. I guess that undermines many people's idea of the "inerrancy of Scripture." So be it.

Yeah, I see what you mean about so-called Christian nations not having a great track-record. I guess what I meant was not their rise and fall, even though that's what I said. More of just their moral persistence. Just because a nation considers, or has considered, themselves Christian, doesn't mean they're headed for utopia, in the loose sense of the word. The Great America is just as fragile as any other nation, both morally and politically. I find Christianity good, but that doesn't guarantee everlasting success. I also find democracy good, to an extent, but it's clearly not a guarantee of everlasting success either.

How much stock do you put into the idea of the Founding Fathers being super Christians?

They Might Be Giants!

rastronomicals said...

I think the Christian part of it can be debated, as can the Buddhist if you want, but I know that Obama is wrong when he says that America is a Muslim nation, because if it were, we would all be living under the law of sharia.

Think about this. If Mr. Maxey suggests that nations can't, in fact, be Christian, there's no question that nations *can* be Muslim. And it's pretty unambiguous when it happens: the litmus test would be sharia. When the nation's courts become the religion's courts . . . bingo.

While Christian courts aren't explicated in the Bible, it might not be crazy to imagine a Christian America as one wherein its jurisprudence lies not with the English tradition, but within the Holy Bible.

Could it happen? I suppose. Fundamentalist Christianity is pretty much ingrained across the heartland, with your average soccer mom with the 3 kids and the SUV also convinced that the story of the creation of the universe is contained verbatim in the bible. The people who'd like to see biblical influence upon our courts become primary enjoy wide support, no doubt.

But even beyond obfuscations that smudge religious influence like "Judeochristian," America was built on an even stronger tradition of legal and personal tolerance that in the end ameliorates all the radical religious bullshit.

Dig it, because this is what saves us: A specifically *Western* and *liberal* tradition that disentangles from the ultimate New Testament sources with only a little elbow grease, but which is very easily seen and understood as distinct from, and opposed to, for that matter, the Islamic.

We have built our institutions so that they should be able to absorb the assaults of radical religion. The Islamic world never did the same.

James Maxey said...

"How much stock do you put into the idea of the Founding Fathers being super Christians?"

What, like with x-ray vision and capes? I have no problem with accepting that our founding fathers were Christians, though I also have to say that Ras has an excellent point: Our founding fathers didn't turn to the Bible to design their government.

Ras, I think you've really added to my thinking on this topic. The Bible does spell out the systems of governments the Isrealites used. First, they followed Biblical laws mostly laid out in Leviticus. These laws were enforced by a system of unelected judges... curiously, a style of government most conservatives reject now. Later, they Isrealites felt like their system of judges wasn't strong enough, so they insisted they start having kings. These kings were still around in the time of Jesus, though their actual power was debatable.

Still, if the founding fathers had wanted to establish America as a Biblical paradise, the path was clear: Adopt Leviticus as the constitution, and let some bushy-bearded priests choose a king.

Instead, the founding fathers pretty much ignored the forms of government laid out in the Bible, and instead embraced the practices of pagan nations: Greece and Rome. Indeed, a simple stroll around Washington, DC will reveal that many of the buildings and monuments seemed to be designed specifically to resemble Greek temples.

Our founding fathers turned to old time religion when it came time to design out system of government... it just wasn't Judiasm or Christianity they chose to emulate, but Greek and Roman paganism, with its ability to absorb multiple faiths.

Man, I can't wait to try out this argument on some actual right-wingers. Thanks, Ras!

e-Persona said...

But why would the founding fathers have bothered with Leviticus when Jesus seemed to clearly indicate that was not his purpose at all? Like you said, not even the kings were really god's idea.

Definitely agree, though, that they went for a more pragmatic approach than trying to set up some kind of weird theocracy. I'm glad about that.

James Maxey said...

E, you're correct in pointing out that the general feeling among Christians is that Jesus pretty much neutralized the laws in the old testament. That's why we freely eat bacon and shellfish and no longer stone women for adultery. HOWEVER: The most politically active Christian fundamentalists today routinely appeal to Leviticus in citing a Biblical foundation for their opposition to gay marriage. They also champion putting the ten commandments onto marble slabs on courthouse walls, and tattooing it onto the foreheads of federal judges.

The fundamental problem of Christian fundamentalism is that they regard the Bible as inerrant. So, every word of the old testament is true. They quote Matthew 5:17, where Jesus says he comes not to contradict the laws of the old testament, but to fulfill them. Of course, then Jesus goes on to rather agressively say that the old rules don't matter any more. Everytime he is confronted with an old testament law, such as the stoning of adulterers, he points out why the old law is dumb and tells folks to cut it out.

So, the problem for fundamentalist Christians is that they must regard every word of the Bible as true, when even their own savior said, No, it isn't, or at least, it was true then, but not anymore.