“Christianity, or any branch of it, loses its Christian character when its self-proclaimed supporters outnumber and outshout its actual adherents.”
— Marilynne Robinson
Is America a Christian nation? Attempts to answer this disputed question usually focus on specific language in the founding documents of the United States, quotations from the correspondence and essays of the Founding Fathers, what percentage of the citizenry identifies as “Christian,” and individual interpretations of history. It’s a familiar debate in which the various sides tend to align with established and well-defined political and religious commitments.
Acclaimed writer Marilynne Robinson does an end-run on the question about America’s status as a Christian nation by asking instead: What would one expect to find if America (or any other country) was a Christian nation? Her own answer suggests that what we would find might surprise us. In her essay “Awakening,” from her 2014 essay collection The Givenness of Things Robinson observes that while some have celebrated a resurgence of Christianity over the past several years, this resurgence has “brought a harshness, a bitterness, a crudeness, and a high-handedness into the public sphere.”
On this reading America as a Christian nation, far from a city set on a hill, is more like the bitterness of Bedford Falls without the redeeming influence of Jimmy Stewart.
How can this be? Two years before the 2016 Presidential election, Robinson observed that “the word ‘Christian’ now is seen less as identifying an ethic, and more as identifying a demographic.” The role of millions of self-identifying Christians in electing Donald Trump as President is so well-documented that, since the 2016 election, the name “Christian” has come, in many people’s minds, to be synonymous with a white person (most likely male) who voted for Trump.
“Christian” is used to justify a certain type of tribalism, a dividing of oneself from “others” of various descriptions, and to energize a defensiveness that seeks to convince us that Christianity is a persecuted majority. In “The Sacred, the Human” from her recent essay collection What are We Doing Here? published last February, Robinson writes that a vocal group of self-described Christians have “erected a sham moral system based on the principled rejection” of its core tenant to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
In what ways does this “sham moral system,” identified by many as compatible with Christianity, differ from the basic principles of an ethic built from the Gospels? Most basically and profoundly, the Gospels identify each person, regardless of race, gender, social status, power, or homeland, as equally valuable and precious in the eyes of God, as bearers of the divine image. Evidence in action of recognizing this truth, according to Jesus’ reported words, include clothing the naked, giving drink to the thirsty, and beating our swords into ploughshares. The words “stranger” and “alien” never have a negative connotation in Scripture, nor are the poor, disenfranchised, homeless, widows, or orphans ever the recipients of anything less than divine attention and love.
Furthermore, Robinson argues that democracy is, at its best, a natural companion with a Christian ethic. When we read in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” we understand that Thomas Jefferson is not promoting the teachings of a particular religion as much as he is recognizing the sacred equality of all human beings. This equality is not subject to our various tribal concerns, but is an equality at the heart of Christianity. Although the founding fathers failed to apply this equality universally, Jefferson recognized that a dedicated commitment to this equality is necessary for the creation and sustaining of the community of diverse individuals that is the dream of democracy.
Such communities, Robinson argues, require the ability to love and respect those whom we do not know and even those with whom we profoundly disagree. Such love and respect are core Christian values, but are noticeably missing in many contemporary interpretations of “Christian.” In “Fear,” Robinson warns that “When Christians abandon Christian standards of behavior in the defense of Christianity, when Americans abandon American standards of conduct in the name of America, they inflict harm that would not be in the power of any enemy.”
When “Christian” comes to identify a demographic or becomes a tribal label, a commitment to any reasonable understanding of a Christian ethic is missing. Furthermore, the very radical inclusiveness and openness of the Gospel message resists any attempt to fashion an identifiably Christian nation. In her recent essay “A Proof, a Test, and Instruction,” Robinson suggests that the history of those who first came to the New World seeking freedom from religious tyranny and oppression should give anyone who desires America to be a “Christian nation” pause.
There is a history of appalling conflict among the churches and sects called Christian, which, by the grace of God, they left on the battlefields and scaffolds of Europe when they came here. The moment Christianity is established we will begin to notice that it is extremely various, and we will begin to think about who the real Christians are.
It is apparent that in the minds and imaginations of many who profess to be Christians, thinking about who the real Christians are has been going on for some time. In a nation as diverse as ours, a continuing experiment in seeking to build one out of many, the conflicting and often exclusive doctrines, dogmas, and agendas that divide sects into “more Christian than you” tribes are destructive both to our best dreams as a nation and to the very faith that, at its heart, welcomes all.
There is something very attractive about tribalism, about the strong sense of belonging that accompanies being crystal clear both about the boundaries between “us” and “them.” Christianity, however, is difficult for a number of reasons, not the least being because it is contrary to our crudest instincts. Directives ranging from “the first will be last” to “judge not” and “turn the other cheek” rub against the grain of what we consider human nature, and yet it is this ethic that refuses and makes tribal identity impossible.
Citizens of the United States should be grateful that the founders of our country sought to prevent the fusion of religious and nationalistic exclusivity. Those who seek to be Christian in more than name should pray that the United States never becomes a Christian nation.