This week we will celebrate Independence Day, commemorating the Declaration by the Continental Congress that the 13 colonies constituted a new nation separate from the British Empire. We are all fortunate to live in the United States; that is certainly something worth remembering, and we should thank God for this privilege.
But that thanksgiving can go too far. A good example comes from just this past week, where First Baptist Church in Dallas held a “Freedom Sunday” service. They took out a series of billboards declaring that “America is a Christian Nation” to promote the event. That was also the theme of the sermon. The expressed purpose of the gathering was to “celebrate our freedom as Americans and our freedom in Christ with patriotic worship.”
The point is not to single out one group, but to give a recent example of a common phenomenon: celebrating the US as a “Christian Nation.” That identification is problematic.
On one level, this is just bad history. Without getting too in-depth, as popularly articulated, the primary evidence consists of quoting as many Founders as possible to demonstrate an intention for the country to be formally Christian. The issues of historical method with this approach are numerous, but the most straightforward reply is that not all of the Founders were of a piece with their religious beliefs; you can line up dissenting voices, too.
The greater problem is theological. God rules over the nations, utilizing them for his purpose. It is more than a little audacious to conceive of America as specially favored by God because of its supposed Christian principles. This stands out more sharply when we recognize that the nation was founded through revolution – a transgression of the submission ethic advocated by Paul in Romans 13and Peter in 1 Peter 2– fomented largely because of taxes that were regarded as onerous – a rejection of Jesus’ injunction on paying taxes (Mark 12:17).
In other words, America was conceived through rebellion against God.
Now, please don’t misunderstand this as some sort of anti-American rant. That does not make the United States uniquely evil. But it does belie any sort of exclusive status as a chosen people. Beyond that, it is unclear why America’s appeals to an overruling providence would inherently carry more weight than those of a King who ruled “by the grace of God” to say nothing of his claim to being a “Defender of the Faith.” Great Britain was just as much of a “Christian nation” as the budding United States. Its people worshipped the same God and no doubt many believed he was on their side.
The United States is a Christian nation only in the general sense that most every country in the Western world is historically. Certainly, Christianity continues to play a more prominent role here than in many other countries. But we are not privileged by a unique status before God.
Instead, as the New Testament makes clear repeatedly, the true Christian nation is the church. This means that our allegiance is to God and his Kingdom first and foremost (Matt 6:33) and not to any nation-state. God’s people are called out from every earthly state to form his holy nation. As the 2nd century Epistle to Diognetus put it, “Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign” (Diogn. 5:5). Or, as Peter put it, we are a holy nation, a people for his own possession, but in this world, we are sojourners and exiles (1 Peter 2:9, 11).
As citizens of the Christian nation, we must not conflate it with our earthly nation, allowing—or worse, advocating—our exclusive truth claims to be watered down in the name promoting a good society. It undermines the status and the claims of God’s holy nation for the sake of an earthly one. The church, not the state, is the bearer of meaning in history, and it is not tied to any one earthly country.
Thank God we live in the United States! We enjoy a great many freedoms in this country that the rest of the world does not have. In some places on earth, we could not even freely assembly here today to worship our Lord. We are truly blessed.
But don’t elevate our nation to a place that only the church deserves. The Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will (Daniel 4:7). America is no different from Babylon or Persia or Rome or any other nation. But Jesus’ Kingdom, the one that shatters all others and fills up the entire world, the one that is indestructible – that one is unique (Daniel 2:44-45).