“Christian America,” Secular America or a Third Way?

I hate to so severely disagree with an otherwise insightful Christian writer, but I am forced to take issue forcefully with an article by Cal Thomas, a syndicated columnist, and a long-respected Christian cultural critic, in a Fox News Online Opinion column of September  11, 2015, entitled “America has never been a ‘Christian’ nation. Kim Davis picked the wrong issue.”  I do agree that America was not founded explicitly as, nor has it explicitly been, a “Christian nation.  In other words, the formal and legal “social contract” of the United States was and is not Christian.  That said, of course it contains Christian elements in its legal and even political content.  These are important vestiges of an earlier commitment to a Christian foundation for law and government in the West.  But the American Constitution did not establish a “Christian commonwealth.”  Kim Davis unfortunately made some comments that America is a Christian nation, though in fairness, she might not be fully knowledgeable of what that might mean  (for an interesting historical overview of the issue, see John Fea, Was America Founded As A Christian Nation?).  Her comments have been seized on by a few, including Cal Thomas.

Thomas veers off the road when he makes this distinction, which creates a false alternative as well as being a substantive error:

“If you are part of God’s Kingdom, which has sought in nearly every generation to impose itself on the other, answer these questions: If you are pro-life, have you ever tried to get a pro-choice, non-Christian to accept your position? If you believe in traditional marriage and practice it, does your example and argument that marriage should be reserved for “one man and one woman” persuade proponents of same-sex marriage? I didn’t think so. That leaves members of God’s Kingdom with two options: Force their views on those who don’t share them (which an objective observer might say failed during the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition days of the 1980s and the Prohibition era before that), or accept the biblical verdict for that other kingdom: “And this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave. But anyone who does what pleases God will live forever.” (1 John 2:17 NLT)”

Where did Thomas go wrong?  He says that the questions he poses “leave members of God’s Kingdom [Christians] with two options.”  One is to force their beliefs on the “kingdom of man.”  The other is to accept what he asserts is the biblical verdict, to essentially withdraw at least relatively from participation in changing the culture and, he implies, concentrate on personal piety.  Those are two options, but I argue they are neither one all that good.

Thomas does say that as minds are changed by the Gospel/salvation message, it is possible culture may change.  And I agree here too.  But is it wrong to advocate legal or political change even before “hearts” have been changed in sufficient numbers?  The Law was after all given in part as a standard for all behavior—outward actions—and is thus applicable to all human beings, Christian and non-Christian in its principles.  Moreover laws are necessary after the Fall, for everyone.  Whose laws should be therefore favor?  A standard is necessary.  So “by what standard” will humans be governed?

By all means, we Christians should proclaim the Gospel.  That is a central activity for the believer.  But civil laws are essential for humans in society, until Christ returns.  We want those laws to enhance human flourishing and restrain external evil, even to create the optimal conditions for proclaiming this Gospel.  So Cal Thomas should re-think his statement just a bit.  He makes some good points, but his argument overall leaves the choices too stark.  Law and political institutions are not a matter of indifference to believers, and though they may not be the first priority, they also must be devised in order to bring peace, stability, and productivity in an economic sense.  I do not believe God is indifferent to these considerations.  Our job in this area then is to discern how to think about and apply His own given Law in a modern context, no easy task, but necessary.



2 thoughts on ““Christian America,” Secular America or a Third Way?”

  1. “Law and political institutions they also must be devised in order to bring peace, stability, and productivity in an economic sense. I do not believe God is indifferent to these considerations. Our job in this area then is to discern how to think about and apply His own given Law in a modern context, no easy task, but necessary.”

    Thomas should at least be commended for providing some biblical justification for his position. Moreover, his position is more consistent with the Bible.

    You have not provided much biblical justification. Moreover, your position is less consistent with the Bible than is Thomas’s.

    Throughout the New Testament the emphasis is NOT on interpreting God’s Law (whatever that means, considering that modern Christians pick and choose from God’s Law (OT, specifically) as if they were choosing what to eat from a modern buffet) for the benefit of modern politics and society, but on preparing (NOW!!) for the imminent and inevitable return of Christ.

    The focus is of these twenty-seven books is thoroughly apocalyptic. And I not speaking just of Revelation, but of Jesus’ own words.

    There is no evidence in the New Testament of any clear, cohesive, even half-comprehensive prescription regarding government. The absence of such has created many challenges since. People have died during particularly calamitous times.

    Btw, there are MANY foundations to Western law and political institutions, not just Christian. I am not saying that you do not know that, but I am saying that some could come away with that from reading paragraph one.

    Those who claim that the US is a Christian nation should take a look at 1530’s Geneva and then reconsider. The US is a nation largely of Christians, but in our republic there are protections for the minority.

    Amen to that.

    1. if you want my full position, go back on this blog about a year. If you want a biblically-justified position, that is also helpful, but I intend to address that again later.

      As for your statement that there are “many foundations to Western law and political institutions,” the overwhelmingly influential one is the Judeo-Christian tradition (see for example, Harold Berman, Law and Revolution. Harvard Univ. Press, 1983).

      And as I said, America is not a Christian nation in any explicit sense, though it certainly had elements or vestiges. Also protection of rights was a subject even for the “Genevans” even though RELIGIOUS toleration at that time was nearly non-existent–for everyone, Catholics, Protestants, Muslims (see John Witte, Reformation of Rights. Cambridge University Press). Subjective rights as a concept were still developing.

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