Fri, 10 Apr 2009 19:57:10 +0000 – By Mark Joseph Producer/Author/Editor, Bullypulpit.com
Easter is upon us and as good a time as any to debate a question that President Obama seems to have a definitive answer for but one which bedevils (no pun intended) the rest of us: Is America a Christian nation?
I would add another question to that one however: Is that the right question to be asking?
On his first major overseas trip, President Obama declared that America wasn't a Christian nation. But in 1988 former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor disagreed citing as her authority the United States Supreme Court. O'Connor noted that three cases supported her view. One of them, Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States from 1892 noted the following:
"If we pass beyond these matters to a view of American life, as expressed by its laws, its business, its customs, and its society, we find everywhere a clear recognition of the same truth. Among other matters, note the following: the form of oath universally prevailing, concluding with an appeal to the Almighty; the custom of opening sessions of all deliberative bodies and most conventions with prayer; the prefatory words of all wills, "In the name of God, amen;" the laws respecting the observance of the Sabbath, with the general cessation of all secular business, and the closing of courts, legislatures, and other similar public assemblies on that day; the churches and church organizations which abound in every city, town, and hamlet; the multitude of charitable organizations existing every where under Christian auspices; the gigantic missionary associations, with general support, and aiming to establish Christian missions in every quarter of the globe. These, and many other matters which might be noticed, add a volume of unofficial declarations to the mass of organic utterances that this is a Christian nation."
The Holy Trinity case is not anything approaching a definitive judgment on the matter, but just a passing reference to the obvious: America and American culture are imbued with religion and not just any religion, but a specific one which prominently features a Savior named Jesus which in turn sprang from one called Judaism. But does that make our country, in any official sense, a Christian nation?
The Justices did make a convincing argument that American culture circa 1892 reflected strong Christian influences in its everyday practices. 117 years later, I could add dozens of other cultural customs that similarly reflect a specific religious heritage that is part of our common practice.
America and its institutions, including its founding documents and much of the way it goes about its business is profoundly impacted and influenced by the Bible and Christian practices.
But the Christian nationquestion is the wrong one because it is sometimes posed by people who answer it with a noand then try to use that answer to argue for a separation of private faith and public conduct. That's an argument that most Americans reject and it betrays a certain theological naivete by assuming that objects, including nations, can be Christian, as if the term were a modifier which can be attached to things. The term Christianwhich began to be attached to followers of Jesus Christ meant "little Christ," but can a nation or a book or a song or any thingthat is not a person, be Christian?
President Obama was right when he said we were not a Christian nationbut off the mark when he said we were instead merely a "nation of citizens" with the quiet implication that our citizenry is somehow secular. It is true that, thankfully, we are not Christianin any official sense that would imply that our country forces us to convert to the Christian religion, coerces participation in church on Sunday morning or forces people to tithe a tenth of their income to a religious institution. But we are a nation of citizens where anywhere from 76-84 percent of us say we believe in a religion which teaches that an all-powerful God set the world in motion, watched it reject Him and sent His Son to visit it to provide forgiveness and salvation.
But rather than label America a Christian nation, it's far more accurate and useful to merely re-state the obvious: America and its institutions, including its founding documents and much of the way it goes about its business is profoundly impacted and influenced by the Bible and Christian practices. The country is also populated by huge majorities of Christian people who bring their beliefs into their lives, including through the legislation they support, the songs they sing, the names they give their children and their cities, the books they read and the lives they lead. All this, in turn, produces a political and social culture that naturally reflects those beliefs and is profoundly shaped by the religion articulated in the Bible.
But the Christian nationquestion is also the wrong one to ask because it sets up the wrong argument. During the Civil War Abraham Lincoln was asked: Whose side of the civil war is God on? Lincoln wisely replied: "Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God's side, for God is always right."
Another president, Ronald Reagan, seemed to have a similar understanding when he took the oath of office with one hand on his mother Nelle's worn out Bible, opened to II Chronicles 7:14, next to which Nelle had scribbled in her own handwriting "a wonderful verse for the healing of the nations." Reagan's chosen Bible verse made it clear that although it was individuals, and not nations who were or weren't followers of God, each individual 's decision could have profound implications on the nation: "If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land."
Mark Joseph is a film producer and marketing expert who has worked on the development and marketing of 25 films. His most recent book is The Lion, The Professor & The Movies: Narnia's Journey To The Big Screen.