Once upon a time, a small group of nobodies in a tiny, dusty corner of the Roman Empire took their Rabbi’s call to heart and began to preach his message through word and deed. He said “Seek first the Kingdom of God…and deny your natural tendency to put Self first, because that’s a prerequisite for being my disciple. And as you are going through life, make other disciples, teaching them everything I’ve demonstrated for you.”
And he had taught them a lot. He spoke about anger, money, faith, humility, and especially the centrality of love in all things. A well-educated expert in Jewish theology once asked him, “Teacher, what’s the most important of God’s commandments?” His response summarized his teaching, as well as the vast arc of God’s relationship with humanity, in the most distilled yet profound way. He said,
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Those early disciples believed him, and they set about doing it. They had heard him say, “when a student is fully taught, he will be like his teacher…and, why do you call me Lord, Lord, but don’t do what I say?” They knew that to follow him was to be changed, to become like him in word and deed, and that the life he called them to was indeed, “life to the full.”
They had no earthly political power. Most were poor. Many were slaves. They had no human means of influencing anything around them. They had no voice in their governance. To the contrary, they were viewed as enemies of Rome because they spoke of another King, and another Kingdom, and placed their complete allegiance there. Many paid for that allegiance in blood as Rome persecuted them, jailed them, killed them, sent them to die in the Coliseum, and covered them in pitch and lit them on fire like grotesque street lamps.
But over the span of three and a half centuries, the influence of their collective lives and the impact of their love for God and other human beings permeated society. It brought such an overwhelming force of goodness, grace, and kindness to bear that it upended the whole moral and spiritual order of the world’s most powerful empire.
That’s not hyperbole. The transformation of the Roman Empire from a severe persecutor of Jesus’ followers to Christianity becoming the official religion of Rome in less than 350 years - without force, coercion, or war - still stands as one of the most astounding facts of world history.
The question is, how did this happen?
In that time and place, the fabric of the cultural belief system was fundamentally opposite to everything Jesus taught his disciples. Andy Stanley, in his recent book “Not In It to Win It” points out, “Doing good for someone who could not do good for you in return was not considered virtuous in Greek and Roman society. It was considered foolish, a passion indulged by weak-willed women.”
But rather than fighting against the culture around them, or railing against the abuse and persecution, the early disciples of Jesus simply lived differently.
“They adopted Jesus’ New Covenant command [to love] as a way of life. It wasn’t a reference point. It was the context for everything. Most notably, it informed their response to suffering - theirs as well as the suffering of people around them. The Jesus movement was characterized by uncharacteristic compassion, generosity, selflessness, and boldness.”
The impact of this radical love in the midst of a heartless, brutal, everyone-for-themselves culture is impossible to overstate. It changed everything and was the force that reshaped history and is the reason kindness, compassion, and serving the less fortunate is considered a virtue in western culture. It’s also noteworthy that all of this took place some 150 years before the New Testament was assembled. It wasn’t doctrinal purity or having all the answers about God that made the difference. There were many competing ideas and theologies in play and councils that would establish accepted doctrine were still centuries in the future. But what wasn’t in question was the kind of life Jesus had called his disciples to. It was known; love for God and love for our neighbor, even when that neighbor is an enemy, is what following Jesus meant. And they simply did it.
One of the greatest and most far-reaching transformations in history came not through manipulation, force, or political maneuvering but through disciples simply being who Jesus called them to be.
In 21st century America it’s difficult to find any topic in that isn’t polarized, fraught with emotion, and fueled by generalization, oversimplification, and the demonization of those who hold a differing opinion.
Very few subjects produce more heat and vitriol among Christians and non-Christians alike than the idea of a “Christian” America. It’s one of those subjects that most of us are so close to that we have a difficult time stepping back far enough to analyze what we believe, say, and espouse. And more importantly, why we believe what we do.
As disciples of Jesus, however, it’s imperative that we do that in all things related to our life within human culture. We are admonished in the New Testament to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” And not to “conform to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” This process is doubly important when we’re wrestling with issues surrounding faith’s intersection with the world’s political affairs because the potential for being led astray is so powerful, and the call so loud.
Depending on who you ask about the concept of a “Christian” America, you’ll get both passionate and wildly divergent beliefs about the founding of our nation and the intent behind it. Many Christians believe without question that our nation was founded wholly on Christianity by people of strong orthodox Christian faith to promote and elevate the Christian faith above all others.
Others, some Christian and some not, believe that America was founded as a pluralistic, secular society, and that faith and religion of any kind have no place in governance or in law-making, citing Jefferson’s iconic “wall of separation between church and state.” It’s also contended that many of the founding Fathers were not orthodox Christians at all but were actually Deists, who believed that God made everything, dusted off his hands, and went on an eternal vacation, leaving humanity to sort the world out on their own.
As with most things, the real truth is found somewhere in the middle.
Millions of words have been written on the subject, and the internet is at your fingertips if you want to take a deep dive.
But, suffice it to say, it is absolutely true that at the founding of America, the general culture was heavily influenced by Christian ideas, especially regarding many aspects of morality. It was the prevailing cultural milieu that settlers brought with them from Europe. It’s equally true that several of the prominent founding fathers, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison and James Monroe were deists, rather than strict, orthodox Christians. For the theologically astute among us, they would not have passed the sniff test.
What’s crystal clear when one looks at the actual language of our founding documents and the many statements from those who crafted them is that the common thread was the clear-eyed determination to create a system of governance that guarded against tyranny, including religious tyranny.
Why? Because that was also the cultural milieu the founders of the nation had all come from in Europe and from which many were seeking to escape.
For, between 325 and 380 AD, something had happened to that little band of disciples-turned-world-changers that altered history once again, both of western culture and the church. The faith that was once persecuted, that was despised for its heart of compassion, humility, and service to those in need, which had no power, no clout, and no authority, suddenly got all three. In 325, Constantine presided over the council of Nicaea, and effectively ended the persecution of the disciples of Jesus in the Roman Empire.
And in 380 AD, Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius I signed a decree that made Christianity the official religion of the state. However, something else, something more sinister, was also set in motion in that same moment and has reverberated throughout the world since. The wording of the decree describes it:
"It is our desire that all the various nations which are subject to our clemency and moderation, should continue to profess that religion which was delivered to the Romans by the divine Apostle Peter… and which is now professed by the Pontiff Damasus and by Peter, Bishop of Alexandria. According to the apostolic teaching and the doctrine of the Gospel, let us believe in the one deity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, in equal majesty and in a holy Trinity. We authorize the followers of this law to assume the title of Catholic Christians; but as for the others, since, in our judgment they are foolish madmen, we decree that they shall be branded with the ignominious name of heretics, and shall not presume to give to their conventicles the name of churches. They will suffer in the first place the chastisement of the divine condemnation and in the second the punishment of our authority which in accordance with the will of Heaven we shall decide to inflict."
And so began nearly two millennia of the persecuted becoming the persecutors. The movement that changed the world for good, which had no political power or authority, now had it. And once it did, it immediately set about trying to use that power to “advance the Kingdom of God” through human means and the use of force.
Something had fundamentally changed in the mindsets of those once loving compassionate, Jesus-with-skin-on people in the 55 years between 325 and 380 AD. Access to power, influence, and money did what it always does. It corrupted the message and transferred these disciples’ allegiance from Jesus and the Kingdom of God, to earthbound things. At some point they collectively forget that their “citizenship [was] in heaven” and that they were “strangers and exiles on the earth”, called by their Rabbi to love others, even their enemies.
The results were catastrophic for the authentic faith. While the Church corporate grew in power, wealth, and authority, the faith “once delivered to the saints” all but died out during the Middle Ages, kept on life support by small pockets of faithful disciples like the Celtic monks who clung doggedly to the foundational precepts of the gospel.
The religious tyranny stemming from the church’s growing entanglement in government continued well into the colonial years and impacted groups like the Puritans who came to the New World primarily to escape persecution for their faith. (For those who would like specifics on just some of these examples of Christians persecuting other Christians, here’s a link.)
So, these realities were very much on the minds of America’s founders when they sat down to draft documents that would guide this new nation. In a letter penned in 1803, objecting to use of government land for churches, James Madison - often referred to as The Father of the Constitution - said,
“The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe in blood for centuries.”
It is very instructive to note that of the 5092 words found in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, none of them reference the Bible, Jesus, or any Christian doctrine. As Nicholas Rathod explained in the web article “The Founding Fathers Religious Wisdom”
Finally, and most obviously, if the founding fathers intended to include Jesus, the Bible, or other particular aspects of the Christian faith in the founding of our nation, they would have expressly done so. However, the two references to religion that are in the Constitution contain exclusionary language. The First Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. . .” and in Article VI, Section III, “… no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”
The founding fathers’ purposes were clear. They had no intention to found the country according to Christian doctrines. Having said that, it is important to add that this exclusion in no way devalued the importance of the Christian religion in their minds—nor should it in ours. (emphasis mine)
Today, despite these easily accessible aspects of history, there is an increasing movement among many self-identifying evangelical Christians to dismiss these realities, and to embrace an emerging “Christian” nationalism. It could be because they never been taught the facts in context. I know I wasn’t. And maybe it’s because we as human beings are extremely prone to not seeking truth for ourselves, preferring rather to gravitate to teaching and other human beings who confirm what we already want to believe. In either case, we're operating with a false perception and a belief that just doesn't square with the empirical evidence.
For those who don’t know what “Christian” nationalism is, it an ideology that believes America was once a Christian nation, and that Christians are called by God to take it back for him through control of the government, using all political means available to them. And once that power is achieved, to enact laws based on “biblical morality” to force compliance with “God’s laws” on all citizens whether they are Christian or not. That this agenda runs counter to the entirety of New Testament teaching seems to cause most adherents, no heartburn at all.
Early in my Christian experience, I believed in the myth of "Christian America" because that narrative was intimately intertwined with what being a Christian in America was. But due to this movement's increasing swing toward authoritarianism and its deepening detachment from all of Jesus' core teachings, it has become increasingly concerning to me.
It veers sharply away from the core tenants of historic, American democracy, which is based on the belief that every person in our society is endowed by God with intrinsic value as a human being. And because of that value, every individual should have a voice and a vote in their governance, regardless of faith, creed, sex, or color This foundational belief was the catalyst for both women’s suffrage and the Civil Rights Movement.
Unfortunately “Christian” nationalism is making the same fundamental mistake that many who claim to follow Jesus have been making since 380 AD. It has abandoned the foundational tenant of love that Jesus said was intrinsic to following him and that would mark us out as his disciples. And it has traded allegiance to the Way and Kingdom of Jesus for allegiance to an earthbound kingdom and to seeking power and control over others. It’s an age-old temptation that the church just can’t seem to resist. We're like the addict that keeps going back to the the thing that's destroying her life. The tactic keeps working, so the Adversary keeps lobbing the same old lure out there, just in a new set of clothes.
It's a very real danger, both to our nation and to authentic faith in Christ. The latter is of far greater concern to me, and I’ll be addressing it in an upcoming post.
But, concerning America, I personally want nothing to do with an earthly government led by flawed human beings that purports to be a theocracy. All of history testifies how sideways that always gets and where it inevitably leads. Any time we employ God to advance our political ends, we're in dangerous, and potentially blasphemous territory. The church ruling the state is what gave us the Inquisition, the Crusades, and persecution of disciples of Jesus like William Tyndale who was burned at the stake by the church-influenced-state for translating the Bible into English. Because, let’s be honest, there’s almost nothing more coercively powerful or more able to move us in thought and action than a mandate that we believe is endorsed by God himself. I mean, if God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.
My admonition to my Christian brothers and sisters who want the US to be a "Christian" nation is, "be very, VERY careful what you wish for." Humanity is fickle and there’s nothing like the certainty that “God is on our side” to incite people to act in very un-Christlike ways, even against those of their own faith. We are often very passionate, but very short-sighted people and woefully underestimate our own propensity for being deceived and for doing evil in God’s name, despite the clear and repeated evidence from history.
The early church did what we often say we want to do as followers of Jesus. They changed the world.
With no voice in their governance, no political authority, no money, and no power. Having only the influence of their individual and collective lives they achieved what no amount of earthbound power and control ever could. Living out Jesus’ command to love changed hearts and ultimately dismantled ideologies and moral standards that had stood as “givens” for centuries.
If we truly want to influence our culture toward righteousness, that is the way.
It's the only way.
It’s Jesus’ way.
Because “the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”
It never has. And it never will.
Isn’t it time we stop trying?