Christian Nation

“A man cannot be a perfect Christian . . . unless he is also a communist.”
Thomas Merton

“God helps those who help themselves.” When you teach freshman composition at a southern public university, you get used to hearing that expression. It’s usually prefaced with, “Like the Bible says . . .” I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, mostly because I’ve also been thinking about the words “Christian nation” and how I have no idea what they mean.

My students’ favorite proverb, of course, isn’t in the Bible. (You won’t find it there because it’s a base degradation of Christ’s teachings and sacrifice.) The exact source of the phrase is a bit murky, but variants appear in the literatures of many cultures, including Aesop’s fables, a play by Aeschylus, and — most significantly for us Americans — a 1736 edition of Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac. Which is just perfect.

I’m no Colonial-era scholar, but I’ve read most of the significant founding documents — enough of them, at least, to know that, contrary to much of public opinion, America has never been a “Christian nation,” or, not the one reimagined by contemporary American evangelicals. (Googling “Christian Nation” and America turns up no shortage of opinions on this question and from a variety of, um, interesting perspectives that span the political and theological spectra.) Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, and Paine, like so many of their compatriots, were typical Enlightenment intellectuals. Which means that they were Deists whose faith was reserved largely for Reason rather than God. It also explains why they so deliberately eschewed dogma in their noble pursuit of democracy.

I say all of that to say this: there’s something in this expression — “God helps those who help themselves” — that offers us, I think, a usable model for understanding the Right and the evangelical church’s devotion to it. It’s Manifest Destiny, rugged individualism, and vaguely-Biblical-sounding rhetoric all rolled into one. It’s pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps jingoism stripped of all historical, political, and economic context. It’s nostalgic and proud and intellectually lazy. It is decidedly not, in any shape or form, Christian.

Jordon Cooper recently posted a blog along somewhat similar lines. He’s done us all a favor by transcribing a passage from a book by Tony Campolo (which I’m totally stealing, by the way, so go visit Jordon’s site):

While teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, I became good friends with a young Jewish student who eventually made a commitment to Christ. As I tried to mentor him and give him a direction as to how to live the Christian life, I advised him to go to a particular church that was well known for its biblically based preaching, to help him get a better handle on what the Bible is all about.

When I met my friend several weeks later, he said to me, “You know, if you put together a committee and asked them to take the Beatitudes and create a religion that contradicted every one of them, you could come pretty close to what I’m hearing down there at that church.

“Whereas Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the poor,’ down there they make it clear it is the rich who are blessed. Jesus said, ‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ but the people at that church have a religion that promises happiness with no crucifixions. Whereas Jesus talked about the meek being blessed, they talk as if they took assertiveness-training courses. Jesus may have talked about the merciful and peacemakers, but those people are the most enthusiastic supporters of American militarism and capital punishment I have ever met. Jesus may have lifted up those who endured persecution because they dared to embrace a radical gospel, but that church declares a gospel that espouses middle-class success and affirms a lifestyle marked by social prestige.”

As I listened to my friend’s accusing words about the church, I realized it could just as well be aimed at me. Since that conversation, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on whether or not my lifestyle is really Christian. Soren Kierkegaard once said, “If you mean by Christian what the Sermon on the Mount says about being a Christian, then in any given time in history, there might be four or five such persons who would have the right to call themselves Christians.”

And I say all of that to say this: Kierkegaard was right. “Christian” — if you mean by Christian what the Sermon on the Mount says — is a weighty word, and it’s serious, and, most remarkable of all, it’s full of grace. Please don’t affix that word to this country, which, for some reason, has been blessed with the delicate gift of democracy but will never deserve it. That, also, is grace.