Dr. David Fitch has just released a new book entitled The End of Evangelicalism? Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission: Towards an Evangelical Political Theology from Wipf and Stock publishers. David is a bi-vocational pastor at Life on the Vineand the B.R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary and blogs at Reclaiming the Mission. In a series of posts, I want to explore Fitch’s argument and discuss his conclusions.
In Chapter five of David Fitch’s book, he looks at the evangelical concept of the Christian nation through the lens of Zizek’s political theory. In the first post on this chapter, I describe the history of the Christian nation concept. In the next post I will describe Fitch’s application of Zizek’s theory and see why the idea as currently embodied shapes us for dispassion.
Is America a Christian nation?
Growing up in the South, the church often had three things near the platform area:
1. An open Bible, you know one that would kill you if you were hit with it
2. The American Flag
3. The Christian Flag
In vacation Bible school, we always did a pledge to the American flag, the Christian flag and the Bible. Removing the American flag was the equivalent to being un-American. Each year, churches have special services all over the country celebrating July 4. Many of those services focus so much on the country that Christ is mostly left out.
The presidential election of 2004 saw many evangelicals turn out for George W. Bush; in fact, many think the evangelical vote is what got him re-elected. The turnout for John McCain was not as strong with many evangelical Christians even choosing to vote for Barack Obama. For most evangelicals, however, the Republican party is where their allegiance lies, primarily on the basis of social issues: abortion, homosexuality, etc.
This all testifies to the powerful place the Christian nation has held as an ideal in the evangelical church.
Historically, evangelicals have taken an activist role in society. In the 1800’s a profession of faith in Christ meant not only “a constant activity in cooperating with the brethren in building the cause of christ” but also “war against sin wherever found…” A Christian’s engagement in society meant more than working for the salvation of individual souls, it also meant working for social reform. This resulted in Christians being leaders in practically every social reform movement in the time leading up to the Civil War. “They worked for the improvement of the working conditions for laborers, the abolition of slavery, voting rights for women, prison reform, humane treatment of the mentally-ill, and the temperance movement, to name a few.” Behind all these movements was the belief that God was working in the United States as his chosen nation. American had a manifest destiny to usher in the Kingdom of God.
This changed after the Civil War with the church moving from the social aspects of Christianity to the personal. It arose again in the 1920’s and 1930’s in the fundamentalist-modernist controversies, particularly as a reaction against the social gospel. John Stott notes that this was one reason social ministries were abandoned by conservative churches during that day. Another reason was the acceptance of the new dispensationalism that arose in the 1850’s. This was adopted by conservative churches: Jesus was coming back, the world was going to hell in a hand-basket, and the goal was to get as many people “in” as possible. There was no need to engage society through social reform; Jesus was coming back soon and the world would just be moving toward depravity anyway. (For more information on these last two ideas, see The Church of Irresistible Influence: Bridge-Building Stories to Help Reach Your Community)
For the most part, evangelicals viewed political and/or social activism with suspicion between 1930 and 1960. Bill Graham was criticized whenever he sat with American presidents. This all reversed, however, with the emergence of Jerry Fallwell as a socio-political force in the late 1970’s with the Moral Majority. Fallwell crossed many denominational lines hoping “to force moral change in society through church involvement with national politics.” He even created a manifesto entitled Listen America, which he published in 1980.
Evangelical leaders gathered around Fallwell, leaders such as Francis Schaeffer, Tim LaHaye, D. James Kennedy, Charles Stanley, and James Dobson. The social activism saw the rise of groups such as Focus on the Family, the Christian Coalition, Family Research Council, Traditional Values Coalition, and the American Family Association.
In the mid-2000’s however, a backlash against the religious right arose, partly out of a sense that the evangelical’s president, George W. Bush, had been a failure. Literature arose against the idea of America as a Christian nation, notably from atheist Sam Harris’ best-selling book Letter to a Christian Nation (Vintage) in 2006. John Meachem of Newsweek declared in 2009 that we were at “The End of Christian America.” Christian social activity Jim Wallis proclaimed we are living in a “post-evangelical right America.”
The idea of a Christian nation, however, is not dead. Polls indicated in 2009 that 62% of Americans still consider the nation as a Christian nation. When President Obama suggested in 2009 that American was not a Christian nation, there was a great backlash from evangelicals. In 2009, Thomas Nelson published a version of the Bible named the The American Patriot’s Bible: The Word of God and the Shaping of America which included hundreds of comments on various patriotic themes, “interweaving a patriotic version of American history with the biblical narrative.”
Questions for us:
1. Do you agree with Fitch’s understanding of the history of the Christian nation? Why or Why not?
2. Is America a “Christian” nation? Why or why not?