Before you go off on me as being somehow un-American, I was born into a typical Pittsburgh blue-collar family. My Dad’s first job was in a coal mine before he worked his way to owning a Chrysler-Plymouth dealership and fulfilling his version of the American dream. My favorite actor always has been and always will be John Wayne. As a kid I cried when he died at the end of The Alamo. As an adult I tear up when an American flag gets handed to a family member at a funeral with the words, “on behalf of a grateful nation”. If I have a slight regret it is that I didn’t sign the enlistment papers that Marine Captain Tacksus had ready for me back in college. So yes I love America. But America and Christianity are not the one and the same, and the fate of Christianity is not dependent on the fate of America or any other country.
If, as history shows to be the way of all great nations, America one day becomes eclipsed by some other nation, that does not mean Christianity is somehow eclipsed or automatically in decline. I get the distinct impression that many people think otherwise, both Christian and non-Christian. Some non-Christians seem to relish the possibility of both the decline of America and Christianity. If it would be possible to deal a blow to both with one stone, then they say, so be it. For some their primary hatred is for America, which they view as monolithically Christian and so they hate Christians/Americans. The recent violence and demonstrations in Egypt, Libya, and now strangely enough Australia would fall into this category. Many Muslims see America as a Christian Nation and their picture is the decadence of Hollywood, sex, drugs, alcohol, and more sex, hetero and homosexual and a nation that militarily is trying to impose “Christian values” on other countries. For others their hatred is for Christianity and they view America as the bastion of Christianity and if America must decline for Christianity to lose its influence that’s all well and good.
This illustrates the problem that Christians create when we too closely align ourselves with any kingdom other than God’s Kingdom. The missteps of a government or society that we cannot control can easily drag Christianity, or the external perception of it, in a direction that is neither helpful nor accurately Christian. Most people outside Christianity, not to mention within, do not appreciate the nuance of a Christian being a model citizen of their country, yet with a higher citizenship that trumps anything the earthly country might do or call for. Additionally, most people paint with a very broad brush and we let one example fill in the blanks for us in understanding a whole group. That was part of the point of Daniel Khaneman’s book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow” that I reviewed some time ago. So when a government, an anonymous movie director, or a screw loose preacher, says or does something provocative in a destructive way, people paint with a broad brush, decide that is what all America and thus Christians are like and they get violent against all things American/Christian.
The connection of a country with Christianity is not new. At least since the Reformation and the 16th century it has been largely the case. Prior to America it was the British Empire that Christianity hitched a ride with and circled the globe doing missions wherever the Union Jack got planted. In some cases with worked well. In others, Christianity became synonymous with English invaders and colonial oppressors. Prior to that it was Spain and the expansion into Central and South America that tied a Roman Catholic brand of Christianity to the Conquistadors. So you see the problem. Christians and Christian mission can benefit as a result of the work of countries and empires. Certainly the existence of the Roman road system made it possible for Christianity to spread in the first few centuries. But when we become so closely connected to the culture and/or government that Christianity becomes nearly indistinguishable from them, then Christianity looses its power and message.
I said even many Christians do not understand the nuance of being a model citizen of an earthly country while being first and foremost a citizen of God’s Kingdom. There are at least two reasons for this that I can see. One is our inability to disagree with someone or something and still love them. The other is that our view of success is based on one of worldly power and dominance.
As to the first, one only needs to look at a few church splits to see that Christians have a hard time disagreeing on even the most mundane and unimportant things, without taking sides that cause conflict. It goes all the way back to the first disciples of Jesus who wanted to prevent some people from casting out demons in Jesus name because they were not part of the group. In another case, James and John wanted to call fire down from heaven onto a village that did not want to listen to Jesus preaching. In both cases Jesus harshly rebuked them. In America we Christians need to learn how to disagree with people in a Christ-like manner. In Ephesians 4:15 Paul says we are to speak the truth in love. There is a dynamic tension with which few seem willing to live. We either love someone and don’t speak any truth for fear of hurting their feelings, which is actually incredibly unloving and untruthful, or we speak the truth without any love, under a false guise of love, while in the process ripping a person’s guts out, which is also not loving and incredibly dishonest. Christians must absolutely learn to disagree in as loving a way as possible. That must be the case in politics, religion, and any other area of life. You can love your country, serve it, sacrifice for it, but at the same time disagree, lovingly, when it goes wrong.
The second issue, our view of success and power, is more difficult to deal with. No one would argue against being more loving as we speak truth. It is obviously what Jesus wants. But our view of success is far more deeply rooted in our culture than we Christians want to admit. The thinking goes something like this. America is a great nation because God has blessed us, because we have been a Christian nation that was obedient to the Bible. As long as we follow the Bible and are a Christian nation, we will be a world power and a blessed people, in every way, including our material, physical, and emotional well-being. If we start to decline morally, as we seem to be doing, then God will judge America and we will lose our place of blessing, and Christianity will decline around the world as American influence declines.
There are so many false assumptions in that line of thinking that I fear it would take a whole book to address. But let me briefly deal with a few. First, Christianity did just fine expanding from place to place and reaching more and more people, long before America ever existed. Remember, the first viable English colony in North America that succeeded, didn’t get going until almost sixteen hundred years after Jesus walked the Earth. It was another one hundred and fifty years before the colonies split from England and became a separate nation. It has really only been since World War 2 some seventy-five years ago that America has been a world power and with the collapse of The Soviet Union, THE world power. God was doing just fine in expanding His kingdom for the 1900 years of history from Jesus to American dominance, and I suspect He will do just fine until Jesus returns, no matter how long that takes. A second presumption in the previous paragraph is that America has, until recently, been a model Christian nation. For almost the first hundred years of that City Set On A Hill we call America we allowed white people to own black people as property. Not exactly a shining Christian nation moment. Let’s not even talk about what we did to people who were Red not Black and lived here before European’s arrived. On the other end of the spectrum, motivated by Christian Temperance Movements we passed a constitutional amendment banning alcohol. It was the worst kind of Christian Pharisaism and resulted in all sorts of violence and corruption not to mention leaving a lasting picture of Christians as extremely legalistic fanatics who want to dominate others. No, America has not been the ideal Christian nation that would automatically be showered with God’s blessing. Perhaps the most dangerous assumption in the previous paragraph is that America somehow is fulfilling a role of being The New Jerusalem. As a result people attach to America all sorts of Old Testament prophecies about Israel, Jerusalem, or various Hebrew tribes. Now it is generally true that if nations follow the things of God that things will go better than not. But that is a result of God’s truth having that effect whether we are believers or not. However, that is a far cry from saying that America is God’s new chosen nation and applying prophecy to it; especially prophecy that was already fulfilled in Israel 1500 years ago.
The bottom line is this. America is a great nation that has at times demonstrated amazing “Christian” principles and culture and at others times not. In the last few decades it seems to be more not. God’s Kingdom is far greater than America. God does not need America to fulfill His plan of redemption that was set before the foundations of the world. God can and does use America as He has and does use any nation. Christians need to actually live what we so often point to on America money, “In God We Trust”. We do not trust in American dominance or success in order to feel secure that God’s plan of redemption will succeed. Conversely we do not fear failure in God’s plan of redemption is things in America are not going as we would hope. In recent history, America has been the key player in the World Christian Movement, but South America, Asia, and Africa are seeing massive growth in Christianity. China will soon become the nation with the largest number of Christians in the world. South Korea, as small as it is, is beginning to lead the way in missionaries sent. Some see that as the decline of America. I think God sees it as the ascendency of a global Christianity. No matter what happens in America or any other nation, God is still sovereign and will prevail, as will The Church. Jesus promised that even the Gates of Hell could not withstand the ultimate success of His plan.