Yes, Barton is forceful. He saws heavily on the “Judeo-Christian principles of our Founding Fathers,” and in that he is right, but less so because he ignores the equally, perhaps more important founding principles based in Enlightenment rationality and the then truly liberal economic and political principles (having no king is radical as is equality of all before the law) that undergird our Constitution. And no, I do not discount but do recognize the strong influence of Christianity that helped to shape those principles, as for example in Puritanism–yes, Puritanism (John Locke was a Puritan, for one)! And yes, Jefferson and Madison and other leading Fathers saw reality both through the Enlightenment rationalist lens that recognized either a Deistic God (Jefferson, Franklin) or the God of orthodox theism and trinitarianism (Washington may be there, for example, but he is truly hard to gauge as to his churchmanship). That is different from the contemporary lens through which many leaders, even some Christian leaders and scholars see reality, that is, through a modern, naturalistic lens, dismissive of the orthodox Judeo-Christian tradition. Thankfully, many do not. Most do not see sharply enough the implications of their own fuzzy thinking about the relationship between public life and policy and biblical faith. Beyond that, to say that America is a Christian nation is a statement that always requires explanation: does that mean cultural Christianity, or does it refer to a vibrant biblical, orthodox (that is “right teaching”) Christianity that dominates the thought life, moral and ethical way of life, and our relationships domestic and international? How do most Americans live? There’s quite a range, there! I wonder whether Barton is to the point of admitting that despite the Judeo-Christian influences on our Constitution and civic life in the Revolutionary Period, the Founding Fathers decided it was best that our founding documents and government constitute a secular establishment and that the government would have no sway over religion in the nation. That would be the citizens’ responsibility, individually and corporately, and initially that was left to the states. The First Amendment religious liberty and free exercise clauses were the product of the citizens holding out for protection from the interference of government in religious matters. I think knowing the distinction would help to solve confusion about whether America is a “Christian nation.” If nation refers to the society, even there we have plenty of evidence to the contrary, and that kind of evidence has always been present to varying degrees (major instance–institutionalized slavery); if it refers to majority opinion or identification, then even there I have some questions–it seems that so many professing Christians do not understand their responsibilities and obligations actually to live as Christians; many actually live contrary to Christian principles and convictions. Christianity is divorced from actual lifestyle and commitments. Perhaps our president is in that camp; uncomfortable as it is, there are many who profess Christianity whose values and political identification are indeed “liberal” in that sense–that is, modernist, naturalistic, pragmatic, anti-faith and unevenly tolerant in practice.
Yes, before we tout America as a Christian nation, I think we need to take a deep look at what it is to be Christian and begin the comparisons. I’ll end with this challenge: we criticize Mr. Obama, yet it is likely more fruitful to look at the pressures, the interest groups, the political forces that support a liberal-democratic presidency, see how powerful they actually are in America, see how many Americans support that influence either directly and indirectly, see how deeply entwined in our economy and common life these forces are, see how interest groups, PACs, lobbying organizations, corporations hogtie any president, and then ask how it could be otherwise. It’s important to recognize because those forces do not change just because the president and the Congress are Democrat or Republican. I choose to say that there are so many forces influencing our government that in order to make things different, Christians must be part of a foundational social and cultural reorientation in our society, the kind that involves a true change of commitments and priorities. Once that happens, then we can claim honest identification as a Christian nation. But it needs to happen first in our communities. With us. We and our neighbors. Churches and their neighborhoods. Workers and employers. Communities to capitals. You get the idea. Let us, then, love justice, do mercy, and walk humbly with our God. Let divine goals lead us. That’s not liberalism, that’s liberty as intended.