“And I could just feel God’s presence again as the plane touched down.”
My friend had just finished telling me about his short-term mission trip to a Latin American country. His story was one of growth and service, and was, undoubtedly, life changing. He served God and God’s people in a far away place. Yet, his return to the U.S. was ultimately a return to God’s country.
I wish he was the only one who had this sentiment, but we all know that isn’t true. The idea that America is God’s special chosen envoy to the modern world has become increasingly familiar in conservative Christian communities, and it is a narrative that is not going anywhere soon.
In truth, the narrative has existed in various parts of American society from its inception. Puritans wanted to build a city on a hill, William Penn saw in his namesake state a promised land for Quaker freedom. Religion and American life have remained interconnected in strange, unusual, and often unfortunate ways
In our own day, Religious Right organizations have strengthened the narrative of America as a uniquely Christian nation. Organizations like Wall Builders and Liberty University continually affirm the “Biblical” roots of American governance, and the soon-to-open Hobby Lobby funded Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC is set to be a defining statement about the centrality of the Christian faith in America’s political life.
However, this insistence that Christianity and the Bible lie at the center of American public life begs the question: what does “Christian” even mean in America?
Our Sacred Past
Searching through our past, perhaps we can find the answer.
Was it Christian to decimate the population of 50-60 million Native American residents who lived here when our Christian ancestors arrived? Was it Christian to disenfranchise and depopulate Native lands as we marched across the continent with our Biblical, God-ordained Manifest Desitiny?
Was it Christian to capture and forcibly transport 12.5 million African people across the Atlantic (killing 1.8 million in the voyage)? Was it Christians to buy and sell their lives and their labor as if they were chattel? Was it Christian to kill, beat, and rape those “sons and daughters of Ham?”
Was it Christian to hate and kill one another to protect that same institution through war? Was it Christian, upon the defeat of slavery, to pass laws which continued to disenfranchise black persons? Was the Bible fueling the deep white fear, and states-rights-ism that insisted on separating skin colors?
Was it Christian for “God-fearing” men like John D. Rockefeller (once described as the most ruthless man in America) to mercilessly put their competitors out of business in the pursuit of ever greater profits? Was it Christian when we sent our children to factories and our poor into the ghettos? Was it the Bible’s command to subdue the earth by damming up natural wonders like Hetch Hechy, or to monetizing and disgracing the power of Niagra Fall’s beauty?
Short answer: Yes.
If we are to believe the claim of Christian America, then the answer to each of these questions has to be, “Yes.” And there is some truth in the claim. Throughout American history the Bible and Christian faith has been used to justify and protect each of the aforementioned evils. The Bible proved the white race should rule over the black race. The Bible showed us that Native Americans were just the latest Canaanites who needed to be driven out. The Bible told us that we needed to subdue the life-giving Earth and extract it’s precious commodities.
America has always been a nation that was willing to use Christian ideas, but that does not make it Christian. No doubt, Christian virtues have stimulated some great examples in America’s story. Yet, throughout our history, the claim to Christian truth and Biblical support has continually divinized actions which were anything but Christ-like.
To Christianize our history is to blatantly overlook and underplay the horrors committed by those who held the Bible as sacred. It foregrounds our noble ideals while suppressing our bitterest realization: that we have done great evil in achieving this American Dream.
Our Christian Present
At the same time, every historical narrative is also a statement about our present. Those who pedal our “Christian” past, also tend to be the most concerned about baptizing our present. We must ask then, what is so “Christian” about our present?
Is it Christian to annually produce and sell over $36 billion in armaments to rebel groups and nation states alike? Is it Christian to be a war profiteer? Does the Bible inform us that we should maintain an arsenal of nuclear weapons so powerful that we can destroy the entire human population with only a fraction of what we have?
Is it Christian to let the rich get richer at the expense of the poorest? Is it Christian to have a society which allows people to live in poverty while putting in a full 40-hour work week? Does Acts 2 tell us that private interests and profits are more important than communal well-being?
Is it Christian to set mother against child in the false narrative of choice vs. life? Is it the desire to create Christian families that leads us to refuse parents time-off to care for their children? Does the Bible tell us that our concern for our neighbor stops after they exit the womb?
Is it our Christian convictions that lead us to refuse to admit there is racial bias in the criminal justice system, or that police militarization is problematic? Is it our meek desire for Christian order that causes us to be intolerant of jarring calls for systematic racial justice?
What is “Christian” about any of this?
No doubt, I am grateful to live here and to experience the freedoms it affords; admittedly, my male Anglo identity makes this easier. Despite its shortcomings, I believe America continues to have the opportunity to create a sort of society never before seen on the face of the earth, and, yes, I hope real Christian values can help inform that hopeful society. Yet, try as I might today, I can find very little that is “Christian” about our current American empire.
It is a high calling to claim the status of Christian; I am doubtful that I live up to it every day. How then can we assign such an adjective to a national project as frustratingly incomplete as our own? Christianizing our past foregrounds what we love best about who we are, but it can also obscures our deepest failures. Christians, as lovers of the Truth, cannot afford such a blindness.
Note from the Editorial Team: Engaged Pentecostalism is a community that values open dialogue and respectful engagement from different perspectives. The views expressed above are the author's own and do not reflect those of every part of the community.