A few years ago, I visited Washington D.C. again, having been to our nation’s capital probably a half dozen times. I am always taken aback by its history and its architecture. On this last visit I was admiring the Jefferson Memorial, a tribute to one of our country’s founding fathers and our third president. What caught my attention were the inscriptions inside of the memorial. Many of them were references to God. One such quote reads,
God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that His justice cannot sleep forever.
The Jefferson memorial is not the only place where scripture or references to God are inscribed. The Washington Monument also has scripture verses and references to God. One could do a search of the whole city and find thousands of references to God. Our very Declaration of Independence says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
With all these references to God and the faith of some of our founding fathers it makes sense that many believe America is a “Christian nation.” Yet can any nation actually be Christian? Does calling a nation Christian make it Christian? The question can only be answered by discerning what it really means to be Christian.
The term “Christian” was first used at the church in Antioch. It is quite possible that these earlier followers of Jesus did not call themselves Christians, but it was name the community gave to the church because they saw that these people followed Jesus. The word “Christian” simply means “little Christ.” The city of Antioch called Jesus-followers “Little Christs” because they saw the people of the church imitating the life and ethics of Jesus. This labeling by the community of Antioch is important because it gives us a huge clue to what it means to be Christian. The Christian then, is one who has allegiance to the teachings and person of Jesus and seeks to imitate these teachings. This core is easily seen in other New Testament passages. Here are just a few examples.
Throughout Jesus’ ministry he called people to deny themselves and take up their cross and follow him. (Matthew 10:38; Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23; Luke 14:27). In what we call the great commission in Matthew 28:18-20 Jesus says,
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.
In all these passages we see the theme of allegiance and imitation of Jesus as essential to being a Christian.
The Apostle Paul understood that allegiance and imitation were key to what it meant to be Christian. It could be said that at the heart of his letter to the Corinthian church, with its many problems and issues, was the question, “What does it mean to be Christian?”. Paul answers this decisively when he tells the church in 1 Corinthians 11:1 “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” Paul was saying that being a Christian means following Jesus.
This idea was not unique to Paul. Peter says in 1 Peter 2:21, “For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps.” The apostle John would say in 1 John 2:6, “the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked.” Jesus’ brother James would insist that being a follower of Jesus was not simply a matter of intellectual belief but had everything to do with imitating Jesus’ ways and life. He would say in James 2:14ff that faith without action (imitation of Jesus) was dead. The New Testament seems to be clear that to be Christian one must have allegiance to Jesus and imitate his ways. So, can nations be Christian?
The easiest way to answer this question is to explore whether any nation has ever demonstrated allegiance to Jesus and sought to imitate his ways. We need to be careful not to make the mistake of thinking that just because people want to be a Christian nation or desire that such a nation exist that it means it is Christian. A duckling can grow up with dogs and even believe that it is a dog, but even though it tries to behave like a dog, tries to do dog-like things, it can never be a dog. It is still a duck. Throughout history nations have called themselves Christian, have claimed to do Christian-like things, but this does not mean they are Christian. I believe that if we honestly evaluate what is at the heart of nation state, we must say they can never be Christian. Though some certainly believe themselves to be Christian, they can never be Christian. Christianity is reserved for those who imitate Christ and follow him. Let me give you an example of a nation seeking to be Christian and believing their cause to be Christian.
During World War 2 one of the main leaders of a country who called themselves a Christian nation said this,
In this hour I would ask of the Lord God only this: that He would give His blessing to our work, and that He may ever give us the courage to do the right. I am convinced that men who are created by God should live in accordance with the will of the Almighty. No man can fashion world history unless upon his purpose and his power there rest the blessings of this Providence.
It is clear that this person believed their cause and their nation was Christian. So, who said this? Franklin Roosevelt? Winston Churchill? We might easily believe it to be either, but these words were, in fact, spoken by Adolf Hitler. Hopefully it’s obvious that Nazi Germany was not a truly “Christian” nation. They neither followed the words of Jesus or sought to imitate him.
But, can America be the exception?
Again, the criteria we are looking for is following Jesus and imitating him. Certainly, many Americans believe the nation to be Christian based on superficial statements like saying we are “under God,” but words are not as important as actions (thinking you’re a duck does not make you a duck). One only has to look throughout our nation’s history to see that, as a nation, we have not followed Jesus, nor have we imitated him.
This is not meant to be overly harsh, but to demonstrate that nations can never be Christian because nations have different interests and agendas. Nations cannot imitate Christ partly because to do so they may cease to exist as nations. If the heart of being a Christian is loving one’s enemies, then it is safe to say that America and all other nations have never been Christian. America has always had enemies and even though we invite them to join us and we might even to seek to love them it is only when they seek to serve our interests.
Christians, on the other hand, are to love their enemies regardless of their actions or intentions. If Christians are called to put down the sword, then it is evident that America is not Christian. America and all other nations use the sword to keep people in line and even at times (unknowingly) may be agents of Gods plans. If Christians are to be “just people” then one can look at American history and see it has not been just. The stain of slavery and the inequality of women and minorities are just a few examples of our injustice. Justice for all is a great dream for America and one we should strive for but it has never been realized and since nations are part of the fallen world, they never will achieve this goal.
It is my prayer in writing this blog that the reader will agree that nations cannot be Christian. Only the church can be Christian. I love the nation I live in. I want to be a blessing to it and even strive to live out my Christianity in it. Hopefully Christians see that the only nation which is Christian is the Jesus nation. This nation is a nation which has no borders and is without enemies of the flesh, but is a people who seek to imitate and follow the one leader: Jesus.