When Gregory Boyd, pastor of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, preached about the danger of mingling the mission of the church with conservative politics he ignited passionate responses on both sides, and 1,000 people left the church. In part two of an excerpt from Boyd's new book, The Myth of a Christian Nation (Zondervan 2006), he says much of this passion is fueled by the false belief that America is a Christian nation and that the church's role is to reinforce that belief.
What gives the connection between Christianity and politics such strong emotional force in the U.S.? I believe it is the longstanding myth that America is a Christian nation.
From the start, we have tended to believe that God's will was manifested in the conquest and founding of our country - and that it is still manifested in our actions around the globe. Throughout our history, most Americans have assumed our nation's causes and wars were righteous and just, and that "God is on our side." In our minds - as so often in our sanctuaries - the cross and the American flag stand side by side. Our allegiance to God tends to go hand in hand with our allegiance to country. Consequently, many Christians who take their faith seriously see themselves as the religious guardians of a Christian homeland. America, they believe, is a holy city "set on a hill," and the church's job is to keep it shining.
The negative reaction to my sermons made it clear that this foundational myth is alive and well in the evangelical community - and not just in its fundamentalist fringes. That reaction leads me to suspect that this myth is being embraced more intensely and widely now than in the past precisely because evangelicals sense that it is being threatened. The truth is that the concept of America as a Christian nation, with all that accompanies that myth, is actually losing its grip on the collective national psyche, and as America becomes increasingly pluralistic and secularized, the civil religion of Christianity is losing its force. Understandably, this produces consternation among those who identify themselves as the nation's religious guardians.
So, when the shepherd of a flock of these religious guardians stands up - in the pulpit no less - and suggests that this foundational American myth is, in fact, untrue, that America is not now and never was a Christian nation, that God is not necessarily on America's side, and that the kingdom of God we are called to advance is not about "taking America back for God" - well, for some, that's tantamount to going AWOL.
The myth of America as a Christian nation, with the church as its guardian, has been, and continues to be, damaging both to the church and to the advancement of God's kingdom. Among other things, this nationalistic myth blinds us to the way in which our most basic and most cherished cultural assumptions are diametrically opposed to the kingdom way of life taught by Jesus and his disciples.
Instead of living out the radically countercultural mandate of the kingdom of God, this myth has inclined us to Christianize many pagan aspects of our culture. Instead of providing the culture with a radically alternative way of life, we largely present it with a religious version of what it already is. The myth clouds our vision of God's distinctly beautiful kingdom and thereby undermines our motivation to live as set-apart (holy) disciples of this kingdom.
Even more fundamentally, because this myth links the kingdom of God with certain political stances within American politics, it has greatly compromised the holy beauty of the kingdom of God to non-Christians. This myth harms the church's primary mission.