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A Great and Terrible Nation

Understanding our history, and how that might frame our Fourth of July prayers.
A Great and Terrible Nation
Image: Grove Pashley / Getty Images

Many Christians want to believe that America is a Christian nation, and for the best of reasons. Many of the early founders were devout Christians. Much of America’s history has been shaped by Protestant and evangelical values. God has indeed blessed the nation with extraordinary natural resources and bold and courageous people. It has been and continues to be a land of opportunity, which is why so many across the world want to come here. And its Declaration of Independence and Constitution are grounded in the ideal of liberty as espoused by no other nation in history.

It is no wonder, then, that many feel America has been chosen by God. It’s not surprising that many Christians join the words God and country, and that others think of the Bill of Rights as divinely inspired—“nearly as important as the Resurrection,” as one patriot put it to me recently. One might infer idolatry here, and to be sure, some Christians go too far in this direction. But let us be charitable and assume that my friend, in hyperbolic fashion, was suggesting that something about the American experiment is a miracle.

But by no means is America a Christian nation. It is certainly not in any formal sense. That is, there is nothing in our Constitution that makes that assertion. Zambia has declared itself a Christian nation, as have Denmark and Costa Rica and a few others. But we have not.

It is often said that our founding leaders were mostly Christians and they shaped the nation to that end, if not formally. This is patently untrue. While some were devout Christians, others were deists (like George Washington), and some were hostile to orthodox Christianity (like Thomas Jefferson). To be sure, they crafted our founding documents in a time when Christian values hung in the air. Their goal, however, was not to create a Christian nation but a free people. These are the simple historical facts of the matter.

As Jesus noted, the most telling sign of a Christian is the fruit of one’s life. If “by your fruits you will know them,” it’s hard to make a case that America has been a Christian nation. We are increasingly reminded of two brutal realities that have made America as we know it possible.

The first is the conquering and subjugation of Native Americans. This land was not a barren, unpopulated wilderness when Europeans arrived. From day one, there has been a variety of people here—Navajo and Sioux, Choctaw and Cherokee and more than 500 other groups. Each with a unique language, culture, and history. Each bearing the image of God. And each, one by one, mercilessly conquered and then pushed aside into reservations. There is no other way to put it. During its westward expansion, the United States signed more than 500 treaties with Native American nations, and each and every one was eventually broken unilaterally by the US. This is not national behavior one could call Christian.

Second is the enslavement of Africans, which began officially in 1641 when the Massachusetts Colony passed the “Body of Liberties” and ironically permitted slavery under certain conditions. Our Constitution recognized the legality of slavery and the unequal status of slaves with the three-fifths compromise. With this small beginning emerged a cruel system that encompassed nearly 4 million slaves by the beginning of the Civil War. It would be hard to deny that the early economic growth of our nation depended on the use of slave labor.

What should give Christians pause is the fact that devout Christians justified the conquering and often the slaughter of Native Americans as well as the brutal enslavement of Africans in our land. These are not incidental moments of injustice, but deliberate and steady, justified decade after decade with the Bible in one hand, and expedience in the other, by millions of believers.

The United States is a nation like all others, in some ways blessed by God, in some ways standing under God’s judgment.

The point is this: Can we in any way, shape, or form say that America was founded on Christian principles when its very existence and prosperity were set on a foundation of unimaginable cruelty to millions of other human beings?

This is not to say that America has practiced unparalleled evil in world history. Every nation has sins it needs to repent of. The irony of American history is that a nation founded on subjugation and cruelty nonetheless became a land of freedom and opportunity for millions. It has been and continues to be a beacon of light for refugees across the world. Our economic and justice systems, for all their flaws, make it possible for people to prosper in ways unimaginable in most of the world today. And yes, a few prophetic Christians in their day spoke up about the injustices perpetrated on Native Americans and blacks. And nearly all Americans today deeply regret how we have treated Native Americans, blacks, Chinese, Japanese, and a host of other ethnic and cultural minorities in the past, and most of us rightly continue to deplore injustice in any form—whether it be toward ethnic and racial minorities or (to name one especially grievous injustice) developing children killed before birth.

In short, the United States is a nation like all others, in some ways blessed by God, in some ways standing under God’s judgment. And so it shall be until the Lord returns.

On this and every Independence Day, we can thank God for the many blessings we enjoy, undeserved as they are. We can also repent of the ways we have denied the very values we proclaim in our founding documents and in our Pledge of Allegiance, in which we hold out the ideal of a nation that practices “liberty and justice for all.”

But let us not proclaim that we are a Christian nation founded on Christian principles. That is a lie—one might even call it a blasphemy. America is a great and terrible nation, like so many others (“terrible” meaning having done dreadful things but also “formidible in nature”). Let us continue to love it, as we love our flawed families and friends. Let us continue to serve it as God leads us to. Let us continue to reform it, as has been the practice of every generation. And most of all, let us continue to pray for it, that God would continue to have mercy on us and on our children, and on our children’s children to the third and fourth generation.

Mark Galli is editor in chief of Christianity Today.

October
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