A Christian Nation
This is Father Jared Cramer from St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven, Michigan, here with today’s edition of Christian Mythbusters, a regular segment I offer to counter some common misconceptions about the Christian faith.
I hope the fireworks from the Fourth of July holiday have finally calmed down in your neighborhood. I know it seemed to me like this year’s observance was a little more… exuberant than most years. That’s probably because there were limited public celebrations this year, the lifting of COVID-19 regulations coming too late for plans to be made. I think it also just felt good, after the year we’ve all had, to blow some things up.
And so, as a late fireworks display of my own, in this week’s episode of Christian Mythbusters I would like to tackle the myth of our country’s founding being about creating a Christian nation. You might say, I want to blow the whole idea up, if you’ll forgive the pun.
I always find it amusing when people insist that the United States is a Christian nation because that’s kind of the opposite of the point of the whole revolutionary war. After all, the pilgrims, for example, who came to America (indeed, many of the early colonists), were coming from England—a nation that is an explicitly Christian nation with the Church of England serving as the state church and the monarch serving as the supreme governor of the church. Many of the colonists came here seeking religious freedom, especially freedom from an established Christian nation.
Now, this is an awkward point to make as an Episcopalian. Our church, after all, is the daughter church of the Church of England, with whom we are still in relationship as part of the worldwide Anglican Communion. It was awkward after the revolutionary war as well, as many colonists who were devout members of the Church of England were also loyalists to the crown. This includes Samuel Seabury, who some of you know as the loyalist cleric in Lin Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton, a person who is taken down by the title character for his loyalist views.
After we declared and then won our independence from the Christian nation of England, the founders were explicit that they did not want to create a similar arrangement here in the United States. They did not want any church, denomination, or religion to consider itself established.
The same was actually true in the Episcopal Church because, in a great second act, our newly independent Anglican churches elected Samuel Seabury to be the first bishop of our church. Seabury set sail for England but was refused consecration because—get this, even though he had been a loyalist—he refused to swear allegiance to the monarch. He was a citizen of a newly free country and church and just couldn’t do it. He turned to Scotland where, in a story that is much longer than I have time for here, he was consecrated a bishop and able to return home and serve the new Episcopal Church in the United States.
The point of all of this is that our country was not founded to repeat the oppressive “Christian nation” from which we many of the colonists had come. Instead, the founders set to create boundaries and walls to keep that very sort of thing from happening.
In the book The Myth of a Christian Nation, theologian Greg Boyd explores this myth and not only argues that it is inaccurate, he insists that it is corrosive to Christianity itself. Boyd reminds us that, as Christians, our first loyalty should always be to Jesus Christ and his calling for us to love of God and neighbor. The longing for a “Christian Nation” is really about a longing for the church to have power in society… but the church has a pretty bad track record when it comes to power. In fact, in general, it is when the church eschews power and focuses on love, justice, and mercy that it is far more faithful to the teachings of Christ.
The problem with wanting us to be a Christian nation is that it would shift, not only how we engage with non-Christians in our country who then somehow don’t become real Americans, but it would shift how we exist with Christians outside our country. Our unity in baptism is surely more important than our citizenship.
Don’t get me wrong, I celebrated the Fourth of July with my family. We even lit off some fireworks in the driveway (though I tried to ensure they weren’t too loud or obnoxious). But the celebration for me was that our country was founded as a place with a dream of liberty and justice for all people, no matter your faith or even if you don’t have faith. We have often not lived up to that ideal, but we continue to strive. And I truly believe America is at her best when she ensures all people—and all religions—have the freedom to worship and believe as they believe their God calls them. Just like you. Just like me.
Thanks for being with me. To find out more about my parish, you can go to sjegh.com. Until next time, remember, protest like Jesus, love recklessly, and live your faith out in a community that accepts you but also challenges you to be better tomorrow than you are today.