Christianity and the “Christian Nation”
Many nation-states in the world profess to be “Christian nations” or have members within them who would make a similar profession. They believe their nation should represent Jesus’ purposes on earth to some degree: perhaps it is a belief that their nation is founded on Christian principles, or that somehow their nation has been appointed by Jesus to accomplish His purposes on the earth. This ideology is particularly striking among many in the United States: many are convinced that the United States was founded as a uniquely Christian nation, founded by pious Christians who sought freedom from the tyranny of Britain, and wished to establish the United States as a haven for Christianity and the advancement of its principles through its policies and politics.
From a perspective purely founded in the New Testament, such an endeavor seems entirely misbegotten. Jesus did not come to establish an earthly Kingdom: His Kingdom is not of this world, and He refused to bow down before Satan to receive the glory of the kingdoms of the world (Matthew 4:8-10, John 18:36). Jesus was the stone that would smash the power of the kingdoms of the world (cf. Daniel 2:34-35, 44-45): the Gospel would be preached to people in every nation, and Christians would seek to glorify God and accomplish His purposes as members of various nation-states (Matthew 28:18-20, Colossians 1:6). Christians submit to the earthly authorities, but their primary loyalty is to God in Christ, and they must always obey God rather than man (Acts 5:29, Romans 13:1-7, Philippians 3:20-21, 1 Peter 2:11-18). Christians in New Testament times and soon after experienced great suffering and persecution at the hands of earthly authorities; they made no claims or pretense of attempting to make Rome a “Christian nation” (cf. Revelation 13:1-18, 15:1-2). Early Christians perceived that the nation-states of the world were enslaved to Satan, the god of this world: they would give Caesar what was Caesar’s, but their full devotion and hope they gave to God (Matthew 4:8-10, 22:15-22, Revelation 13:1-18).
Despite imperial resistance and persecution, Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, and gained many adherents throughout its first three centuries. The relationship between Christianity and the nation-state, particularly in the Western world, was profoundly changed in the fourth century after the Emperor Constantine embraced the Christian faith, and his later descendants imposed Christianity as the approved religion of the Empire. “Christendom” would never be the same: churches would use nation-states to impose their form of Christianity on the land, and the nation-states used the churches to advance their interests among the people. To this end “Christendom” featured a host of civic religions which would uphold certain principles of Christianity while justifying the nation-state in its ideology. They might pretend to honor the Lamb, but once their interests were threatened, the beast behind the scenes would be unleashed (Revelation 13:1-18).
We have witnessed a particularly American form of civil religion develop over the past century which married a fundamentalist Christianity with a small government, free market, corporate friendly, patriotic conservatism. In this view, the United States is a “Christian nation.” God has uniquely blessed and chosen America in Christ as a beacon of freedom and opportunity, advancing free enterprise and restraint from governmental interference. America is thus seen as a force for good in the world, with even its military endeavors blessed by God. In this view, being a good American is to be Christian, and a good Christian is a good American.
In truth, the United States of America was not founded as a “Christian nation”; most of its founders were Deists and did not subscribe to Christian “orthodoxy.” Yes, Christianity maintained a profound influence in early America, and many of the principles enshrined in America’s founding documents are influenced by the Christian tradition; but this does not make the United States somehow a “Christian nation” in a way God would recognize in Christ. From the perspective of what God has made known in Jesus, there is much to lament over what has been done in the name of the faith since the days of Constantine; we have no expectation, based in Scripture, that Christians are to expect the nation in which they live to honor their principles, to advance their faith, or to bring God’s Kingdom through its coercive power. The Gospel of Jesus, not the nation-state, is God’s power to salvation (Romans 1:16).
Those who would wish to serve Jesus must be leery of the premise of the “Christian nation.” No nation-state honors Christ for the sake of glorifying God; nation-states wish for Christianity to help it advance its own purposes, and in the process, the faith in Christ will be invariably compromised. When Christianity is used to advance any kind of political agenda, the faith in Christ will be invariably compromised. Jesus and the Apostles bore witness before rulers (Luke 23:1-25, Acts 26:1-32); the rulers condemned Jesus, and the Apostles sought for them to become followers of Jesus in their own right.
Those who would serve Jesus will make excellent citizens of an earthly nation in many respects: they will honor authorities, they will pay taxes, they will give consideration to the poor and marginalized in their midst (Romans 13:1-8, Galatians 6:10, 1 Peter 2:11-18). Yet those who serve Jesus must put His Kingdom first, and nation-states generally demand complete and total loyalty from their subjects. If Christians prove willing to take up arms for the sake of a cause or a nation-state, and would even fight fellow Christians doing the same for a different cause or nation-state, how is the Kingdom of God thus honored? If Christians would think less of fellow Christians because of the nation-state in which they happen to live, how is the Kingdom of God honored? Christians can certainly appreciate the benefits of the particular nation-state in which they live; we are not called to renounce our ethnic or national identity. But we must never allow our national identity to supersede our commitment to Jesus’ trans-national Kingdom, or become so enraptured in cultural chauvinism as to alienate ourselves from others for whom Christ died.
Christians must be on guard against the deceptive nature of the civic religion of the “Christian nation.” It allows people to presume that being a good citizen of the state means they can be considered in good standing with God, even though God is not a respecter of persons, and seeks for faithful, sacrificial service for the Kingdom of Jesus (Romans 2:5-11). Christians are easily tempted to emphasize what civic religion would have them emphasize, and minimize what civic religion would have them minimize, and to neglect the weightier matters of the Kingdom of God. The enemies of the civic religion are whatever threats the nation-state perceives against itself, and their humiliation or elimination is sought; the enemies of Christ are the spiritual forces of darkness and all who are influenced by them, and resisting the forces of evil and redeeming those who are influenced by them should be sought (Ephesians 6:12, 1 Timothy 2:4). Ultimately, if the nation-state turns to a different ideology for a civic religion, what becomes of all of those whose allegiance to Christ was dependent on the affirmation of the nation-state? As we are seeing today in America, many such people have fallen away, and now prove at best indifferent, and at worse hostile, toward the faith in Christ.
Those who serve Jesus must recognize how the civic religion promoted by the government has never been, nor can ever be expected to be, their loyal friend. They might be tolerated at times, but they may suffer persecution if any of the presumptions of the nation-state are challenged. We can faithfully serve Christ among those who profess a “Christian nation,” but we can only do so if we maintain vigilance in our loyalty to the trans-national Kingdom of God and His purposes made known in Jesus. May we prioritize the Kingdom of God and share in the resurrection of life!
Ethan R. Longhenry
Photo Credit: Brad Dodson