*Posted by Winston Hottman
Last month, I wrote a post that posed the question, “Is (Was) America a Christian Nation?” That post included some comments by John Leland, an early American Baptist, and asked readers to offer their own answers to the question. While not doing full justice to the complexity of the issue, in today’s post I offer some of my own thoughts on the issue:
The answer depends on what is meant by the question? Has Christianity ever functioned as the official religion of the United States? Obviously, no. Must elected leaders be Christians? Once again, no.
If this is the case, what do people mean when they refer to America as a Christian nation? It seems that in most cases they are referring to the cultural heritage of the US that, in many ways, has been shaped by Christian traditions. While never functioning as an official state religion, Christianity in America has had a significant impact on the symbols, music, rituals and values of the American people. From the Ten Commandments stationed in courthouses around the country to the common practice of presidents-elect swearing the oath of office with their hands on a Bible to the historic consensus of Judeo-Christian values, the history of America has been intertwined with the history of Christianity.
However, it is important to remember that the American system guarantees none of these. There is nothing in our Constitution or body of laws that guarantees the prominent, culture-shaping role of Christianity in America. Inherent to our form of government is the very real possibility that Christianity will cease to play the part that it has played historically. In an American culture marked now more than ever by religious diversity, it is to be expected that the religious identity of the nation will become less “Christian.”
There is a pragmatic reason why this is important. As modern Baptists, it is important to realize the possibilities that religious freedom brings. In the fight to keep America a “Christian nation,” the value of religious freedom must continue to be preserved. And most importantly, political activism to keep America Christian must be evaluated and approached carefully with much prayer and wisdom lest we set a precedent of religious discrimination that could be turned against us in the future.
The table of public discourse is an increasingly crowded one. Historically, Baptists have known what it means to be banned from the table. The privileged status that we now enjoy is an oddity of sorts. So while we currently enjoy our place at the table, let’s remember our past and the importance of religious freedom and make sure there are plenty of open seats for the newcomers.