A Christian government is not the answer to society’s problems, and it never has been.
This statement may come as a shock to many evangelicals on the political right, who firmly believe that America was founded as a Christian nation and must return to its spiritual roots in order to receive favor from God. Viewing the country in a Puritanical sense, advocates of this belief compare the United States to the Old Testament nation of Israel. They see a direct parallel between the rebelliousness of the Jewish people and the moral erosion of American society. If God could bring judgement upon his chosen nation, perhaps he could bring even more upon ours.
Although originating in the 19th Century, the modern conception of this view gained prominence with the rise of fundamentalism and the organization of the Christian Right. Proponents such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson often attributed national disasters to the manifestation of God’s wrath, drawing upon the biblical illustrations of Sodom and Gomorrah. However, the beliefs of Christian nationalists quickly run into a number of both theological and historical issues. Most apparent is the logical implication that if America is the new Israel, it too should be subject to Israelite law. After all, God’s judgement on Israel was a direct response to the Jewish people’s unfaithfulness to the law. However, this would establish the United States as a type of theocracy, something that most Christian nation supporters themselves are unwilling to implement.
From a theological perspective, it is also wrong to believe that God operates in the same way that he did during the time of ancient Israel. In Jesus, God established a New Covenant, not with nations, but with the Church. God no longer judges governing bodies in the manner that he once did, because the potency of his presence has shifted from temples to hearts. While national disasters can be attributed to the presence of sin in the world, we no longer have reason to believe that they are directly related to a specific nation’s sinfulness. The completion of God’s revelation to humanity in Jesus means that we no longer have Old Testament-type prophets to interpret or warn against national sin.
A number of historians, including several conservative evangelicals, have also argued against the concept of a Christian nation from historical grounds. Their research reveals the complex influences involved in America’s founding, while also highlighting the core belief that while America must necessarily be religious, the government should not establish a religion.
Errors on the Left
While there are many who rightly criticize the belief in a Christian nation, it is interesting to note that a number of these opponents fall into an error of their own. Arguing mainly from the political left, progressives stress the need for social justice through government action. Some self-proclaimed Christians themselves, Christian nation opponents point out the hypocrisy of immoral right-leaning governing officials and denounce policies that are opposed to the teachings of Jesus. However, the implications of this political philosophy appear to be just as dangerous as those of Christian nationalists. Left to their logical conclusions, the result would be a brand of government imitating Jesus himself – ironically its own version of a Christian nation. This too runs into a number of theological and historical issues.
In theological terms, Jesus draws a strong distinction between the government and individual behavior. Jesus did not come to reform or criticize government, but rather came to change people’s hearts. Therefore, the principles that he endorsed do not necessarily apply to the government – they apply to our common individual experiences and interactions. Both Jesus and the Apostle Paul make clear that the government is itself a separate entity, one that can operate either justly or unjustly within its own set of rules – primarily to 1.) protect its people and 2.) enact justice (not exhibit forgiveness and grace).
A government that imitates Jesus, when taken to its logical conclusion, is ultimately unsustainable. How do we determine which words of Jesus should be applied to government policy? And to what degree? “Turning the other cheek” would leave the country vulnerable and open to attack without the threat of repercussion. “Forgiving” those who do wrong would seemingly exclude meaningful punishment. Government must be viewed in a different light. It must serve a purpose different than that which many on both the left and right try to espouse.
Christians and Government
In Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Noll argues that American evangelicals have failed to engage intellectually in a number of societal spheres. Although there are several issues with the book, advocates of a Christian government from both the political left and right seem to prove Noll correct in at least one regard: Christian concepts of government often remain shallow and superficial. Advocates on both sides seek a government that, one way or another, is “Christian.” In this way, the evangelical attitude toward government is similar to that of many other areas in American society.
Andy Crouch, in his book Culture-Making, points out the flaws involved with attempts to rebrand secular concepts with Christian versions. For example, “Christian movies,” despite their positive message and redemptive features, only reach a particular subculture, and have no real influence on the mainstream at all. However, other faith-based movies, while not displaying an overtly Christian message, have been wildly successful (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Braveheart, and Hacksaw Ridge to name a few). Undergirded with Christian concepts of sacrifice, morality, and redemption, these movies were creative works of art and appealed to a wide audience. The answer, therefore, is not necessarily to create Christian movies, but rather Christian ideas of movies – something much deeper, more meaningful, and harder to accomplish. In a similar way, the answer to American political issues is not a Christian government, but (returning to) a Christian idea of government.
The Christian Idea
As Noll points out, Christian intellectualism used to be a pervasive, driving force in the world. Modern forms of science, philosophy, education, etc. all have roots in Christian notions and concepts. Just as these areas continued to be refined by Christian thought, so too did government. Beginning with the Edict of Milan, when Christianity became the official faith of the Roman Empire, Christian concepts of government continued to evolve. Through a combination of factors, including Christian-informed philosophies (as well as trial and error), people realized the faults of overtly Christian governments (nominal faith and persecution, to name a few).
Through the Enlightenment, self-professed Christians such as John Locke developed an idea of government that was informed by Christian notions. Known as the “Father of Liberalism,” Locke advocated for a type of government guided by the Christian principles of liberty and equality. Although his personal beliefs were perhaps unorthodox and worthy of criticism, Locke’s ideas of government were heavily informed by a strong Christian worldview.
In large part from Locke’s influence, the American founders established a Christian idea of government that was not explicitly Christian (although this itself continued to evolve). By the time Alexis de Tocqueville published Democracy in America in 1835, the uniqueness of Americanism was apparent. He observed a governmental structure that fostered individualism, family, township democracy, associations, and religions – in large part because the government removed itself from direct influence in these areas.
Although perhaps flawed in its openness to excesses of materialism, the American system stands as a Christian idea of government because it protects its citizens, enacts justice (as mandated in Romans 13), and because it fosters a free atmosphere where genuine faith can thrive. In many ways it is more “Christian” than the Christian Roman Empire.
Modern day Christians must return to this framework when thinking about American politics. A Christian idea of government may look very different than the Christian governments that both the left and the right try to implement. Sometimes this will include advocating for policies and political candidates that would serve godly purposes for government, but would also be poor examples for individual behavior. Other times it will include ceding battles in the culture war for the sake of fair and just policies – yet standing firm on the government’s moral foundations.
The issues facing Christianity and politics will not go away. God has mandated that man-made governments serve as imperfect placeholders until he one day returns in power. Therefore, it is imperative that Christians – especially those with the ability to influence the government – abandon shallow ways of thinking and seek deeper connections between their faith and the world.