Biblical Guidelines for Interpreting America’s “Christian Heritage”

A view of American history which gives a falsely Christian character is a hindrance, first, because it distorts the nature of the past.  Positive Christian action does not grow out of distortions or half-truths.  Such errors lead rather to false militance, unrealistic standards for American public life today, and to romanticized visions about the heights from which we have fallen [leading Christians and therefore churches into idolatrous practices of worship of a mixture of God and country].

But a false estimation of America’s history also hinders positive Christian action by discouraging a biblical analysis of our position today.  And it can compromise genuinely biblical guidelines for action.  If we accept traditional American attitudes toward public life as if these were Christian, when in fact they are not, we do the cause of Christ a disservice.  Similarly, if we perpetuate the sinful behavior and the moral blind spots of our predecessors, even if these predecessors were Christians, it keeps us from understanding scriptural mandates for action today….

[P]roper biblical principles for our attitudes to the American nation and its heritage…

(1) In the first place, we must agree with Roger Williams that no nation since the coming of Christ has been uniquely God’s chosen people.  The New Testament teaches unmistakably that Christ set aside national and ethnic barriers and that he has chosen to fulfill his central purposes in history through the church, which transcends all such boundaries….

However much particular nations may be used at particular times to do God’s work in the world, they are not the primary tools that he is now using.  Similarly, the Lord of history has not aligned his purposes with the particular values of any given country or civilization.

Instead, God calls out his people to be strangers and pilgrims, as many of America’s early settlers knew.  he calls them to repent of their sins and to avoid conformity with the world.  We are to be good citizens, but we must remember that our real home, that city with foundations, is beyond our own culture.  Our renderings to Caesar, while they must be taken seriously, are to follow the values of that Kingdom which stands above all earthly authority.  These priorities, rather than those of our culture and nation, demand our unfettered loyalty.

(2) A second principle is that God has no interest in religion per se.  There are strong inclinations, in fact, that he hates religion that is not truly Christian more than the absence of religion.  Christ condemned the Pharisees because not only were they blind, but as religious leaders they misled others.  “I hate the sound of your solemn assemblies,” the prophet Amos informed religious men and women of the Old Testament, when they used their religion as an excuse not to face the Lord himself.  One of the biggest dangers of an awareness of America’s religious past is the temptation to condone religion per se as the means to the ends of national righteousness.

There is the implicit tendency among uncritically patriotic Christians to conform any religion that tends to uphold the basic principles of American morality.  Where is the prophetic voice that condemns all religion which does not have its ultimate end in the God of our Lord Jesus Christ?  We must recognize that the American civic faith constantly repeats the chorus that any religion is good enough and that none should claim exclusive truth.  Against this tenet, we must be willing to stand as lonely prophets whose hearts are not glad with mere religiousity.  Jehovah demands exclusive loyalty.

(3) A third principle is that God judges people not according to what they say they believe but according to their real faith commitment.  God always is very practical in this respect.  We are liars, he says, if we claim to love God while we are busy hating our brother.  Similarly, when Israel would parade her religiousity, God would remind her people of the social injustice that was everywhere practiced upon the powerless.  This is the message of the book of James.  Real Christian faith can always be evaluated by the fruit it bears.  Real Christian faith will produce works, or it is not genuine faith.  According to this principle, we should evaluate the righteousness of any society not merely by the religious professions that people make, but also by the extent to which Christian principles concerning personal morality and justice for the oppressed are realized in the society.

The basis for judging the righteousness of this nation at any point is not solely to examine the membership rolls of the churches [especially in light of that, in much of pre-Revolutionary America and shortly after, church attendance was mandated].  No doubt, professions of faith are important.  But we must also look at the extent to which believers are engaged in the task of applying Christian love and justice to every facet of life.  What is really important is not the claims about American Christian heritage, nor an unjustifiable equation of modern America with the “my people” of 2 Chronicles 7:14.  What will stand in the final analysis is how believers, who recognize that their final Kingdom is not of this world, prove their faith in God by works of worship and love.

Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, George Marsden, The Search for Christian America22-24.

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Filed under Bible, Character, Christian Education, Christian Thinking, Christology, Church History, Culture, God, Providence, Religious Nationalism, Sovereignty, Theology, Worldview

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