Recently, I had the opportunity to speak at a joint Davenant Institute/American Reformer panel discussion on the theme, “Does Christian America Have a Future?” Before answering such a bold question, other questions perhaps are in order. “Should Christian America have a future?” for instance. Or even more basically, “What might it mean to speak of a ‘Christian America’?”
Why We Need a Christian Public Culture
For many American evangelicals, longing to see their nation’s churches full, the idea of a “Christian America” might not extend much further than the vision of a great religious revival. A Christian America, on the conversionistic understanding typical of so many evangelicals, might mean nothing more than an America chock-full of Christians. With their public theology limited to the Great Commission, and their vision of “making disciples” merely a matter of getting people to pray the Sinners’ Prayer, evangelicals have for the past couple generations been complicit in the de-Christianization of America, as faith is reduced to a purely private concern, and religion reduced to the business of saving souls.
Still, most evangelicals deep down know better. Their common sense is often better than their theology, understanding that private faith must express itself in public life. Indeed, earlier generations of American evangelicals understood that religious revival also entailed cultural renewal; the revivalists of the Second Great Awakening, for all of their emphasis on individual conversion, were also great institution-builders and moral crusaders, establishing schools, colleges, and societies to help transformed lives issue in a transformed society. Minimally, it seems, to speak of a Christian America then must mean an America that features a Christian public culture. By “public culture” I have in mind things like public social norms, artistic norms, popular entertainment, business practices (including some level of sabbath observance), and much more.
To be sure, we should not deceive ourselves into equating such a “Christian public culture” with the norms and practices of the institutional church, or be blind to the myriad ways in which such a culture will fall short of Christ’s call for radical discipleship. A Christian public culture, like a Christian person, will still be deeply sinful and deficient. But it can still be an awful lot better than the alternatives. If you’re skeptical, just pause for a moment to consider the blood-soaked public culture of ancient Rome, dominated by war, slavery, gladiatorial games and the “lust for domination”; or the sex-obsessed public culture of the post-Christian West, with ubiquitous pornography and its inane celebration of gender experimentation as the pinnacle of personal heroism.
A Christian public culture will be better than the alternatives in at least three ways. First, even for the many members of society who never come to share Christian faith, a Christian public culture serves as a profound form of neighbor-love. Why? Because, for all its imperfections, it is more in tune with reality, more in tune with the God-given telos of the human being. A culture that doesn’t glorify casual sex or gratuitous violence is, believe it or not, a more pleasant place to live for the vast majority of people—and especially for the weak and easily exploited, whom we are especially called to love as Christians.
Second, for Christians themselves, a Christian public culture is an aid to living out a life of Christian virtue. To be sure, it can also be a temptation—a temptation to complacency and compromise. But all in all, it is a benefit. No man is an island, and few Christians have the strength of character to live out the demands of the gospel all on their own. The support of a community that bestows recognition and praise on virtuous behavior, and that discourages vice and makes it harder to get away with, is a great blessing for the vast majority of people.
Third, a Christian public culture is even a support to Christian faith. No one is saved simply by being born into a Christian society. That is obviously true. However, it should be equally obvious that you will have a larger chance of coming to saving faith in a society that encourages and promotes the work of the church and by its habits and customs attests to the transforming impact of the gospel.
But how do you maintain a Christian public culture? Culture is not, after all, simply self-replicating, however much we may think of it that way. Culture—a society’s vision of the good, and of the many subsidiary goods that aid us in our pursuit of the good—is inculcated. It has to be taught, handed down, publicly affirmed and proclaimed. This requires institutions, especially educational institutions. And such institutions require funding. And much as we might like to imagine that everything worth doing can be effectively funded by the private sector, history laughs at such naivete. In every culture in every age, the crucial institutions that uphold a public culture have required public support—which is to say, government support. The Protestant Reformers, at least, weren’t shy about this. They put public education at the center of their reforming agendas. Today, Christians have turned on public education because it has turned on them—but the correct solution is to recapture it, not to denounce the very notion of public education.
Why We Need a Christian Government
A properly Christian America, then, will need to be an America characterized by laws and a government that promote Christianity and Christian norms. Many readers are likely to gasp with horror at such a sentence—not just progressives (who, after all, are unlikely to be reading this column), but conservative evangelical Christians. For many evangelicals, the idea of a Christian government is unthinkable, intolerable, a betrayal of the essence of Christian faith.
This learned reflex is partly the result of bad theology, but it’s also in large part the result of bad political theory. Most modern Americans, after all, have come to embrace a warped conception of law and government. As modern liberals, we think of government as there to punish, not reward; we think of law as boundary, rather than teacher. Law, we think, exists to corral and restrain criminal behavior, and government is there to prevent harm. But this is not how earlier ages understood it—and in this case, the older view has the advantage not merely of being older, but of conforming to reality as we actually experience it.
Law, as the ancients well understood, has a pedagogical function. By punishing bad behavior, yes—as the ancient Roman pedagogue and the pre-1960s schoolteacher with their hickory switches well knew—but that’s not all. Law, after all, serves more than anything else to establish and uphold public symbols. It anchors the meaning of the social universe, describing what it is that we value as a society and prescribing what it is that we should value. Law is an idealized mirror by which the public reflects back to itself what it wants to look like. Again, this is obvious when we stop and look around at how our laws have actually functioned—on divorce, abortion, or homosexuality; on markets and usury; on masks and vaccines. Deluded by our minimalist theory of law, we think that a more permissive law on divorce, for instance, simply represents a decision to be less intrusive in restraining a particular private vice. We fail to realize the extent to which it re-structures the meaning of the social universe, implicitly calling “good” what we once called evil.
Our minimalist theory of law causes us to ask the wrong questions when debating the meaning of a Christian society. “Are you planning to execute homosexuals, then? Are you going to haul up every desperate mother on murder charges for abortion?” Such questions presuppose that a Christian public law must be one that would strictly punish every un-Christian behavior—after all, isn’t law all about punishment? In point of fact, most Christian societies in the past have known that there are all kinds of evils that cannot always be wisely or effectively punished, but that did not necessarily stop them from legislating against them. They knew that the law had a much more fundamental role to play in educating the society in a vision of the good—and thus indirectly curtailing vices that might not always be directly prosecuted.
Again, Christians used to know this—as did everyone with common sense. But somewhere along the way (as late as the mid 20th-century, perhaps), we bought into a flawed liberal minimalist conception of law. Unfortunately, progressives did not. We swallowed a lie about how law could be neutral vis-à-vis questions of culture, and so we obsequiously vacated the public square, apologizing profusely for all the evils of Christendom.
Meanwhile, nature abhors a vacuum, and progressives happily leapt into the space that Christians had vacated, enthusiastically embracing the pedagogical function of law as they steadily reconstructed our country’s legal regime in the image of their libertine utopia. Christians, lulled into a libertarian stupor, either went right along with it or only half-heartedly objected. How bad could gay marriage be, after all, if only 2% of the population were gay? Fast-forward eight years from Obergefell and 16% of young adults now identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. How could a mere change in the law accomplish this? Easy: the law tells us what we should value as a society, and young people got the message loud and clear.
Why a Christian America is the American Way
A Christian America, then, would not be one in which theocratic zealots went around looking for reasons to lock people up. Rather, it would be one in which a largely Christian public culture used the authority of laws to maintain and perpetuate the goods of that culture: affirming the importance of the natural family, the Christian family, and the virtues of self-restraint, for instance. And it would be one that was not shy about using public funds to fund a recognizably Christian education and institutions supportive of Christian norms—again, as every thriving society in history has used public funds to promote its vision of the good, the true, and the beautiful. Nor does commitment to the idea of a Christian America involve one in some kind of idolatry, confusing America with the kingdom of Christ or insisting that America has an indispensable role to play in the divine purpose, as some Americans are prone to do. Quite the contrary: the idea of a Christian America should be plausible to us not because America is exceptional, but to the extent that it is unexceptional. There have been many other Christian nations in the sense I have just described and there still are quite a few. Perhaps we could be one of them again.
I say “again” because, as I wish to emphasize in closing, there is nothing crazy or radical or unconstitutional in what I have just outlined. All these things that I have described were done throughout much of America for much of America’s history. Sabbath laws used to be the norm, and the last statewide “blue law” in the United States was not repealed until 2014. Although public education in the US has generally been non-sectarian, that did not mean it was non-Christian. On the contrary, the Christian Bible, Christian teachings, and Christian prayers were widespread in public schools for much of our country’s history.
And of course, a Christian understanding of marriage and sexuality (which is also a natural-law understanding, but that’s a subject for another day) was woven into the warp and woof of our legal system, as indeed was a Christian understanding of property and money-making. Whether formal religious establishments at state and local levels are optimal or not, the First Amendment to the Constitution was never intended to restrain them, much less to ban more generic forms of public promotion of Christianity, and still less to rule out conceptions of law informed by the Christian tradition—which was in fact inextricably woven into the common law of Britain and America.
Justice Joseph Story, among the most eminent jurists America has ever produced and the most authoritative commentator on its Constitution, had this to say in 1833:
The right of a society or government to interfere in matters of religion will hardly be contested by any persons who believe that piety, religion, and morality are intimately connected with the well-being of the state, and indispensable to the administration of civil justice. The promulgation of the great doctrines of religion, the being, and attributes, and providence of one Almighty God; the responsibility to him for all our actions, founded upon moral freedom and accountability; a future state of rewards and punishments; the cultivation of all the personal, social, and benevolent virtues;—these can never be a matter of indifference in any well-ordered community. It is, indeed, difficult to conceive how any civilized society can well exist without them. And at all events, it is impossible for those who believe in the truth of Christianity as a divine revelation to doubt that it is the especial duty of government to foster and encourage it among all the citizens and subjects (Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, II:603).
In many parts of our country, the light has long since died, the churches are empty, and the revival of a Christian culture or Christian laws is hard to imagine without a deep and sustained revival. In other parts of our country, where churches sit on every street corner and you can’t tune the radio without hitting a Christian station, the light still flames bright—albeit flickering dangerously in the harsh winds that are seeking to snuff it out. In such places, the absence of a public Christianity owes less to a loss of faith than to a loss of civic will. It is high time that we remind those who believe in the truth of Christianity as a divine revelation that “it is the especial duty of government to foster and encourage it among all the citizens,” and arm them for the fierce battles they will have to fight—not only against progressives, but against many of their own co-religionists—on behalf of this once so common-sensical proposition.
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