Recently Newsweek had a cover story on the state of religion in the United States. I didn’t read the article, but I read a critique of it. The critique found fault, not so much with the statistics, but with the author’s interpretation of them. You can find the critique on the Christianity Today website. You may want to read it to get some insight into the state of Christianity in the U.S. today.
Reading that critique brought to mind the claim that the U.S. is a Christian nation, or at least was one. Some disagree with that statement, others agree. I would like to shed some light on that debate. Whether you agree or disagree depends on what you mean by “Christian.” Let me start by providing several definitions of “Christian” and then giving a brief history lesson.
(1) The term “Christian” can mean somebody who is devoutly Christian in that he or she believes the fundamentals of the faith and lives out that faith daily. In this sense of the word Christian, the believer has placed his or her trust in Jesus for his or her eternal destiny, and considers Jesus Lord of his or her life. This would include evangelicals and fundamentalists (although the definitions of these are subject to significant variation, depending whom you talk to); many Roman Catholics who take their faith seriously (many don’t); and mainline Protestants who have made Jesus their Lord and Savior. I’ll use the term “Evangelical Christian” to distinguish this type of Christian.
(2) The term “Christian” can also mean those who consider themselves to be of the Christian religion, but don’t accept many of the orthodox beliefs of the faith. They don’t attend church regularly, don’t live out their faith, and haven’t made Jesus their Lord and Savior. Their belief system is usually a conglomeration of Christianity, New Age, and other non-Christian beliefs such as reincarnation. This category includes some mainline Protestants, some who consider themselves “evangelical” but really aren’t according to the standard definition, and Roman Catholics who really don’t practice their faith but interestingly consider themselves staunch Catholics. I’ll call this category “Nominal Christians” to distinguish them from the other categories.
(3) The last category of “Christian” consists of what I call “Secular Christians” or “Cultural Christians.” They were brought up in a culture that has is roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition, they may have been brought up in the Church but haven’t been in one in years (although more and more people today are completely unchurched), and they know very little about the Christian faith yet consider themselves Christian in some sense. This category includes fallen-away Catholics, and those who consider themselves Protestant but really don’t have anything to do with religion.
America is certainly a Christian nation in that our culture has its roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Most of our immigrants came from Europe and had strong Protestant or Catholic backgrounds. Most of the founders of the nation were devout Christians, or at least had a profound respect for Christianity (despite what revisionist history tells us these days). Our major holidays have Christian roots (Christmas, Easter) or were first celebrated as a Christian event (Thanksgiving).
If you say America was a Christian nation in the sense of Nominal Christians, that would be true as well. At least up until recently, I suspect most people with a Christian background were baptized, got married in the Church, and had a Christian funeral. So the majority of people were at least Nominal Christians, with a significant segment of the population being Evangelical Christians.
If you consider America as a Christian nation in the sense that most of the population were Evangelical Christians (as defined above), that position is questionable but not completely in error. To understand our religious heritage, you have to go back to colonial times. And now for the history lesson.
America had three periods of spiritual revival during which many people became evangelicals. The First Great Awakening took place in the period 1730-1755; the Second Great Awakening happened 1790-1840; and the Third Great Awakening occurred 1850-1900. If you look in the hymnal, you’ll see that many of the great hymns of the faith were written in the 1800s.
These revivals profoundly influenced political thought and brought many to the faith, including our founders. I believe our nation and system of government would be quite different if it hadn’t been for the First Great Awakening. So given these revivals and their influence on American life, especially during our nation’s formation, one could possibly argue that the U.S. was a Christian nation in the evangelical sense, at least in its first 100 years or so.
What we need of course is a Fourth Great Awakening. Some say there has been one in the second half of the 20th Century, but if we are to keep our religious heritage intact and vibrant, we need a powerful outpouring of the Holy Spirit on this country. So pray for revival! It’s happened before, and it can happen again. That prospect scares some because they think this country will become a theocracy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Look at what came out of the First Great Awakening (see the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, as well as state constitutions): respect for individual rights, significant freedoms, no establishment of a state church (which is the separation of Church and State as it was originally intended, not the revisionist concept we have today), freedom to worship as you choose, freedom of speech, the press, and assembly. So tell me, what’s there to fear from a stronger and more vibrant Christianity?