Sunday, November 4, 2012

Is America a Christian Nation? What Focus on the Family Gets Wrong

This piece never found a home in an Iowa newspaper, so I am publishing it here.  --JF

In the last twenty-four hours many citizens of Iowa have received a brochure in the mail from CitizenLink, a political affiliate of the evangelical Christian group called Focus on the Family.  The brochure calls attention to the fact that Barack Obama does not think the United States is a Christian nation.

As an evangelical Christian, someone who has learned much about being a father and husband from Focus founder James Dobson, and an American historian, I would ask you to think twice before making a decision on Tuesday based on some of the information provided in this brochure.  My concerns with this brochure are motivated not by politics, but by the irresponsible way that groups like Focus on the Family have twisted history, particularly the relationship between Christianity and the American founding, for political gain.

While the brochure is helpful in distinguishing Obama and Romney on questions related to life, marriage, and religious freedom, it assumes that such ideas can only flourish if the United States is a Christian nation.  

The quote attributed to Barack Obama at the top of the brochure is correct.  In 2008, while running for president, he said: “Whatever we once were, we are no longer a Christian nation—at least not just…We are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation and a Buddhist nation and a Hindu nation and a nation of non-believers.”

What Obama meant was that we are a nation defined by religious freedom.   America belongs to everyone who abides by its laws.  The First Amendment does not support one religion over another and provides for the free exercise of religion by people of all faiths, or none at all.  

Granted, Christians today far outnumber people of other faiths, but the Founding Fathers set out to create a republic in which religious minorities could flourish.  The Founders were not interested in creating a nation built on religious “toleration.”  This implies that one religion is supported by the government or the culture and others are merely tolerated.  When translated into common language, “toleration” often means something like: “I don’t like you and your religion, but I will tolerate you.”

Religious freedom, on the other hand, implies religious equality for all.  Unfortunately, many conservatives are unwilling to accept this reality. Many of them are not yet ready to come to grips with the implications of the Immigration Act of 1965, a law that opened the doors of the United States to a host of new immigrants from Asia and the Middle East.  The Act profoundly reshaped our religious landscape.

In other words, religious liberty—an idea that the Focus on the Family brochure praises Romney for upholding—implies that the United States is not a Christian nation.  Though Romney has not blatantly proclaimed this (to do so would be a bad political move), his views on the matter are quite similar to Obama’s.  The brochure is thus misleading.

In reality, the question of whether or not the United States was founded as a Christian nation is a difficult one to answer.  I have spent a lot of time exploring this question and have concluded that the answer is complex.  It is an issue that cannot be decided by sound-bites or campaign brochures.   

But I do think that subsequent amendments to the Constitution (such as the 14th Amendment) and later Supreme Court decisions have made it clear that the United States, as it exists today, is not a Christian nation.  

On the other hand, I think that a pretty good argument could be made for the idea that we are not a Christian nation based on the coarseness of our popular culture, our rampant materialism, our disregard for human life, and our failure to care for one another and love our neighbors.

In fact, the question of whether or not the United States is, or ever was, a Christian nation, should be irrelevant to one’s views on life, marriage or religious freedom.  Christians are to promote life, family, liberty, peace, justice, care for the creation, care for the poor, and humility in foreign affairs whether we are a Christian nation or not.

Why do Christians need the nation to be Christian, or a leader who upholds the idea that America is Christian, to live faithfully in the world?  I think I remember something about the first-century Christian church thriving amidst a Roman government that no right-minded historian would call “Christian.”