I am often asked whether I would identify the United States as a “Christian nation.” I suspect that was the underlying concern when a friend, a 95-year-old World War II veteran, asked if I thought our church should place an American flag along with the Christian flag in our sanctuary. (He wears an American flag in his lapel; I have one on my license plate.) I answered his question with stories from teaching law in Vietnam and China.
A Story from Vietnam
In preparation for teaching a course on “Religion and Law in the US” in Vietnam, I asked a Christian friend who lives in Vietnam what Vietnamese people think of Christianity. He responded: “They see Jesus as America’s Ho Chi Minh.” You may recall that Ho Chi Minh was the Communist military leader and poet who defeated the existing Vietnamese governments and drove out the French and Americans in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. In Vietnam he is seen as the father of the country. My friend added: “This makes it very hard to share the Gospel.” So…“Jesus is America’s Ho Chi Minh.” I was horrified: “No! Jesus came to save the whole world! He is not an American God nor an American military or political leader.” Yet you can see how this mindset is established and reinforced by talk of “Christian America” and American church displays of American flags.
Identifying America as a Christian country makes it hard to spread the Gospel in predominantly Buddhist, Communist, Muslim, and Hindu countries. Missionaries are seen as an alien force. Christian converts are seen as traitors. More importantly, identifying Christianity with a particular country is inconsistent with Scripture. Christianity is not a nationalist religion. From the earliest days of the church, Christianity has been a multi-ethnic, multi-national religion. “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek” (Gal. 3:8) [nor American nor Vietnamese].
Talk of “Christian America” encourages people to make Christ responsible for what the United States government does. Some of those decisions are wise and some are foolish, but Christ gets stuck with all of them. If Christianity is closely identified with the United States, its reputation will rise or fall with the successes and failures of our government instead of the claims of the Gospel. Some people will oppose (or even hate) Christ because of their disagreement with positions of the United States. Christians should not have to defend or apologize for American policies that are not Christian at all.
We can see the dangers of identifying Christianity with a country if we compare the United States with European countries that officially identify their country with the Christian faith—sometimes in their national constitutions. In European “Christian” countries, churches often are empty. Christianity has been attractive in the United States, in part because it has not generally been identified with the government.
A Story from China
A few years thereafter, when I was teaching the course on religion and law in the US at a mainland Chinese law school, we read the Ten Commandments and some of the additional moral teaching in the Bible. A student raised her hand and said she did not think Christians really believe these things. She watched American television and found that Christians did not obey these moral teachings, and that, in fact, they behave much worse than Chinese people. I did not know where to begin in my response. There were almost as many false assumptions as words in her comment. She assumed, like many of the people around the world, that the United States is a Christian country and therefore that all Americans are Christians.
In this view, Christ is responsible, not only for the actions of the American government as in my first story, but also for the moral behavior of all Americans (and all American TV characters!). The lives of Christians should draw people to Christ. When we encourage the belief that all Americans are Christians, we push them away from Christ.
Just as I cringe when I hear reports that a Christian pastor or leader or movie star has flaunted Christian morality, I cringe when I hear the United States referred to as a “Christian nation.” Our abortion, murder, divorce, child abuse, and spousal abuse rates make it clear that we are anything but a Christian nation.
Here’s an even more sobering concern: The Third Commandment prohibits using the Lord’s name in vain. That includes using the Lord’s name as a curse word, but it is much more. It prohibits using the Lord’s name in a trivial, meaningless, or insincere manner. When we publicly identify our country (or our churches or ourselves) as “Christian” and miserably fail to live up to Christian standards, we take the Lord’s name in vain. Indeed, I think it is more damaging to the name of Christ to associate it with a country, a business, a university, or a person that falls far short of the Lord’s standards than to use it as a curse.
Christian Faith and Our Nation
In my course, I trace some areas where American law reflects Christian foundations: Creation and the Declaration of Independence (“all men are created equal, . . . endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights”); the Fall and the Constitution’s separation of powers (as Federalist 51 notes, since humans are not “angels” “you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself”); human responsibility and the First Amendment (Christ, not the state, is “the Lord of the Conscience”), and the anti-slavery, civil rights, and pro-life movements. Of course, enacting such laws in a democracy requires partnerships with people of other faiths and of no faith, and American law and society has often failed to live up to Christian ideals. Lincoln referred to Americans as “God’s almost chosen people.” Even so, Christian insights have been a foundation of many of America’s most worthwhile laws.
So what should be the relationship between a Christian citizen in the United States and our nation? Our situation does not fit neatly into any biblical model. We don’t have the special role that Israel was called to fill, yet we are called to do all we do to the glory of God. In a democracy, citizens are neither rulers nor subjects, but we have some qualities of each. We are neither on the throne nor in the catacombs. We have influence, but limited influence.
I hope that as Christians, we will bring our values and our ideas to the public square. We should assess every aspect of our lives through a Christian lens to see if the Christian faith speaks to it. God created us in his image and called us to be stewards of his world. He called on the children of Israel to “seek justice” (Is. 1:17). He called on the captives in Babylon to “seek the peace of the city” where he had placed them (Jer. 29: 7). I hope American Christians will seek to care for our world, will seek justice, and will seek the peace of the city in which he has placed us. We should seek to persuade our neighbors and listen carefully to them and their concerns. Christians should speak prophetically to the nation on behalf of “the least of these,” the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, the Samaritan, and the unborn, but this ability is compromised when we label our country “Christian.” To do so alienates non-Christians and suggests that Christ is responsible for the errors we, our country, and our fellow citizens will invariably make. Our country will always err and Christ should not bear responsibility for those errors.
Robert F. Cochran, Jr. is the Louis Brandeis Professor Emeritus at Pepperdine University School of Law. He has published over 60 articles and 10 books, including Christian Perspectives on Legal Thought (Yale University Press) and Law and the Bible (InterVarsity Press, 2013) (with David VanDrunen) and Agape, Justice, and Law (Cambridge University Press (with Zachary Calo).