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God's Politics

Jim WallisIn my latest contribution to the The Washington Post/Newsweek online discussion “On Faith,” I responded to the following question:

Some politically conservative Christians say that America is “a Christian nation,” and at this time of year, with the country saturated with Christmas imagery, it can seem that they are right. Are they? Is America a “Christian nation”? Should it be?

As a Christian, and an evangelical Christian at that, I want to say emphatically that America is not, and should not be, a “Christian nation.” While it is clear that the founders of the nation had a high regard for religion and generally believed it made an essential contribution to the well-being of society, they decided to disentangle religion from the state and thereby create a new thing in the world. As to their own faith, many were religious and some were not; but more were likely “Deists” than evangelical Christians (despite the continual and historically groundless claims by some that the founders were all or mostly dedicated believers).

What we have grown to call the separation of church and state is good for both the government and religion — that citizenship should have no religious tests and faith can’t or shouldn’t be implemented by the state. The path of Jesus, for example, could never be followed by the state and the prophetic integrity and power of religion to hold governments accountable to higher values and better behavior specifically depends on the faith community’s political independence. Neither should religion need the state’s power to enforce its language and theology, which is why the “war against Christmas” discussion is finally so absurd. Does Jesus’ message really depend on our being reminded to have a “Merry Christmas” just before we plunge into shopping malls and engage in orgies of holiday consumerism that run so directly contrary to his message? Are Wal-Mart and Target to be seen as critical places of theological and spiritual reflection?

On the other hand, does the cultural visibility of religious language and visibility in holiday seasons threaten the religious liberty of diverse believers (especially if all the pluralistic faith traditions of the nation can enjoy public display at the appropriate times in their religious calendars)? I don’t think so. It is a tactic of religious fundamentalism (in all our great traditions) to try to make the state an enforcer of religious belief and practice; and it is always dangerous. And does anybody really want to say that America has behaved in the world as a “Christian nation?” I hope not for the sake of Christian integrity. It is far better to regard faith communities as essentially counter-cultural; calling us all to higher ground and challenging political and economic power when it becomes abusive of the religious values of compassion and justice. Only through its independence and separation from any state can religion exercise its vital prophetic role in every society.

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