In thinking about Senator John McCain’s comments in his interview with Beliefnet— that America is a Christian nation–I spent some time online trying to figure out what the substance of the label is. Certainly ‘Christian nation’ sounds like it should be a clear concept, but I’m not sure that it is. And the various evangelical websites I explored didn’t shed much light on the question either.

Is it a historic statement, referring to the orientation of our Founding Fathers? Certainly, many of them were practicing Christians who took their religion seriously. But, as John Meacham points out, they were at great pains to explicitly keep religion out of our Constitution–for either its specific provisions or the rationale for its implementation. Steve Benen observes that the fact that the founders were Christian doesn’t make America a Christian nation any more than them being male makes America a male nation.
Is it a statement about specific policies we should be upholding? Certainly there are certain policy positions that are common to those who hold that America is a Christian nation, from anti-abortion to anti-gay marriage, to prayer in schools. These are clearly positions most evangelicals support. But other positions that garner strong support in these groups are tax cuts, small government, and “strict Constitutionalist” judges. What’s Christian about any of those? It sounds like conservatives are claiming the Christian banner to unite under, but given how few of the positions they take are explicitly Christian, it throws their claim of operating from Christian concerns into real doubt.
Does it refer to specific values or principles? McCain alludes to this when he says:

We were founded as a nation on Judeo-Christian principles. There’s very little debate about that. And I think the noblest words ever written are, “We hold these truths to be self evident that all, all people are created equal and endowed by their Creator.”

But as Rabbi Stern correctly points out, these “principles” are so broad that it is both meaningless and divisive to label them “Christian.” McCain stops quoting before the end of the sentence from the Declaration of Independence: “…are endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” These certainly are American values, but I defy anyone to tell me what is explicitly Christian about them. Christians also support love, compassion, and generosity but that doesn’t mean these are uniquely Christian qualities.
McCain’s statement strikes me as a particularly awkward and incoherent statement of a position that may sound compelling in theory but has no meaningful basis or substance.

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