One of my proudest boasts as a schoolboy was an ability to both identify and spell what my teacher insisted was the English language's longest word: antidisestablishmentarianism. I had, of course, no idea what it meant. Now I know that it defines the political third rail onto which John McCain threw himself when he recently said that the United States was established as a "Christian nation."
No, it wasn't! Or so answered a chorus of critics, heading off an inevitable denigration of minority religions - and no religion. The disestablishmentarians always point out that the Constitution nowhere mentions God, and that the founders were Deist gentlemen whose God was so impersonally detached from history as to be not recognizably Christian at all. The framers of the American political system, appalled by what "establishment" had led to in Europe, took pains to set their government on a religiously neutral path.
But government is not nation. Just because McCain's assertion is dangerous - as I believe it to be - does not mean it is untrue. For one thing, what the founders intended may weigh less than how the nation developed over the next two centuries. The Constitution created "an open national space," in the scholar Mark Noll's phrase, but, Noll says, instead of it being filled with Alexander Hamilton's economic planning, Thomas Jefferson's yeomanry, or John Adams's communalism, that space was seized by unexpected 19th-century "awakenings" of evangelical fervor.
Christian religion, from prairie preachers to elite universities, became the main "arbiter of national culture." Eventually, Protestant revivalism, immigrant Catholicism, and African-American Gospel jelled into the public zealotries of "civil religion," a term coined by Robert Bellah in 1967 when such religion braced the nation - and the government - in its contest with "atheistic Communism." Jewish participation in this implicitly Christian consensus was necessarily uneasy. When Dwight D. Eisenhower underwent baptism in the White House 12 days after his inauguration in 1953, he showed how these pressures could squeeze the national leadership. This was the era of Billy Graham's "Crusade," a word Ike himself had used to define his war making.
The danger in mixing religion and nation lies in the way these two enterprises have exploited one another, each to advance its separate cause. This is as old as the early-4th-century emperor Constantine, who used Christian orthodoxy as a club with which to enforce political control of his vast empire. (The Nicene Creed was a loyalty oath composed at his order, by the Council of Nicea in 325.) At the same time, Christian leaders happily enlisted Constantine's legions to suppress heresy. When the word "Christian" is used today, the broad movement it defines owes as much to Constantine as it does to Jesus Christ.
Even pious Americans have been properly wary of efforts to use state power to enforce uniformity of conscience. The vaunted separation of church and state is a minimal protection from such abuse, but civil religion points to a need for the broader separation of religion and nation. That protection comes not from law, but from the knowledge of citizens, which is unreliable. The fact that, since the founding of the United States, Christianity has been much used, against the intentions of the founders, to justify governmental impositions and adventures is one cause for concern. That is what McCain's critics warn of, in the name of a better America. The last thing needed today is a Christian nation embarked on a new crusade, at home or abroad.
But a warning must be sounded in the name of a better Christian religion, too. What's bad for the state can be worse for the church. Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and all religious minorities are assaulted by even implicit claims of a "Christian nation," but so are Christians. A government that blesses itself in the name of Jesus Christ, while waging war and advancing empire, must first demolish the meaning of who that man was - three centuries before Constantine.
Scholars know very little about this Galilean rabbi (nothing, for example, about his attitude toward homosexuality), but there are two things that can be said with certainty. Jesus lived and died in resistance to the Roman empire. And Jesus rejected violence. If there are two notes of identity that go to the heart of what America has become, they are violence and empire. A Christianity that makes its peace with those, as has so often happened, is an apostate religion. John McCain, and the objects of his appeal, betray the nation - and the faith.
© 2023 Boston Globe
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