A Christian Nation?

The UK, the “mother country” of the US, is in a bit of a row over recent comments by Prime Minister David Cameron.* He said publicly that Britain should be “more confident about our status as a Christian country.” 

Several public figures, including philosophers, journalists, novelists, and the head of the British Humanist Association, have published an open letter in an English newspaper warning that David Cameron could cause “alienation” with his comments about Christianity in the UK.

In the letter, the group says: “We respect the prime minister’s right to his religious beliefs and the fact that they necessarily affect his own life as a politician. However, we object to his characterisation of Britain as a ‘Christian country’ and the negative consequences for politics and society that this engenders. Apart from in the narrow constitutional sense that we continue to have an established Church, Britain is not a ‘Christian country’.”

They said Britain was a “plural society” that was largely “non-religious”. “Constantly to claim otherwise fosters alienation and division in our society,” the letter continued. Most Britons “do not want religions or religious identities to be actively prioritised by their elected government”, it concluded.

The British debate, of course, is quite like that in the US and is just another small chapter in the centuries-old interweaving of church and state that mark our common heritage. People who don’t like Christianity react to the idea of the UK or the US being Christian nations as if that meant everyone is supposed to be Christian. That’s not what it means at all. All it really means is that the shape of the social and governmental structures has evolved in a very closeknit interaction between church and state. The essential values embodied in both countries were derived essentially from two sources: The lesser source is the Greco-Roman tradition and the greater source is Judeo-Christian.

Ever since the Enlightenment, those in the West with great prejudice against God have tried to convince us all that, in the words of Percy Bysshe Shelley in the early 19th century, “We are all Greeks.” A study of history simply won’t bear such an idea. Our formal structures, that is, our government, owe much of their shape to the Greeks and Romans, but the underlying values — such as the value of human dignity and freedom from tyranny — are derived far more from our biblical heritage.

It is true that the Church — like any and every human institution — has often been corrupt. That does not mean we can dismiss the church any more than we in the US disbanded our government when President Nixon proved to be a petty scoundrel.

I live in a small town in the upper Midwest of the US. In the center of town is a small city park surrounded by half a dozen churches. Where are the Greco-Roman influences at the heart of my town? Well, there is a theater built in a modified Greek architecture. Across the street from it there is a library. Surely the public library is Greek in origin, isn’t it? Well, yes, the Greeks did develop libraries — especially at Alexandria — but we mustn’t forget that the Romans completely lost track of all the ancient Greek and Latin scholars. If it hadn’t been for the Muslims and the Irish monks and then the Christian scholars of the Middle Ages, we would know nothing of Socrates and Plato and Aristotle.

The Greeks and the Romans were unable to establish cultural institutions which could withstand the vagaries of the human heart. They simply wore themselves out trying to fight human nature, while the Judeo-Christian tradition just kept evolving and developing through cultural and political changes incredible in their scope and number.

So don’t claim we are all Greeks without acknowledging that it is Christianity which has preserved and interpreted the Greco-Roman part of our heritage. Christianity, even in our age of great pluralism, is capable of being the “host culture” for a wide diversity of other cultures. That’s how it has functioned in both the UK and the US. As resistance to Christianity increases, so does the cultural turmoil because we have no other set of values by which a society can be so ordered that there is unity in diversity.


*The source for the report on reaction to the PM’s remarks is the BBC New Online, accessed 21 Apr 2014.


About mthayes42

I am a retired pastor, interested in the Bible, cross-cultural ministries, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the current and past history of western civilization.
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3 Responses to A Christian Nation?

  1. john zande says:

    Well, first up, most of your founding fathers were deists, believing in “natures god,” not the Middle Eastern Christian god. Most had jettisoned Christianity, some like Franklin even despising its dogma, but we can only speculate what their views on supernaturalism might have been if they’d lived long enough to have a cup of tea with Darwin. While true that some states had thoroughly Christian constitutions drawn up, single states aren’t The United States. In no way was the U.S. crafted as having a government whose institutions were based on any religious belief, let alone Christianity. But this brings me to my question, and it is an honest question: what would a Christian Nation actually look like?

    For example, would there be freedom of speech and a free media in a Christian nation? What would a Christian nation’s education and legal systems look like? Would clerics sit on the Supreme Court, and if so, which Christian denomination/s would they come from?

    I hope you can answer some of these questions. Thanks.

    • mthayes42 says:

      Thanks for the note, John. Like you, I don’t find the term “Christian nation” to be very helpful in understanding the United States. As you say, some (not most) of the crafters of our nation were deists but we must be careful not to try to drive too sharp a wedge between Christianity and deism, since the latter only existed in the context of Christendom. the ethical dimensions, in particular of the deism of the day were based quite squarely on Christian ideals.

      More critical, I think, is your question: What would a Christian nation look like? There seem to me to be too options. The first is that it might be a religious institution, which would certainly be a disaster, both because of the questions you raise and — more importantly — because biblical Christianity and power simply don’t mix. Power corrupts, within the church as well as outside it.

      The second possibility is that a “Christian nation” would be one that furthers the health and welfare of humankind. It would be a democracy based on faith in the general providence of God and mutual trust between humans, would protect the people by limiting the powers of the state, and would provide such services as most benefit from cooperative efforts.

      Of course, when you put it that way, without the religious dimensions of Christendom, you’ve painted a pretty good picture of the United States, don’t you think?

      • john zande says:

        I think it paints a pretty good picture of the universal ideal for good governance and human dignity which was first formally articulated by Cyrus the Great as he established the basis of all human rights in 539 B.C.E. 🙂

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