Freethought Today · October 2013

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

Third-place graduate/mature student essay

America’s toxic ‘Christian nation’ claim

kelly 3rd grad copyAnna received $1,000 for her essay.

Like any debate that begins without clearly defined terms, the discussion of whether the U.S. is a Christian nation is erratic and nonsensical, a mess of unconnected arguments and sloppy rhetoric, because the term “Christian nation” has no standard definition.

If the term  were separated from its context as a descriptor for America, it would indicate an independent, politically organized state that identifies itself as practicing the Christian religion. This is indeed the sense of the semantically equivalent “Muslim nation,” which is applied to countries whose governments officially operate under Islam. But since the U.S. does not officially operate under a religion, the term “Christian nation” does not carry this meaning.

When users of the term “Christian nation” offer an explanation for its use, they tend to rely on two main points: that Christianity is the majority religion in the United States, and that the United States is founded on Christian principles. These points both become shaky under examination; the first is weak, and the second, false.

First, if the term “Christian nation” refers to Christianity as the religion of the majority of American citizens, then the meaning is not logical, but merely metaphorical. It uses a label of a part (the Christian majority) as a label for a whole (the entire population).

This type of generalization is a stylistic device often used in poetry and advertisements. In academic text, its careless use is called a logical fallacy. Since the term “Christian nation,” when taken to refer to the majority religion in the United States, is true only in this figurative, rhetorical way, it should not be used in serious discussion about national issues. It also, of course, disenfranchises the growing minority of non-Christian Americans.

If America is founded on Christian principles, what are those principles and what makes them Christian? The basis of the Christian religion is that an afterlife in heaven, as opposed to hell, can be obtained only through belief in Jesus. In keeping with this doctrine, Christians throughout history have gone to extensive and sometimes violent lengths to compel non-Christians to become Christian, whether through foreign missionary work, evangelistic preaching or campaigns such as the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and the Salem witch trials.

Doctrinally, Christianity does not favor individual religious freedom; it favors trying to convert everyone to Christianity. The only way the principle of religious freedom could be considered Christian is by taking the term “Christian” to mean “of Christendom,” meaning Western civilization. But this is a stretch, and Americans rarely use the term “Christian” in this sense.

The only references to religion in the Constitution and Bill of Rights are exclusionary — it must be kept separate from government. (The Declaration of Independence does refer to God, but its purpose was to justify separation from Britain.) Because the founders lived in a world much more dominated by Christianity than today’s, they had to go out of their way to create a Constitution that kept Christianity firmly out of the government. 

The Christian nation term is ambiguous, inaccurate and misleading. Why then does it persist? Largely because Christians toss it around to boost themselves and rhetorically emphasize their statements before Christian audiences. In such contexts, “Christian nation” tries to equate Christianity with good morals and traditional ideas. Christianity does embrace many traditional ideas, but Christians do not have a monopoly on moral goodness. But they think they do.

The term thus fosters an attitude of moral superiority, which in turn encourages moral laziness, for which Americans have indeed earned a reputation. The stereotype of the arrogant American traveler has been reduced to a catchphrase, “ugly American.” Of course “Christian nation” is not solely responsible for individual citizens’ arrogance, but neither can it help, considering the moral superiority it engenders.

This side effect of the term, when considered along with the bickering it tends to ignite, shows “Christian nation” to be not merely false and imprecise but also harmful. “Christian nation” is therefore a toxic, inaccurate, and sloppily debated nickname for America. It is long past time for this moniker’s retirement.

Anna Kelly, 27, Charleston, W.V., moved to a remote part of Wisconsin after graduating from high school to attend a small missions-oriented bible college, graduating five years later. Eventually, she rejected Christianity for atheism and moved back to Charleston to work full-time in her father’s insurance agency, take online courses from West Virginia University in multidisciplinary studies and write in her free time.

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