The Death of Christian America?

This past week, Duke University theologian Norman Wirzba, writing in the Washington Post, posed and answered the question: “Why we can now declare the end of ‘Christian America.’” Elections aren’t simply about the candidates, Wirzba argues; they’re about “those doing the electing.” “The person elected is really a magnification of the desires voters happen to have,” he writes. The current election cycle shows that the electorate is “consumed by fear, anger and suspicion, none of which are Christian virtues.” But Christianity is about other virtues: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, fidelity, gentleness, and self-control.” Thus, the “rhetoric of a ‘Christian America’” should be retired once and for all.

I certainly agree with Wirzba that the current election cycle shows that a certain segment (at least) of the electorate is consumed by fear, anger, and suspicion. As I suggested in an earlier post, the most significant storyline emerging in this election cycle is about the loss of power and privilege among white Americans. Robert P. Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute has recently argued that white evangelicals – the constituency most likely to be invested in the idea of America as a Christian nation – is turning from its traditional concerns about moral “values” to a certain kind of “nostalgia.” “Nostalgia voters,” Jones argues, are “a culturally disaffected group that is anxious to hold onto a white, conservative Christian culture that is passing from the scene.” Survey data show that concerns about illegal immigration, Muslim citizenship and immigration, and a desire to restore a certain vision of the American past are motivating white evangelicals more than their traditional “values” agenda, embodied in issues like abortion, sexuality, and prayer in public schools.

Wirzba might also be right about calling for an end to the rhetoric of a “Christian America.” The idea of a “Christian America” is problematic for a lot of reasons, not least as a shorthand for the myth of American exceptionalism, which legitimates the systematic exploitation of marginalized groups and the natural world. But there’s another way to think about what it means for the U.S. to be “Christian nation,” one that theologian Reinhold Niebuhr offers in the first volume of his 1941 book The Nature and Destiny of Man. It isn’t history or culture that makes a nation Christian, Niebuhr argues. Rather, it is a nation’s openness to prophetic judgment. “No nation is free of the sin of pride,” Niebuhr writes, “just as no individual is free of it. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that there are ‘Christian’ nations, who prove themselves so because they are still receptive to prophetic words of judgment spoken against the nation … the [nation’s] final sin is the unwillingness to hear the word of judgment spoken against our sin” (Scribner’s, 1964: 219). Niebuhr goes on to say that a “daemonic form of self-assertion” induced fascist nations to commit that “final sin,” the unwillingness to hear judgment.

Niebuhr is obviously more invested in sin as a starting place for public theology than the fruits of the Spirit, and that starting place informs the way he thinks about what makes a nation Christian. By Niebuhr’s lights, the prophetic judgment on America that Wirzba and many other public theologians proclaim, is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition of its being a Christian nation. Thus, Wirzba’s argument, from Niebuhr’s point of view, itself constitutes partial evidence that America is still a Christian nation. (There is of course some irony here, in good Niebuhrian fashion.) Besides proclamation of prophetic judgment, the other necessary condition is that a Christian nation must also hear and respond to prophetic judgment. That’s the part that remains to be seen.

But that second part is profoundly important. The capacity to hear and respond to prophetic judgment is a measure of how invested the powerful and privileged are in their power and privilege. If white Americans can only hear politicians, in dog whistle or more audible tones, who tell them that America is for the powerful and privileged – that it is, in other words, only for white Americans – then indeed the idea of a “Christian America” is dead. Those among the powerful and privileged who have ears to hear prophetic judgment must imagine how ours can be a nation that attends to the good of its most marginalized citizens and non-citizens alike. If that is what this election can be about, then there might yet be life to the idea of a “Christian America.” 1

  1. The featured image is titled “A Nation with the soul of a church…” and can be found here.
John E. Senior

About John E. Senior

John E. Senior is Director of the Art of Ministry Assistant Teaching Professor of Ethics and Society for the School of Divinity at Wake Forest University and an ordained Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA). His book, A Theology of Political Vocation: Christian Life and Public Office, was published in 2015.

John E. Senior

John E. Senior

John E. Senior is Director of the Art of Ministry Assistant Teaching Professor of Ethics and Society for the School of Divinity at Wake Forest University and an ordained Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA). His book, A Theology of Political Vocation: Christian Life and Public Office, was published in 2015.

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