Making Sense of "Christian America"
"There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come. And the idea of reclaiming America for Christ has definitely come." Thus proclaimed Florida preacher Reverend James Kennedy, of the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church and the "Coral Ridge Hour" television program, at a national conference on "Reclaiming America for Christ" hosted by Coral Ridge in March 1998. Standing beneath a giant American flag to address the 1,400 in attendance, Kennedy proclaimed, between choruses of "God Bless America" and "America the Beautiful," that "God's will for this nation will be done. Twenty-six other empires have risen, and all have fallen." One conference participant concurred: "We're going to self-destruct, the way I see it. [U.S.] laws have no correlation with the laws of the Creator." The only hope, according to the message of the conference, is to make America righteous again by "reclaiming" it for Christ through grassroots Christian activism. [note 1]
"Reclaiming America for Christ" is for many Americans a presumptuous, if not dangerous, ambition. One American Jew, for example, commented in response to Kennedy's conference: "When the language becomes exclusively Christian, Jewish groups become at best ambivalent, at worst hostile."[note 2]
The dominant image that many nonevangelical Americans hold of American evangelicals can be characterized as contentiously exclusivist, self-congratulatory, and intolerant of diversity. And many of the spokespeople for the Christian Right certainly provide evidence to substantiate that view.
Our question is: to what extent do the views and commitments of people like James Kennedy and his conference participants actually represent those of the tens of millions of ordinary American evangelicals? Are most evangelicals really committed to defending an exclusively Christian
America? Are American evangelicals in fact hostile to religious and cultural pluralism? How do most evangelicals think about America's past and envision its future when it comes to issues of national cultural identity and moral diversity?
A Diversity of Views
Conducting more than two hundred personal interviews with evangelicals on the subject of "Christian America," and then reading and rereading the transcripts of those interviews, one is impressed by the surprisingly diverse range of perspectives on the matter. If you ask whether America ever was a Christian nation, what being a Christian nation might have meant, whether being a Christian nation was a good thing or not, and whether America today is or should be a Christian nation, you will get a variety of answers. Only on the single question of what Christians should actually do
about a perceived loss of a Christian America are the answers relatively consistent.[note 3]
The first thing to know when it comes to the question of "Christian America," then, is that evangelicals are not thinking, speaking, and acting with unanimity. Enough evangelicals do think and talk sufficiently alike about "Christian America" that perhaps we can speak of a "most common" evangelical view. But this should not overshadow the fact that many other evangelicals think and talk very differently about the subject. These differences are well worth examining.
To begin, American evangelicals are not unanimous that America once was a Christian nation. About 10 percent of the evangelicals we interviewed said no, America never was a Christian nation. A Nazarene woman from California said, "I don't believe there are Christian nations, there are [only] Christian people." Some, such as one Presbyterian man from Pennsylvania, focused on the lack of faith of America's founders: "I have read Thomas Paine, Common Sense,
and some of Ben Franklin's stuff. Those guys were some of the founders of this country and they were not Christians." Others, such as one Presbyterian man from North Carolina, contrasted biblical and American political principles: "When I think about the principles that have organized our society, no way. It's a sort of power structure, a balance of powers, an interbalancing of interests. Totally different from principles, like 'we are one Body,' which [Saint] Paul describes." A man from a Missionary church in Michigan observed, "I think we were actually based more on tolerance--allow me to do my own thing--than the parameters of scripture, than being strictly Christian. Christianity is not elective, democratic society." And a Baptist man from Pennsylvania argued: "I think it had a Judeo-Christian aura about it, but whether it was founded on Christian principles, I really don't think it was. You go back to the Constitution, the Declaration, the Articles of Confederation, they're very humanistic--nothing different from what was being produced elsewhere in the world at the same time."
Another nearly 30 percent of the evangelicals we interviewed were uncertain whether America was ever a Christian nation. In tones that revealed little nostalgic hankering for a Christian-governed past, they maintained simply that America may or may not have been Christian, depending on the definition of the word. Many interviewees focused on the percentage of true believers in the past, as did one Evangelical Free man from Minnesota: "A lot of the basic Christian beliefs were much more accepted by a broader segment of society. Was there ever a majority of Christians? I don't know. I don't think we ever were a majority Christian nation, but I think we've had a higher percentage." Others, such as a Congregational man from Massachusetts, concentrated on the genuineness of past faith: "I suspect that in the past we just had a lot more nominal Christians, and now we have [the sharper contrast of] evangelical Christians and non-Christians. That's where there is a difference." And a Baptist woman from Oregon said, "I am not sure we ever were a totally Christian nation. But I think culturally we may have had more of those boundaries." Some, like one independent charismatic man from North Carolina, doubted the Christian ethical character of America's past: "If they were Christian, there are certainly a lot of historical events, wars and lots of killings, ever since the American Revolution. I would ask, did they call
themselves Christians, or did they actually behave in a Christian manner? Certainly a lot of the beginning documents had 'In God We Trust' and that kind of stuff, but did they act
any more Christian than our society does today?" Still others, such as one Colorado man who attends a community church, rather matter-of-factly observed a real but limited Christian presence at the nation's founding: "I think there were some Christian men who helped start and formulate America. I don't know if I can necessarily call it a Christian nation. But I do believe there were some Christian men who came along and helped put it together."
Between these two groups, then, nearly 40 percent of the evangelicals we interviewed either denied or somewhat doubted the idea that America was once a Christian nation--despite the fact that at least some of them answered otherwise on the Religious Identity and Influence telephone survey. Thus this significant minority of evangelicals do not possess a strong image of a Christian American past that can serve as a model for what today needs to be "reclaimed," or the supposed loss of which can be used to explain contemporary national troubles. For them, Kennedy's exhortation to "reclaim America for Christ" would not make much sense.
The message of Kennedy's conference would also not make sense to some evangelicals who do think that America was once a Christian nation, since they also believe that America still is a Christian nation. Theirs is not an image of a Christian past tragically lost through apostasy or the attack of secular humanism. They are actually quite sanguine about contemporary America's religious identity. "I still think we are a Christian nation," said a Methodist woman from Illinois, "that if we had our backs against the wall it would really come out, I really do. Most of the people are Christians; it's just that they're not very vocal about it. But like I said, if our backs were up against the wall and we had to take a stand, I think you'd see it." An independent charismatic man from Maryland focused instead on America's religious freedoms: "We are free to worship, we do have the right to go to church and to choose the church we want. So in that respect I would say, yeah, because a lot of other countries don't have that freedom." A Massachusetts woman who attends a nondenominational church said, "I don't know because I don't always read the papers, but if you look at all of the fundamentalist groups and all of the Catholic groups, yeah, I think we're pretty Christian. Our government I would guess is largely Christian, and I think the way everybody is talking these days it seems as if it's very conservative Christian actually." A nondenominational charismatic woman from Minnesota observed, "In the past, I think we were a nation with struggling Christians, that's what I believe. I think [now] we're becoming, you know, a nation of Christians, I mean, I hope that we are. I can see it happening." And an Evangelical Free man from Colorado focused on the U.S. government, noting that "Congress is opened with a prayer. Some of the things they do within the world seem like they have a Christian attitude about it, and the country seems like it is always willing to help other countries and come to their aid. It seems like there are some Christian values that are still kind of a thread going through things."
Yet other evangelicals--admittedly only a few--argued that America should definitely not be a Christian nation in the sense that the Christian Right often uses the term. A Baptist man from Minnesota, for example--a self-declared lifetime evangelical--argued:
To be honest with you, I don't think I want it to be a Christian nation. I would rather have it populated by Christians who are practicing their Christianity, and then you can call it whatever you want. But again, the label of "Christian" is always frightening when you label a country, because then you are talking about cultural things. And that's a big problem, especially when one travels overseas--to recognize that the American way is not the only way practiced by Christians, like in the former Soviet Union or in the Third World. So labeling countries as Christian I think is problematic.
We asked him, problematic in what way? He replied, "If you label the U.S. as Christian, then whatever they do is Christian and biblical, and that, I think, is misleading. Many of the policies we practice are not Christian, and to say that they are is deceptive." Some Christians, we then observed, say that certain non-Christian groups are trying to turn America away from its godly heritage. Did he agree or disagree with that? "Well," he answered, "I would like to know which century you're talking about in terms of a godly heritage. There has always been sin in this country and corruption, so I've always been bothered by people who talk about the good ole days and going back. We live in the present, and need to do what we can do in the present."
Nevertheless, the majority of the evangelicals we interviewed did believe that America was once a Christian nation. And many of them conveyed that they wish it somehow still were. What is most interesting, however, is to pay close attention to what these evangelicals mean by "Christian nation." For when one hushes the rhetorical echoes of the James Kennedys and Pat Robertsons, and refrains from projecting Christian Right discourse onto the speech of ordinary evangelicals, one notices a tremendous variety of meanings attached to the phrase "Christian America," many of which have little if anything to do with organizing a Christian control of American culture and society.
What "Christian America" Actually Means
Six principal meanings of "Christian America" emerged from our interviews. Religious Freedom.
The meaning that evangelicals most frequently gave to the idea that America was once a Christian nation was that it was founded by people who sought religious liberty and worked to establish religious freedom.
Nearly 40 percent of the evangelicals we interviewed discussed this while describing what "Christian America" meant to them.[note 4]
A nondenominational Bible church woman from Illinois, for example, explained, "It was a Christian nation. They came to worship God in their own way. It was founded on the right to worship as you wanted to, and not in a state-mandated manner." We asked one Congregational man from Massachusetts to elaborate when he said that Christian beliefs had helped found the nation, and he said, "That we're created equally and have the basic right to express our point of view, the right to choose whether to believe in God or not, a choice of whether to go to church or don't go to church." One Colorado man who attends a community church argued that the U.S. Constitution contains a lot of biblical themes. When we asked him to explain, he said, "Freedom, the concept of freedom. Freedom of religion. That is one of the reasons why America was started: a lot of these men were saying that biblically they believed differently than the British."
Two things are worth observing about this definition of "Christian America." First, most of the evangelicals who subscribed to this definition were simply pointing out that America was started by people with religious motives--that the initial impetus behind America's colonization by Europeans had to do with religious interests. This is just a descriptive way of recognizing that many of America's earliest colonists were committed Christians--a simple empirical fact. (More subtly, it also legitimizes the presence of religious concerns in American public culture, which most evangelicals think is important.) A second, more striking implication of this definition is the importance it places on religious pluralism and toleration. When evangelicals think of "Christian America" this way, they are not laying the discursive groundwork for the legitimation of Christian social domination. If anything, they are tapping a historical tradition of freedom and choice that reinforces the value of religious pluralism and liberty. Perhaps ironically, this meaning of "Christian America" functions more to bolster liberal toleration than religious dominion.[note 5] A Majority of Faithful Christians.
The second most frequently mentioned meaning of "Christian America" was that the majority of Americans of earlier generations were sincere Christians who put their beliefs and morals into practice more faithfully than Americans do today.
This meaning is somewhat related to the "religious freedom" definition, and evangelicals mentioned it nearly as frequently--about 35 percent of the time. Usually these responses were based on fairly romanticized views of history. One Presbyterian woman from Maryland observed, "Just reading history, I believe that everything was done in prayer and under God's influence, rather than a personal interest." A Presbyterian man from South Carolina said, "I think the majority of people in the past were Christians and everybody kind of had the same values." "Everyone was churchgoing people," claimed an Assemblies of God woman from Texas. "At one point, we all talked about God," mentioned a woman from Michigan attending a nondenominational church.
Some, such as one Lutheran man from Oregon, focused on the centrality of church life in the past: "People looked to God and recognized God as their supreme being. More people were into God's Word and the church, you know, before television. Your whole social life centered around church activities." Others, like one Presbyterian woman from Ohio, focused on common Christian practices: "The stores weren't open on Sundays, and the people went to church. They did their chores on Saturday night, and Sunday was the Lord's day. Sunday had a true meaning." The overall sense of this definition was that Christian faith and morals were normal and pervasive. As a Baptist woman from Massachusetts explained, "We were in the early days much more religious and devout and clean-living than we are today."
Like the "religious freedom" definition, the definition of "Christian America" as a majority of faithful Christians in America's past does not necessarily support a Christian Right agenda. For some evangelicals, it does do this. Especially when it is linked to a belief that contemporary national problems (drugs, crime, school failure, etc.) are due to a loss of national religious commitment, this second meaning can serve as a premise for the argument that America needs to "reclaim" its godly heritage.[note 6]
But for many other evangelicals, the "majority of faithful Christians" definition does not recommend a Christian Right agenda. They offer it simply as a matter-of-fact, empirical description of the past. They have no intention to use it to build a case to re-Christianize America; they are only answering an interview question with what they consider a factual answer. Probably the majority do recall fondly a bygone era of simple faith and moral consensus--whether with historical justification or not--and in an ideal world they would like to have that again. But very few evangelicals are this naive. Even the more romanticizing ones know full well that the past cannot be resurrected, that the world is different now. As a nondenominational woman from Michigan observed:
The people who founded this country believed there was a Creator God, and many of the institutions--Harvard, Princeton, and so on--were started by Christian people. Not that everyone who has immigrated here is a Christian. Now we've become more of a melting pot. To try and go back and to force Christianity upon these institutions I don't believe can occur now.
Even among the evangelicals for whom the "majority of faithful Christians" definition of "Christian America" does logically support a Christian Right agenda, not many are seriously prepared to act on that idea for very long. For a more basic and compelling evangelical logic inevitably intervenes. In the evangelical worldview, the only
valid way to regenerate that bygone Christian era--for more people to become devoted Christians and practice their beliefs and morals in a way that will revive America--is for more people to decide personally and voluntarily to follow Christ. No evangelical thinks you can externally manufacture faithful Christian living, especially not through political means. They maintain, rather, that Christian faithfulness only comes through believing the gospel and "committing one's life to Christ as personal Lord and Savior," and that this is accomplished through conversion of one individual at a time. In the evangelical worldview, the logical consequence of this meaning of "Christian America" is that Christians must invest in more evangelism, revivalism, and church planting. For political activism can never produce a majority of faithful Christians; only an individual and personal "saving knowledge of Jesus Christ" can. This helps to explain why, although Christian Right rhetoric does hold a certain initial appeal for some evangelicals, in the long run it cannot and does not mobilize strong, sustained evangelical political activism. Principles of Government.
The third most regularly mentioned meaning of "Christian America" was the belief that the basic laws and structures of the U.S. government reflect or embody important Christian principles. About 30 percent of the evangelicals we interviewed suggested this meaning. Though people often were not particularly articulate about which
laws and structures embody which
principles, the view was somewhat widespread and similarly articulated nonetheless. A Presbyterian woman from North Carolina, for example, noted, "America was established as a Christian nation; politically the foundation was to be a Christian nation. We were established to have the Bible as the center, as our guidebook, and to recognize it as an important part of our country's life." "Was America ever a Christian nation?" asked one Community church man from Georgia. "Yeah, I think there is a great deal found in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights." A pentecostal man from Wisconsin agreed: "The Bill of Rights and those things were all founded on the Bible. The first leaders of this country were Christian, and [so were] the things that they wrote."
At face value, this view certainly seems to champion a Christian Right perspective on America. Isn't this an unvarnished admission that what evangelicals want is essentially a Christian-based state? But though this interpretation may be accurate in the case of some, most evangelicals do not even want Christianity to be America's established religion--much less want America to be a formal Christian state. They fully believe in the American system of liberal, representative democracy. A careful reading of our interview discussions reveals that many interviewees defined "Christian nation" in terms of representative government and the balance of powers. A Bible Fellowship man from Pennsylvania, for example, claimed that "The idea of having a balanced government with the three branches--the executive, legislative, and judicial--that original theory was something that was derived from a scriptural passage." We asked one Nazarene woman from California, who had said that America was founded on Christian principles, exactly what she meant. She answered, "Biblical principles on right and wrong, our judicial system--just the whole idea of democracy and republican form of representative government. It was pretty radical back then, and a lot of it came straight out of the Bible." Some, like one Presbyterian man from Georgia, gave very general explanations: "If you look at the Constitution and a lot of the laws, you get the idea of Christian beliefs." Others, such as one California woman from a Congregational church, tried to link American government to specific theological points, such as the doctrine of sin:
The people who began the country set it up under the principles of the Bible, which is a very good heritage and legacy to pass down. It allows us to have, for one thing, an understanding that people are evil, so we need other people to help kind of keep us on track. So there's checks and balances established on a real good foundation. Because there was an understanding that there should be no king but Jesus, they set it up so that any person would have a difficult time taking over. So [it was Christian] I think from the standpoint of the setup of government.
Most of these evangelicals, then, appear to be baptizing the American system of government with Christian legitimacy more than seeking to reconstruct American government according to specific and exclusionary Christian principles--whatever those might be. Even so, we should remember that not all conservative Protestants agree with this idea either. More than a few evangelicals would concur with the self-identified fundamentalist man from Oregon who said:
I don't consider Christianity to be a governmental form. Not all of our forefathers were Christians. They were setting up a country that allowed people of different belief systems a place to live. No, I don't think the United States is a Christian country. It wasn't set up to be that. It was set up to be a free country where people of all beliefs could come. Theistic Founding Fathers.
The fourth most frequently mentioned meaning of "Christian America"--the last quote notwithstanding--was that most if not all of America's "founding fathers" were theists who prayed and sought God's will for the nation.
Slightly less than 30 percent of the evangelicals we interviewed offered this as evidence that America was once a Christian nation. As with the preceding meaning, most evangelicals who mentioned this were not very specific about details. They often mentioned it as if it were folk wisdom that they assumed was widely known and understood. At the same time, of all of the meanings of "Christian America" offered in our interviews, this one seemed the most closely connected with the information outlets of conservative Christian activists. Interviewees often mentioned that they had heard this idea taught by James Dobson, James Kennedy, Peter Marshall, or others through a Christian radio program, television program, video, or book.
"Just listening to Jay Seculo or Focus on the Family and stuff in talking about some of the original documents and their intent makes me think that it was a Christian nation," said one Presbyterian woman from Maryland. "And reading some of the quotes from past presidents, some from Washington and Jefferson seem to be Christian. Some of the other leaders were not Christian, but they believed in biblical values." One Baptist woman from California claimed, "The founders were mostly if not all Christians. I've been reading Dr. Kennedy's book about the founding fathers, and it seems to me they all sound like they are all Christian." A Presbyterian man from South Carolina agreed:"I'm getting my information from summaries I've heard on the radio program. You look at all of our founding fathers, and they admitted that if our government wasn't founded on Jesus Christ, on him being Lord and Savior, that this land wouldn't survive, it wouldn't work. All of them believed that. It's in their writings."
Who exactly are thought of as "founding fathers" is not always clear. Many, such as one woman from California who attends an independent charismatic church, mixed together the Pilgrims and key Revolutionary War leaders: "When the people got off the Mayflower, they fell on their knees on the beach and dedicated this land to God, and they lived their Christianity. And all of the great leaders of this nation--George Washington and all of those--were Christians. It's proven by their own letters and statements. Even Thomas Jefferson in his writings--he said he believes in God." Others, such as a Baptist woman from New Jersey, sometimes added Abraham Lincoln to the list of venerable founders: "A lot of our forefathers, their personal writings and even public documents, mention God and Jesus Christ. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln talked about depending on the wisdom of the Lord and so forth. I think it was intended to be a nation under God." One man even counted Christopher Columbus among the godly founding fathers. Some pointed to the founding fathers' devotional piety,[note 7]
others to their biblical erudition,[note 8]
and yet others to their dedication to the idea of a public role for religion.[note 9]
But the common theme was the once-legitimate public character of Christian religion as expressed through the pantheon of America's national heroes.
Anyone familiar with evangelical beliefs cannot help but notice the "curve" by which evangelicals grade many of these founding fathers spiritually. In other contexts, there is a clear and firm standard for defining who is a Christian: an individual must repent their sins and accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior by faith. Neither a general belief in God, nor a moral lifestyle, nor public church attendance, nor external expression of religiosity alone is good enough for evangelicals to count someone as a real Christian. Yet when it comes to America's founding fathers, many evangelicals become uncharacteristically lenient, willing to share their bed, for example, with Enlightenment deists. They are impressed that Jefferson believed in a supreme being. They are satisfied that some otherwise morally questionable founders at least apparently believed in "biblical values." They find it significant that the founding fathers as a group were concerned with religion and morality. For the company of revered forefathers, many evangelicals considerably lower the bar in determining genuine Christian faith.
At the same time, some evangelicals are more discriminating. For example, a Congregational man from Massachusetts argued:
Some Christians rant and rave about revisionist history which says the founding fathers weren't Christians. If they weren't Christians, they weren't Christians. And a lot of the principles the country was based upon don't seem to be ones we're supposed to be really involved with anyway. It wouldn't faze me too much if I found out things weren't as Christian as we thought they were.
A Christian Reformed man from Michigan observed: "Yeah, there's a whole story about the Pilgrims leaving England. But I think a lot of our founding fathers--I think this is a misconceived idea. A lot of our founding fathers were not Christians. But that tradition has been carried on throughout generations and right up to today." And a woman from Massachusetts who attends a Congregational church said:
No, there's a sense of belief in God. But when you look at some of these people, like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison--I just happen to read Christian history--I mean there is some respect [for Christianity]. They wouldn't come out and say, "I don't believe." [But] you wouldn't hear Nixon say that either.
Once again, on this matter, as on most, there is a diversity of views within evangelicalism. Christian "Principles" and "Values."
The meaning of "Christian America" that was the fifth most frequently mentioned in our interviews was an often vague reference to the influence of Christian "principles and values" in an earlier era of American history.
The nebulous terms "principles" and "values" were used in slightly less than 20 percent of our interviews. One nondenominational man from Illinois, for example, noted that "There are certainly a lot of strong principles that the country was founded on that seem to be tied into the foundation of the country." A man who attends a nondenominational church in Minnesota observed, "I think the whole basic principle of this country was based on Christian values. They were very strong in their faith and wanted men and women to do something about it. There's a very strong background on faith for that." And a Church of God woman from Alabama simply said, "America was founded on the Christian principles."
It is difficult to pin down exactly what our evangelicals meant by "principles" and "values," since they did not often elaborate. Indeed, some seemed to studiously avoid specifying what founding Christian principles and values meant, even when we probed. One Congregational man from California, for example, argued, "It was founded on Christian principles, with a Christian mindset. I can't say it was Christian per se, but it had a Christian influence in the start, and they had Christian principles." We asked whether he could give specific examples of these Christian "principles." He only replied, "The nation was founded certainly under God, His direction, His leading. It seemed to have a moral direction from the start about what was right. The founding fathers seemed to have a real strong sense of direction--that point of view." This somewhat grandiose vagueness led us to think that, although these people really believed that these principles and values were important, they were not very sure of what they were.
Some, such as one woman attending a seeker-oriented mega-church in Georgia, spoke of principles in connection with governmental accountability to God: "America was a nation based on Christian principles. At one time, we held to a Christian standard." When we asked her what that standard was, her response was still in the abstract: "Well, just the fact that we were accountable to a higher authority. And God has said, 'This is the way I want you to live and here's how the government should be run.' I mean, all of this is in the Bible." Others, such as one Southern Baptist woman from South Carolina, linked the idea not to something specifically Christian, but to the Ten Commandments: "There were Christian principles upon which we founded our nation when they were meeting to write the Constitution and whatnot. They believed they needed to find [common moral standards]; a lot of them accepted the Ten Commandments as a basis for going on." But even in this case it is not clear how the founding fathers accepting the Ten Commandments would make America a distinctively Christian nation.
For many interviewees, the "principles and values" approach seemed to be a way to affirm the reality and importance of "Christian America" without turning to the more specific "majority of faithful Christians" or "theistic founding fathers" definitions. It allowed people to acknowledge that many early Americans and forefathers were not faithful Christians, yet still assert that in some fundamental way America was nevertheless Christian. What was Christian was not America's people or its leaders so much as its basic principles and values. A man from California who attends an independent evangelical church, for example, stated, "I wouldn't say it was ever all Christian, as I believe that is up to the individual. But it was definitely founded on Christian principles and values." And a pentecostal woman from Oregon said, "This country was founded on Christian principles, even though not everybody was a Christian." And as long as the understanding of "principles" and "values" remains at this level of abstraction, it is hard for anyone to argue with or refute this definition of "Christian America." The vagueness of the terms "principles" and "values" is actually conducive to resolving the logical dilemma of a Christian nation without a preponderance of Christian leaders and people--which would also explain why most evangelicals who used these terms had difficulty specifying what they meant by them.
Theoretically, this incongruity should be disquieting for evangelicals. One woman from Georgia attending an independent evangelical church did express ambivalence about the tension between the believed historical influence of Christian "values" and the admitted lack of personal commitment and morality in early Americans:
I don't believe there wasn't sin going on or people weren't running around doing everything they are doing nowadays. They just pretended; it wasn't as accepted. So I think maybe Judeo-Christian values were held up more as the norm than they are now.
Values like what?
Fidelity, honesty, integrity--character qualities that nowadays we seem to overlook. [We say today,] "Well, he's had a few affairs, it's no problem; he couldn't commit to those vows, but I'm sure he will do well with these." I think we accept more [today]. I'm sure it was more hypocritical [in the past].
Here, juxtaposed, are the views that Christian moral values were normative in the past while contemporaries have abandoned these important standards, and that earlier Americans were hypocritical, merely pretending in public to live by those values. However, most evangelicals who stressed the "principles and values" meaning of "Christian America" did not express concern about this tension. Acceptable Public Expression of Religion.
Finally, the sixth and least frequently reported meaning of "Christian America" offered by the evangelicals we interviewed was that in America's past the public expression of religious symbols and customs was deemed normal and acceptable.[note 10]
This definition, like many of the others, was usually contrasted with contemporary conditions, in which these evangelicals see religion as largely excluded from the public square. This "public expression" definition of "Christian America" was mentioned in about 12 percent of our interviews. One Evangelical Free woman from Minnesota, for example, reflected, "When I think of a Christian nation, I think of one that's Bible--based, you know--the Ten Commandments on the wall of every school, you say the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord's Prayer. You know, Laura in Little House on the Prairie--they read the Twenty-Third Psalm before school started, and that teacher got paid by the state." Similarly, a Baptist woman from Michigan observed:
You used to not be able to run for political office unless you were a Christian. That was the way back when it was founded. They always started everything in prayer. They proclaimed that they were Christians. Today you can't pray or talk about God, you can't hang pictures and don't have a nativity scene, you can't have any display of religion--of Christianity, I should say. You can have displays of other religions.
Central to this definition of "Christian America" is the concept of Christian symbols explicitly displayed in or on official and public spaces, rituals, and documents. "If you look even at our money," noted one Presbyterian woman from Michigan, "'In GodWe Trust,' the Pledge of Allegiance, the Constitution, all those things that started way back when, were based on what I would consider Christianity and belief in God, God the Almighty." For these evangelists, the fact thatkey religious words are referred to in public declarations qualified the nation as Christian. One Evangelical Free man from California said, "America was probably more of a Christian nation back in the original times because of the extent that God was mentioned in things like the Constitution--things like that."
This meaning of "Christian America," like the "principles and values" meaning, functions for some as a way to establish America's original Christianness without relying on the Christian faithfulness of its early leaders or citizens. A Baptist man from New York, for example, expressed the same sort of affirmation and qualification we noted previously: "It certainly was founded by men who believed in God. Whether they actually wanted to serve Him completely or not is another question. But at the same time, certainly the founders of the Constitution included God in the preface [Preamble] and so forth." In this view, by incorporating references to God in the nation's charter, the founders, regardless of their own commitment to a Christian life, made America a Christian nation. Summary.
What can we say about these various connotations of the phrase "Christian America"? How does this parsing of meanings help to answer the larger questions of this study? In keeping with the theme of diversity and complexity emerging in this chapter so far, we see that "Christian America" is not a single concept around which evangelicals can rally in unison. It has different meanings--or combinations of meanings--for different evangelicals, some of which are incongruous with others. For some, "Christian America" means religious freedom; for some it means a governmental structure of checks and balances; for others it means lots of faithful Christians in the population; for still others it means a small group of well-known historical leaders speaking and writing about the Creator, prayer, and morality; and for yet others it means religious references on political documents, regardless of the degree of Christian faithfulness of the authors. Two of these meanings (theistic founding fathers, public expression of religion) can lend themselves to a justification of Christian cultural hegemony; two (religious freedom, principles of government) seem to imply instead an emphasis on liberty and pluralism; and two (majority of faithful Christians, principles and values) can be interpreted variously. "Christian America" is, in sum, a concept with multiple meanings, and these various meanings have real consequences for the possibilities of evangelical political mobilization centered on this phrase.
In other words, the belief that America was once a Christian nation does not necessarily mean a commitment to making it a "Christian" nation today, whatever that might mean. Some evangelicals do make this connection explicitly. But many discuss America's Christian heritage as a simple fact of history that they are not particularly interested in or optimistic about reclaiming. Further, some evangelicals think America never was a Christian nation; some think it still is; and others think it should not be a Christian nation, whether or not it was so in the past or is so now. It is a mistake, then, to presume that all talk of a "Christian nation" is a sure rhetorical indicator of the desire or intention to reestablish Christian domination of society, culture, and politics. The reality is more complex than that.
The Almost Unanimous Evangelical Solution
Perhaps the most surprising yet most consistent theme that emerged on the topic of "Christian America" in our interviews had to do with the proper Christian response to the loss of American's Christian heritage. The almost unanimous attitude toward those who the evangelicals see as undermining this heritage was one of civility, tolerance, and voluntary persuasion. This near--consensus response can be elaborated into eight major beliefs. With regard to nonevangelicals Christians should
1. focus first on being faithful in their own lives; 2. always be loving and confident, not defensive or angry;
3. show tolerance and respect;
4. allow adversaries and antagonists to have their own opinions;
5. never force Christian beliefs on others;
6. avoid disruptive protests and hostile confrontations;
7. rely on the power of individual good examples and shared faith through personal relationships;
8. to influence others, rely on voluntary persuasion through positive dialogue and communication.
Some evangelicals clearly did not share this approach. Some thought that Christians should use the political system to marginalize secular forces in society. Others confessed to anger and hostility toward their cultural antagonists. But these were small minorities. The great majority of ordinary evangelicals we interviewed were definite in their support for these eight beliefs. Christians should focus first on being faithful in their own lives.
Primary focus on one's own integrity is linked to a number of other important evangelical beliefs. Some people, like one charismatic man from North Carolina, were very concerned with avoiding hypocrisy--"practicing what they preach"--in order to set a good example:
The message of Jesus is love. Wouldn't it be more appropriate for all of us to work more towards that ideal in our own lives before we start taking it out, you know? Shoving it down the throats doesn't do any good. We can graciously invite, but that's different.
Others, like one Congregational man from Massachusetts, made a theological distinction between the things of the church and the surrounding world, and noted the difference in moral expectations that this entails: "The church's responsibility is not to make society as Christian as possible, but to be the church, to be a witness, true to itself and obedient to God. The idea that we can just get as many Christian senators as possible and push issues that we consider Christian gives us a false sense that things are more Christian than they are." An Evangelical Free Church woman from Illinois agreed that Christian ethics are for Christians, and that others must voluntarily choose to join in the faith:
Some Christians are concerned with personal morality and traditional values and all that kind of stuff. We should be concerned about that in the church, but in a certain sense there's no spiritual value in it. I don't think the church should be out there trying to get people to live like Christians if they're not. The Bible does tell us to defend the oppressed and voiceless. And God's people should obey in things like love and compassion, and with matters of personal morality don't be a stumbling block to people. I don't think we should be bombastic, but just go ahead and live out the Christian faith, and those who will come, will come. I think I kind of take it all in stride.
Others, who held high views of individual spiritual autonomy and responsibility, were concerned that expending a lot of energy trying to Christianize America would distract believers from the important spiritual struggles in their own lives. One Minnesota woman who attends an Evangelical Covenant church said:
Someone is always going to try to control someone else. But I think that we need to be concerned with our walk with the Lord, because it isn't strong. We need to stamp it on our doorposts. We can burn TVs and bad books, but Satan can still have the power to get in there and do something else. We put a lot of energy into trying to control other people and blame external problems. We're always looking for the easy way to our salvation--saying things would be easier if kids didn't have to go to public schools, or could pray in schools, or that if we didn't have to listen to secular stuff, that we would be better Christians. I don't buy that. We're just looking for a scapegoat, saying we are the way we are because of all this stuff. But that's not right. We are the way we are because of us, because of me, myself--not because of you or anyone else, but because of me and my choices.
The concern of one nondenominational Michigan woman to preserve and bring light to the nation translated into attending to the spiritual needs of her family: "I would say that Christians can be 'salt' and 'light' in America. But to take the position that we want to have recited prayers in school by teachers is a wrong-headed approach. I think we need to look more at our lives and make sure that we're immersing our children in church and Sunday school."
The starting place of concern for most ordinary evangelicals is getting their own houses in order before trying to straighten out the world. Many evangelical leaders also encourage this. Consider a recent book by noted evangelical author Tony Evans, entitled What a Way to Live! Running All of Life by the Kingdom Agenda;
its bold back-cover advertisement in Christianity Today
announced that one gets a better world and a better nation by becoming a better person:
"If you want a better world composed of better nations inhabited by better states filled with better counties made up of better cities comprised of better neighborhoods illuminated by better churches populated by better families, then you have to start by becoming a better person." Christians should always be loving and confident, not defensive or angry.
We asked our interviewees how Christians should deal with the kinds of groups they often identified as problems, such as abortion-rights activists, homosexuals, feminists, the ACLU, the media, and new-age religionists. Their replies were almost always the same. "Christians should respond in love and understanding," said one Presbyterian woman from Maryland. "We need to share our faith very diligently, to show our care and concern," expressed a Baptist woman from Texas. An independent seeker-church woman from Georgia elaborated:
We're commanded to pray for and love our enemies, to have a relationship with them. We're not supposed to hate them. Gay-rights activists say, "Hate is not a family value," and they are right. That is a Christian principle. If you treat them respectfully and with a spirit of love, then maybe that will change them. It's hard because I don't like what they are feeding my children and the public at large. But as a Christian, I have to keep reminding myself that I can't combat hate with hate. It's not going to work.
Some, like one Congregational man from Massachusetts, stressed the importance of a nondefensive confidence when interacting with hostile forces:
The media in general looks down on Christianity. I think we should just try to articulate our position as clearly as possible without being defensive or getting too threatened. Just have a sort of confidence in our beliefs and what the truth is. Not be afraid to engage in genuine dialogue without getting hostile and defensive.
Certain evangelicals, like one Missionary church man from Michigan, relied on their own preconversion experiences to guide them in relating to non-Christians with love:
I don't feel hostile to militant Muslims and new-age and humanistic people. I am opposed to the philosophies that are behind them, but people are usually pawns of a philosophy. I know I lived the majority of my life believing in a system that was false. Until something happens to make them see it is false, it's foolish to be mad or angry or hostile. Personally, I believe very strongly in loving people and caring for people and, given the opportunities, making stands. Speak the truth in love. That is the challenge: really loving the person you speak truth to.
Love is not a passive response, according to one Presbyterian woman from North Carolina, but an active and disarming weapon: "We need to love and forgive groups that stand and speak against Christians. We have weapons of love and forgiveness, which work in the heart. It's a movement-by-movement response not to play the same games." Still, accordingto one nondenominational man from Illinois, who quoted two famous New Testament teachings on love and non-resistance, Christians should be willing to be mistreated in the process of loving their enemies:
We should respond with love. Love is patient, love is kind, is not angry. . . .
Does it let itself be walked over?
I think the expression "turn the other cheek" is true. You don't have to put up a big fight. I guess it depends on the issue. If you are being walked on, I think it's okay--you can accept that.
This applies, explained one Congregational man from Massachusetts, not just to nice outsiders, but to sinners as well: "We certainly shouldn't condemn them for their views. We shouldn't condemn them. You may condemn the sin, but, hey, you just love them like anybody else. And you try to share with them the good news that you understand, and to the best of your ability just try to love them." Christians should show tolerance and respect.
Sometimes this view was expressed as a liberal attitude of live-and-let-live. As one Covenant church woman from California said: "My response is tolerance of other people's views, as long as they don't interfere with our being able to express our views or live our lives." Other times tolerance was cast in more spiritual and theological language. In the words of one Congregational woman from California: "I used to feel hostile toward homosexuals. Then some godly people slowly opened my eyes to the fact that they are still human beings, they are alive, and Jesus died for them too. And many times the path to where they are is very understandable--one that, had I been in their shoes, I might have followed too." For some evangelicals, like a Christian and Missionary Alliance man from Georgia, respect and tolerance are important to retain minimal dignity as well as forward movement in conversations with outsiders:
We do not agree with the homosexual lifestyle they have chosen. But to hate them, or to not be part of them, or to feel like they should all be thrown on an island--no. We will not allow ourselves to bring this down to a mud fight of "I don't like you and you don't like me." At that point, the battle is lost on both sides.
Certain evangelicals, such as one Nazarene man from Oregon, spoke of the need to be careful and work hard at respecting others while sharing one's Christian views: "To me, it's a real fine line between caring about people, and wanting to tell them the truth that I know without infringing on their space, being disrespectful, or whatever. The way to do that is to check your motives. If you are trying to convince someone to make yourself feel good, then that's a problem." Christians should allow adversaries and antagonists to have and express their own opinions.
Evangelicals are often seen as people who try to censor beliefs and views that they consider threatening. But in our interviews we continually heard evangelicals affirm everyone's freedom to think and speak as they believe. "Christians should have respect for other people--that all people have the right to have their opinions," said one Swedish Covenant woman from California. "Love them, and let them. Really, they have the right to their opinion," argued a Presbyterian woman from North Carolina. "It is really hard to get in a one-on-one discussion with somebody and say, 'Here is how I am, and you should be like me,'" observed one Evangelical Free man from Colorado, "I never get into those, because chances are pretty slim you are going to change somebody's mind." Some, such as a nondenominational Bible church woman from Illinois, framed the issue in terms of the justice implied by everyone playing by the same rules: "I think Christians can't demand all the rights and privileges. If we are not going to let homosexuals and gamblers and liquor vendors speak and do what they want to do, then we can't either. I feel if Christians want to keep their freedom to speak, to push our ideas, then everyone hasto have the same freedoms in this country." Others, like one nondenominational woman from Ohio, again drew on their own preconversion experiences in thinking about treating non-Christians fairly:
Christians should be loving, merciful, gracious, living their lives in a way that would honor God. What we shouldn't do is attack them. You can't shout on a street corner about going to hell. We need to love people into the kingdom. People against Christianity are entitled to their opinions too. You've just got to pray for them. I don't think you should be hostile or pushy with them. You have to understand because they have a right to what they feel--possibly things I felt before I was a Christian.
In their responses, these evangelicals exhibited the capacity to carry on with people with whom they fundamentally disagree. One Baptist man from Minnesota, for example, declared:
In terms of their beliefs, certainly I don't agree with them. But I certainly will not deny them the right to speak their mind. I think that's part of our freedom we have in the United States. We need to be articulate in having a response, not to be condemning, but showing the Christian way. The idea of condemnation and criticism is always kind of hard to stomach. A person who is dying of AIDS--you can't point a finger and say they're a sinner. I mean the person has a human soul with human needs, and we need to be compassionate. Christians should never force Christian beliefs on others.
The evangelicals we interviewed not only believe they should tolerate the views of others with whom they disagree; they also nearly unanimously repudiated trying to force their beliefs and values on non-Christians. This is completely in keeping with the basic evangelical belief that conversion to faith is a voluntary, individual matter. "You can't make people Christian by forcing it on them," contended one Baptist man from Oregon. "In fact, you would probably do more damage than good. Christianity is something that happens on the inside. Then, results are behavioral change on the outside." "I don't want to try to push anything over on anyone," related a Christian and Missionary Alliance man from Georgia. "I'm not here to ram my beliefs down your throat. Mainstream America views Christians as radicals, but they're wrong in that." And a New Jersey woman from a Baptist church remarked, "You can't make people have a heart for God. You might be able to try to control their behavior, but you don't want a dictatorship that makes people go to church. It has to be an individual choice."
Many evangelicals were quite aware of how Christian domination can be abused. One Minnesota woman from an Evangelical Covenant church, for example, observed:
I get real nervous with Christian beliefs as well as non-Christian beliefs, because we're always going to be living someone's idea of how we should live. And again, it's one sector or clique or one organization trying to control how everybody else should be and feel are the moral issues. I'm wary of that. A lot of things have happened in the name of Christianity that aren't good because of a person or organization's belief.
Most of our interviewees, like one man who attends an independent church in Ohio, were also keenly aware that many evangelical "televangelists" and political activists are creating a bad reputation for Christians:
A lot of people form their opinions from the psycho-fanatics that they see on TV. But to me it makes no difference, I'm going to be a Christian and stand up for what I believe is right. And if people like it and want to hear it, great. I'm not going to go and jam the Word down their throat, because God didn't do that to us. He gives us our own choice.
The refusal to force Christian beliefs on others applies to more than theological beliefs. As one Missouri Synod Lutheran woman from Michigan explained, it also applies to the issue of saving America from moral chaos and socialbreakdown by returning to its Christian heritage: "When you show someone what can happen to this country going downhill, tell them it's up to them. They have a choice. You can't force anybody." Christians should avoid disruptive protests and hostile confrontations.
Recent events surrounding abortion clinic protests seem to have made a deep impression on many ordinary evangelicals. They have never been advocates of demonstrations and civil disobedience. The abortion clinic protests, however, seem to have solidified a strong distaste for confrontational and violent strategies. Most ordinary evangelicals, like one pentecostal man from Ohio, are firm believers in using conventional channels and procedures of influence instead:
You need to stand up for what you believe in, but there's a procedure that you go by. If you have an abortion clinic down the street, I'm not going to be out there protesting, throwing--you know, walking up and down the street, jumping in front of cars, stopping people from coming into the parking lot. I would handle that altogether different. I may start with writing letters to my mayor, my congressman. There's ways to talk to people and get attention without being that radical.
The evangelicals we interviewed expressed more faith in the power of religious conversion than in organized demonstrations and protests. An Assemblies of God man from Wisconsin voiced this view:
God has given me enough grace to see that they're blinded to the truth. I'm not one to go out and picket against that type of thing--abortions and things like that. I'm not one to picket. I just believe that Jesus Christ is the answer and that's what they need. I'm not one to form an organization to go against these people.
Many evangelicals were particularly repulsed by abortion clinic shootings in the name of pro-life activism and, like this pentecostal woman from Ohio, preferred to place their faith in God's work than in human confrontation:
I definitely do not think any Christian should ever, ever, ever respond to antagonistic groups with violence, with demonstrations, even, that are not peaceful. I believe we need to do it on our knees in prayer. I would never demonstrate outside an abortion clinic; I don't think that's right to do if it's going to cause violence. They don't need to chain themselves to doors. There's abortions going on across town or the next town until God comes in and moves. I don't believe going in after individuals is the way to end it.
In contrast to the impassioned confrontations of the protests, most evangelicals, including this Colorado man attending an evangelical community church, expressed belief in patient discussion with individuals:
I don't really have a big problem with other groups. I am not one of those types who is going to go out and picket in front of Planned Parenthood. That's not my personality. I am more inclined to see how I can make amends, or how we can work this out, instead of "my way is right, your way is wrong; believe my way." That is not the way to approach it. Screaming is not going to work. I need to spend time and communicate. That may take a year, but it's going to be more productive than trying to fight to convince anyone.
According to a Southern Baptist woman from Georgia, the responsibility to de-escalate the conflict lies with the Christian:
Christians need to continue with their Christian beliefs. They need to speak to people who are against them if the situation arises. If it does become hostile, then I think you need to back away. But I think you also need to be there to talk with them. Say, "Look, I would like to discuss this amiably." We can't be hostile or overbearing. That's where I would back away if something came to a situation like that.
And a Calvary church woman from California maintained, "It doesn't help to get angry and fight with them, because that's what they want. Somehow we have to respond with love, and not get mad." Evangelicals extend this attitude to their practice of evangelism, as the words of one pentecostal woman from Washington State illustrate:
The Bible says to be humble. You just don't go out on a corner of the street and start yelling and screaming, "Repent your sins." Jesus never did that. People saw Jesus being himself, and they came to him. He never came to them. Try to live as Christ did. Don't go screaming Christianity all over, because it's going to turn people off. You need to live your life so people say, "Hey, there's something different about this person." And people ask, "Why are you smiling all the time?" They really do. Christians should rely on the power of individual good examples and shared faith in personal relationships.
The core method employed by evangelicals to exert an evangelical influence in the world around them is what I call "strategic relationalism," or "personal influence strategy."[note 11]
Their aim is not to gain control of the reins of politics, take over school boards, or hound those who differ from them in the public square. It is, rather, to build personal relationships with people, impress them with lives that are good examples, and share with them their own beliefs and concerns. This method is strategic in that it consciously attempts to influence others. It is relational in that it relies on interpersonal relationships as the primary medium of influence. Strategic relationalism mirrors evangelicalism's emphasis on a "personal relationship with God," personal conversion of the heart, and the centrality of family relationships for moral life and spiritual growth. According to one Baptist man from Oregon, this is the proper means to achieve a Christian America, if indeed that is the goal:
The way you try to get Christianity into your country is by working with individual people. That is exactly what Christ did. If the numbers seem overwhelming--and they are--you don't really worry. That the country isn't Christian is not a worry to me.
A Christian and Missionary Alliance man from Georgia agreed that influence through relationships is key:
I am compassionate toward humanists, feminists, homosexuals, radical new-agers. I am not reactionary toward them at all. I would rather reach them and bring them over.
How would you do that?
One at a time, by relationships--if there is an opportunity to have a relationship, to have some influence that way.
Again, an Evangelical Covenant woman from Minnesota stressed living a good example as crucial in itself: "We should focus on helping other people, being there, being a friend, being able to love. It really comes to love, and not just saying the words but actions." A Church of God woman from Alabama concurred:
I don't see an open confrontation with people opposed to Christianity. I don't feel that way about it at all. I just feel like--and I have been confronted by a few--all we can do is answer their questions and show them that we are different by our manner, by our disposition, by the way we handle our answers to them. God will lead us.
We asked a Lutheran woman from Michigan what Christians should do to turn America back to its Christian heritage, which she seemed to think was a worthy endeavor. She began by talking about individuals selecting against certain consumer items, then changed to a strategic relationalist focus, and--when we probed about systemic change--concluded by emphasizing individual freedom to choose one's beliefs:
We can turn back to a Christian heritage by not supporting some of these TV programs--shutting off the TV, for one thing. Violence, murder, love stories, soap operas. Watching how we present ourselves. Saying no to drugs and alcohol. Not supporting the movie industry that is showing lots of junk. Trying to outdo one another in sharing with one another, really being a neighbor to someone.
So, these individual actions can turn America around?
I think so.
Are there any institutional or system-level changes you envision to get America back to its Christian heritage?
Allow each person to pray in their own denomination. Some try to lay guilt on others and shove religion down their throats. You can't do that.
This individualistic, relationalist, and voluntaristic mentality is not exactly the kind of approach that could sustain a mass-mobilized Christian Right movement to reclaim America for Christ by force. To influence others, Christians should rely for influence on voluntary persuasion through positive dialogue and communication.
The first seven beliefs taken together support the eighth: relying on voluntary persuasion, which seeks positive discussion and exchange, in order to influence others. A California man who attends a Congregational church, for example, noted:
Some Christians tend to overreact. I think it's important to maintain a distinction between church and state. You can't go to extremes. There's certainly a middle ground there. And for people who are hostile, I think we should just understand their point of view. Dialogue is certainly key. Just ignoring them or blasting them won't help the dialogue.
Aware of the temptations inherent in power, and viewing Christian political mobilization as an attempt to seize power--and thus as undesirable--one Bible Fellowship man from Pennsylvania related:
I know a man who goes out of his way to befriend leaders of other camps, and he says it makes a real difference when you show these people that you are a human being and not just an ideologue. I think some kind of loving attempt at communication gets a whole lot more mileage than sign carrying and ranting and raving in microphones. Rallies are great, but I prefer to stay positive. It is so easy for rallies to become directed at enemies. Even Hitler used mass hysteria in his quest for power.
Evangelicals appear to place great faith in patient, noncoercive persuasion, even with homosexuals--a population that they tend to view as hostile toward Christians. A Baptist man from Pennsylvania, for example, said:
If you believe the scriptures, then a gay lifestyle is wrong. But that doesn't mean we are to be out there eradicating them. We are to try to persuade them that this is not God's design. They have always existed and will continue to. Our job is to be patient, to be concerned, and to let them know our viewpoint.
A Baptist woman from California also stressed the need to listen to cultural adversaries with love and with an open mind:
People talk about extreme fundamentalists, but I see just as extreme the women's lib, the media, Hollywood.
How do you feel toward them?
I feel very sorry and I pray for them. I understand how people can get angry too, because they won't listen and they put you in a box. And that's exactly what I try not to do with each one of them as I meet them one by one. Just keep plugging away in love. If you fight it with anger and hostility, you're gonna get it back.
According to one Congregational man from Massachusetts, acting at the organizational level cannot compare to the value of sharing one's perspective, in the hopes that it will bear fruit in the future:
It's the Christian's responsibility to just keep planting seeds. Anytime you can present a Christian viewpoint and why we believe it, down the road you never know. The more we can do the better. I don't know if there is anything organized we can do against people who are especially hostile toward Christians.
Similarly, a Pennsylvania woman who attends an independent church suggested, "I think we should be vocal, be ready to explain God's point of view as shown in the Bible. And then work individual by individual." Summary.
Evangelicals are often stereotyped as imperious, intolerant, fanatical meddlers. Certainly there are some evangelicals who exemplify this stereotype. But the vast majority, when listened to on their own terms, prove to hold a civil, tolerant, and noncoercive view of the world around them. For some readers this may be unexpected, perhaps even unbelievable. We ourselves--presuming we would hear more echoes of Christian Right rhetoric in our interviews--were surprised by the pervasiveness of this outlook in evangelical talk. Yet pervasive it was.
The strategies for influence of evangelical political activists and those of ordinary evangelicals are obviously worlds apart. The former can be alarmist, pretentious, and exclusivist. The latter emphasize love, respect, mutual dialogue, taking responsibility for oneself, aversion to force and confrontation, voluntaristic ground rules of engagement, and tolerance for a diversity of views. Clearly, many of the evangelical political activists who are in the public spotlight do not accurately represent the views and intentions of their supposed constituency. (The fact that they are largely self-appointed, not elected, with little accountability to the grassroots majority may help to explain this.) Yet many outsiders make little distinction between the two, and the masses of ordinary evangelicals around the country remain misunderstood, their views thought of as no different from those of Randall Terry, James Kennedy, Pat Buchannan, and other evangelical leaders of similar persuasion.
Scholars talk of "culture wars" dividing America between traditionalists and progressives. But relatively few ordinary evangelicals, though they are clearly traditionalists, have any serious interest in culture wars--including ones fought for a Christian America. Even those evangelicals who wish for the recovery of a bygone Christian America largely lack the kind of strategic orientation required to reclaim it by force. In the end, most ordinary evangelicals believe and invest in building personal relationships, sharing their faith politely, setting good examples, and hoping the unbelieving world will see the truth and voluntarily respond with a changed heart.
Four Representative Cases
This chapter has broken evangelical discourse into bits and pieces in order to categorize and highlight major analytical themes. It has also emphasized difference and variety in evangelical views of "Christian America." In the following pages, I put the pieces back together by presenting excerpts from our interviews with four evangelicals whose comments represent the central trend of evangelical thought and feeling on "Christian America." Even while accounting for the diversity and multiple meanings in evangelical views noted in this chapter, it is possible to distinguish a most common evangelical perspective on "Christian America." These four specific cases represent that most common view and exemplify many of the analytical points made above.
Karen Anderson is a fifty-four-year-old, middle-class, self-identified evangelical charismatic woman from a small town in Minnesota.[note 12]
During our discussion about "Christian America" she said, "I think that most of the people when our country was formed were Christians, and they did have Christian laws that they established and followed. They came here for religious freedom," she added, "so to me they were obviously Christians." But Karen thinks that, as an influential element in the nation, Christians are "not as strong as we were at one time." Indeed, she sees elements in contemporary society that are opposed to America's Christian heritage, including "support for abortion rights and the ridicule of Christian organizations." Karen also views homosexuals, the National Organization of Women, and the media as hostile to Christianity. But in her own life, Karen finds no particular conflict: "I haven't had any problems. The people I work with and most of my neighbors know I'm a Christian, and I don't find it a problem." One time Karendid march with a placard outside an abortion clinic, but she says she has "mixed feelings" about the pro-life group Operation Rescue and all of the "name-calling" and "back-and-forth yelling thing" she associates with it. "That's why," she says, "I think one-on-one evangelism is so much better. If you can reach one and then they can reach one, you know that's far better than this group stuff where you're so militant and radical. I don't like that kind of thing."
Karen confesses to feeling embarrassed by the actions of some Christians, particularly violent pro-life activists, that she hears about on the news. We asked Karen how Christians should respond to those who are hostile to them. She replied:
First, in love. You're never going to reach them if you're as militant as they are, you know, so I really frown on evangelicals that are kind of hostile themselves. You don't win people that way. You've got to love them first. We should just stand firm in our beliefs, of course, but try to reach them in a loving way, try to talk to them and befriend them, rather than go and just start yelling things back and forth. What does that accomplish?
Commenting on her own experience as a Christian, Karen observed:
I always want the light of Jesus to shine out of me so that people are attracted to Christ in me. I don't believe in what you call "hard-sell" Christianity. I like to befriend people first and show them kindness and love. I don't believe in preaching at people. I invite them to Christian things, and if the conversation can be such that I can talk to them about Jesus, I do that. I never hit anyone over the head with the Bible--that turns them off quickly.
Keith Roberts is a thirty-eight-year-old evangelical from central Michigan who attends a Wesleyan church. He is married and has four children. "The Declaration of Independence was written in a Christian spirit," said Keith. "The way they governed the country in those days was Christian ethics. Nowadays in courts and government it is pretty hard to see any evidence of any Christianity. Decisions are made by economics, and which group has the most pressure on them." Keith is not sure when the decline of America's Christian ethics started, but he is pretty sure it is on the increase as technology develops. In any case, he asserted:
America as a whole is not the country it was two hundred years ago. America was founded by Christian people and had Christian principles, and laws were derived from that. Today we've lost that connection. Each decade we lose more and more. We are becoming a pagan nation. I guess I would prefer to live in a Christian nation.
Asked whether there are any groups that are hostile to Christians today, he replied, "I am sure there are some, but I don't know personally what they are and what hostility has taken place. But there is no doubt in my mind that there are some groups that are hostile." Upon further probing, Keith offered, "Gays and lesbians--my feeling is that they are hostile." Does he feel hostile or opposed to them? "I would be opposed to what they do. Hostile, no, or opposed to them as human beings, no." So what, we asked, should Christians be doing about this decline of Christian principles in America? "Well, I guess most importantly for me is what can I do?" he said. "What is my role?" Answering his own question, he said, "I think most importantly is my family and what my kids grow up to believe, what their moral values are. Outside of the family, the church, I guess I'm not crystal clear on what we should do." Then he added, "I support organizations like Right to Life and things like that, but you can't do it all. I guess for me it is to make sure my family has a solid foundation and is really in the Word of God and has high moral standards."
Erma Williams is fifty-one, a wife, and the mother of two grown children. She belongs to an evangelical Congregational church in the Boston area. Erma quickly turned our discussion about Americainto a critique of the mass media, which she says is liberal and anti-Christian. The media, she says, tells people to "be your own person, you're your own god." Since the 1960s the media has become progressively more hostile toward Christians, and today is "mean-spirited and biased and hateful" toward them. We asked if she believed that some groups were trying to turn American away from its Christian heritage. "There's some truth in that. I think there's a certain segment that would like to see this country completely atheist." Erma specifically cited the media, "many political leaders," and "a myriad of special interest groups" as comprising this segment. She also identified pro-choice activists, homosexuals, the new-age movement, and environmentalists as hostile to Christianity.
Things have not always been this way, Erma observed: "America was founded by a group of people who were, for the most part, God-fearing people. Obviously, we got off on the wrong foot when we started selling slaves, but, yes, probably up until the end of the last century the country was a lot more God-fearing than it is now." At the same time, Erma thinks that Christians should own their share of the blame: "There are some Christians, or people who claim to be Christians, that behave as sinfully as some of the groups that call us evil." And how, we asked, should Christians respond to groups who are opposed to them? "Lovingly. In situations where I deal with individuals like that, I let people know what my beliefs are. But I don't let my beliefs hinder building a relationship with that person or extending myself to that person and being friends."
Nancy Erikson is a thirty-nine-year-old Christian and Missionary Alliance woman who lives near Youngstown, Ohio, with her husband and two elementary-school-age children. Like Karen, Keith, and Erma, Nancy believes that America was Christian in the past but is no longer so: "That's what the founding fathers really had in mind. The Constitution and everything talks about, you know, 'In God We Trust,' and everything makes reference to God. It's really gotten away from that, but that's how they started it, how it was based." Nancy said many Americans think that "a lot of evangelicals are nuts," and that pro-choice activists and homosexuals "definitely seem like they're out to get Christians." She also thinks that the televangelist sex scandals of the 1980s and 90s have hurt Christians' reputations. And she denounced the anti-abortion shootings that she has seen in the news, insisting that Christians must always be peace-loving. They should "witness" to other people through the way they live their own lives:[note 13]
"I think each individual Christian has such a witness just in their own community." Nancy thinks that homosexuality and abortion are morally wrong, but says, "I don't know if there's a lot I can do that's very big about either." Nancy recently discovered that one of her cousins is gay, which she says is difficult for her family. But, she remarks, "I'm not hostile, I just pray for them."
Nancy is also concerned about Hollywood movies, television commercials, secular music, and MTV--although she admits that when she was younger she watched MTV "for hours," and so can "see both sides now and understand how people feel." When we asked her at what point the old Christian America began to erode, Nancy replied, "I would say sometime in the 1960s, when prayer was taken out of schools. It seemed like the 'me' and 'self' stuff started back then. I think a lot of it was as soon as they took prayer out of schools." Then she quickly added:
But I'm not an advocate for actual prayer in schools. I think there should be a silent time so that other people of faith aren't forced to pray. The Christian can pray, and if someone is not [Christian], they can just have a time of silence. Because I don't think it should be forced on anybody. I don't think the Lord wants that. I think he wants us to inform people, and it's up to them to make the choice to accept or not accept him. I have a lot of trouble being forceful with people, because I'm just not like that.
The responses of these four evangelicals represent the most frequently articulated perspective of ordinary evangelicals on the topic of "Christian America." This viewpoint can be summed up: Yes, America was once what we might call a Christian nation in some important ways. Much of that has eroded in the twentieth century. As a result, America has lost its moral bearings, which in turn has produced significant, harmful social breakdown. There may even be some groups who are actively hostile to Christianity and who seek to secularize America. In response Christians should be loving and understanding of their adversaries, live rightly themselves in order to set a good example, pray, raise their own families well, speak up for what they believe in, and attempt to persuade others of the same. But they should never force Christian views on people who do not share them. This view is basically nonmilitant in outlook. It hardly represents an ideology capable of sustaining a forceful "reclaiming America for Christ."
As we conducted our interviews, we noted the fair number of evangelicals who expressed opinions contrary to the typical ones. There were counter-opinions for every conventional view. Some of these exceptions and anomalies are worth noting. For example, evangelicals are generally opposed to the gay and lesbian rights movements. Yet some interviewees took a different view. Some, like one Baptist man from New York, advocated a more live-and-let-live attitude: "The issue of homosexuality--I admit there needs to be a certain amount of tolerance." But others, like one pentecostal woman from Oregon, expressed a more accepting approach:
Well, the OCA [Oregon Citizens Alliance, a conservative political group that sponsors anti-gay legislation]--maybe I don't know it well enough, but the parts that I heard I didn't like, about homosexuals trying to ruin. . . . I don't believe it is right or wrong to be homosexual. I don't think it is my place to judge a person. I have met many homosexual people before, and they are not out to convert everybody, which is a lot of what I hear coming from the OCA.
Some evangelicals who do believe homosexuality is morally wrong also believe, nonetheless, in granting homosexuals civil rights. One Presbyterian woman from Pennsylvania, for example, argued, "I think this bit about [denying homosexuals] health benefits is ludicrous. I mean, as human beings they should be allowed to have health benefits just like anybody." And a nondenominational woman from Indiana remarked, "I don't agree with homosexual marriage. I think it's really sick and twisted. But you know, if they want to, I guess it's fine. They've got to answer to God, and I'm not responsible for them. I don't think it is right, but I wouldn't try to get a law against them."[note 14]
American evangelicals are also notorious for their strong pro-life views on abortion. Yet there are contrary voices among evangelicals on this issue as well. One nondenominational woman from Indiana, for example, redefined child protection, using a utilitarian calculus of suffering, in order to justify some abortions:
I think abortion should be the choice of the person. If I am a Christian, it would be wrong for me to abort the child. Where I have a problem is people who are Christians trying to make laws that affect other people. If people don't want to be Christians, I don't think you should ram it down their throat. If the child is going to be abused or hated or born into poverty and the parent doesn't want them, to abort the child would be protecting them. The world is such a miserable place, to protect them they'd be better off not being born.
Most of the pro-choice evangelical minority, however, cited the belief in individual freedom to make moral choices and the futility of forcing morality on dissenting others to support the pro-choice view. One independent church man from California, for example, argued:
Abortion should never have been a government consideration. Abortion is a religious decision. It's a decision that a person makes which is really no one else's business. And if they decide that in the eyes of God that what they're doing is right for them, or that God will forgive them if it's wrong, then they should have the prerogative to make that decision.
Likewise, a Methodist woman from Illinois interestingly combined concern about individual responsibility before God on Judgment Day with defense of autonomy over one's body more typical of a politically liberal viewpoint:
That's where I really get into it on abortion. I still say it's between the woman and God.
So politicians shouldn't be trying to . . . ?
No, every time I hear it I think, "You people are not gonna have to answer to God for her decision! It's none of your business; don't try to get in between there!" She's making the decision, right or wrong, but she's making it. It's her body, it's her life, and she'll have to answer for it. God'll judge how He thinks that she made that decision, and that's nobody else's decision.
Similarly, a pentecostal woman from Washington State added to her mix of reasons the widespread evangelical discomfort with abortion clinic demonstrations and protests:
I don't approve of Christians going down to abortion clinics and standing there and acting like a bunch of idiots. To me that is what they are. People have that right. No, I don't believe in abortions. I would never have an abortion. [But] I can't tell somebody how to run their own life. There is going to be a Judgment Day one day: those people are going to have to stand up before God just like I will have to. I can't go and tell somebody how to run their life.
We came across other instances of evangelicals voicing atypical perspectives. Most evangelicals, for example, believe that Christians possess unique answers for the problems of this world. But not all do. A Congregational man from Massachusetts, for instance, answered our question on whether Christians have solutions for the world's problems this way: "I don't necessarily think Christians are any better than some leading moral sociologists or whatever, or someone who studied long and hard. I don't think that just because we are Christian we have an instant answer." Most evangelicals are also suspicious of secular humanists. But some, including one Evangelical Free man from Minnesota, are not: "My wife's brother, they're just dyed-in-the-wool humanists. They're just really the nicest people on the face of the earth."
Again, most evangelicals fall on the conservative side of the political spectrum and support the Republican party. But not all do. A nondenominational woman from Massachusetts, for example, comes from a different political background: "When I lived in Chicago, I was part of a church group of leftists who really were very tied to religion and felt that spirituality was missing from what we call the revolution. And we would go to annual church conventions to try to get church functionaries to address social and political issues, like American investments in Africa."
Evangelicals also tend to think that liberals and secularists are the people most opposed to Christians, and most evangelicals readily endorse American capitalism. But some agree with the Missionary church man from Michigan who stated, in a discussion about anti-Christian forces in society, that the upper management of the business class contribute the most to the erosion of Judeo-Christian values:
Well, a lot of the upper-end business people are greed-motivated, selfish. They don't want a conscience. It is hard to downsize a thousand employees and families for a one-point margin of profit this year, knowing that it is not going to last. I see a lot of business in our country taking advantage of people and reducing them to statistics, causing a lot of instability with people. A lot of those are not pro-ethics, pro-Christianity. Really, it comes down to a bunch of morals, back to your Judeo-Christian values are under attack a lot. Relativism is trying on several levels, from the media to business.
These voices are nowhere close to those typical of most evangelicals. They exist as minority perspectives within evangelicalism, underscoring the fact that evangelicals do not espouse a single, unified perspective on social and political issues. Within the evangelical religious subculture, it is possible to generate and embrace alternative views.
Explaining Evangelical Civility and Tolerance
Given conventional wisdom to the contrary, why do most evangelicals practice civility and tolerance when it comes to the perceived loss of a Christian nation, and why are most evangelicals decidedly nonmilitant about reclaiming a Christian America? Has the evangelical subculture become so secularized internally that evangelicals cannot formulate a distinctive and resolute response to this perceived loss?[note 15]
Or is there another explanation?
Part of the answer certainly is that evangelicals have simply absorbed a fair amount of liberal American tolerance. American evangelicals have made common cause with elements of the secular Enlightenment since the eighteenth century.[note 16]
And as children of their own time and place, contemporary evangelicals embrace and readily express many central features of the dominant American political culture, including respect for individual autonomy and tolerance of difference--even as they criticize and resist these traits in other ways. Certain more self-critical evangelicals--typically on the margins of evangelicalism--have observed this tendency toward political acculturation in evangelicalism for a long time.[note 17]
Part of the answer, too, is that much of what appears as denunciation of non-Christian influences in America and movement to reclaim a lost era of Christian America, perhaps by force, is simply talk to construct and maintain collective identity.[note 18]
This evangelical rhetoric is functioning not so much to actually get the troops ready to re-Christianize America as to express and reinforce a distinctive identity for its adherents. What many outsiders mistake for evangelical "report talk" (talk about real intentions, expectations, and actions) is mostly "rapport talk" (talk about establishing relational connections and meaningful identities), to use Tannen's apt terms.[note 19]
Few evangelicals have any intention of literally reestablishing Christian dominance in politics and society. But reflecting on and proclaiming the godliness of America's founding fathers, Christian "principles and values," the decline of Christian influence in the culture, the breakdown of morality, and Christ as the nation's only hope serve to evoke and reaffirm a distinctive evangelical identity. This kind of talk is a way of reciting a particular narrative that functions to constitute and sustain a particular community, tradition, and subculture.[note 20]
But even these two explanations together do not give adequate reason for evangelicals' relative civility and tolerance. Yet another factor is the anti-establishment, decentralized, voluntaristic, fragmented, and individualistic culture that has permeated most sectors of the broad American evangelical church tradition for nearly two centuries.[note 21]
The established church heritage of Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism is foreign to American evangelicalism. Most contemporary evangelicals are heirs of denominational and nondenominational traditions that grew as upstarts outside of the religio-political establishment in America. Most evangelicals are Baptists, Methodists, pentecostals, Restorationists, Holiness Christians, Free Church believers, and members of smaller Presbyterian and Lutheran denominations. A large proportion of contemporary evangelicals attend independent and nondenominational churches. We know that organizational structures and practices shape group consciousness and culture. We also know that the long American evangelical church tradition provides few cultural tools to help mobilize or legitimate any kind of centralized, unified, or cooperative action. The organizational ontology that comes most naturally to most evangelicals is a decentralized, voluntary association situated on a fragmented field of church groups and para-church organizations. A unified, widespread conservative Christian campaign to "reclaim the nation for Christ," therefore, is simply not in evangelicalism's organizational "cards" or its cultural "DNA."
But another important factor explaining evangelical civility and tolerance may still be overlooked: the moral and theological teachings inherent in the Christian tradition itself about how believers should relate to the unbelieving world. Although perhaps not deducible from aspects of the Christian Right agenda or from certain Christians' behavior, in fact the Christian scriptures and moral tradition are full of ethical instructions which naturally lend themselves to civility and tolerance. Christians do not have to imbibe secular Enlightenment liberalism in order to act civilly, openly, and charitably. Their own faith's inheritance abounds with the resources to maintain this orientation.
Consider Gospel teachings, for example.[note 22]
Jesus taught his disciples not to judge others, not to take revenge, but to give generously and forgive indefinitely (Luke 6:30, 37; Matt 5:38-42, 18:21-22). God, Jesus said, sends the rain on the just and the unjust, and so God's children should love everyone equally, without discrimination (Matt 5:43-48).In the Gospel narratives, Jesus never forced anyone to follow him. Rather, Jesus stood at the door, waiting for anyone to knock, to ask, to seek (Matt 7:7; Rev 3:20). Jesus was comfortable associating with tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners (Matt 9:10-13). His actions violated deep cultural norms that divided Jews from Samaritans, men from women, the clean from the unclean (John 4:7-26; Matt 15:1-12). Jesus healed, fed, and taught the multitudes who may or may not have declared by then their allegiance to his movement (Luke 9:10-17). Jesus taught peacemaking and love for enemies (Matt 5:9, 43-48). Do not resist an evil person, he commanded (Matt 5:39). Do not try to take a speck out of your neighbor's eye when you have a log in your own, he instructed (Matt 7:3-5). Jesus' ethic required his followers to treat others as they themselves wish to be treated (Luke 6:31). In general, Jesus' teachings assumed that his followers would always be a minority surrounded by a plurality of nonbelievers, whom they should not try to dominate, but should love and serve for God's sake. In the parable of the wheat and the weeds, Jesus taught his disciples not to try to weed out the unsaved from the saved, but to leave that task up to God for another day (Matt 13:24-30, 36-43). In the parable of the prodigal son, the loving father allows his foolish son to choose a wayward life, and only rejoices without recrimination when the son voluntarily repents and returns home (Luke 15:11-31). Throughout his ministry, Jesus declined the political power of the sword and of the crowd (Matt 26:51-52; John 6:14-15). In his wilderness temptations, Jesus rejected all paths to glory except that of the suffering servant (Matt 4:1-11).[note 23]
And Jesus loved and forgave even his executioners (Luke 23:34).
Consider also the teachings of the apostle Paul. Christians should make no effort to separate themselves from nonbelievers, he wrote, even though they may be very immoral (1 Cor 5:9-10). As far as it depends on Christians, they should make every effort to live at peace with all people (Rom 12:18, 14:18). It is not the business of Christians to judge non-Christians in this world; they should rather judge only those within the church (1 Cor 5:12-13). Christians should use all opportunities to do good to all people, not just to other Christians (Gal 6:10). Salvation is entirely a gift of grace from God, so that no Christian has any right to boast in their own superiority over anyone else (Eph 2:9; Rom 3:27). Christians should not judge anything or anybody, but should leave that up to God on the day of judgment (1 Cor 4:3-5). Christians should happily eat meals when invited into the homes of unbelievers, and not raise purity questions about whether the food prepared had been sacrificed in pagan worship to idols (1 Cor 10:25-27). Because Christians will stand before God's judgment seat and give an account of themselves to God, Christians ought to suspend their judgments of others and concern themselves with the righteousness of their own lives (Rom 14:10-13). Married Christians with unbelieving spouses should feel no need to leave or divorce their spouses, but should live together with them in peace (1 Cor 7:12-16). And Christians' lives should be distinguished by love, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, humility, service (Gal 5:22; Col 3:12).
Consider too the teachings of the other Christian apostles and New Testament writers. God is the only lawgiver and judge, claimed the apostle James, so it is not the job of Christians to judge their neighbors (Jam 4:12). Christians should make every effort to live at peace with all people, writes the author of the book of Hebrews (Heb 12:14). The apostle Peter taught that Christians should win over their pagan neighbors not through force but through the example of the good lives they live (1 Pet 2:12); that Christians ought to show proper respect to everyone (1 Pet 2:17); and that Christians should expect and endure suffering in the world without retaliation because of their faith (1 Pet 4:12-19). The apostle John taught that the chief Christian virtue is love for others (1 John 3:11-20, 4:7-21). And the author of the book of Revelation wrote that the calling of Christians in the face of mistreatment and persecution is patient endurance and faithfulness (Rev 13:5-10). It is only the blood of the Lamb (and the martyrdom of believers), and not any earthly power or influence of Christians, that conquers evil (Rev 5:9-10, 12:10-11, 19:11-13).[note 24]
The Christian theological and moral tradition, like all rich traditions, is multivocal.[note 25]
It can be read in a variety of directions, including in coercive ways. But it clearly comprises a host of ethical teachings that together can form in Christians a posture of charity, peace, forbearance, and respect toward non-Christians in a pluralistic environment.[note 26]
That American evangelicals have proven in this analysis to be more civil and tolerant than their popular image would suggest is, in part, because they have somewhat internalized this body of teachings and exhibit them in their daily lives. This, together with their decentralized and voluntaristic organizational heritage, and the influence of the dominant American political culture of liberal tolerance, helps to explain their surprising civility and tolerance.
Examining the views of ordinary evangelicals (as opposed to a handful of outspoken evangelical elites) in all of their depth and subtlety (instead of compressed and oversimplified in rudimentary answer categories on surveys) reveals a diversity and complexity that contradicts conventional wisdom about evangelicals. Most evangelicals in fact do not long with obsessive nostalgia for a Christian past that they hope to restore. They have no intention of rolling back America's cultural and religious pluralism through the reestablishment of Christianity. Few think that exerting pressure of any kind--much less political coercion--is an appropriate way to put forth a Christian influence on society. Most evangelicals believe instead in the influence of a good example, loving interpersonal relationships, persuasion, and prayer.
American evangelicals are disturbed by social and moral ills and issues, as are the majority of other Americans. When evangelicals employ their own cultural language--their subcultural tools--to express their concerns, it sometimes does sound exclusivist and imperious to outsiders. But in fact few ordinary evangelicals actually subscribe to James Kennedy's program of "reclaiming America for Christ" in the way their opponents fear.
When vocal evangelical political activists stand up and preach about the loss of or need for a "Christian America," they often do strike a chord in many ordinary evangelicals. But it is not a chord that sustains for long or sets the dominant key of the evangelical cultural repertoire. And the chord that this rhetoric does strike with ordinary evangelicals is not necessarily the same chord that the political activists intend to strike. The activists are thinking about sustained Christian political mobilization. But most evangelicals are thinking about basic morality and faithful witness in their personal lives. The activists are usually able to generate some political mobilization of the evangelicals most sympathetic to their vision--like the 1,400 participants at James Kennedy's conference. But the mobilization is usually short-lived and often lacks a clear program for political transformation. (The reported strategies for action suggested by participants at Kennedy's conference, for example, ranged "from 'Impeach the Supreme Court' to running commercials for Christ during the Super Bowl.")[note 27]
In the end, while "Christian America" does strike a certain warm chord for some evangelicals, it simply will not serve as a deep cultural wellspring sustaining a major Christian political movement that will somehow "re-Christianize" America.
Chapter 1 Notes1.
Briggs 1998: A4. back to text 2.
Briggs 1998: A4. back to text 3.
On a different topic somewhat related to the question of Christian America--namely, who or what groups in America today may be actively opposed or hostile to Christians--evangelicals tended to speak very similarly. This will be discussed later. back to text 4.
Individual evangelicals sometimes gave multiple meanings in a single interview, such that the total of all percentages per meaning reported here exceeds 100 percent. back to text 5.
In fact, scholars (though not all evangelicals or other Americans) know that the early American colonies varied in their toleration of religious diversity--from the relatively intolerant Puritan Congregationalist colony of Massachusetts, to the quite tolerant colonies of Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland (see, for instance, Frost 1990; McLoughlin 1991). Contemporary evangelical talk about "religious freedom" as the meaning of "Christian America" does not refer to, for example, the Bay Colony's Puritan definition of religious freedom ("Freedom for us, but not for Quakers or Baptists"); but rather to the more broad, cultural notion that each person was and should be free to worship whoever, however, whenever, and for whatever reason they so choose. back to text 6.
The argument is based on the premise that the faithful practice of Christianity and the level of a nation's social problems are causally linked. The full but simple logic runs like this: America was once a nation of faithful Christians, and consequently there were fewer moral, social, and political problems. The historical decline of Christian faith and practice has resulted in an increase in these problems.These problems are a bad thing. Therefore, America as a nation should return to its previous, higher level of faithful Christian living. back to text 7.
An Assemblies of God man from Ohio, for example, stated: "Well, now, I'm not an historian, but if you get into looking at our past presidents where they used to get up and pray, and used to write in their letters about praying to God, talking about Christianity, and everything, if you look at where the nation came from, you can bring that from the beginning of time when America was a Christian nation." back to text 8.
A Pentecostal man from Georgia shared: "Who was that guy who signed the Declaration of Independence? Oh, John Quincy Adams. As a fourteen-year-old [he] was sent to the Queen of Russia as a spokesman for the United States, because of his wisdom. He never read any text except the Bible. He learned to read, count numbers, learned equations, and learned science from the Bible. Those people had wisdom because it was all godly wisdom from the Bible. It started as a godly nation in the beginning. They would pray before they would pass a bill or new law. They would pray, see if they could find scripture to base it by. So, it did start out a godly nation." back to text 9.
A Baptist man from Pennsylvania noted: "There is no doubt in my mind that you can go back and find that some of our founding fathers were maybe even immoral in some of their lifestyles, but they as a collective whole founded our nation as 'one nation under God.' They believed in a supreme being. They believed in God Almighty. And they wanted our nation to espouse those values and beliefs. They put it into our Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, they put it on our currency. They made it an indelible imprint on our society." back to text 10.
Besides the meanings commonly mentioned by evangelicals under discussion here, individual interviewees occasionally mentioned others that are not detailed in this text. One (and only one) evangelical man, for example, claimed that America was a Christian nation in the past because its founding was part of God's providential purpose in history. back to text 11.
See Smith et al. 1998: 187--203; Emerson and Smith (2000). back to text 12.
To maintain the interviewees' anonymity, their names have been changed in this text; however, the other identifying information (sex, religious tradition, state of residence, family information, etc.) remains the same. back to text 13.
Among evangelicals, "to witness" means to exemplify a good Christian life and to share one's faith with nonbelievers. back to text 14.
Similarly, a Pentecostal woman from Washington state maintained: "I don't approve of that. That is my own personal opinion. I can't go around and preach what I do and don't believe in. People have to live their lives the way they want to live. All we can do is express our opinion. We can't do it loudly and be boisterous. You are not going to accomplish anything by going down to City Hall and holding up a sign. Sometimes the best protest you are going to get is doing a quiet protest. Praying for those people. That is the best way you can deal with it. Talking to other people. Educating those other people. It says in the Bible you can't be having sex with a person of the same sex. It is against God's laws to do that, you know. But when you have that chance to talk to somebody about Christ, then that is when you talk to them. You have to be able to see that person and say, well, maybe I can talk to them. You can't tell them they are going to hell." back to text 15.
See Hunter 1983, 1987; Wells 1993; Schaeffer 1984. back to text 16.
See Noll 1995. back to text 17.
See, for instance, Wallis 1976; Hauerwas and Willimon 1989. back to text 18.
See Schwalbe and Mason--Schrock 1996. back to text 19.
Tannen 1990. back to text 20.
See Smith et al. 1998. This process is not uniquely evangelical, by any means. I have observed uncannily similar dynamics at work, for example, in the interactions of a university socialist association, where I once gave a presentation. What appeared on the surface to be strategy and accomplishment talk was really functioning as leftist/progressive identity maintenance talk. There was clearly no pragmatic interest in actually shaping the external world; the purpose was to validate an insular collective moral identity. One would suspect these kinds of identity processes to be widespread among many social groups. See also Kleinman 1996; Taylor and Whittier 1992. back to text 21.
David Sikkink originally suggested this interpretation to me. back to text 22.
For present purposes, the authenticity and proper interpretation of the following biblical passages is less relevant than their scriptural authority for ordinary evangelicals. back to text 23.
See Yoder 1972. back to text 24.
Consider also the theology of the Hebrew scriptures, which Christians call the Old Testament. Many associate the Old Testament with a wrathful, arbitrary, and judging God. But arriving at this view requires selective reading of the texts. In the Hebrew Bible, Yahweh is depicted above all as a God of mercy and love, who bears with the sins of his people, patiently withholding judgment and searching for every opportunity to achieve redemption and reconciliation (see, for instance, Ex 34:6-7; Ps 86:15; Ps 103:6-18; Is 1:2-18; Jer 30:4-22; Joel 2:12-14; Neh 9:16-21; Zech 10:6-12). When Adam and Eve sin, God provides for their needs and for their future salvation (Gen 3:15, 21). The same is true when Cain murders Abel (Gen 4:13-16). After the Flood, God promises never to destroy the earth, no matter how evil it becomes (Gen 9:8-17). Later, Yahweh commands his people to be kind and just to the foreigners who live in their land, although they do not share the covenant promises (Ex 22:21; Lev 24:22). And, eventually, Yahweh's plan of salvation is extended to all the nations of the earth, as it is his purpose to bless all peoples (e.g., Ps 67; Ps 72:17; Is 51:4-5, 60:1-3). back to text 25.
See Hart 1996. back to text 26.
See Mouw 1992. back to text 27.
Briggs 1998: A4. back to text