In recent decades Protestant evangelicalism has become a conspicuous and--to many Americans, worrisome--part of this country's cultural and political landscape. But just how unified is the supposed constituency of the Christian Coalition? And who exactly are the people the Christian Right claims to represent? In the most extensive study of American evangelicals ever conducted, Christian Smith explores the beliefs, values, commitments, and goals of the ordinary men and women who make up this often misunderstood religious group. The result is a much-needed contribution to the discussion of issues surrounding fundamental American freedoms and the basic identity of the United States as a pluralistic nation.
Based on data from a three-year national study, including more than 200 in-depth interviews of evangelicals around the country, Christian America? assesses the common stereotype of evangelicals as intolerant, right-wing, religious zealots seeking to impose a Christian moral order through political force. What Smith finds instead are people vastly more diverse and ambivalent than this stereotype suggests. On issues such as religion in education, "family values," Christian political activism, and tolerance of other religions and moralities, evangelicals are highly disparate and conflicted. As the voices of interviewees make clear, the labels "conservative" and "liberal" are too simplistic for understanding their approaches to public life and political action.
Christian America? What Evangelicals Really Want
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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 ViewsConducting 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 MeansSix 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.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.
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].
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 SolutionPerhaps 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