There are a lot of different ideas about whether the United States was founded as a Christian nation. Regardless of those ideas, though, the majority of Americans now say that the United States of today isn’t Christian nation. The question, then, is whether we should strive to establish the United States as a Christian nation for tomorrow.
Conservative voices across the country join together to demand laws that defend the biblical definitions of marriage and protect expressions of Christian faith on government property. They cry for Christian men and women to speak up, protest governmental authorities, and stop the rise of secularization in our nation.
Certainly, Christians should hope for all Americans to come to know Christ in a real and personal way. We should have that same hope for all the world. But is legislating our Christian ethics the way we are to bring people to Christ?
Let’s start with some of the core, universal beliefs of evangelical Christianity.
At the heart of evangelicalism is the idea that authentic Christian faith is personal. The decision to live your life for Christ is one that each individual must make for himself. It’s not something that can be inherited or passed along or absorbed by sitting in a pew.
We believe in the transformative power of a relationship with God. When a person commits her life to Christ, the Holy Spirit speaks to her and draws her closer to himself.
We believe that community is a vitally important part of Christian life. We come together to worship, to support one another, and to challenge each other.
I understand why Christians want to create a Christian culture.
We want to live in a wholesome society that shares our values. And since we believe in the right-ness of our values, we believe that society can be improved by adhering to our values. And we feel that if the world would simply live by our ethics, the United States would be a beautiful, happy place to live.
But here’s the real hangup for me.
When we create laws based solely on Scripture*, we are effectively discouraging people from having a personal relationship with Christ. We’re telling them they have to live a Christian life rather than allowing them to discover the joy of living a Christian life.
It’s like reading books. I’ve always loved reading - I was one of those kids that went to the library every other week and brought home 10 books to read over the next 14 days.
In school, though, we were always assigned a list of books to read, and working through those books was torture. They weren’t bad books. They weren’t boring or difficult to understand. I just hated reading them.
Since I’ve been out of school, I’ve re-read a number of those books for fun, and I’ve been astounded at how incredible those books are. I’ve loved reading them. Why do I enjoy them so much now even though I hated them in school?
I think the biggest reason is that, in school, they were required. I had no choice in the matter - I had to read them. Now I can read them by my own choice. I see them as literature and understand their beauty and their value.
By creating laws founded solely on the Bible, we’re doing this same thing to a lost and broken world. Instead of showing them how transformative our faith is and how much impact it has on our lives, we are making Christianity into “assigned reading” and forcing them to abide by rules that were explicitly given to the people of God.
When we compel the world to live by our rules, we take the heart out of the gospel.
Legislation will never change a person’s heart. As evangelicals who hold firm to the transformational power of a personal relationship with Christ, we should not seek to change the behavior of our nation - we should seek to change the heart of our nation.
And to change the heart of our nation, we must look first at our own hearts.
Ironically, the biblical commandments that we most loudly want to legislate are the very ones that we most often fail to achieve.
Biblical marriage? Marriage in the church has been broken for a long time. Pornography, adultery, divorce, and abuse run rampant even among Christians.
Sanctity of life? Christians are some of the leading proponents of capital punishment, war, and lethal self-defense. We champion the lives of unborn children, yet we rush to judge and isolate single mothers instead of showing them that we will support them as they raise their child.
When we allow the Spirit of God to fix the brokenness within ourselves, when we are able to show the world that our relationship with Christ has transformed us, we won’t have to enforce our faith through governmental might. People will be drawn into the radical beauty of Christian society. Roger Olson says,
Nothing will speak louder to the world than love and justice practiced within Christian communities. Until and unless that happens, the world of culture can hardly be expected to experience Christian involvement as anything but hypocritical and frightening.
But what does the Bible say about it?
Christ was born into one of the most corrupt societies the world has ever known. The Roman empire was absolutely consumed with lust and pride to a degree that most Americans couldn’t even imagine.
The Israelites were anxious for their Savior - someone who would deliver them politically (even militarily) from the rule of the Romans. They anticipated a Messiah who would unite them as a people under a God-fearing governmental authority like the kings in the Old Testament.
Instead, God sent them Jesus.
This Jesus had opportunities time and time again to overthrow the Roman authorities - he had the power of God at his command and with one word could have delivered his people from their oppression. He could have summoned an army of angels to conquer the kings of men across the entire world.
But when the Pharisees tried to entice him to start a revolution against the corrupt government, he refused, instead telling them to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” He instructed them to give the things of the world over to the world and to give their hearts to God.
Christ’s example reminds us to set our eyes on his Kingdom rather than on the kingdoms of the world.
He passed on every opportunity he was given to establish an earthly government based on his own system of values. He expected people to reject him and told his disciples to expect the same.
Christ didn’t pay much attention to the laws and governmental regulations. He focused instead on being a beacon of light in the midst of darkness.
So as a Christian, a follower of Christ, I strive to do the same. I am not going to focus my efforts on reforming a secular government to meet my standards of Christianity. Rather than forcing the world into the mold of Christianity, my goal is to demonstrate the brightness and beauty of the light of Christ.
Let’s bring the kingdom of God to earth not through legislation and worldly politics, but through actually living out the gospel of being a people set apart unto God.
* I should clarify that I do think there are plenty of biblical values that can and should be legislated - for example, murder should certainly be against the law. But the Bible should not be our only source of validation for any governmental authority. Murder is wrong because it causes harm to another person - the laws against it are not based on Scripture alone.