How Do We Recognize a "Christian Nation"? (a final religious note from a small island)

Brantley Gasaway

Readers of this blog are likely used to and perhaps weary of debating whether or not the United States is (or was founded as) a "Christian nation."  Indeed, I suspect that this academic and politicized question regularly comes up in classes on American religion and history that many of us teach.  But it is useful to remember that our country does not have a monopoly on public debates about this issue.

I spent this semester in London and taught a course on religious pluralism in Great Britain (as described in this previous post), and thus my students and I analyzed how one might best describe the religious nature of the United Kingdom.  Despite the official establishment of the Anglican Church, several factors led my students to ultimately characterize Britain as "post-Christian": the shrinking number of British citizens who self-identify as Christian (59% in the 2011 census); significantly declining rates of church attendance, membership, affirmations of historical doctrines, and traditional moral indices; the rapid growth and robust signs of secularism; and the visible presence and participation of non-Christian religious communities.  By the final weeks of the course, students overwhelmingly agreed with Callum Brown's conclusion that "the death of Christian Britain" had occurred.

Prime Minister David Cameron
But then, with serendipitous timing, Prime Minister David Cameron challenged this conclusion.  Writing in the Anglican Church Times in mid-April, Cameron rejected criticism of his recent comments made during Easter regarding the importance of "what Christianity brings to Britain."  Instead, the Prime Minister declared, "I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people's lives."  Cameron insisted that "the tolerance that Christianity demands of our society" makes a Christian Britain better than a "secular country" for religious minorities. In addition, he largely avoided theological issues and focused primarily on the role of Christianity "in terms of action to improve our society and the education of our children."  Nevertheless, Cameron's article predictably proved controversial and sparked national conversations.

In a prominent letter published in the Daily Telegraph, more than fifty public figures objected to Cameron's declaration that Britain is "a Christian country."  They acknowledged the "narrow constitutional sense" in which this description was true but claimed that "polls and studies show that most of us as individuals are not Christian in our beliefs or our religious identities...We are a plural society with citizens with a range of perspectives, and we are a largely non-religious society."  Several other politicians accused Cameron of "playing politics" with his remarks--especially trying to placate Christians who have criticized his support for same-sex marriage--and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg used the debate to promote the disestablishment of the Church of England.

With respect to religious leaders, Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, took a skeptical but mediating position, arguing that Britain is now "post-Christian" but not necessarily "non-Christian."  In contrast, the current archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, defended Cameron. "It is clear that, in the general sense of being founded in Christian faith, this is a Christian country," Welby wrote.  "It is a historical fact (perhaps unwelcome to some, but true) that our main systems of ethics, the way we do law and justice, the values of society, how we decide what is fair, the protection of the poor, and most of the way we look at society . . .  All have been shaped by and founded on Christianity."

For those of us who study American religion, this recent British debate can remind us once again of the ambiguity of identifying a country as a "Christian nation."  What qualifies a country as "Christian"?  Is it the official establishment of a Christian church (but if so, then is Great Britain "Christian" while the United States is not)?  Is it a matter of the historical influence of Christianity upon a nation's laws, politics, and culture (but if so, when does this historical influence matter less than the contemporary relevance of Christianity in the public sphere)?  Is it a matter of demographics (but if so, does a simple majority of self-identified Christians qualify a nation as "Christian")?   Is it the close alignment of a country's policies with the Christian ethics of peace and justice?  Or it is the number of references to God in a country's passport?

Scholars, religious leaders, politicians, and partisan activists such as David Barton may disagree on which, if any, of these criteria should determine the "Christian" status of a country.  For my own part, as I prepare to leave Britain and return to the States, maybe I will let a group of prophets from Ireland help me determine if I'm leaving or arriving in "in God's country":


Randall said…
Excellent post. As the semester was coming to a close here at Northumbria, Cameron's comments were making news. I asked my students what they thought about the remarks. They thought it was not true of Britain in any real, tangible sense. Skeptical about it . . . to say the least.

Considering UKIP's "earthquake" victory, here's an interesting piece from HuffPo last year on Farage, UKIP, and the Christian nation business:
Unknown said…
Interesting. Teaching a course on Religion and U.S. Politics over here in France, I couldn't get any traction with the idea that the U.S. may not be the sole exponent of religious exceptionalism, Christian nation rhetoric, etc. I offered Britain for comparison but the students wouldn't have it.
Tom Van Dyke said…
For the record, the often justifiably assailed David Barton does quite a creditable and thorough job with your question, Mr. Gasaway, little different than the current Archbishop of Canterbury's take.

[And FTR, although I'm aware of most every jog and tittle the man has got wrong (and there are so many many J&Ts), let's note that very few have actually read Barton for themselves, their knowledge of him largely via his critics.]

So, to let the man speak for himself on one of the matters he gets right, glory hallelujah:

"Contrary to what critics imply, a Christian nation is not one in which all citizens are Christians, or the laws require everyone to adhere to Christian theology, or all leaders are Christians, or any other such superficial measurement. As Supreme Court Justice David Brewer (1837-1910) explained:

[I]n what sense can [America] be called a Christian nation? Not in the sense that Christianity is the established religion or that the people are in any manner compelled to support it. On the contrary, the Constitution specifically provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Neither is it Christian in the sense that all its citizens are either in fact or name Christians. On the contrary, all religions have free scope within our borders. Numbers of our people profess other religions, and many reject all. Nor is it Christian in the sense that a profession of Christianity is a condition of holding office or otherwise engaging in public service, or essential to recognition either politically or socially. In fact, the government as a legal organization is independent of all religions. Nevertheless, we constantly speak of this republic as a Christian nation – in fact, as the leading Christian nation of the world.

"So, if being a Christian nation is not based on any of the above criterion, then what makes America a Christian nation? According to Justice Brewer, America was “of all the nations in the world . . . most justly called a Christian nation” because Christianity “has so largely shaped and molded it.”

As for the UK--and the USA--whether they are no longer Christian nations remains to be seen, as there have been "Great Awakenings" now and then. But if no awakening is in the cards for one or both, the real question is whether the prevailing ethos has evolved into something that has taken its place, or that that ethos itself has simply dissolved, with nothing taking its place.

As Habermas put it:

"Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom and social solidarity, of an autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, of the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct heir of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in light of the current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk."

[Habermas envisioned a "post-secularism," but I think we agree that's beyond any discussion that features David Barton.]

Thanks, Tom, for noting how Barton defines "Christian nation."

It seems that you are agreeing with Barton (via Brewer) that a Christian nation is one that has been "largely shaped and molded by [Christianity]"? But that is quite a generic criterion, isn't it--one that applies to many European nations and others as well?

Do you know if Barton has ever described other nations as "Christian," or is the United States exceptional?
Tom Van Dyke said…
Mr. Barton's not my cup of tea, but when he was accused of being a radical "Dominionist"* ala Rushdoony, I thought I would look him up in his own words.

I have found he was more often mischaracterized than not, that his "Christian nation" thesis was pretty tame, a question of ethos, not theonomy.

The formulation "Was America founded as a Christian nation?" is usually a giveaway that the asker's answer is already "no." Barton's answer would be that America was already a Christian nation when the USA was "founded." Does he believe in an American exceptionalism? Yes, he would plead "Providential history," but no more than GWash would.

"No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States. Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency..."

What was the norm in the 18th century is considered deranged in the 21st, but so it goes.

I personally get holding Barton's brief, but that's not endorsement, only a case-by-case defense. His original thesis arguing for a more religious Founding than is widely credited is defensible. But after his recent "Jefferson Lies" debacle, where few of his main thesis points held up, he has jumped the shark.

Thx for asking.


*The term's origin appears to be pejorative, not self-descriptive.

Barton: I've been called the for years and we've had to deal with that. Reconstructionist. Dominionist. And it's a pejorative ...

Green: I hear it all the time, I hear it all over the place but I'd never heard of it before.

Barton: Well, it's supposed to be radioactive and chase people off from you. It's like saying "oh, you're a Nazi, oh, you're an anti-Semite, you're a bigot, you're a racist, you're a Dominionist" and it's a term that's thrown out to really scare people and chase them off from you. Oh, you don't want to listen to Rick Green, he's a Dominionist ... and nobody's ever got around to defining it. And even the people who use it ... Dominionist, that means he wants to stone rebellious children and to kill homosexuals ... really? Have you ever said that?

Green: No.

Barton: But you're a Dominionist.

Green: And I've never heard you say it either, so something's up ...

Barton: Exactly right. It's just a term they throw out to try and scare people and they define it and they define it wrong nearly every time. What a Dominionist means, quite frankly, we as Christians believe we should be salt and light.

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