It’s become a disturbing trend among Christians to lament the downfall of our nation’s “Christian identity” — to judge and criticize the spiritual downfall of the current generation. They boast about the glorious past and predict an apocalyptic demise for the future — brought on by the secularization and ethical demise of our society.
This attitude is based around a sense of fear, judgment, cynicism, fatalism, and hopelessness.
Many Christians today use the term “post-Christian” to describe the United States in conjunction with their assumptions that our nation is falling deeper and deeper into a moral decline, but this word presupposes that we were Christian to begin with. We weren’t.
Pastors, Christian leaders, and organizations will often use a variety of data to prove the downfall of “Christianity,” but it can be somewhat misleading. Evidence for being post-Christian is almost entirely gauged by corporate and consumer standards, by determining how much power and influence Christianity has (or had): How many churches exist? How many people attend church? How many politicians consider themselves “Christian?” How many laws are “Christian?” They evaluate Christianity as if it’s a brand.
The concept of “post-Christianity” revolves around data related to Christian power, civil religion, and official census polling, but barely touches on the spiritual elements related to faith, and hardly quantifies the qualities that Jesus exuded throughout his life. It’s judging a religion based on corporate scales and lenses and metrics — not spiritual ones.
But imagine if we judged our nation’s Christian identity based on spiritual characteristics: How many people are emulating the life of Christ? How many people love their neighbor as themselves? How many people help the poor?
In reality, Christianity in America may not have the same political, social, and corporate authority it did in the past, but Jesus never intended to spread the gospel message through political strength or domineering control.
The problem with people claiming that America used to be a Christian nation is that, well, it never was.
For example, when church attendance was relatively high within the past hundred years, racial segregation and discrimination were also social norms, with some “Christians” often supporting — and spreading —the agenda of the Ku Klux Klan. Additionally, sexism was strictly enforced and child labor was rampantly abused. Is this the “Christian nation” we want to go back to?
The problem with evaluating Christianity based on numbers is that it simply doesn’t work — it doesn’t reflect the true essence of Christ. When people claim we were once a great Christian nation, they’re using a revisionist history and glossing over the notorious corporate sins of our past. Arguably, America today might be more Christ-like than at any other point in our history.
Ever since the Founding Fathers inhabited the original 13 colonies, our nation’s history has been littered with genocide, war, slavery, segregation, civil rights abuses, racism, sexism, corporate and political corruption, environmental disasters, organized crime, land grabs, church abuse scandals, and a variety of other horrific events. If this is what a “Christian nation” looks like, I hope we never become one again.
We currently continue to struggle with many serious and outrageous injustices, but has our country seriously become less Christian?
Institutionalized Christianity — churches, schools, corporations, organizations — may be on the decline, but the ideals of Christ are certainly not, and there’s a revolution occurring that puts the emphasis back on following Christ’s example of service, sacrifice, and love, contrary to spreading “Christianity” through political power, social control, and corporate influence.
In reality, we’ve never been a Christian nation, but maybe we’ll become a Jesus-follower nation — and not in a way where our faith is co-opted by the agenda of others.
Want to hear something completely astounding: What if instead of a post-Christian nation, we’re actually a pre-Christian one? Let’s put hope in that we’ve yet to see how God can use American believers to positively affect our world in a way that radically follows Christ’s example. We’ve made many mistakes in the past, but maybe God can help redeem our future.
Stephen Mattson has contributed for Relevant Magazine and the Burnside Writer's Collective, and studied Youth Ministry at the Moody Bible Institute. He is now on staff at Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minn. Follow him on Twitter @mikta.
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