If America is a Christian nation, as many claim, what does that mean? How do we go about equating a particular religion to a particular political arrangement?
One way is to simply do a head count. In 2000 over 77 percent of Americans claimed connection to some form of Christianity. If we include followers of Judaism, just to get the full Judeo-Christian effect, we can add an additional 2 percent to the total. So we could argue, based on sheer numbers, that America is predominantly a Christian nation.
But I am not sure that is what folks mean when they say America is a Christian nation. Listening to those who make such claims leads me to believe that it is not about some critical mass of faith. Those who celebrate America as a Christian nation believe that our country was founded on and follows Christian principles.
Bill McKibben, scholar in residence at Middlebury College in Vermont, takes serious issue with that claim. In a recent Harper’s Magazine article entitled “The Christian Paradox,” McKibben argues that if a nation was qualified to be called Christian it would be because that nation practices Christian behavior.
McKibben uses Jesus’ own teaching as a standard of measure. That makes sense. The best way to determine whether or not something rises to the level of Christian behavior is to compare it to what Jesus said and did. That, after all, is the basis of the enduring WWJD campaign—what would Jesus do?
McKibben begins with Jesus’ concern for the poor. No one who seriously reads the Bible denies Jesus’ concern for the poor and the clearly stated expectation that those who follow him should be compassionate and generous. McKibben reminds us that Jesus portrayed the world as divided into those who care for the poor and those who do not. Those who neglect the poor, the ones called the least of these, hear Jesus say “depart from me I never knew you.”
In other words, knowing Jesus means caring for the poor. A Christian nation, therefore, would obviously be one that takes care of the weak and vulnerable. So, do we?
McKibben notes, “In 2004, as a share of our economy, we ranked second to last, after Italy, among developed countries in government foreign aid. Per capita we each provide 15 cents a day in official development assistance to poor countries.”
But what about private charities? We do much more through church and other relief efforts, right? Well, not so much. McKibben writes that even when we add in the monies given through private charities we are only able to increase the amount provided for foreign aid from 15 to 21 cents per person. That’s for a whole year.
The situation does not improve much as we consider the plight of the poor here at home. As we keep our focus on the “least of these,” we learn that nearly 18 percent of America’s children live in poverty.
If we are serious about this Christian nation stuff we might want to re-visit our attitudes and practices towards the poor. As Jesus himself noted, it is not how energetic we are in shouting his name that matters, but rather how faithfully we attend to the matters he taught were really important. Otherwise, it may be that we really don’t know him.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.