We live in a new world. It’s not the same world we lived in a decade ago when most were just learning to use e-mail and getting wired. It’s not the same world because we’re more polarized as a people than ever. It’s not the same world because it’s harder and harder to get a sense of “What’s happening and what does it mean?” without it coming in the form of left and right.
Now, it’s too much information 24/7 and we’re inundated with so-called news from all quarters, the vast majority of which should be labeled opinion rather than given the same respect as news.
Recently, I was in the Panera’s near my home and one of the members of my coffee church made an offhanded comment to me, suggesting we are indeed a Christian nation. I responded I didn’t think we were.
“People become Christians, not nations,” I said along with recognizing we are a pluralistic nation that comprises likely every religion practiced anywhere. (California helps make this point.) He responded with, “Well, don’t you at least think the Muslims are our enemies?” I replied I didn’t think so. Radical Muslims are no more the final word on Islam than the Ku Klux Klan is the final word on Christianity. We don’t tolerate either one too well, I noted. Again, being a Baptist minister and not sharing his viewpoint startled him. It seemed to be out of line from what he hears in his own church.
Recently, we’ve had a renewed national conversation on President Obama’s claim we’re not a Christian nation. There’s nothing original about his claim; it’s been a longstanding debate, and he’s merely voicing his view on the subject. But the fact he identified himself so clearly on the topic is something new as most politicians treat ardent patriotism with empty symbols worn on their suit coats signifying they are true patriots no matter how they vote or what compromises they’ve made in the name of political survival.
In the April 17 issue of the Kansas City Star, columnist Michael Gerson speaks directly to the question of whether we’re a Christian nation with this observation, “Christian America has always been a heresy, a historical error and a blunder.”
He explains it’s a heresy because “no human kingdom, however admirable, can be properly identified with the Kingdom of God.” Back to my point that people, not nations, are capable of making a commitment to follow Christ. Jesus never set his sights on leading a political movement represented by a nation state, and it’s difficult to explain how the actions of our government might represent God’s kingdom. If that were so, how do we explain the state of the poor, the overpopulation of our prisons, and the state of our health care with our millions of citizens with little access to adequate medical care – all concerns of Jesus and at the heart of his mission in the world?
Gerson claims a Christian America is a historical error. From the beginning, the founders created a federal government that was “wisely nonsectarian.” As Christians, do we want to rule (lord) over all other religions? What would that mean? Would we show favoritism to Christians but not to other religions? Would we imply the state religion would be Christian and all other religions would necessarily go underground? Four centuries of Baptist history would go to naught for this idea. If so, we would need to cease calling ourselves Baptists in my estimation.
Finally he claims a Christian America is a blunder. He should have said a major blunder. James Dunn says it often, “The cross never looked good wrapped in red, white and blue” (or something to that effect). In other words, the cross was never meant as an endorsement for any nation or government. Nor should any nation think adopting “Christian” as an adjective is anything but a direct assault upon the primacy of God. We should be wary of any use of the word and concept of “Christian” as an adjective without considering whether we’ve crossed over and manipulated the holy by turning it into an idolatry.
My coffee buddy was surprised a Baptist minister would hold these views, but I do. Maybe it’s because I’ve been given a Baptist heritage that helps me understand it’s a matter of keeping my kingdoms in proper relationship to one another.
Keith Herron is senior pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo. He holds degrees from Baylor University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a doctor of ministry degree from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill. He and his wife, Wanda, have a son and daughter, Ben and Alex.