Many religious folk have freely dubbed America a “Christian nation” for a long time now.
This peculiar moment in the history of our republic has created an urgent need to probe the meaning of such a claim.
To get started, some definitions are necessary, beginning with the term “Christian.”
Christians were called several names before they were first called “Christians” in Antioch (Acts 11:26).
The book of Acts, widely regarded as the history of the earliest Christians, records many different designations for the early church.
“Church” was one of those designations, which basically means “those called out to be together.”
Other designations include “the Way, the fellowship, citizens of the kingdom, lambs of god” – and many others.
For my purpose here, I want to focus on the designation “Christian,” which in the original language meant “little Christs.”
Intended as a slur, the term “Christian” soon became a badge of honor. The charge that these early believers were so attached to the teachings of Jesus that they had themselves become “Christ-like” persons.
Anyone conversant with contemporary Christianity knows that believers today consider Christ-like behavior to be the goal of the Christian life.
Those early followers of Jesus certainly rejoiced in this slur which was, in fact, evidence of their faithfulness in following Jesus.
The other term to be defined in this context is the word “American.”
Are we Christians in America, or American Christians? The difference is important and has everything to do with which part of our identity comes first.
If we are American Christians, we regard our status as citizens of the United States to be our primary source of social identity.
We place the privileges and responsibility of being citizens above all other loyalties. “America First” are words that resonate with this identity.
If, as American Christians, we find ourselves troubled by what seems to be contradictory positions of our faith and our citizenship, our tendency is to adhere to the values of patriotism as defined by the present moment.
I am not making a case here about what is right or wrong. I am simply observing which pieces of identify have priority in our lives.
American Christians have worked and fought gallantly for social justice and human rights. We have opposed tyrants and defended democracy around the world.
We have championed the cause of the “least of these in our midst” as Jesus commands that we do.
We have also fought and championed the notion that sometimes America is right no matter what.
“America First” has occasionally meant Jesus second or not at all. Our indulgence in greed and violence are evidence enough that certain American values are more important to us than Christ-like values.
The danger here is obvious. If we assert our identity as Christian Americans, where the emphasis is on Christ first, we run the risk of placing our view of our faith above civic responsibilities and loyalties.
This creates fertile ground for the rise of religious fanaticism, as recent history has shown us.
The unquestioned loyalty to any position – religious or political – is a betrayal of both faith and patriotism.
America, with its constitutional genius, creates an opportunity for all people of faith, and of all faiths, to find meaningful expression of belief and patriotism.
There can be both pride in American virtue and freedom while at the same time loyalty to religious particularity.
As people of faith, we celebrate a vision of democracy that creates opportunities for freedom and hope for all the people of the world.
As Christian Americans, we celebrate an enlightened constitution that values the faithful input of all people, regardless of their faith (or lack thereof).
For Christians who are in America, the question is what comes first. Will we seek first for national recognition of our Christian faith as a uniquely American possession, of which America is the only legitimate expression?
Or can we embrace a Christian faith that regards our citizenship as Americans as a privilege and an opportunity to use our unique freedoms to advance a vision of God that transcends national and international politics and encompasses a vision of all humanity as children of God?
Or to say it another way, which approach is the most Christ-like?
James L. Evans is a retired Baptist preacher living in Alabama. Over 35 years, he served churches in Alabama, North Carolina and Virginia. In support of his pastoral work, Evans published 5 books including “First and Second Corinthians: Immersion Bible Studies” (Abingdon Press (2011).