When I first moved from Canada to the United States 30 years ago, I was told repeatedly that America is a Christian nation. It isn’t simply that America has many self-professing Christians living within its borders. The identity of America as a whole, its history and its destiny, are somehow tied to Christianity.
Political leaders feel the need to appear Christian, say Christian-sounding things, show up at Christian institutions, and end their speeches with “God bless America!” American money proclaims “In God we trust.” What could be more Christian than that?
The current election cycle is demonstrating (once again) that the rhetoric and mythology of a uniquely Christian America should come to an end. Why? Because the votes don’t lie.
Though voters may speak piously and rather vaguely about Christian values and ideals, polls and election results communicate clearly that this is a nation consumed by fear, anger and suspicion, none of which are Christian virtues.
If voters were serious about presenting to the world a picture of a Christian America, they would need to be painting with the colors of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, fidelity, gentleness and self-control, because these are the colors that, as the Apostle Paul said (in Galatians 5), witness to Jesus Christ and the power of God at work in their lives.
Of course, Americans and their leaders will continue to speak in the name of God, even profess grand things about God, as they make their case for American Exceptionalism and the righteousness of the American Way. But from a scriptural point of view, it is all rubbish. What matters is not what you say but how you live. And from a Christian point of view, nothing matters more than living a life that is inspired by God’s love for everyone.
In Matthew’s gospel (chapter 25) readers are taken to the time when God judges all the nations of the world. It is a rather terrifying scene because many of the people present are convinced that they are the legitimate inheritors of the Kingdom of God.
But God is not fooled. God simply asks: Did you feed the hungry, offer drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick and visit those in prison?
How will America fare in this time of judgment, especially when we admit as evidence the millions of Americans (many of them children and the elderly) who do not have enough good food to eat, or the millions of Americans who have to drink water polluted with lead and industrial/agricultural pollutants?
What about the refugees and immigrants who are being refused at our borders and made to feel unwelcome in our land, or the homeless (many of them ill) who do not have a home and proper protection from the elements, or the prison inmates (many of them African American) who are treated like the garbage of society?
God is asking the nations about their public policy, not their verbal piety, because the true test of Christianity has only ever been the test of love.
Imagine a political leader saying, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1-2).
Love or noise? Love or nothing? Christianity hinges on how people choose between them. If Americans were serious about being a Christian country, they would call forth and elect leaders who are patient and kind, and never boastful or rude. They would demand a political process much less characterized by vitriol and noise.
In calling for an end to the rhetoric of a “Christian America,” I am not calling for an end to Christianity in America. The violence and hate, and the greed and the lack of sympathy for those deemed dangerously other, indicate that now is precisely the time for a sustained infusion of God’s love in our political deliberation.
But for that love to be genuinely Christian, and not a projection of our own fear, anxiety or arrogance, citizens are going to have to separate once and for all the false identification of American and Christian ideals. They may overlap from time to time, but they are not the same.
Norman Wirzba is a professor of theology at Duke Divinity School and author most recently of “Way of Love: Recovering the Heart of Christianity.”