This month, a Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) survey announced that white Christians make up less than half of the American population. Even so, two-thirds of Americans identify as some kind of Christian, and most Americans think the United States was founded as a Christian nation. Biblical Christians should hesitate to place their identity in the U.S., however, and while the Western, Judeo-Christian heritage carries tremendous advantages, they should not care whether America is a Christian nation.
Liberal researchers have long pushed the narrative that white Christians and the Republican Party are both doomed by the twin forces of immigration and secularization. The PRRI survey made this point explicitly, with the headline that white Christians make up less than half of the U.S. population, and with the note that white evangelical Protestants make up the dominant force in the GOP.
The results are designed to shock. According to the survey, only 43 percent of Americans identify as white and Christian, and only 30 percent as white and Protestant. In 1976, roughly eight in ten (81 percent) Americans identified as white and Christian, and a majority (55 percent) were white Protestants.
PRRI also noted that fewer than one third (29 percent) of Democrats are white Christian, while half (50 percent) identified that way ten years ago. Meanwhile, more than one third (35 percent) of Republicans identify as white evangelical Protestant, while almost three quarters (73 percent) of Republicans identified as white and Christian.
This cultural narrative is rather neat and tidy compared to the full results, however. The majority of Americans still identify with a Christian denomination (66 percent). While white evangelical Protestants only make up 17 percent of Americans, Protestants as a whole still make up 45 percent of America (including mainline and various ethnic churches). Catholics make up 20 percent.
Furthermore, a survey from Baylor University earlier this month found that a majority of Americans (58.4 percent) believe the United States was founded as a Christian nation.
The largest group (32.2 percent) said the U.S. was a Christian nation in the past, but is not one now, while 26.2 percent said the U.S. has always been a Christian nation, and remains so. Only 20.3 percent said the U.S. has never been a Christian nation, while 21.3 percent admitted they did not know.
Even about half of Independents (51.2 percent) and Democrats (48.5 percent) said America was founded Christian, while 81.2 percent of Republicans said so.
Regardless of cultural and demographic trends, which still have a major impact, most Americans are still Christian, and most Americans still think the U.S. was at least founded as a Christian nation. But what should Christians do about it?
Many Christians might become extremely patriotic, even nationalistic. Organizations like Christians United For Israel (CUFI) take this approach, suggesting that America should help Israel on the basis that God promises to bless Israel’s friends and curse its foes.
This is an extremely tenuous position, as the New Testament is clear that Christians are God’s new chosen people, given the Holy Spirit. Indeed, the book of Revelation ends with the powerful promise, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore” (Revelation 21:3-4).
This ultimate hope is partially fulfilled by the coming of the Holy Spirit into the hearts of those who believe the gospel message.
Furthermore, a Christian’s ultimate identity is to be found in Jesus Christ. Jesus told his disciples, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:35). The word translated “life” in this passage is not bios, the Greek word for biological life, but psyche, the Greek word for soul/identity from which the word “psychology” comes.
Similarly, Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:29-30).
The message of a new identity in Jesus is perhaps best explained in John’s letter to the church in Pergamum in the opening chapters of Revelation. To Christians who withstand the temptations of the world, Jesus promises, “I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it” (Revelation 2:17).
The Bible is clear: Christians are to give up their identity, and will be given a new identity in Jesus. This applies to their psyche, to their houses, families and possessions, and also to their very names. The message of the gospel is renunciation of self to Jesus, with the ultimate promise of being given a new, and much more glorious and bountiful, self in Him.
This emphatically applies to national identity as well. St. Paul told the Christians in Galatia, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). In the first century A.D., this was a radical message rejecting every form of tribalism and identity.
Even today, this message is radical. Christians are called to overcome every barrier to pursue Christian unity. Race, nationality, history, and gender should not divide the Church. Paul constantly refers to all Christian believers as the “body of Christ,” with many members meant to fulfill different functions. Divisions of identity are emphatically not to get in the way of that.
An American nationality is no more central to Christianity than any other nationality. American Christians should be Christians first and Americans second. Jesus insisted that His kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36), and He claimed that all human beings should have an ultimate allegiance to God as they are made in His image (Matthew 22:18-21).
Furthermore, when Jesus prayed to God the Father in John 17, he said, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world” (John 17:15-16). Working and living in the “world,” which the New Testament suggests is ruled by the devil, without being corrupted by the world, is exceedingly difficult.
This is why St. Paul in Romans urges Christians, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).
A key aspect of “worldly” identity is nationalism, a strong affiliation for one’s own homeland and nation. There is a degree to which this is natural and good, even for the Christian. But this country is not the Christian’s ultimate home. In a fundamental way, a Christian is an exile no matter which country he or she lives in.
For this reason, the letter to the exiles in Jeremiah 29 should hold particular resonance for Christians. In that letter, Jeremiah told the Jewish exiles to live peaceably under the rule of the country that ripped them from their homeland.
“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare,” Jeremiah wrote (Jeremiah 29:4-7).
God called the Jews to live peaceably in exile, and He calls Christians to do the same. This is why Jesus did not tell His disciples to refuse to pay taxes, and why Paul urged Christians to obey the ruling authorities (Romans 13).
Even so, Christians are not to find their identity in their country, but in Jesus.
This does not mean that American Christians cannot take pride in all the blessings that Christianity has given the West and America in particular. The birth of science, the history of limited government, and the eradication of slavery came from Christians inspired by the Bible and working to establish institutions for the good of the world. Christianity also inspired hospitals, orphanages, and the movement to prevent infanticide.
Christians should not care whether or not they live in a “Christian nation,” because the ultimate Christian kingdom is the presence of God, and not on this earth. But Christianity has indeed blessed America, and no one should be ashamed to say so.
This does not mean horrible things have not been done in the name of Christianity. American history has been plagued by: Antebellum Southerners twisting the Bible to support race-based slavery; persecution of Roman Catholics, Jews, and religious sects like Mormons; racial discord with self-identified Christians attacking black people as less than human.
This is the problem with a “Christian nation” — any such country is a country of sinners, and cultural Christians who do not really believe the Bible and do not have the Holy Spirit and the love of Jesus in them often can cause irreparable harm by pretending to be Christians. Even true Christians who believe the gospel and have the Holy Spirit can still sin by hurting others or refusing to reach out in love.
It is imperative for Christians to make a distinction between the United States — with all its blessings and curses — and the ultimate home and identity of Christians in the presence of God. America may be a “Christian nation,” but that presents unique challenges for the message of the gospel, and a Christian’s citizenship is not on this earth, no matter how good his or her earthly country.