America is a Christian nation, so we are told.
Our story begins with the pilgrims fleeing religious persecution in England. They braved the Atlantic Ocean and founded Plymouth Colony after landing in the “New World” in late 1620. These faithful Protestants suffered many hardships, but ultimately, with a little help from the Indians, they were able to thrive in Massachusetts. Fast forward 150 years later — boom! The American Revolution galvanized the continent. Godly men set out to create a nation free from the bondage of British rule and inscribed our founding documents with sacred significance. The “new Israel” was officially created, which meant that God would be perennially on our side. The faith of our founding fathers and the fledgling nation’s adherence to godly principles allowed the people to prosper. Fast forward 100 years and — boom — Civil War! After a brief dispute over state’s rights, Abraham Lincoln unified the nation once again, and it continued to prosper. Fifty years later, WWI and WWII solidified the American Nation as the protagonist of global affairs. America defeated Hitler and his abhorrent racial policies, and the world was once again safe and free from evil. The end.
The story gets a little fuzzy after that, so we stop the telling while it remains on solid moral ground, and firmly in the past. The popular canon of American history thus begins in 1620 and ends in 1945 when America was still great.
The problem with this story is that it is somewhat ahistorical. It’s not that the facts are necessarily wrong, though the analysis might be. It is that they have been hermetically sealed off from a grander narrative. What’s missing from this drama? Most of the actual history.
This myth conveniently leaves out Christopher Columbus and the Spanish conquistadors who were here first — after the Native Americans, of course — which is certainly nothing to brag about. It fails to mention Jamestown, the first permanent English colony settled for mostly economic reasons. The myth also treats the passengers on the Speedwell and the Mayflower as a monolithic group of religiously devout Protestants, when in fact two-thirds of the passengers were not Puritans seeking asylum but adventurers seeking fortune and opportunity. It leaves out the multiplicity of native groups, the French, the Germans, the Irish, the Dutch, and African groups. It ignores the Catholics, the Quakers, the Deists, the atheists, and the non-religious. The myth doesn’t address slavery, the bloody Indian wars, our self-interested interventions in sovereign countries, or marginalized peoples’ plights for human and civil rights.
If this portrait of American history is so inaccurate, why does it persist?
Americans are profoundly ignorant of history, but it is not entirely our fault. James Loewen in his book, Lies My Teacher Told Me, writes about the prevalence of this problem. He focuses primarily on the way in which high school textbooks distort or omit history that is inconvenient or disturbing to our sensibilities. This phenomenon is particularly distressing, Loewen argues, because high school classrooms are most often the first and last time that citizens engage with historical content. He cites various reasons for this problem, including textbook adoption boards with political agendas, the desire of publishers to sell as many titles as possible in a variety of markets, and a lack of rigorous research. Regardless of the factors, the result is the same — a sanitized, white-washed history that acknowledges the contributions of our English and Christian ancestors only.
What are the consequences of this reductive history? Firstly, our unwillingness to look on the sins of our past can cause us to view the nation itself as a savior — blameless and perfect. As a Christian nation, we rationalize, everything we have done in our past is part of God’s active will, so long as it has allowed us to prosper. We have often used this thinking to justify self-interested polices.
American slaveholders, desiring to profit from slave labor but unable to reconcile the treatment of their slaves with their Christian beliefs or with American ideals of freedom, rationalized the institution of slavery as natural. In Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, Ibram X. Kendi unpacks the various philosophies used to soothe the tension caused by the wealthy planters’ cognitive dissonance. Some declared that Africans did not descend from Adam and Eve but from apes and were, therefore, not coheirs in Christ. Others cited the story of Noah’s darker complected son Ham and his disrespect for his father to justify African enslavement. Whatever the philosophy, the foundational belief was the same — God desired the enslavement and subjugation of the slaves not as a necessary evil, but as a moral good which benefitted the slaves’ physical and spiritual conditions. By aligning the will of God with the self-interested motivation of our country (or privileged individuals within it), we made it impossible to separate them, doing damage to our reputation and our witness for Christ in the process.
Another consequence of the myth of a Christian nation is the worship of the past. It is no wonder that many of us believe our nation and our world are in moral decline. Compared to our glorious past, the divisions and problems of today seem intractable. And yet, if we take a closer look at our history, beyond the fetishized version of it, we find that these problems have always been with us in one form or another.
Slavery remains a huge problem in the United States and elsewhere. If we do not reckon with the realities of African and Indigenous slavery in our past, we are bound to misinterpret the present problem of human trafficking as worse rather than different. If we neglect to understand the history of genocide against Native Americans, we might view the present problem of abortion as worse rather than different.
Sin is sin. Death, destruction, and evil have always been a part of the human narrative, ever since the fall. Surely if God did not smite us for our past sins, he will not do so now.
A blameless and glorious past makes it seem like our present needs saving to avert God’s judgment. And this is the biggest drawback to swallowing this mythical Christian America narrative: fear. Many white evangelicals are afraid of losing cultural and racial privilege, religious freedom, or fear God’s rebuke for a society gone astray. That’s why we wage the culture wars and legislate morality. We are afraid of losing God’s favor, not as individuals but as a collective.
A broader knowledge of history would help us recognize that many white Americans, both present and past, have prospered not because of God’s special blessing but because of our sins against Africans, Native Americans, and others. American imperialism has much to do with our prosperity, but despite our nation’s flaws, God has blessed us and continues to because of his goodness not ours.
We, as Christians, are not responsible for the fate or the soul of America. Collective salvation is our greatest heresy and is nothing more than a desire for the continuation of white evangelical hegemony. Through the Great Commission, we are called to share God’s truth, that without Christ we will be separated eternally from God. The easiest way to do this is not by mandating prayer in schools, installing the Ten Commandments in public buildings, or working against gay rights activists. Instead, we should build relationships with unbelievers. We should love them and speak truth, and engage with them less on political grounds and more on personal ones.
If we can let go of the Christian nation propaganda, we will surely win more people to Christ, not less.