Just last month, President Obama speaking in Turkey said that we are not a Christian nation. Not surprisingly, the media had a field day with those comments, placing them in a context of secular liberalism that denies the historical roots of American culture. Also, not surprisingly, most of the commentators who were critical of the president failed to show the full context of his comments.
What he actually said was, “I’ve said before, one of the great strengths of the United States is, although as I mentioned, we have a very large Christian population, we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation … we consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values.”
It would seem that the president was more in tune with the pulse of American feelings about faith and religion than his media tormentors. The cover of Newsweek, April 20 edition, proclaims: “The Decline and Fall of Christian America.” Curiously it was not written in response to the president’s comments; it came as the result of a recent survey on faith in America.
The Newsweek poll conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates, found that there has been a 10 percent decline in the number of people who identified themselves as Christian from 1990 to 2009. Further, the bulk of that shift seems to have taken place within the last years of the Bush administration and most prominently in the Northeast.
But before we fall into a state of monumental lamentation, let’s consider that even under these new low survey results, 76 percent of Americans today identify themselves as Christian, down from 86 percent in 1990. Now, when three-fourths of everyone in America claims they are Christian, it seems unrealistic to announce the new post-Christian age, though agnostic and atheist people now represent 15 percent of all Americans, a near doubling in the past 19 years.
The place of religion in American has been a hot topic since Jamestown was established. Many of our earliest citizens came here because they were experiencing religious persecution in their homelands and this is still true today.
I think it is important that America never consider itself a “Christian nation.” Most governments of the world dictate the religion, or lack of religion, of their people.
To become a Christian nation, we would need Congress to enact legislation dictating Christianity as the official religion of the United States of America. And, the Supreme Court would have to decide not to object to that new law. The result of this would be that we would lose our freedom to choose our faith system. Are you ready to have Washington tell you what to believe?
America is a free market for religion and we were founded on that basis. Our founders knew all too well the intolerance associated with state religions. They also could look back on several hundred years of wars and see clearly that a majority of them were fought for religious reasons. Religious hatred stirs more action than religious tolerance. Since religion deals with ultimate truths, people are more than willing to make ultimate decisions — life and death — for other people who don’t think like them.
As a Christian pastor, I have no question in my own mind about what I believe. But as an American, I have no question in my own mind that you are completely free to agree or disagree with me. I understand my church will thrive because the values I preach resonate with the values that people in the pews feel in their hearts. In church-going America, people vote with their feet. If I am not preaching the love of God in my sermons, people’s feet with take them elsewhere on Sunday mornings.
As some denominations have gotten more aligned with a political agenda, some people have felt manipulated by their leaders. The Newsweek poll indicates that a real crisis is growing for the Republican religious right. A majority of people who identify themselves as Evangelical Christians voted for the Democratic party in the last election.
The irony here is that 40 years ago, the liberal churches were heavily involved in the social movement and trying to affect legislation. The evangelical churches pointed to this involvement in politics and said, “The role of religion is to save souls, not to change society.”
People began leaving those mainstream liberal churches back in 1959 and going to conservative and more evangelical churches. Now the evangelical churches are seeing an erosion of influence due to their heavy political involvement. The same central truth is at work; people don’t like to mix religion and politics. Americans feel the salvation of our souls should not be dependent on the policies of our government.
America is the hope of the world! If we can show that a great nation can rejoice in the religious freedom of all faiths, can worship God as we understand God to be, can support and defend the freedoms of faiths different than their own, and can prosper while we do that, then there exists a great hope that other nations and other peoples can learn to do the same.
I believe American is the most faithful nation on the planet.
I believe we can show the world it is possible for different faiths to worship side by side, without killing each other.
I do believe we are the hope of the world.
And I believe that the love of God, calls us to do no less.
The Rev. Steve Petty is pastor of First United Methodist Church. He welcomes your e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
April 24, 2009