Three American Myths
Musings on Christians as Presidents and America as a Christian Nation
by Charles Strohmer
Long before the 2008 presidential election, the only question I had was how badly the Democrat would beat the Republican, whoever the Democrat candidate turned out to be. The slow burn toward President Bush had become pretty hot across the country during 2006-2007, and it seem likely that a large enough percentage of the electorate by 2008 had determined that the Republicans simply did not deserve four more years in the White House. A change would occur, was my view.The moral and social problems that you would like to see eliminated from our nation are not going to be solved by having presidents – or vice-presidents – who are Christian.
After the election of Barack Obama as the 44th President on the United States, I began to think about how giddy those who had elected the Democrat would become, thinking their guy would fix everything, and about how depressed conservative Christians would become, thinking that guy would ruin everything. Such meditations again reminded me to three powerful myths of American religious and political life. Let’s start with The Myth of the Christian Presidency, the wine of choice mainly of conservative Christians.
Friends, put down that drink.The moral and social problems that you would like to see eliminated from our nation are not going to be solved by having presidents – or vice-presidents – who are Christian.
To learn from history is to gain wisdom. Since Jimmy Carter, America has had more than three straight decades of presidents – Republican and Democrat – claiming quite publicly and deliberately to be active, practicing Christians (even their secular critics have not doubted their faith). This string of overtly Christian presidents faced countless domestic problems, yet the moral ambiguity of the country remained constant, although we may say that it took different guises. And whatever the international community may have hoped to see of the kingdom of God from America those decades paled before their experiences of American hegemony.
Liberal Christians seems to understand the principle more than conservative Christians. Call it what you will. I like what British philosopher and theologian John Peck calls it: The ICT Factor: The Inherent Cussedness of Things. On a more scholarly note, the influential pastor and political writer Reinhold Niebuhr called it The Irony of History: the admixture of virtue and vice, of hope and tragedy, of wisdom and folly inherent in all that we humans do and support, including, and perhaps especially, our political decisions. I will not say anything more about this principle, here, of which Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History is must reading.
I do hope, however, that conservative Christian historians, teachers, ministers, and other public Christians will learn from history and instruct their faithful wisely about one of the biggest lessons of the last thirty-two years: that the change of heart that occurs when an individual becomes a Christian does not with the swearing of the presidential oath of office transmute into a worldview out of which political decisions will arise that will put paid to the moral ambiguity of our nation. U.S. presidents who are Christians do not function in office as religious leaders. They function as government officials. Conservative Christians need to stop expecting so much from their politicians who are Christian. The swearing-in does not anoint a new president with an evangelistic calling to see others’ hearts changed with the gospel. Politics and government have their own purposes and functions under God, and these do not include making religious conversions. Hey, we don’t even expect our pastors and priests to eliminate moral ambiguity from our congregations.U.S. presidents who are Christians do not function in office as religious leaders
Another American myth, that of The Christian Nation, is the vineyard that helps sustain The Myth of the Christian Presidency. In fact, there’s not a big franchise of “Christian Nation” pubs across the country. Friends, stop frequenting those places. They will keep you so satiated and so distracted from the Constitution that you won’t even remember to look there for the truth about our nation’s legal founding.
Anyone who wants to know what specific religion, if any, fundamentally organizes a nation merely needs to read that nation’s constitution – its only legally binding founding document. Want to know about Iran or Pakistan? It is clearly spelled out in each of their constitutions that each one is an “Islamic republic.” Voila! There’s the religion. Nowhere in the constitution the United States of America, however, is it written that our nation will be Christian. There is not even a mention of “God” or “Jesus,” or even “Providence” (unless you count the “Providence Plantations” of Rhode Island, but that is completely beside the point). A chief reason for our constitution as we have it was because those who wrote it were historically too close to the failed Protestant political experiment of the colonies and the early states to have forgotten what that history taught everyone.
One of the easiest to understand recent books on this crucial lesson from American history can be found in Steve Waldman’s well-researched Founding Faith. As Waldman points out, it was one thing for Christians of the seventeenth century to have fled religious persecution in England for the colonies in order to establish various Christian religious-political entities along the east coast, but that is a far cry to extrapolate from there to assume that the United States of America was itself founded as a Christian nation. This is not silly hair-splitting. The fact that it has been ignored, or denied, or stared at in disbelief by so many otherwise informed leaders and their followers has resulted in endless confusion, heartache, and wasted brain cells.