For a slightly different version, see Jim Throgmorton. 2010. “A Christian-influenced nation.” Iowa City Press-Citizen (July 14): 9A.
Two weeks ago this newspaper ran a series of guest opinions and full-page ads concerning the claim that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. The claim deserves to be taken very seriously but not for historical reasons. What makes the claim important is its clear implication that this nation should be guided by Christian beliefs in the present day.
To help me think more carefully about this claim, I decided to learn more about Christianity by reading Diarmaid MacCulloch’s 2009 book Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. Self-characterized as “a candid friend of Christianity,” MacCulloch is a professor of history at England’s Oxford University.
It’s impossible to summarize this daunting but brilliantly enlightening 1,160 page saga about how Christianity emerged and transformed over time, so let me simply indicate what I got out of reading it, knowing that others would read it differently.
Raised a Roman Catholic and having studied history my whole life, I found the broad sweep of his tale to be rather familiar. It’s the details that grabbed me, for they helped me understand the ways in which Christianity’s core beliefs, structures and practices had been influenced by historical contingencies. Moreover, brought up as a Catholic, I never really understood why there are so many Protestant sects and what the differences are among them. With the benefit of MacCulloch’s labor, I now have much better insight.
Most important, MacCulloch’s history helps me understand that the reasons for diversity within Christianity were present from the earliest days after Jesus’ death. They lie in the diverse ways in which Christians have answered a range of critical questions:
- Is God a personal entity that acts in the world, saves the good, and condemns the damned, or is God an impersonal, timeless, and unchanging perfection?
- Should God be understood as a Trinity, and if so what is the relationship among the three? Was Jesus simultaneously fully divine and fully human? How can a human being also be God?
- Who shall be saved from eternal damnation, and why? Does access to divine truth require the Church’s authoritative guidance, or can individuals grasp that truth by reading the Bible carefully and by being open to revelations of the Spirit?
- Are the End of Time and the Kingdom of Heaven imminent, in which case there is no reason to improve everyday life in the present world? Or should Christians “live long in the land”; that is, consider the next generations and their earthly futures?
- Should the stories contained in the Bible be treated as the Word of God and hence literally true, or should those stories be understood allegorically with layers of meaning that can be discovered through human reason and interpretation? How can belief in God and the literal truth of the Bible be reconciled with scientific evidence concerning the 15 billion year evolution of life on Earth?
What I find most enlightening about MacCulloch’s book is its treatment of eastern Christianity. Reading MacCulloch helped me understand the importance of debates between Miaphysites and Dyophysites about the extent to which Jesus could be considered both divine and human. He also taught me about their very early efforts to take Christianity into Iran, India and China; how dialogue between Christians and the cultures they encountered led to remarkable innovations in Christian practices; and how such dialogues helped produce the Coptic, Ethiopian, Syrian, Armenian, Korean and other versions of Christianity.
Should the contemporary United States be a Christian nation guided by Christian beliefs? Given MacCulloch’s history, I would say it should be influenced but not guided by those beliefs. It should not be guided by them partly because there is no way to reduce the diversity within Christianity to a single set of beliefs, and partly because proponents of those varieties have often produced great harm by trying to impose their beliefs on others.
As the founders of this country well understood, the challenge is to create structures and processes that enable people to live their lives in accord with their religious beliefs without being able to impose them on others.