Christian Nation?

"America is simultaneously the most professedly Christian of the developed nations and the least Christian in its behavior..."

The quote above is from an essay by Bill McKibben, The Christian Paradox - How a faithful nation gets Jesus wrong, published in the August issue of Harper's Magazine.

"America is a place saturated in Christian identity," McKibben observes, "but is it Christian?"

"This is not a matter of angels dancing on the heads of pins. Christ was pretty specific about what he had in mind for his followers. What if we chose some simple criterion—say, giving aid to the poorest people—as a reasonable proxy for Christian behavior? After all, in the days before his crucifixion, when Jesus summed up his message for his disciples, he said the way you could tell the righteous from the damned was by whether they’d fed the hungry, slaked the thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, and visited the prisoner. What would we find then?"

And therein is the paradox, says the author.

"In 2004, as a share of our economy, we ranked second to last, after Italy, among developed countries in government foreign aid. Per capita we each provide fifteen cents a day in official development assistance to poor countries. And it’s not because we were giving to private charities for relief work instead. Such funding increases our average daily donation by just six pennies, to twenty-one cents. It’s also not because Americans were too busy taking care of their own; nearly 18 percent of American children lived in poverty (compared with, say, 8 percent in Sweden). In fact, by pretty much any measure of caring for the least among us you want to propose—childhood nutrition, infant mortality, access to preschool—we come in nearly last among the rich nations, and often by a wide margin. The point is not just that (as everyone already knows) the American nation trails badly in all these categories; it’s that the overwhelmingly Christian American nation trails badly in all these categories, categories to which Jesus paid particular attention. And it’s not as if the numbers are getting better: the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported last year that the number of households that were “food insecure with hunger” had climbed more than 26 percent between 1999 and 2003."

"This Christian nation also tends to make personal, as opposed to political, choices that the Bible would seem to frown upon. Despite the Sixth Commandment, we are, of course, the most violent rich nation on earth, with a murder rate four or five times that of our European peers. We have prison populations greater by a factor of six or seven than other rich nations (which at least should give us plenty of opportunity for visiting the prisoners). Having been told to turn the other cheek, we’re the only Western democracy left that executes its citizens, mostly in those states where Christianity is theoretically strongest."

"In God We trust" is the National motto of the United States of America.

An Act of Congress made it so in 1956.

But what do we mean by god?

The definition of god is rather large and can mean different things to different people in different cultures. Some have been arguing that the United States of America is a Christian nation and that the founding fathers intended to establish this country on biblical principles. And there are those who argue that they are wrong. But wrong or right is beside the point. Referring one to the Bible doesn’t answer the above question:

What do we mean by god?

The Christian God? And which God is that?

Because, yet again here, and just as above, the concept of God varies from people to people---even (and maybe especially so) amongst Christians, in so far as the Bible is concerned. And possibly even more so in the USA, if we are to believe McKibben:

"People who go to church absorb lessons there and make real decisions based on those lessons; increasingly, these lessons inform their politics. (One poll found that 11 percent of U.S. churchgoers were urged by their clergy to vote in a particular way in the 2004 election, up from 6 percent in 2000.) When George Bush says that Jesus Christ is his favorite philosopher, he may or may not be sincere, but he is reflecting the sincere beliefs of the vast majority of Americans."

The problem here is that regardless of how cautiously one reads the Bible---whether one interprets it literally, or allegorically is of little consequence in this instance---one can't help but observe that it is almost as if there are two gods there, depending on whether one reads the Old or the New Testament.

The difference is striking.

One god manifests as a vengeful deity who destroys cities and demands bloody sacrifice from his followers, while in contrast, the god of the New Testament sends his only begotten son to earth to preach love and forgiveness.

The latter is the god that most Christians, the world over, have in mind---the one who beckons to them, and speak to their heart and spirit: a benign entity watching over humankind and guiding it, as a Shepard leads his flock. There are also those, however, among fundamentalist circles (Bible Literalists, Legalistic Christians, Televangelists) especially here in the US, to whom for some reason god remains, first and foremost, the god of the Old Testament, the God of the Tanakh---a wrathful entity that punishes "evil doers" and only rewards his own chosen few (in this world or in the next) while the rest of humanity is consigned to fire and perdition.

Although most Christians will try to minimize the issue, the controversy is not new:

In the second century, already, a famous theologian, Marcion of Sinope, a Christian Bishop, felt that many of the teachings of Jesus were incompatible with the Old Testament.

In Macion’s view, the god of the Old Testament was inconstant, jealous, wrathful, and legalistic a far cry from the god of the New Testament---free from passion and wrath, and wholly benevollant.

The Catholic Encyclopedia (Evans 1972 p. ix) reports that Macion founded "a church which within half a generation expanded throughout the known world, vigorous enough to be in almost every place a serious rival to the catholic church, and with strong enough convictions to retain its expansive power for more than a century, and to survive heathen persecution, Christian controversy, and imperial disapproval for several centuries more."

There is more to the story than that. Marcion's teaching actually was that Jesus revealed to the world a hitherto unknown supreme God, who was different from the creator god of the Old Testament. In other words, in Marcion's views, Jesus was not the Messiah looked forward to by Judaism----The Tanakh speaks of the Messiah as a national savior who will restore the nation of Israel with Jerusalem as its capital (Most Jews believe that the Messiah has yet to come, while Messianic Jews believe that Yeshua of Nazareth was the expected Messiah.)----Rather, Marcion though that Jesus’s mission was to reveal the supreme God of light and pure mind, different in character from the god of the Old Testament. But this is not the point (more about this: here.) Marcion was ultimately denounced by other Christians as heretical, and he was eventually excommunicated by the Church of Rome in 144, but that is not the point either.

The point is that a Christian is not a Christian is not a Christian…

No matter what lofty names or banners one chooses for oneself, including the name Christian, the determining factor of one's genuine-ness is the evidence of one's faith through one's actions.

And so the question begs to be asked:

If the US is indeed, as some claim, a Christian nation, what kind of a Christian nation has it become? And, which God exactly has America been serving?

The benign heavenly father portrayed in the New Testament?

Or is it worshiping the deity of the Old Testament who rewards his own with earthly power and wealth?


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