Culture At Large

Did 9/11 make America a more, or less, Christian nation?

Gideon Strauss

I remember vividly the horrifying images of 9/11 as we saw them on television news. While the nature, scope and duration of the conflict of which the acts of terror of that day were part are matters of contention, there can be no doubt that some things changed decisively on that day. One of the things that did not significantly change on that day - and here I surrender my answer to the question in my title, up front - is the way in which, and the extent to which, America is a Christian nation.

Mapping the relationship between Christianity and America is important, in particular for Christians who are Americans, and who are trying to figure out how to live in a way that is faithful to both of these identities (if that is a possibility): being a citizen of America and being a citizen of the kingdom of God.

America is not a Christian nation in the sense that it belongs to God as a nation. God has made no unique covenant with America, similar to his covenant with the Old Testament offspring of Abraham. To be American does not equal being Christian. It does not exclude being Christian, but the two are not the same thing.

America is not a Christian nation in the sense that its founding, its constitution and the practices and purposes that shape its political life are decisively and comprehensively Christian. The character of this American nation as a political community has been irreversibly shaped by a history of words and deeds that include, decisively, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Christian convictions informed some of these words and deeds, and other convictions informed other words and deeds. America is an amalgam of worldviews and ways of life.

And yet, America is a Christian nation in the sense that this republic could not have come into existence or taken the shape that it has without the preceding and continuing influence of Christianity, both in terms of teachings and in terms of practices.

Also, America is a Christian nation in the sense that a significant majority of its citizens are professing Christians, at least in the sense that they would write “Christian” in the religion box of a questionnaire, and more importantly in the sense that a significant minority of its citizens intentionally seek to allow their lives to be shaped by the teachings of the Christian faith, centered in the gospel that Christ is risen.

The attacks of 9/11 did not change the fundamental reality that America is a nation before God, among all the nations as they are before God, with no privileged relationship to God, as a nation, and neither standing under some unique judgment from God, as a nation.

Neither did 9/11 increase or decrease the extent to which the character of America - as determined by its founding, its constitution and the sustained practices of its political life - has been defined by Christianity.

While for a time it appeared that Americans were engaged in a serious conversation about the character of this nation, as a result of 9/11, and while that conversation demanded attention to the enduring presence and influence of Christian practices and teachings, it does not appear that that conversation has brought about a significant shift in the extent to which Americans conceive of this nation as a “Christian nation.”

It also appeared for a time that Americans, responding to the events of 9/11, were turning to the reassurance, comfort and meaning found in Christian practices and teachings. While this turn has for many people resulted in an encounter with the gospel, it does not - at least, as yet - appear to have made a culturally observable difference in the effect of Christianity on mainstream American life.

9/11 changed many things, but it did not make America a more or less Christian nation. America is not the New Jerusalem. America is not the Whore Babylon. It is a nation among nations. Called, like all nations, to live its political life in pursuit of public justice. Mixed, like all nations, in the composition of its citizenry with regard to religious commitments and convictions.

For Christians, this means that we should not seek political hegemony in America, but that we should seek to live faithfully: proclaiming the gospel in word and deed, pursuing public justice and the common good alongside our neighbors who do not share our gospel faith. We can do this without hubris or panic, because we know that Christ is Lord. We must do it faithfully, because we know that Christ is Lord. When acts of war and terror are committed against our fellow citizens, we must offer them the solace of true gospel hope, and when needed work with them for a just peace by means of a just war.

We are citizens of the kingdom of God, first, and citizens of the United States of America, second. How we live the first shapes how we live the second. They are related, they are not mutually exclusive, but they are not the same thing. Were not before 9/11, are not now.

This is the first in Think Christian's Ten After 9/11 series, reflecting on the 10th anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Later installments can be found here.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Faith, Theology, News & Politics, Social Trends, History, World, North America