America: A Christian Nation?

In “Atheists, Conservatives, and Christianity,” Steve Warshawsky proffers his opinion on Ryan Sager’s book, The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party. In this article, Warshawsky argues that there is currently an attack on Christianity in this country and that this “attack on Christianity…is contrary to the American tradition.” The support provided for this argument by Warshawsky is flawed to the point of being preposterous. While I will agree with Warshawsky that Christianity did play a central role in Western and American history, there is very little else in his argument that warrants any merit. One of the key premises of Warshawsky’s argument is that America is a “’Christian nation’…since it certainly is not a Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist nation.” The underlying assumption that Warshawsky makes in asserting this, is that America must be a religious nation. While it is true that the majority of Americans identify as Christian, separation of church and state insists upon keeping the religious sphere separate from the political one.

In light of his opinion that America is a “Christian nation,” Warshawsky asks “by what political, moral, or logical principle should the views of religious minorities and non-believers take precedence over those of the vast majority of Christian Americans?” By posing this question, Warshawsky makes two major erroneous assumptions. The first is that those who self-identify as Christian actually are actively engaged in being Christian; the second is that this majority of Christians is a cohesive unit.

According to an article entitled “The Christian Paradox: How a Faithful Nation Gets Jesus Wrong,” Bill McKibben asserts that according to a poll, “only 40 percent of Americans can name more than four of the Ten Commandments, and a scant half can cite any of the four authors of the Gospels.” More surprisingly, McKibben states that “three quarters of Americans believe the Bible teaches that ‘God helps those who help themselves’” – even assuming that all non-Christians answered in the affirmative, they would only constitute a little more than a quarter of the vote. Thus almost 50% of those who responded to this question were Christians who believe that this is actually a Biblical message. If this is the standard of Christianity in America, can it truly be said that America is a “Christian nation”?

Even assuming that everyone who self-identifies as “Christian” is truly following the Christian faith, it is a mistake to see them as a cohesive unit. Although approximately three-quarters of America identifies as Christian, this bloc can be divided into several smaller groups such as Protestants, Catholics, and Evangelicals; the fact that all groups are clustered under the umbrella of “Christianity” does not directly imply alignment of interests, not even social ones. This is clearly highlighted with respect to gay marriage. Although 83% of evangelicals were strongly opposed to gay marriage as of 2003, the issue was not nearly as important to mainline Christians or Roman Catholics. In fact, over the past 7 years, the number of mainline Christians opposed to gay marriage has decreased by 20% while that of Roman Catholics has decreased by 19%. Empirical evidence shows that it is a mistake to treat all Christians as sharing the same views.

Clearly Warshawsky’s argument is riddled with errors. In addition to the errors highlighted above, Warshawsky similarly overstates the unity of purpose and outlook of American conservatives. With both of his key premises regarding Christianity and conservatism lacking any form of concrete foundation, Warshawsky presents an argument that is poorly supported and ultimately unpersuasive.


Steph Blake said...

While we're talking about evangelism:

An interesting book on this subject is "American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America," by Chris Hedges, author of "War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning" and supposedly a professor here in the American Studies department, though I can't track him down. I guess from the title you can figure out where it stands on these issues.

Now, I was a little hesitant to read this thing because the title is inflammatory--"The War on America" is a bit of a rhetorical flourish, and Hedges specifically addresses preoccupation with calling things "wars" as fascist. But it is a very interesting read, even if it has some blind spots.

First, it's difficult to say what an evangelical Christian is--mmd was getting at this. Even within Protestantism or Catholicism or evangelism there is huge variation. Hedges attacks only the wackiest, most apocalyptic, greediest, and so on evangelicals.

Also, as for the "War on America"--that implies that America is NOT an evangelical or at least Christian country--and this is almost as unfounded a claim as that it IS. "America" is in the eyes of the beholder, apparently... I don't think we'll come to any consensus anytime soon as to what America is, and in the meantime it would be wise to stay away from calling it a Christian nation, just as a non-Christian nation.

Batman said...

While I have already referred to Samuel Huntington’s “Who Are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity” once before in the blog, I think the book provides a strong argument why America is in fact a Christian nation. First, most Americans profess a much greater belief in G-d and Christianity in questioners than people of other western nations. Second, issues that deal with Judo-Christian morality have played a central role in American political debates. After all, abortion and gay marriage affect only a very small minority of the population, and if America was not a Christian nation, the two issues should have been last on the importance list. Third, according to polls, Americans strongly oppose an atheist Presidential candidate and would much rather see a minority or a female President. After watching the Virginia gubernatorial race, the results of these polls were not surprising at all for me. The Democratic candidate, Tim Kaine, believed that the success of his campaign rested on convincing Virginia voters that he and the Democratic Party were in fact moral and Christian. To achieve this goal, he told about his experience as a missionary in South America some twenty years ago at nearly every campaign event…and ended up winning the race.