It used to be the case that Americans referred unselfconsciously to their country as “a Christian nation.” The phrase had multiple meanings. A few speakers, no doubt, used it as a taunt: Non-Christians (which, for many, would have meant non-Protestants) should keep quiet or get out. Others used the phrase to indicate that Christianity, in a general way, informed American law and government. That’s what Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story meant, for example, when he wrote that Christianity was part of the common law. Still others used the phrase in a theological sense: America was the New Zion, Chosen of God.
But most people throughout our history have used “Christian nation” in a milder, less formal way. When they called America a Christian nation, they referred to the obvious fact that the vast majority of Americans were Christian, and to the equally obvious fact that Christianity had shaped American society and culture: its traditions, ethics, educational and charitable institutions, art and commerce. They meant that Christianity was deeply embedded in American lifeand that it was a good thing, too.
In this looser sense, to say that America is a Christian nation remains true today, almost trivially so. The large majority of Americans are still Christian, something like 80 percent in a recent Pew Survey. In fact, as countries go, America is not especially diverse, religiously. Many Asian countries are much more so. Christianity continues to shape American cultureless and less, in our secular age, but still. And Christianity continues to benefit American society in terms of the schools, hospitals, soup kitchens, and many other charitable works it sponsors.
Notwithstanding all this, it’s hard to imagine an American leader using the phrase “Christian nation” today. That’s perhaps wise. Some people would think such a statement deliberately provocative and insensitive to non-Christians, whose contributions to American life are enormous. The grievance industry would get to work exaggerating the offense. Pundits and professors would tweet self-righteously about bigotry and exclusion. Cable news channels would run special reports. It would be a mess.
Something like this is happening in Britain right now. Last week, Prime Minister David Cameron gave a speech in which he referred to Britain as “a Christian country.” Mind you, Britain has a state church and no fewer that three crosses on the national flag. Its monarch is a religious figure, the Defender of the Faith. In such a context, you’d think the Prime Minister’s comments would pass without notice. But they have sparked a very loud protest. Prominent atheists have accused Cameron of fostering “alienation and division.” Besides, the protesters say, Cameron is simply wrong. In terms of religious observance, contemporary Britain is not a Christian placeand it’s a good thing, too.
The protest is a huge overreaction. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said it very well:
[T]he Prime Minister and other members of the Government have not said anything very controversial. It is a historical fact (perhaps unwelcome to some, but true) that our main systems of ethics, the way we do law and justice, the values of society, how we decide what is fair, the protection of the poor, and most of the way we look at society . . . All have been shaped by and founded on Christianity. Add to that the foundation of many hospitals, the system of universal schooling, the presence of chaplains in prisons, and one could go on a long time. Then there is the literature, visual art, music and culture that have formed our understandings of beauty and worth since Anglo Saxon days.
It is clear that, in the general sense of being founded in Christian faith, this is a Christian country. It is certainly not in terms of regular churchgoing, although altogether, across different denominations, some millions attend church services each week. Others of different backgrounds have also positively shaped our common heritage. But the language of what we are, what we care for and how we act is earthed in Christianity, and would remain so for many years even if the number of believers dropped out of sight (which they won’t, in my opinion).
Political leaders, as well as everyone else, should avoid saying hateful things or disparaging minority religions. In a pluralistic society, everyone should be treated with respect. But it is not disparagement to point out obvious truths about a nation’s religious heritage, or to acknowledge the benefits that heritage continues to have. Referring to Britainor America, for that matteras a Christian country doesn’t make the speaker a hater.