We have been considering a DVD that a church of Christ in Tennessee sent out to many churches of Christ throughout the country entitled The Silencing of God: The Dismantling of America’s Christian Heritage, produced by the World Video Bible School and featuring Dave Miller of Apologetics Press. Previously we demonstrated that evangelizing 21st century America, and not pining for some idealized version of 18th and 19th century America, should be our primary motivation and purpose, and all of our energies should be expended toward that purpose.
Yet perhaps the greatest difficulty of the DVD is its inherent acceptance of the Christian Americanist interpretation of not only American history but also of the Bible. This view is especially popular among the Evangelical community in the United States, which makes sense. They see little delineation between the old and new covenants, and since strong parallels were drawn between Israel’s election and America’s election by God even in Puritan days, the view continues to be perpetuated. This view supposes that God specifically blessed America because of its particular values, that America is a “Christian nation,” in a sense chosen by God as Israel was chosen in the past. This often leads to religious justifications for America’s actions both at home and abroad, regardless of the inherent legitimacy of those actions.
This view makes complete sense for Evangelicals who tend to have an ecumenical strain, especially in terms of fellow Evangelical/Protestant groups, and who have a fuzzy understanding of covenant distinction. But this view does not make as much sense in terms of churches of Christ, who tend to be far from ecumenical and who, at least formerly, respected the distinction between God’s covenant with Israel and God’s new covenant with all mankind through Jesus Christ.
Perhaps the greatest problem within the whole DVD is the insistence that America is a “Christian nation.” This presupposes many things about America’s past and present, and it also presupposes many things about the Scriptures, which we will analyze in this section and also in the next.
Is America a “Christian nation”? Has it ever been? How, exactly, is “Christian” being defined? According to the New Testament, we believe that Christians are those who have been immersed in water for the remission of sin, striving to serve Jesus Christ according to all that He has revealed (Romans 6). If the standard of definition is New Testament Christianity, then America is not a “Christian nation,” has never been a “Christian nation,” and is likely never to be a “Christian nation.” It is a nation that has Christians in it, but that is also true of almost every country on earth.
Herein we come to Miller’s inconsistency/self-contradiction. If I am not mistaken, he is the same person who wrote the book Richland Hills and Instrumental Music: A Plea to Reconsider, in which he demonstrates how instruments should not be used in Christian assemblies. If he represents what the majority of members of churches of Christ believe, he has serious reservations about whether Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Catholics, and members of other denominations, in terms of both their salvation and what they believe. If he represents the practice of most churches of Christ, he has little to no spiritual association with such churches or its members, because they are teaching that which is false.
After all, in the New Testament, those who would bind circumcision on Gentile believers were considered “dogs,” “false brethren,” and Paul sought their emasculation (Galatians 2:4; 5:12, Philippians 3:2-3)! Those who followed after them would become accursed (Galatians 1:6-9). If Paul has such strong words for those who bind circumcision and other Jewish rituals, what would he say to those who would espouse original sin and demand that infants be baptized? What would he say to those who do not even immerse in baptism, but sprinkle or pour? What of those who deny man any level of participation in salvation, and who teach “once saved, always saved”? What about those who, through their eschatological speculations, overthrow the value of the first advent of Jesus Christ and seriously distort the Biblical picture of His impending return? And what of Roman Catholicism and all of its traditions set against the Scriptures?
Yet it is these denominationalists who represent the majority of “Christians” in America. If America can be considered a “Christian nation,” it means that such people really are “Christians.”
And herein is the contradiction. If they are “Christian” enough to consider them part of a “Christian nation,” what right have we to refuse their association? If we are going to claim them as “fellow Christians” in any sense whatsoever, how have we not participated in ecumenism?
But if they are not really “Christian” because they have distorted the true Gospel of Jesus Christ, and they are in fact accursed according to Galatians 1:6-9, how can they be “Christian” in any way, shape, or form? How can they be claimed as representing the faith?
If members of churches of Christ are going to call America a “Christian nation,” it means that we have sold out to ecumenism or use the term “Christian” in such a narrow sense so as to lose its value, and the term becomes hollow.
At one point in the DVD, while explaining an elementary school primer, Miller notes that there is some Calvinistic teaching involved, confesses it, and tries to minimize it. He has no problem justifying the recitation of creeds; would he justify them in his own assembly of Christians? He also advocates for prayer in school. Yet these very issues raise the question: if religion is going to be taught in our schools, which religion is going to be taught? Hardly New Testament Christianity! If children’s schoolbooks are full of Calvinism, then that stumbling-block is placed before them. If the prayer in school is led by a woman, or involves mention of Mary or the saints or some false doctrine, that stumbling-block is placed before them.
I do not understand why we would even want to claim participation as part of a “Christian nation” when we, as the minority viewpoint on many doctrinal issues, are already subjected to various levels of persecution for taking a stand for Jesus’ teachings. How do “cults” fare under religious leadership? Ask the Anabaptists of central Europe in the sixteenth century. Ask the Mormons in nineteenth century America.
This is another instance when our “different” reality in early 21st century America is promoted as being entirely evil, yet things were “better” in earlier days. This remains the foolishness condemned by the Preacher in Ecclesiastes 7:10. It was not “better” when denominational teachings were more ascendant; it was “different.” When people have no belief, or no understanding of anything about God, they are more easily taught the truth. When they have been raised to believe what a denomination has taught them, it is more difficult to “unteach” the denominational doctrines to teach the truth. Just as the Serpent deceived Eve with a lot of truth and a little bit of lie in Genesis 3, so it is that beliefs closer to the truth with a little bit of lie tend to be more insidious.
Furthermore, how can we be the “salt of the earth” in the midst of a denominationally minded country if we latently accept the denominations as “Christian”? If we go around and say that America is a “Christian nation,” and then try to tell Americans that we preach a distinctive doctrine that is the truth and the doctrines of all the denominations are false, why should they believe us? After all, we have accepted the denominations as being “Christian” since they make up this “Christian nation.” Now we are no better than they– only worthy of being cast underfoot (Matthew 5:13).
This problem is real. Christian Americanism is quite prevalent; in fact, statistics show that most people in this country believe in God, Jesus, and that they are going to Heaven. Yet we have precious few souls that work diligently to obey Jesus Christ. Is this God’s fault? Is there some defect in the Scriptures that leads to this? Of course not; quite the contrary. People do not read the Bible and do not get their spiritual understanding from it. Instead, most people get their spiritual understanding from whatever contact they have received from various churches and what they gain from the media. They gain enough to know that there is a God, His Son is Jesus, that you need to believe in God and Jesus, and if you believe, you will be alright, as long as you are a good person. God also loves America and therefore Americans have better standing before God. Does the Bible really teach these things? Not really, but most of the people who accept this understanding do not know any better. That is why belief in America is quite pervasive and yet also quite shallow. There is nothing distinctive in it. The call of God to come out and be separate is lost, because how can you come out and be separate when the nation is already “Christian” (cf. 2 Corinthians 6)?
But even if we were to grant a rather shallow and hollow definition of “Christianity,” would America really be a “Christian nation,” or was it ever really a “Christian nation”? What proof is offered?
Miller marshals all kinds of evidence, but all that evidence involves what Americans said and wrote and etched. All it really proves is that Americans felt like they were a “Christian nation” back in the day, and that they knew their Bibles and used a lot of Biblical imagery in their statements.
But does their claim make it true? After all, the British in the eighteenth century would also claim to be a “Christian nation.” So would the French in olden days. So would those in the Holy Roman Empire and Russia. The Papal States had a pretty good claim on being the “Christian nation,” since the Pope claimed to hold the keys to both physical and spiritual kingdoms!
And yet all of these countries fought against one another and engaged in all kinds of sinful conduct. Were any of them “Christian nations” in truth? Would America be any better?
Perhaps the greatest problem is that the “Founding Fathers” were more Enlightenment thinkers than Biblical scholars. This is evidenced quite strongly in their influences and their writings. Miller attempts to combat this notion by claiming that the Bible is the single most often quoted work in the Constitution, and yet the percentage is under 50 percent. The Bible’s great importance in western civilization would guarantee that it would be the most singularly cited work, but it is clear that the foundations of American government lie elsewhere. You do not simply read the Bible and come out with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. No; our government has more debt to Athenian democracy and Enlightenment philosophy for its construction than the Bible. There is more Locke than Jesus in the Declaration of Independence; more Montesquieu than Moses in the Constitution.
Both of these documents are marshaled as proof of the Founding Fathers’ “Biblical worldview,” and yet the statements within the text betray an Enlightenment understanding of the Bible. The Declaration of Independence declares that “[all men] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Yet you fail to find in the New Testament that “liberty” as understood in the Declaration of Independence as an “unalienable right.” Slaves could very easily remain slaves their entire lives and yet serve Christ (Ephesians 6:5-7), and freedom in Christianity is freedom from sin and death to serve Jesus Christ, not liberty in any eighteenth century understanding (Romans 6). Discussions of “unalienable rights” comes from John Locke and read into the New Testament, for better or for worse. The same is true of governments “deriving their power from the consent of the governed,” when Romans 13 would place it in God’s hands. We have no problem accepting Locke’s view of government and calling it Biblical, but we would likely abhor Thomas Hobbes’ defense of the divine right of kings half a century earlier based upon Romans 13.
The Constitution, its separation of powers, and checks and balances was quite consistent with Enlightenment ideals. You will search the Bible in vain to find a similar system. Nor do we have any basis to believe that these documents are divinely inspired or guided. We would not expect, after all, for a divinely ordained document to consider African slaves to be three-fifths of a person in a census (Galatians 3:28)!
Then again, the entire Revolution was justified in Enlightenment terms, that somehow George III being a “tyrant” justifies rebellion. Miller seems to give great acceptance to a quotation of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin saying “rebellion against tyranny is obedience to God.” While that may be consistent with Enlightenment ideals, it is a far cry from New Testament Christianity. In the days of Nero, a far greater tyrant than George III could ever dream to be, Paul tells Christians to “be in subjection” to the government (Romans 13:1) and Peter tells Christians to “be subject to” and “honor the Emperor” (1 Peter 2:13-17). This is hardly a call to revolt or any refuge for those trying to justify revolt!
The New Testament teaches that Christians are to be subject to the government, even if the government is tyrannical, and yes, even if the government does not live up to the ideals set forth in its documents. Earthly authorities are to be respected regardless of their character. It requires a bastardization and distortion of these teachings to justify rebellion, and no matter how justified it may be in the eyes of man, it remains sin in the eyes of God.
Therefore, these men who believed themselves to be Christians were strongly sinning by rebelling against the authorities of their day, and even believed that God was behind it. How can this possibly be justified according to the New Testament and the New Testament alone?
What will be our guide to understanding the Bible– God or the Enlightenment? As it is written,
Take heed lest there shall be any one that maketh spoil of you through his philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ (Colossians 2:8).
We cannot and must not abandon the Bible to Christian Americanist viewpoints that are more than willing to accommodate what it teaches to fit American ideals and movements. Such is no better than the compromises that countless thousands have made over time.
For all of the panegyrics about America’s glory and virtues, precious little is ever confessed about America’s faults. Miller does admit that slavery was a stain on the country, but seems too eager to blame the British for it. A quick survey of arguments in the antebellum period shows that not a few Americans believed in slavery’s legitimacy and used the Bible to defend it. Miller claims that “Christianity does not advocate slavery,” which is true but not the point: Christianity allows for slavery in Ephesians 6, and neither approves it nor condemns it. Many of those Christians that made up “Christian America” strongly defended slavery with their Bibles, and the Civil War was the manifestation of the greatest theological crisis in American history to that day: two different groups using the same book and coming to very different conclusions. This should not be minimized.
No discussion is ever presented about the Native Americans and how all of those good “Christian Americans” extorted, cheated, or flat-out killed them in order to obtain their land.
The pretense of religion that existed throughout the country is accepted, and left relatively unquestioned. Yet it seems clear enough that drunkenness, foul language, adultery, theft, murder, and a whole host of other sinful behaviors have been prevalent throughout American history.
Does this mean that America is evil? No more or less so than any other country. And that’s the issue. America has always had its virtues and its vices. It is not becoming to attempt to wrap the cross in the flag of America since America is a nation like every other nation that has ever existed. It has no more right to bear the name “Christian” than its European forebears. In its name many atrocities and unspeakable events have transpired. In its name many have believed and hoped for better things. But America is by no means, under any definition, a “Christian nation.” It is a nation like other nations with many Christians who are its citizens, yet is plagued with sins like any other. Why, therefore, should we be guilty of defaming the wonderfully holy name of Christ by associating it with a nation that has often spurned His call?
Christian Americanism, therefore, does not represent New Testament Christianity. Christian Americanism will not lead to the salvation of souls; at worst, it distracts souls from the true Gospel of Christ and leads them down the road to condemnation. Let us be careful what we approve and what we endorse, and recognize that America, with all its virtues and vices, is no more or less “Christian” than other countries!
This discussion continues with The Silencing of God: The Dismantling of America’s Christian Heritage, III: A “Christian Nation”?.