Is/Was the United States of America a Christian Nation? - A Response to the DOMA Rulings by Sam Logan

June 29, 2013
Sam Logan

[NOTE: This item expresses the views of the individual to whom the item is ascribed and does not necessarily reflect the position of the WRF as a whole. ]

Like many other evangelical and Reformed Christians (both in the United States and around the world), I disagree with the recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions which seem to recognize both the legal and the moral legitimacy of gay marriage.    

But, unlike many other evangelical and Reformed Christians (both in the United States and around the world), I do not think that these Supreme Court rulings mean “the end” for America as a Christian nation.  Therefore, my overall reaction to the Supreme Court rulings diverges quite a bit from what many others have been saying.

First of all, I would argue that America never has been a Christian nation . . . and I say this no matter how the dispute over the infamous Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli, approved unanimously by the U. S. Congress, is resolved (see http://www.stephenjaygould.org/ctrl/treaty_tripoli.html ). 

The primary reason I say America has never been a Christian nation is that it simply makes no sense to apply any kind of descriptive adjective (like “Christian”) to any group when the membership of that group is not restricted to those who are personally defined by that adjective.  If Buddhists and Muslims are as welcome as Christians to membership in any group, that group simply cannot be called “Christian” in any meaningful sense of that term.  Would we really call our own local church “Christian” if membership were fully open to professed atheists? 

Related to the membership issue is the governance issue.  Who has the power to vote?  Once the franchise (the power to vote) is opened to those not defined by whatever adjective we are using, there simply is no way to continue using that adjective to describe the particular group.  This is precisely the point being made about developing Islamic states by Nader Hashemi  in his monumental volume, Islam, Secularism, and Liberal Democracy: Toward a Democratic Theory for Muslim Societies (Oxford University Press, 2012). 

To be historically accurate, I think we would have to say that the only time any part of what is now the United States was “Christian” was between 1630 and 1684 when the Massachusetts Bay Colony restricted the franchise to members in good standing of Puritan churches in the colony.  It was when the qualifications for voting were changed by treaty in 1684 that that colony ceased being “Christian.”  And whatever one thinks of the relevance of the Treaty of Tripoli, the U. S. Constitution is quite clear: “No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States” (Article 6, Section 3).   Whatever may have been the case in their personal lives, the late 18th Founding Fathers of this nation did not choose to restrict either the franchise or political power to “Christians.”  And that decision almost guaranteed that, one day, a majority in the nation they founded would not share the spiritual values of the Founders.

But maybe there is something other than citizenship and voting power involved in defining “a Christian nation.”  If there is, those other elements need to be carefully defined.  Further, some thought needs to be given with regard to what kinds of changes in those other elements would necessitate a change in the use of the adjective, “Christian.”  It seems to me that neither of these things has been done by some of those who are objecting to the recent Supreme Court decisions and are saying that it means the end of America as “a Christian nation.”

But let’s make an attempt – suppose we return to 1790, when homosexuals could not legally marry in the United States.  Personally, I think that would have been more in keeping with a “Christian ethos” than what has recently been decided by our Supreme Court.  But, at the same time, in 1790, roughly 200,000 men, women, and children were enslaved in this country simply because of their skin color.  And NONE of the females in America, no matter what color, had access either to the ballot box or to elected office.  All things considered, did America in 1790 have more or less of a “Christian ethos” than America does today, after the Supreme Court rulings of June 26?  At the very least, we must say that “it depends on what ‘counts’ for ‘Christian ethos’.”

I grew up in Mississippi at a time when the segregation of our schools was vigorously defended . . . and, in my world, that defense was often couched in “Christian language” (that is, Bible passages, both Old and New Testament, were cited as grounds for that defense).  When “Ole Miss” was desegregated by court order, many of my friends and loved ones attacked that decision as bringing the end of “Christian America.”  But, of course, we today know that segregation is wrong and none of us argue that segregation has any part to play in defining a “Christian ethos.”  But that’s just the problem with trying to define a nation in terms of its “ethos” – the imprecision of the term “ethos.”  That’s why I prefer the kind of definition with which I started, the kind the Massachusetts Bay Puritans  (love ‘em or hate ‘em) used so precisely.

So while I disagree with the Supreme Court decision regarding gay marriage, I don’t think that decision means the “end” of anything.  Frankly, other decisions made by previous Supreme Courts seem to me to have been far more egregious, from a Scriptural perspective, than the DOMA decisions.  I am referring, of course, to decisions like “Roe vs. Wade,” which seem to me to attack the very notion of personhood, the notion that all of us, men and women, black and white, gay and straight, are made in the image of God.  If there was ever a watershed political action in recent American history, that was it!

And what happened after “Roe vs. Wade”?  The very kinds of things that I think and hope and pray will happen now:

1) Christian ministry and worship continued.  In fact, “Roe vs. Wade” probably can be credited (if that is the right word!) with causing some new forms of evangelical, Bible-based ministry – pregnancy services, as just one example.  What if the DOMA decisions lead to increased support for ministries, like Harvest USA, which seek to minister to folks who are struggling with all kinds of sexual issues?  Even if that happens, the DOMA decisions should not be regarded as good ones.  Good ends do not justify bad means.  But if Harvest and similar ministries  are strengthened as a result of the DOMA rulings, we will see yet again the power of the living God to take even bad things (like many of the things that you and I do every day) and graciously bring good out of them.   John Freeman, a member of the WRF and President of Harvest, USA, has written a splendid chapter in our soon-to-be-published book, REFORMED MEANS MISSIONAL, and he provides there specific suggestions for ways in which Christ’s church may do good in the midst of this bad situation.  “Christian” good CAN happen in God’s hands.

2) Personhood discussions after “Roe vs. Wade” have also, in my opinion, contributed to our seeing in how many ways, other than abortion, our society has turned a blind eye to violations of those who are made “in the image of God.”  Over the past several years, it seems that the problems of human trafficking and child sexual abuse, even in “Christian” environments, have received huge amounts of publicity.   And the heart-breaking reality is that this is not because those sins are new; it is because we, the people of God, are just now waking up to the terrifying reality and near-omnipresence of those sins.  WRF Members Diane Langberg and Basyle Tchividjian have superb chapters in REFORMED MEANS MISSIONAL in which they address these concerns, concerns which were very much at the forefront of recent discussions at the General Assembly of WRF member denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America.   How might the DOMA rulings give the church a new impetus to explore and embodying what Christian marriage should be?  Might the DOMA rulings lead evangelical churches and organizations to be more rigorous and consistent in insisting on heterosexual obedience to passages like Matthew 19: 1 – 12?  “Christian” good CAN happen in God’s hands.

3) One of the other things that happened after “Roe vs. Wade” was that Christians began to think strategically about how the devastation of that decision might be reversed.  And over the years, some progress has been made in that reversal.  Of course, whatever progress we have seen has been slow in coming and has been much less than many of us have desired.  But think how long it took for America to wake up to and do something about the horror of slavery and how difficult it seems, even now, to get the evangelical church to make, as Boz Tchividjian puts it, “a godly response to abuse in Christian environments.”  Given the nation we really are in and given the way in which our “Founding Fathers” set up our political processes, there is particular relevance to Jesus’s words in Matthew 10:16: “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”  However one translates “phronimos” (wise) and “akeraios,” (innocent), Jesus’s teaching seems to be clear – be careful, strategic, gracious, and loving, and certainly avoid inflaming the situation by heated rhetoric or careless deeds.  Change may (and probably will) take a long time, but it is possible.   “Christian” good CAN happen in God’s hands.

4) Yes, I say again that I am personally disappointed by the DOMA rulings.  But they drive me back to books like I Peter, where we are reminded that, no matter what our government here is like, we are exiles.  This world is not our home, no matter how good our government might be.  And Peter’s prayer for the exiles to whom he is writing is relevant to us, some of whom may be “tried” by the DOMA rulings:

In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 8 Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, 9 obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

Jonathan Edwards uses the above passage as the text for his greatest work, Treatise on Religious Affections , and, in that work, Edwards reminds us that no earthly authority can ever do anything whatsoever which will make it impossible for faithful Christians to bring worship and praise to their Lord and Savior.  Indeed, it is frequently the case that those trials may produce even greater praise and honor and glory to Jesus than would otherwise have been possible.  And, lest we think that, in light of the Supreme Court rulings, our situation in the United States is worse than that of the Christians to whom Peter was writing, we need simply to remember that the head of the government under which those Christians were living was a man named Nero.   “Christian” good CAN AND WILL happen when we are in God’s hands.

Trials are unpleasant.  Generally speaking, I avoid them whenever I can.  No question, as my wife would tell you, in (at least) this regard, I am a spiritual wimp.  So I am distressed when trials come.  I am distressed about the DOMA rulings.  But the Scriptures offer me a way to be “Christian” even if my nation is not (and never was!).  I seriously ask anyone who reads this blog to pray that, by God’s Spirit, I will choose that way in the days ahead.


The blog above was written by Dr. Samuel Logan, International Director of the World Reformed Fellowship.  This blog is Dr. Logan’s private opinion and should not be read as the position of the WRF.  Dr. Logan may be contacted at samueltlogan@aol.com