By Rev. Mark Buetow
America is not a Christian nation. There. I said it. Because it’s not. It never has been. That’s because by “Christian” we can only mean what Christ means: a kingdom not of this world which He rules and in which He “daily and richly forgives all my sins.” That’s the church.
Now sure, the church exists alongside the state, most of the time in a particular state and nation. Sometimes as a part of the state. Sometimes cooperating with the state. Sometimes trying to avoid the state. Sometimes being persecuted by the state. But she’s always praying for the State and its leaders and citizens. Church and state are not the same things. America was not founded on the idea that sinners are justified by grace through faith for the sake of Jesus Christ. That’s the Gospel. The Good News. The center and substance of the Christian faith.
Some might argue that at least the United States was founded upon “Judeo-Christian” principles, except that lots of things, like adultery and trash-talking, are legal under the laws of our land. So, the United States isn’t even just founded on the Law. Think about it. Where does it say in the Constitution that you must love God and your neighbor as yourself? Do you see the point? Calling any particular nation a “Christian” one doesn’t really make sense.
Well, how about this? America was at least founded by Christians. That’s debatable. The pilgrims who came in search of “religious freedom” as the story goes, were pretty hardcore strict and legalistic. There’s a lot in what they said and did and about how they lived but not so much about Jesus for sinners. And early Puritan settlements were a good example of what happens when you combine church and state: One person’s view of church runs everyone else’s life. So that’s not really about Jesus either.
Another comparison that is made is that the United States is a new “Israel.” Like Israel in the Old Testament, the United States was to be a beacon of godliness for all nations. Often times, when disaster strikes, the Lord’s Word to King Solomon gets hauled out and plastered everywhere: “If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:14). But that’s not it either. The Lord chose Israel specifically and the Scriptures are clear that Israel’s purpose was to be a light for the nations in being the people from whom the Savior of all nations would be born. The Israel of the Old Testament is a type and picture of the church as Paul makes clear in Romans 9-11. Israel is NOT a model for America to follow.
So that’s it, then? America’s not a Christian nation so just forget about trying to figure out church and state? Well, not quite. America, like every nation, has Christians. The church lives here. Those who are baptized dwell in this particular land as they dwell in particular lands everywhere. Christians live in the hope that because our sins are forgiven, we have, as Jesus promises, victory over death. “Our citizenship,” as St. Paul writes, “is in heaven, from which we eagerly await our Savior.” That means that no matter what earthly nation we were born in or live in, our real “country” is Christ’s kingdom. That kingdom lasts long after the Roman Empire or the United States of America or any other nation will have ceased to exist. In fact, that kingdom shall outlast the earth which will go away and a new heaven and earth will be made.
But Christians do live in America. And we live by faith in the Son of God and He lives in us, carrying out those good works that benefit even our nation: praying for our leaders and for peace, and loving and serving those around us in our many different callings. America may not be a Christian nation but a part of the body of Christ is American and that means we who live by the mercy of God and the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ here in America are to live godly lives as citizens of this particular country.
You wouldn’t go to the driver’s license office to receive absolution for your sins, just as you wouldn’t go to church to file your taxes. Church and state are not the same. It’s a good thing to remember this as we trust in Christ for the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation in a world that is daily passing away. After all, our hope is never in “America” or “things getting better,” but in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, who promises to raise us to life everlasting with a great multitude from EVERY tribe, tongue and nation. So live as a citizen of America or in whatever country you live. And live as a citizen of heaven—the kingdom of Christ which is above all others and is forever.
Rev. Mark Buetow is pastor of Bethel Lutheran Church in DuQuoin, Illinois and serves as Media Services Executive for Higher Things. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.