Framing the Debate
“Is America a Christian nation?” That is a commonly debated question between humanists and conservative Christians. It is also hotly debated within the Evangelical Christian ranks. For example, the popular political Christian activist, David Barton, has been arguing for decades that America was founded explicitly as a Christian nation.1 And historically, there have been many high profile influential Christian leaders who argued the case for a Christian America, including Billy Graham in his early days, James Dobson, D. James Kennedy, Beverly LaHaye, Jerry Falwell and others.2 On the flip side, there are Christian scholars of history who say that America was not founded as a formally Christian nation, men like Gregg Frazer, Mark Noll and George Marsden.3
Christians frequently go round and round when debating certain issues before ever agreeing on base-line definitions of important words and ideas in the debate. Such debates are futile in the end. This issue is no exception. There is really more than one question to address when debating this topic. Were the founders of America “born again” Christians? Did the founders intend for the Bible, God’s Word, to be the final say on all legal and political matters? If America is a Christian nation, then what percentage of the citizens need to be true Christians? Is another nation with a higher percentage of Christians also a Christian nation? Are there currently other Christian nations? Have there been other Christian nations in history? Can someone who is not a Christian run for office including the office of President? Are other religions allowed to exist within America if it is a Christian nation? Is America a theocracy?
The following are some basic plumb-line truths that intersect with and help moderate this debate:
- The legal authority of the United States is the Constitution, not the Bible
- Many founders of the United States were not Christians
- The United States was not meant to be a theocracy
- The Church of Christ is not presently a political entity
- The Church of Christ is not presently an earthly theocracy
- The Church of Christ is not subject to the U. S. Constitution
- Christians exist in all countries of the world, not just the United States (at present there are about 195 nations in the world)
A clarifying truth believers need to recognize when approaching this question is to understand that the church itself is not an earthly theocracy, but a spiritual entity—the Body of Christ. The word “theocracy” means, “rule by God.” Here (in the United States) we have what we call a “democracy”—“rule by the people” in the form of a representative republic. There are religions around today that consider themselves theocracies such as Islam. By its very doctrine, Islam is theocratic, and its adherents believe that they are led by God to take over and dominate the world on His behalf, through proselytization, coercion and even violence if necessary.
The Roman Catholic Church by its definition and its doctrine is also a theocracy. As a matter of fact, the Pope is not just a pastor; he is the head of State and the Vatican is a formally recognized, independent country—the smallest nation on earth. In Catholic doctrine the Pope bows the knee to no other external governing authority. The Pope is the supreme pontiff on earth and is considered an earthly sovereign. Catholics in other countries are told to have greater loyalty to the Pope than their own country of residence.
From a biblical point of view, there are currently no legitimate earthly theocracies on earth. The Roman Catholic Church and Islam think they are, but from God’s perspective they aren’t. And neither is the Church of Christ an earthly theocracy. In a real way, you could say the Church of Christ is a spiritual theocracy in that it is ruled by God, who resides in Heaven. It is a theocracy, but a theocracy “not of this world,” as we saw Jesus say to Pilate in John 18.
Israel Was a Legitimate Earthly Theocracy
There was once a legitimate earthly theocracy: the nation of Israel. Around 2000 BC, God told Abraham in Genesis 12, “I will make you a great nation.” This was the beginning of a theocracy ruled directly by God. God would create a religious nation over which He would preside as King. At least four elements are needed to form a nation: 1) leadership; 2) laity; 3) laws; and 4) land. God incrementally provided all four of those for Abraham toward fulfilling His promise of making the great Abrahamic theocratic nation of Israel, the Jewish people. And how this came to be is recorded in the Old Testament.
As for a leader, God would originally assume the role as their King or Sovereign of the nation (1 Sam 8:7). As for laity, or the subjects needed for the earthly kingdom, God promised to populate the nation of Israel with countless descendants from the loins of Abraham (Gen 15:5), a promise that came to fruition in the days of Moses around 1450 BC (Exod 1:8-9). As for the land needed for Israel’s new theocratic nation, God promised Abraham the land extending from the Euphrates River all the way to the river of Egypt (Gen 15:18), including the land we know today as ancient Canaan or Palestine. And finally, as for the laws needed to have a theocratic nation, God raised up Moses and He gave the ten Commandments to Israel (Exod 20) as their national constitution along with an additional 600 laws that would serve as the guidelines for the nation’s religious, civil and political life (Deut 31:9-13; John 1:17a).
In this way God provided all the basic components that constitute a nation. Therefore, Israel was a legitimate nation from the time of Abraham when it began until the time of Christ. With the coming of Jesus, there was a dramatic change. Jesus established the entity of His Church after His resurrection and ascension (Matt 16:18; Acts 2) and Israel as God’s national earthly theocracy was set aside temporarily while Christ builds His spiritual Church. Paul makes this clear in Romans where he says that for a temporary season Israel has undergone a “partial hardening” while the Church has been “grafted in” (9:23-25). During the present Church Age, Israel is not God’s theocracy on earth, but in the future God will “graft them in again” (9:23) and Israel will be reestablished as God’s theocracy on earth once more. The details of this great mystery are explained at length in Romans 9-11 and in the Book of Revelation.
During the Church Age there is no legitimate earthly theocracy from a biblical point of view. Contrary to what many American Christians have said over the centuries, the United States is not a theocracy. Some of the early Pilgrims and Puritans who came to this land in the 1600s actually believed that America was “the New Israel” and that America was to function as God’s theocracy on earth. But it’s not. The fact is that America is a secular, pluralistic nation and the standard of legal, civic and political authority is the Constitution. The Constitution neither quotes nor mentions the Bible. It does not mention Jesus, the gospel, the Church of Christ or biblical doctrine. It was definitely influenced by the Judeo-Christian ethic, but it was also greatly influenced by the Enlightenment ideals of John Locke and Natural Law as interpreted by the deist Thomas Jefferson.
As a result, the United States Constitution is not explicitly a “Christian” document. But at the same time it contains nothing explicitly contrary to the Bible either. As a political document, it does not undermine the Bible. There are plenty of nations with constitutions that blatantly contradict the Bible. The framers of the U. S. Constitution were religious and were providentially influenced by common grace in delineating the ideals of a civil society, ending up with a product that preserved societal virtues in keeping with natural revelation and laws that shadow biblical morality and ethics. In the end, America then has an authoritative standard that is secular and pluralistic while at the same time delineates respect for the sanctity of life and liberty for all humans under the purview of just laws.
With that said, the U. S. Constitution is a secular document, not a sacred one. And it outlines the qualifications for President, which are simple and few: the President needs to be (1) a natural born citizen; (2) at least 35; and (3) have residence for at least fourteen years here. It does not require adherence to Christianity. Godly, biblical qualifications are not prerequisites as in the church office of Elder (1 Tim 3).
I have a good mechanic who fixes my cars. I choose to go to him and give him money. He does not meet the qualifications of Elder and he is not a Christian, but he is qualified to be a good mechanic. He can cuss up a blue streak and replace an alternator at the best rate in town. Likewise, it is possible to fulfill the duties of President as outlined in the Constitution while not being a Christian. Of the forty-five Presidents we have had, less than a handful (if any at all) were probably true Bible-believing Presidents. Christians don’t have to vote only for a fellow Christian for President. Many Christians get confused on this issue. When it comes to the role of President, the question is, “Will that person fulfill the Constitution and uphold law and order?” That is the main question to be considered.
So who is “qualified” to be President of the United States? Well, technically, as long as they meet the above three criteria, the President can also be a woman, an agnostic, a Mormon, a Mason, a heretical liberal Presbyterian, a druid, an adulterer, a feminist, a Hindu, a new-age environmentalist, a former professional wrestler, an ex-Saturday Night Live comedian, a Wiccan, and a crude, bombastic, arrogant businessman. Sad, but true. That’s because America is not a theocracy, and the office of President is not sacred, but secular.
Today, the Church is the Only Christian Nation
Although we just learned that America is not a theocracy, and for a while now Israel is not one either, the New Testament does talk about a current Christian “nation,” and that is the Church. The Apostle Peter said that explicitly in his epistle written to Christians of his day. He reminded them that as followers of Jesus who have been born again through the gospel they are “a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession” (1 Pet 2:9). As common citizens of a real spiritual kingdom, believers have a shared identity, belonging and community life as one people in the family of God, who is the King of kings and the ultimate Sovereign. So as a Christian here in America, I have a temporary citizenship on earth in the United States—but eternally I belong to God’s holy nation, the Church of Jesus Christ.
Currently, the Church does not occupy or own any land on earth as a nation. Our boundaries are not limited to geographic parameters. Christians live everywhere on the earth, spread out like salt to be a savor and preservative for Christ among a spoiled and dying world (Matt 5:13). But in the future, the Church will occupy land on the earth literally as a theocracy. And so will the nation of Israel.
Paul said in Romans that “all Israel will be saved” (11:26). That is a literal prophecy and promise. God will once again graft Israel into His plan and reinstate them as a theocracy on earth. God will begin to do this during the coming Great Tribulation, a literal worldwide future time of God’s wrath being poured out on earth (Matt 24:21). The Tribulation, as far as we can tell from the book of Daniel and the book of Revelation, will last about seven years—seven literal years (Dan 9:24-27). According to the Bible, God will gather Jews from all over the world during the Tribulation and protect them (Rev 12:1-6). They will come to recognize Jesus as the true Messiah (Zech 12:10).
After the Tribulation Jesus will return to earth to reign as King (Zech 12-14; Rev 19). The Church and Redeemed Israel will reign with Christ on the earth for 1,000 years (Rev 20:1-6; Dan 7:13-18). Jesus will reign as the sole, divine, resurrected Despot in glory. There will be no elections for ten centuries—He is divinely appointed by God the Father. Jesus will rule legally, politically, religiously, militarily, and socially over the whole earth…literally. He will do it perfectly, being the first earthly ruler in history to do so. He will be opposed by no one. Believers will be co-regents with Christ! Jesus’ “Our Father” prayer will finally, literally and completely be fulfilled when He said, “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6). At that time I will get to sit on Christ’s royal throne and even rule with a rod of iron, dashing enemies to pieces like cheap pottery—and so will you if you are a Christian (Rev 2:26-29; 3:21). If you are a Christian now and don’t like politics, be aware that you will be involved in politics then.
In light of today’s events, the messed up world in which we live, and its compromised political systems that typify most governments, the preceding is hard to imagine. But it is true! That’s our destiny as believers. That’s what the Bible says, and it’s amazing. That is the culmination or highlight, and that is where history is going. Jesus will reign in glory and so will believers.