Q&A: U.S. still religious, but not a ‘Christian nation’

Jon Meacham, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and contributing editor to Time magazine, recently delivered the Bolin Family 2013 Public Life/Personal Faith lecture at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology. Mr. Meacham lectured on “American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation,” also the title of his bestselling 2007 book. More recently, he wrote Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power (2012).

Mr. Meacham spoke by phone with staff writer Mary Jacobs; here are edited excerpts.

Given some of the recent controversies in the news—such as whether Catholic employers should offer health care coverage for contraceptives—do you see any trend lines in the ongoing debate over the role of faith in the public sphere?

I think things are significantly calmer than they were four or five years ago. I think I’m right in saying that the contraception issue is the exception that proves that rule. I don’t know if it’s because so many more people are

Jon Meacham

worried about the economy, or if there’s a demographic shift. Any number of factors may go into it. But it does feel as though we have entered a slightly different place—a better place, I think, in terms of arguments about issues that clearly have religious components. You don’t have senators diagnosing dying women in Florida. It’s just a slightly more civilized moment.

But, in the case of people who are arguing for the continued availability of assault weapons, you also have people trying to make something more of a religious question than, in fact, I think it is. So it’s a perennial tension that will ebb and flow. Some years it’ll be a little to the left, some years a little to the right. I think that if we keep in mind the notion that religion can’t be the only concern in creating public policy, but at the same time it should be a concern—then, I think, we have the best chance to get rid of the problems we have.

So is there a faith aspect to the argument against gun control?

There is an element within the country that sees gun ownership as a matter of theological and political business. I don’t think the argument stands up to the remotest scrutiny, but that’s what’s behind it.

You talked about the notion that the U.S. is a “Christian nation.” Where does that come from?

It’s a phrase I encounter again and again, the idea that the U.S. is a Christian nation, when what they really mean, if they’re being accurate, is it is a nation full of Christians. My argument is that it is a theological impossibility to be a “Christian nation” because faith doesn’t work that way. The central New Testament message was to put away earthly things to prepare for the coming of a new kind of kingdom. So anything that lends itself to civil authority exercising religious powers or religious observance being linked to civil rights or civil opportunities is a much later construct than the original Christian message. And yet you hear it all the time. I tend to write an op-ed every time I hear it. I’ve done it 50 times. I’m sure if you walk down the street and ask 20 people, a significant number of them would say, “Of course, this is a Christian nation,” but it’s not. A better argument that Cal Thomas makes, that’s made by many conservatives, is that politics is bad for the church. The work of the church is more important than an election cycle.

Some people believe we’re becoming too secularized in this country. Do you think we might be shifting too far in that direction?

I think this is an eternal tension. There are people who want to argue that this is an entirely secular nation, which it is not, and there are people who want to argue that it is a Christian nation, which it cannot be. I think that both extremes can make this a perilous argument. But it is simply in the nature of popular political culture to have arguments dominated by the extremes, even though most people are probably somewhere in between.

But as more and more people describe themselves as “nones,” some think we’re headed in the same direction as Western Europe. How might that affect our national character?

I guess I’m not sure I agree with the premise. The idea that we’re turning into a European style government or culture, we’re so far away from that, when a president begins his inaugural day at St. John’s Episcopal Church, and when the opening act and the closing act of the inauguration is a prayer. I think that to some extent we take for granted the role that overtly religious symbolism plays in the life of the country. When the president closes his speeches with “God bless you and God bless these United States”—well, you would not hear a French prime minister saying that. To project forward, it’s almost impossible to imagine a president who would not observe those customs of public piety.

I think when people talk about the “war on Christmas” and a “war on Christianity,” I don’t think it’s true. I don’t think it’s an accurate reflection of what’s happening. Yes, all mainlines have been in a fall since the 1970s, but evangelical Protestantism is growing; Catholicism is growing. Yes it’s true that many of the traditional denominations are in decline but that doesn’t mean religious belief is in decline.

mjacobs@umr.org

 

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Mary Jacobs

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