Letter to a Christian Nation?
Rev. Dr. Theodore Stylianopoulos, Th.D.
Soon Christmas is upon us. The good news of Christ’s birth proclaimed to the shepherds will again resound in our homes and churches. Together with the angels we will sing, “Glory to God on high, peace on earth, and good will among people.” Christmas celebrates the supreme gift of God’s love incarnate in the person of Jesus. For those who choose to believe and to follow Christ, Christmas fulfills our human longings for love, joy, good will, forgiveness, justice, peace, and harmony. Christ, the “Sun of Righteousness,” arises as a “new dawn” for humanity, shining forth the light of life.
Sadly, there are some who see things very differently. Looking to the Bible, especially the Old Testament, they point out historical, scientific, and even moral flaws such as the practice of human slavery. Reading Christian history, they are repelled by bitter and violent disputes among Christians. Observing the life of Christians today, they are offended by what they perceive as hypocrisy, prejudice, obsession for political and social control, and, instead of love, hostility toward those who disagree with them.
Just those kinds of criticisms against Christianity are taken up by Sam Harris, a militant atheist, in his short book Letter to a Christian Nation that has hit best seller lists. Harris’ Letter is addressed primarily to the “Right Wing” in America, conservative Protestant Christians aggressively engaged in the political process to influence public policy on the basis of Christian morality. The Letter, however, moves beyond a critique of the shortcomings of Christians to a complete and harsh rejection of Christianity itself, along with all religions, as being instruments of ignorance, conflict, violence, and enormous suffering in the world. Because the schools and the media have, according to the author, failed to promote the “death of God,” he himself takes on the challenge with great zeal. Harris’ denunciation of all religions is uncharitable to the extent that, according to him, to raise children today as Christians, or Moslems, or Jews amounts to a “ludicrous obscenity.”
It would be useless to comment on such outrageous views except for two reasons. One is that uninformed readers may well be confused by the author’s half-truths. A second is that Christians, and all religious people, ought to be mindful of those kind of the attacks against them. They ought to lament their evident shortcomings, learn from the attacks, and mend their ways in the true spirit of their respective religions they claim. If religion has to do with human relationships and with justice and peace among human beings, then religious people ought to demonstrate the fact by their deeds.
The fundamental half-truth of the Letter to a Christian Nation appears in its title. Although America is inhabited by a majority of Christians, America is not “a Christian nation.” Its prevailing art and entertainment culture, its economic and political domination of the world, and its aggressive militarism, hugely betray the attribute “Christian.” Judging by history, truth be told, no nation ever was or can be “Christian.” What can be hoped of nations is to practice justice for all citizens and show some compassion for their less fortunate members.
The very notion of America as a Christian nation, strongly promoted by fundamentalist Christians today, and wrongly presupposed by the arguments of Harris’ book, is precisely the problem. That view inevitably distorts authentic Christianity into hard politics with all the attendant conflicts and recriminations. Christians of course are morally obliged to live and promote their convictions in the entire seamless reality of their lives—marriage, family, work, education, law, medicine, politics, the military, etc.—without exception and by fair play, including the privilege of voting. Given their overwhelming numbers in America, what they ought to be doing is dropping the slogans and placards, talking to each other quietly, living as Christians, voting their convictions, and humbly allowing God to do the work of the transformation of hearts in society. Doing the opposite, turning Christianity into a political movement aligned with a particular party, becomes corruptive of Christianity and counterproductive to the very nature of its mission in the world.
Instead of sifting through this mess to dialog with authentic Christianity, Harris wants to destroy all the “arguments” of Christianity in order to pull the rug out of fundamentalist Christians. But here again we have another half-truth. Christianity in its essence is not about “arguments.” Christianity is about the gift of God signified by the true meaning of Christmas. It is a message about faithfulness to Christ, loving your enemies, praying for those who persecute you, taking care of the needy, and in all things honoring the loving and merciful God as Christ revealed Him. Christianity proclaims a joyous invitation, based on free and resolute commitment, to a clear way of life defined above all by the person, example and teachings of Jesus. Christianity includes profound wisdom for those who seek it that, coming from Jesus, has nothing to do with fundamentalism. But the truth of Christianity is not dependent on intellectual arguments as much as the direct experience of a transformed life of love and forgiveness in a loving and caring Christian community. If this spiritual reality of God’s grace and mercy does not radiate from Christians and the Christian churches today, no amount of “arguments” could fill the gap.
Nonetheless, Christians ought to give cogent reasons for their way of life and beliefs as part of that invitation to the new life in Christ. Christian apologetic has an important function indeed, but only when it does not betray Christ’s spirit of love by turning into “arguments” to win points or become instruments of attack condemning all others to the fires of hell. Moreover, in a pluralistic society such as ours, controversial issues like abortion, stem-cell research, same sex marriage and evolution, must be addressed in significant part on the basis of contemporary knowledge and the evidence of human history. It will not do for Christians to pontificate by declaring what the Bible says or what the Christian tradition teaches. Rather, the meaning and value of what the Bible and the Christian tradition teach must be explained in terms that have a chance of being understood and be convincing in the arena of public discourse. Mere loud declarations of moral truths to an unreceptive post-Christian society, only fuels its rage. Aggressive legislation of morality upon an immoral society, for an illusory “Christian nation,” only distorts Christianity into a competing political party that empties it of its spiritual power.