Last week I attended the annual meeting of the American Society of Church History. The conference was a productive one, yielding new ideas and new connections. One paper I found particularly interesting was presented by Alister Chapman of Westmont College. In a paper entitled, “‘Where there is no vision, the people leave’: The End of Empire and the Decline of Christianity in Britain, 1945-1970”, Chapman argued that as the British Empire fell apart and came to an end, the rhetoric of Britain being a “Christian nation” also declined, even among conservative Christians. While Britain had been an imperial power, British leaders understood the nation to be characterized by Christian values and to be fulfilling a Christian, civilizing mission in its colonial endeavors. Once those colonial endeavors ended, Britons lost the sense of their country as one endowed by God with a particular mission in the world.
Two clarifications of Chapman’s argument are important here. First, Chapman was arguing that the decline in Britain’s imperial fortunes directly affected the role of Christianity in British society, not just that a decline in empire and a decline in Christian self-perception happened at the same time. Second, Chapman was talking about the decline of rhetoric about Britain as a “Christian nation”, not necessarily decline in Christian practice, though that was happening at the same time.
Chapman’s paper made me wonder about the American context. Over the past several decades, there has been no shortage of people willing to proclaim the United States a “Christian nation”. At the same time, America’s imperial fortunes have fared well. The United States has been able to project its military, economic, and cultural power around the globe to its benefit. Yet many (and I among them) question how much longer American imperial dominance in international affairs can last. Economic and other troubles at home, the rise of China and other powers, the toll of the war on terror, and a host of other factors indicate that America may not be the world’s sole superpower, able to call the shots as it likes, in the next few decades. If that proves to be the case, what are the implications for Christianity in America? Will Americans, including conservatives, no longer talk about America as a Christian nation if our international fortunes go into decline?
I’m not really concerned here with preserving a notion of America as a “Christian nation”. While the United States has always been a majority Christian country, it has also always been a country characterized by religious diversity and an array of levels of practice and adherence. Furthermore, it’s a country that has cherished the separation of church and state for the benefit of both church and state. So, while the United States may be a Christian nation in some sense, it is certainly not a solely Christian nation, as many who use the term seem to imply.
What concerns me here is not our perception of the United States (or Britain or any other country) as a “Christian nation”. It is our perception of God and how God relates to nations. What is troubling for me about the idea that the decline of international influence could lead to a decline in Christian self-perception is that it seems to imply a belief that God is only with the successful, the dominant, and the winners. It seems to imply that we are only faithful Christians if we are on top and in charge. Do we really believe this, or do we believe that God can be with the poor, the humble, the declining, and even the unsuccessful?
The temptation to equate this-worldly success with religious success is always there. It even pops up in the historical books of the Old Testament. There is an Old Testament trope wherein the nation of Israel is faithful, and God prospers it; then Israel becomes unfaithful and God punishes it by harming its political standing, usually through foreign attack and invasion. Yet if we read the Biblical text more closely, we’ll see that the correlation between worldly success and religious dedication is not as perfect as we might assume it is. The Northern Kingdom of Israel prospered under King Omri, even though Omri was wicked. King Hezekiah, on the other hand, was faithful, and while that faithfulness may have helped turn back Assyrian attacks on the southern kingdom of Judah, it did not prevent them.
Thus, we cannot assume that worldly success means we’re doing something right in God’s eyes or that worldly failure means we’re doing something wrong. The United States may lose its position as the dominant global, political power. That decline, however, does not in fact tell us anything about how faithful the United States is being to the role God has accorded it in history. The possibility of faithfulness is always there, in decline as in success.