Let’s start with a quiz...
Q: When was the first national prayer breakfast?
Q: What is the official U.S. motto and when did Congress officially institute it?
Q: The Pledge of Allegiance has been modified a few times since it was first written. What was the last change and when was it made?
Q: Who is the only president to be baptized while in office?
Questions like this always remind me of how much I don’t know. Either this stuff wasn’t covered in my American History class, or I was too busy talking with my friends to be bothered to learn basic facts.
Either way, I think the answers to these quiz questions are rather revealing. Is America really a Christian nation after all?
A: The first national prayer breakfast was held in 1953. Initially, President Eisenhower was hesitant to attend but agreed to with Billy Graham’s encouragement.
A: In 1956, the U.S. Congress made “In God We Trust” the official motto of the United States, replacing “E pluribus unum,” which, until that time, had served as the motto, although without an official stamp of approval.
A: The Pledge of Allegiance was last changed in 1954 when Congress added the words “under God.” Before that, the words “of the United States” were added in 1923 and “America” was added in 1924. With the arrival of immigrants, these changes made clear which flag they were pledging their allegiance to. The decision to add “under God” distinguished the United States from the anti-God communism of the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
A: President Eisenhower was baptized soon after taking the oath of office in 1953 in the National Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C.
In the 1950s, the United States witnessed the establishment of a partnership between the federal government and Christianity. Simultaneously, church membership climbed 20 percent in the decade, topping out at 69 percent in 1960. Christianity had become America’s civic religion in a way that it had never been before.
It’s impossible to prove, but I think it’s reasonable to believe that the rise of civic Christianity is bad for genuine Christianity. Civic Christianity promotes belief in a vague God while minimizing personal sin and ignoring Jesus. President Eisenhower even said that a country needs a “deeply held religious faith and I don’t care what it is.”
America was proclaiming itself a nation “under God” and declaring “In God We Trust,” but was it truly Christian?
The Fallacy of the Fifties
Just one example — race — shows that America was far from the shining city set on a hill that Jesus spoke of.
In the 1950s, while church membership was booming, segregation and Jim Crow laws prevented black children from being educated in the same schools as white children and black citizens from exercising their constitutional right to vote.
What gives? How does a Christian nation maintain a segregated society? (Hint: It doesn’t.)
A vague, Christless Christianity might not offend, but neither does it save or transform. It’s also not a faith that Jesus and the apostles would recognize. It’s ironic that in the decade the nation’s “Christian” identity was confirmed in the national psyche, it wasn’t deeply Christian at all.
Religious? Definitely. Christian? Kinda.
Maybe the church shouldn’t be trying to Christianize America but should instead focus on developing lifetime followers of Jesus. Throughout history, when Christianity is on the outside, it thrives. When it’s on the inside, it capitulates to culture.
The partnership between Christianity and the state might get us invited into important meetings and even earn us a seat at the most powerful tables. But if the price of admission is to keep quiet about Jesus’s kingdom priorities, it’s a price not worth paying.
Want more on this topic? Check out our podcast. You’ll discover a three-part series of episodes where we dive deeper into this discussion and unpack the rise of the religious right.