This has been the refrain of many a seminary professors in the last generation or so. The retreat of Christianity from the public square, the passivity and uninvolvement of millions of Christians in the public debate, the open refusal of pastors and church leaders to apply the Christian faith to matters above family and church have all been based on the presupposition that whatever we do as Christians, we are essentially powerless to change a nation to obey Christ. Why? Because “there can never be such a thing as a Christian nation.”
Robert F. Hull Jr. may not be a significant name in the Christian circles. But his article in Christian Standard, “Is There a Christian Nation?” beautifully summarizes the arguments of the opponents of a Christian nation. The problem is, all these arguments are fallacious. They are logically and theologically inconsistent. They are historically inaccurate. And they deserve good Christian refutation.
Hull’s article faithfully follows the “holy trinity” of the modern escapist arguments: 1) Only Israel had a “divinely prescribed” covenant with God, therefore there can be no Christian nation today; 2) All attempts at establishing a Christian nation so far in history have failed, therefore there can be no Christian nation today; and 3) Christian faith can never be enacted by law, therefore there can be no Christian nation today.
Let’s look at each one of them.
Hull says the following about the uniqueness of the Old Testament Israel:
As a people chosen to carry the light of the knowledge of their Creator to other nations, biblical Israel alone had a divinely prescribed covenant with God.
Correct. But Hull’s conclusions are incorrect. The unique position of Israel can only lead us to the conclusion that there can be no other Israelite nation in history, specifically chosen to be given the Scriptures and to take them to other nations; the fact says nothing about the forming of Christian nations in the future, based – as nations – on the “light of the knowledge of the Creator,” as Hull so aptly puts it. Israel indeed was a covenant nation with a very special covenant. For that very special covenant God had a very special ceremony: He personally spoke from the top of a mountain, and personally directed the building of the Tabernacle which established Israel’s position as a special nation. Hull looks at that very special ceremony – God speaking in person from a mountain – and makes the conclusion that this is the only way God establishes a covenant with a nation. But such conclusion is preposterous: Nowhere is it said that this is the only way God makes a covenant with a nation, neither is it said that a covenanted Christian nation must have exactly the same special place in God’s plan.
One is tempted to ask Hull: “If Biblical Israel were chosen to carry the light of knowledge to other nations, what were the other nations to do with that light of knowledge?” They apparently couldn’t make a covenant with God as nations, if we follow Hull’s logic – they didn’t have the same experience of God speaking from a mountain. But why stop there? They couldn’t have a covenant with God as families too; let’s not forget that as a family, only Abraham had a divinely prescribed covenant with God. Really, if Hull wants to be consistent, he should apply the same logic to families. And what about individuals? Isn’t it true that no individual today can show any conclusive proof of having a “divinely prescribed covenant with God”?
Thus, using Hull’s reasoning, we should say that not only there is no such thing as a Christian nation, there can neither be such a thing as a Christian family, nor a Christian individual, let alone Christian churches, Christian ministries, nor Christian seminaries, nor anything else. Robert F. Hull can not be a Christian because we know for sure that he doesn’t have a “divinely prescribed covenant with God” mentioned in the Bible. When he asks, “By what right does anyone transfer to the United States—which has no special covenant with God—the concept that this nation has been divinely chosen to carry the light of Christian faith . . . to other nations?,” the answer is, “By what what right does Hull transfer to himself – who has no special covenant with God – the right to call himself Christian?”
But we know there is such a thing as Christian families and Christian churches and Christian individuals. How so? Representatively, through Abraham (Gen. 12:3), and ultimately, through Christ (Rom. 5:18-19). Churches, families and individuals do not have to have a direct experience like the one Israel had on Mount Sinai to be in covenant with God: it is enough for God once to establish a covenant with a representative, and then other families and individuals can look in faith to that covenant and claim it as their own. And the same applies to nations: It is enough for God once to establish a covenant with a representative nation, and then all other nations can look in faith to that covenant and claim it as their national covenant. What applies to individuals, families, and churches, certainly applies to nations as well.
And indeed, we see that in the Old Testament the covenant with Israel was supposed to make the nations acknowledge the glory of God in His Law (Deut. 4:5-8); and we see that the prophets admonished and rebuked the nations for their violation of the Law of God, and they called the nations to repentance. Such a call would be ludicrous if the nations were not expected to enter in any kind of covenant with God. And in the New Testament we know that the Great Commission continues the same theme, commanding us to “disciple the nations” (in the original Greek text). Again, how do we teach the nations about Christ if we don’t expect them to enter in a covenant with Him? Hull’s logic fails here.
The bulk of his article is devoted to the historical argument against a Christian nation. Much of it is simply historically inaccurate, perhaps because Hull has been careless to verify the facts, or perhaps he has been reading anti-Christian apologists a little too much. He claims that the Roman Empire after Constantine saw “many coerced conversions” to Christianity. This claim contradicts the position of the church in the centuries after Constantine; in fact, the position taken by the orthodox party in the debates with the Donatists was exactly that forced conversions are not true conversions at all, and therefore those who broke under persecution could return to the Church after repentance and penance. Hull apparently is ignorant of that part of the Church’s history to claim that there were “many” coerced conversions in that period specifically. While it is true that in certain isolated cases governments tried to act in the old pagan ways of forcing conversions, they promptly met opposition by influential church leaders (Ambrose, Augustine, Isidore, etc.). His claim that during the Reformation “dissenters often faced death by horrible means” is another anti-Christian fairy tale unconfirmed by historical data. Geneva in the 1500s, for example, was full with dissenters and libertines, and none of them “faced death by horrible means,” except those that threatened the very foundations of the social order based on Jesus Christ (like Servetus).
His private interpretations of historical facts aside, Hull’s very argument is false. Yes, there have been attempts at building a Christian nation in the past; and yes, they were not perfect. But does that prove that a Christian nation is impossible?
Let’s see. There have been many Christian churches and many Christian families and many Christian individuals in history. None of them has been perfect, and quite a few churches actually have been abject failures. In fact, if we need to be honest, the attempts at building Christian churches have been much less successful than the attempts at building Christian nations. So what does that mean for Hull, if he is consistent with his own logic? It must mean that there can be no such thing as a Christian church. Or a Christian family. Or a Christian individual. Once again, we see that Hull’s arguments against a Christian nation destroy the possibility for anything Christian at all.
But history is a process of growth, just like our own life is a process of growth. Individuals and families grow in maturity, knowledge, and practice, and so do churches and nations. Our imperfections in our past work are no indicator for the power of God in what we can achieve in the future for His Kingdom in history. Just as we are commanded to learn and grow, we are also commanded in the Great Commission to disciple the nations, i.e. to bring them, as nations, to that knowledge and maturity which God requires.
The most important argument comes at the end:
Nations are constituted through political action and their causes are always and necessarily advanced by force of law, but Christian faith can never be enacted by law.
The first problem with this statement is that Hull assumes that the purpose of a Christian nation is to “enact faith by law.” But who says that this is the purpose of a Christian nation? Hull himself said above in his comparison with Israel, that Israel’s purpose was to “carry the light of knowledge.” When God made a national covenant with Israel, didn’t He know that “faith can never be enacted by law”? And was this the purpose of the covenant in the first place, to “enact faith by law”?
Can’t we say the same about a church? “Christian faith can never be enacted by church discipline,” therefore a Christian church is impossible. What about the family? “Christian faith can never be enacted by the authority of the father,” therefore let’s not have Christian families. It even applies to the individual: “Christian faith can never be enacted by personal efforts and discipline,” therefore a Christian individual can not exist. Doesn’t this kind of reasoning sound ridiculous?
But we know that Christian churches exist not to “enact faith,” but as a result of our Christian faith. Our families are Christian, and we are Christians, based on our Christian faith, not with the purpose to “enact faith.” Our faith is not enacted, it is given to us by God, but it produces fruit, and that fruit is Christian individuals, Christian families, Christian churches . . . and Christian nations.
Therefore, a Christian nation is not – as Hull falsely believes – a nation that “enacts faith by law,” it is a nation that self-consciously has allowed its Christian faith to enact its political and legal codes. Hull has it backwards: From political and legal establishment to faith. The Biblical reality is from faith to political and legal establishment.
And here we can see an even more serious problem in Hull’s statement above: The statement is a product of Gnostic dualism. Hull treats “political action” as something separate from a people’s faith in gods or God. As if there are two separate worlds – political action and faith – and Hull is eager to emphasize and widen the gap between them, in order to prove his thesis. But the question is: What is the foundation for any political action whatsoever? Do nations just automatically adopt certain modes of political action no matter what their beliefs are? Is political action a subconscious reaction or instinct; or is it the deliberate application of higher principles to the realm of government and law? Does political action require some moral and ideological foundation and justification, or is it a given, a starting point as ultimate as our Christian faith is?
Hull apparently believes that political action is a world of knowledge, thought and action independent of the world of the faith. He is a dualist, for all practical purposes. That’s why he can say things like the following:
The separation of church and state does not mean the silencing of moral and religious convictions in the public square, even in politics. We Christians—in high places or low—should earnestly do all within our power to commend the gospel and the Christian way in hopes that those who see and hear us will also become believers, but not so that America will become (or “again” become) a Christian nation.
So, we shouldn’t be silenced “in politics” but that can not be done with the purpose of redeeming politics. We want everyone to become a believer but that can not translate into a believing nation. We talk in the public square but never to make people act publicly as Christians, only privately. Dualism, when applied in practice, produces the same result as a collision of equal quantities of matter and anti-matter – self-annihilation.
To summarize, the arguments against a Christian nation, when applied consistently, will destroy any possibility for anything Christian at all. A Christian nation – a nation in a covenant with God – is a Biblical notion, and we are commanded to disciple the nations, i.e. to bring them to submission to Christ as nations. Just as we are commanded to produce Christian individuals, Christian families, and Christian churches, we are also commanded to produce Christian nations. The New Jerusalem is not going to be built by political action, as Hull correctly states. But here again, he has it upside down. It is the New Jerusalem on earth, the Church (Rev. 21:9-10) that will produce the godly political action which will exhibit the glory of God to the nations. Anything else is dualism, escapism, and sometimes simply bad logic.