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Can Nations be 'Christian'?

Can Nations be 'Christian'?

Is England a Christian nation? Was it ever one? Should it remain so?

Plenty of influential Christian leaders in the UK seem to think so. Here’s one pithy statement from an orthodox Catholic:

“The emergence [of England] as a nation coincides with its conversion…A Judaeo-Christian society is by definition not a multicultural one…” (Aidan Nichols, OP)

The Christian nation stance is often, but erroneously, thought to imply many other positions. It does not imply that the church or Christian organizations cannot oppose the government; or that the civil or political rights of non-Christians should be restricted; or that other religions or worldviews should be marginalized in public debate or public institutions; or that we must adopt an authoritarian or “theocratic” view of the state. Almost all Christian nation advocates are committed to democracy. They are people who seek to advance their core objective through persuasion and mobilization.

What is that core objective? The key strategic goal of Christian public action, from a Christian nation stance, is to defend or restore the nation’s essentially Christian corporate character. This involves campaigning to maintain laws, policies, conventions or institutions which are thought to be the fruit of Christian cultural influence, and sustaining a Christian ethos in the wider public culture, such as by preserving religious education or Christian worship in government schools, or by upholding Christian moral standards in the media, the health and social service sectors and elsewhere.

For defenders of Establishment, the core objective also involves defending the special constitutional and ceremonial standing of the Church of England, which is seen as a bulwark against the swelling tide of public secularism. This is presented not as a “privilege” denied to other faiths but a unique “responsibility” falling upon the church as the historical bearer of England’s moral and religious identity.

Defenders of the Christian nation view differ over how far England’s (or Britain’s – but I won’t delve into that freighted distinction here) Christian character remains visible today. But they share a common judgment that the core of the nation’s public identity, spiritual ethos and moral architecture have, can and should be again, substantively Christian.

In this view, England is not simply an aggregation of individual Christians who happen to co-habit the same piece of soil. The very identity of the nation as a corporate entity depends on its continuing adherence to Christian faith, even if many or a majority of individual citizens no longer believe in or practise Christianity. For public institutions to neglect or repudiate the legacy of Christian faith is to put at risk its main public achievements – freedom under law, accountable government, religious liberty, democracy, strong families, caring neighbourhoods, a generous immigration policy, education committed to truth and so forth.

What are we to make of this stance? On the one hand, advocates are entirely right to remind us of the deeply formative historical influence of Christianity on English culture and politics and to warn that this legacy is rapidly unravelling.

On the other hand, the strengths of the position would come into clearer view if defenders could detach themselves from a deeply problematic assumption which is often not made explicit: that the nation is a religious agent, a corporate entity that can be called to account for departing from religious truth and morality. Here we meet the idea of a “faithful nation”, a unified religious community capable of rendering corporate political obedience to God.

One influential justification for the “faithful nation” assumption is the idea that the ancient Israelite polity, the corporate framework of the covenanted people of God, remains valid in a very specific way, even in the New Testament era.

Christian nation advocates do acknowledge some important discontinuities between the testaments. Few claim that the specific content of the criminal or civil law of the Old Testament remains valid as positive law for states in the New Testament era.

But, crucially, advocates do assume that nation-states in the New Testament era can and should display the unified religious agency manifest in the Old Testament polity. They imply that nations today are the sorts of entities that can corporately embody or profess a particular religious faith.

There is no doubt that ancient Israel was indeed such an entity. It was constituted and defined by a specific call of God to enter into a covenantal relationship in which in all dimensions of its social and political life would be ordered by torah.

But what many Christian nation advocates seem to overlook is that this specific, covenantal character was only ever explicitly ordained by God for one people: biblical Israel. There is no biblical or other evidence that, upon the inauguration of the New Covenant, God mediates his redemptive activity in the world via any special relationship with a particular nation or political order any longer.

The Old Testament people of God performed a dispensationally unique, unrepeatable and inimitable role as a divinely created political community. It is one thing to confess that God continues to rule providentially over all nations but quite another to claim that he calls particular nations into a covenantal relationship with him akin to that he entered into with biblical Israel.

This negative conclusion is reinforced by an equally important positive one. Not only are there no chosen nations today, but the New Testament people of God has been founded from the very beginning as a trans-national community. In Jesus Christ, the Gentiles are brought into a covenant relationship with God. We see this enacted visibly in the trans-ethnic, trans-national, multi-lingual character of the early church in Acts, which confessed, dramatically and subversively, that “There is neither Jew nor Greek . . . for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

This obviously does not mean that the Old Testament polity has nothing to say to New Testament Christians. But while all Old Testament law is revelatory of God’s will, none of it is immediately authoritative as binding positive law, either for the people of God today or for the diverse states in which they happen to reside. The Old Testament command to rulers explicitly to confess the faith of Yahweh cannot, then, be applied to rulers in the New Testament era.

The conclusion, then, is that nations today do not possess religious agency. This is the sense in which nations cannot be “Christian”. In the age of the Gospel, there are no “faithful” or “covenanted” nations.

However, there are just and unjust nations, and because “the Gospel is Public Truth”, as Lesslie Newbigin put it, and not private opinion, it is equally important to assert that Christian faith has everything to say about the just political ordering of the nations in which Christian citizens are called to serve alongside their fellow citizens.

Jonathan Chaplin is Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics. His essay, Talking God, is published by Theos. This article originally appeared in Comment magazine, the opinion journal of CARDUS.

Jonathan Chaplin

Jonathan Chaplin


Posted 10 August 2011


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