Since our beginning as a nation, the American experiment has intertwined the religious character of its citizens with the religious neutrality of the state. "Faith-based movements across our history have created some of the greatest progress in our history. The abolitionists in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, the great fights for social welfare, child labor laws—all [were] led by faith-based groups," declares Senator Joseph Lieberman, a self-professed observant Jew, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee in 2000, and who now serves in the Senate as an independent. "And of course the Civil Rights Movement did the same. . . .You can't separate God from America. You go right back to the Declaration of Independence. We have to always remember that the Constitution . . . promises freedom of religion, not freedom from religion."
One of the most influential statements on what God has to do with America goes all the way back to John Winthrop, the Puritan governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who led a fleet of eleven vessels and seven hundred passengers to New England in the spring of 1630. Unlike Bradford's separatists, who completely broke with the Church of England, Winthrop's Puritan community hoped to reform the Church of England from within. They believed it had been corrupted by Catholic practices and rituals and was under God's judgment for heresy. In the New World, they felt, they would be sheltered from God's coming wrath upon the church and could start afresh to live in faithful covenant with God.
Winthrop's 1630 sermon "A Modell of Christian Charity" has since become well known as "The City upon a Hill," influencing America's self-understanding down through the centuries—for example, President Ronald Reagan alluded to it in his 1989 farewell address. Winthrop's message, based on the text of Matthew 5:14, in which Jesus told His followers that they were the light of the world, a city set upon a hill, challenged the Puritans to holy living. He compared their community to the Israelites moving into the Promised Land, cautioning them to remain faithful to God and warning them of the perils of idolatry.
Although Winthrop is no role model for civil leadership today (his Puritan vision of God's providence did not allow for the concept of democracy), his Christian vision would later find common ground in the founding fathers' attribution of basic human rights to the God of Judeo-Christian heritage.
Clearly, America was founded on a divine experiment rooted in Judeo-Christian worldviews. This does not mean that America was ever a "Christian nation," nor does it mean that we should pine for a return to some kind of "Christian" era in America's past. During the Reagan era, respected historians Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and George Marsden wrote a book titled The Search for Christian America, intended to temper what they saw as an overly romanticized view of America's Christian heritage. In a later edition, they reflected on the developments stemming from the resurgence of a conservative Christian political agenda: "It seems as though the proponents of restoring a Christian America are as adamant as ever in promoting that ideal. Although we have . . . seen occasional evidence of spokespersons for the Christian political right acknowledging that the United States never was or will be the Kingdom of God, we cannot claim that these views have often penetrated to the core of politically conservative Christian communities."
I will go on record as a perceived spokesman for the conservative Christian political agenda that the United States never was, nor will be, the kingdom of God, and any attempt to identify it as such is idolatrous. What we need today is not a return to the past, but a turning to a future that has never been: a healthy pluralism in which all views are allowed, encouraged, and respected, and in which a healthy respect for the value of religion in America's past, present, and future permeates society.
This article is excerpted from Richard Land's book The Divided States of America? What Liberals AND Conservatives are missing in the God-and-country shouting match! (Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2007), available at local bookstores and at FamilyBookstore.net.
Dr. Richard Land is president of The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the Southern Baptist Convention's official entity assigned to address social, moral, and ethical concerns, with particular attention to their impact on American families and their faith.