The founders of our nation varied in doctrine but they shared passionately in the religiopolitical commitment that the new nation should be a land of religious tolerance. From Washington’s condemnation of “Pope Night” (albeit for practical purposes2) in 1775 to the ratification of the First Amendment to the Constitution in 1791 and the of Treaty of Tripoli (with its famous paragraph in the English translation3) the leaders of the nation’s early life sought to establish a clearly defined tolerance with regard to persons of various faiths and of no faith.
In the foolish battle over which version of Christianity held sway over the hearts and minds of those who fought for the establishment of a new nation and who wrote its defining documents we have lost sight of their common commitment not to a Christian nation (They would abhor such a concept.) but to a “Christ-like” politic.
I say “Christ-like” rather than “Christian” because Jesus Christ’s approach to those with whom he differed was one of tolerance, acceptance even embrace, even, especially when it was contrary to the dominant culture. AndHis call was not to political change but to a spiritual transformation, a change of heart. As those who follow Christ in loving “the other” faithful Christians know how difficult this can be. It is truly a struggle,4 but this is exactly the task to which we American Christians are called, to change our hearts.
To do so not only to be Jesus disciples in faith but that we might also be the citizens Jesus would have us be, that is, tolerant, accepting, embracing. Our role as citizens ought to reflect our faith as Christians. This does not mean an adherence to one doctrine or another, one set of tenets instead of another. It means looking at the importance we place on those characteristics we use to judge one another and reducing their importance until our common citizenship can be seen clearly. It means discerning and disempowering our fear and judgment of those who are different in irrelevant ways.
Ironically enough, it is our fellow Islamic citizens, the very persons so many of us seem to be fearing in the present, who have the perfect concept for this struggle—jihad. This is not a simple concept. Among its understandings is the one most commonly held by non-Muslims that of “holy war.” But though this may be its most common understanding, it is not its primary understanding. Its primary understanding is the internal struggle to be faithful. That is exactly what American Christians are called to—to struggle with the fears and prejudices within that keep us from being faithful in our citizenship. It not a “battle for the heart of America”; it is a battle of our hearts as Americans.
We are not called to create a Christian nation or to recreate it from some misconceived past. We are called to create a Christ-like nation, a nation as embracing, as accepting, as offering of hospitality as was Jesus of Nazareth. That will not spring from arguments won from one end of the political spectrum or the other. It will not spring from correct doctrine or political correctness. It will not be born in code or commandment. It will spring forth from hearts transformed. It will spring from a victorious battle/struggle/jihad carried on within ourselves.
It will manifest itself in relationships that are perhaps discomforting, perhaps difficult, but faithful to the example of Christ and the vision of our founders. It will be expressed in policies, codified in laws that establish a political hospitality sorely needed within our boarders and beyond.
————————- Notes ————————–
1In recent years conservative Christians have taken the public stage calling for a return to the faith of “our founding Fathers.” Almost without exception the Christianity they discover is a reflection of their own, finding in the volumes of spoken and written words those paragraphs, sentences or phrases that resonate with their own beliefs. The ultimate intent seems to a divine sanctioning of their political philosophy.
And inevitably, the battle for right understanding of these authorities has been enjoined from the other end of the spectrum with liberal Christians pointing to the same forbearers but lifting up those paragraphs, sentences or phrases that resonate with their beliefs. Though I side with the latter group, neither of them addresses what I see as the most pressing concern for American Christians.
2“As the Commander in Chief has been apprized of a design form’d for the observance of that ridiculous and childish custom of burning the Effigy of the pope—He cannot help expressing his surprise that there should be Officers and Soldiers in this army so void of common sense, as not to see the impropriety of such a step at this Juncture; at a Time when we are solliciting, and have really obtain’d, the friendship and alliance of the people of Canada, whom we ought to consider as Brethren embarked in the same Cause. The defence of the general Liberty of America:
“At such a juncture, and in such Circumstances, to be insulting their Religion, is so monstrous, as not to be suffered or excused; indeed instead of offering the most remote insult, it is our duty to address public thanks to these our Brethren, as to them we are so much indebted for every late happy Success over the common Enemy in Canada.”
3As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen [Muslims],—and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan [Muslim] nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.
4 The Apostle Paul probably said it best for Christians in his letter to the Romans 7:15 “15I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”