There is nothing more “grassroots” in a democracy than conversation around the dinner table. I recently had such a conversation with a fellow pastor. He made the following comment to me: “Of course we are and have always been a Christian nation.” I was amazed to hear him make this kind of claim. So I responded, “Well, what about the Jews and the Hindus and the Muslims?” And he responded, “Well, the founding fathers were Christians.”
I disputed that as well. Many of the founding fathers were deists, including Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, and Monroe. They had Christian ancestors, but were not Christians in the strictest sense of that word. And speaking of a “Christian nation” is an oxymoron. Excluding Jews from a “Christian nation” betrays a latent antisemitism. It also raises the specter of a white-nationalist agenda.
As a result of this conversation, I began to ponder what a truly Christian nation might look like. Any nation I could bring to mind fell short of such a designation, including our own. No nation can equate itself with “the kingdom of God” as proclaimed by Jesus.
This is not to say that there are not many good people of all religious backgrounds—and of no religion—in all nations, including ours, who exemplify many of the values preached by Jesus. Rutger Bregman has rightly pointed out the basic decency of most people in all societies in his insightful and hope-filled book Humankind.
But to claim any nation to be “Christian” is a stretch too far for any existing country. There are 300 million baptized Orthodox Christians in Russia, where the Russian patriarch blesses with holy water the mission of their troops in Ukraine. Can Russia claim to be a “Christian nation”? Can we?
My dinner partner thought so. Perhaps many Americans do too—many evangelicals certainly seem to. Some of them played a key role in electing a serial liar as the president of what they too would claim to be a “Christian nation,” neglecting to remember who Scripture identifies as “the father of all lies.” Granted, our Constitution and Bill of Rights were giant leaps forward in the direction of a more just nation and world, but to claim our nation to be “Christian” is a giant overreach.
We live in a nation conflicted over abortion and many other issues, possessing a secular, not Christian identity. Church and state were long ago wisely separated by our founding fathers. Our supposedly “Christian country,” so called by many, has suffered 208 mass shootings so far this year that have involved the massacre of many children. We live in a country which worships its own golden calf and idol, the weapon of mass destruction, the assault rifle. “By their fruits you shall know them.”
We also suffer from a drug plague, insurrectionists storming the capitol, a housing crisis that has left thousands without shelter, and a border wall keeping out “the least of our brothers and sisters.” In our nation in the 19th century, we began to “look more Christian” by abolishing slavery. But emancipation took far too long, and embedded and persistent racism still endures.
So if no nation can claim its identity as “Christian,” are there any who possess some structures that look somewhat Christian? And what should we accept as a criterion? Perhaps Mathew 25: there, Jesus clearly identifies his priorities and identifies with “the least of our brothers and sisters.” The welfare of the “least of these” is his greatest social priority.
We would have to search far and wide for such a land. My search for a nation that on the surface looks somewhat “Christian” in its social structures brought me to a faraway sliver of a country which stretches from the Arctic Circle to the North Sea and borders a gigantic, brooding empire. After being the only country to pay off its war debts following World War I, it bravely defended itself in World War II by resisting the Nazis on its western border and invasions by the Russians from the east.
In his book Phoenix Economy, the author Felix Salmon identifies this vibrant country to be Finland. Finland has one of the most comprehensive public-welfare systems in the world, and its government places a special priority on securing safe and affordable living conditions for all citizens.
So through a seemingly simple dinner conversation, I found my way to a Scandinavian nation where for the most part there are no “least” brothers and sisters. One might contrast the streets of Helsinki with San Francisco. Note the difference in the way each city cares for its most vulnerable. This California city is far distant from the vision of its patron Saint Francis. Helsinki would seem closer—something to ponder the next time we contemplate calling ourselves a “Christian” nation. ♦
William John Fitzgerald is a long-time contributor to Today’s American Catholic.