Richard Land's The Divided States of America? (W Publishing Group, 2007) has as its subtitle What Liberals AND Conservatives are missing in the God-and-country shouting match! It's a thoughtful and useful book that criticizes both sets of shouters-and Land himself is bilingual, able to speak both Christianese and academese. He has been president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, yet with his bachelors' degree from Princeton and doctorate from Oxford, he sneaks up on those who believe snooty stereotypes.
WORLD: Why do you write that "God may very well have more to do with America than liberals may think and less than Christians often assume"?
LAND: Too often too many conservative Christians assume that God is on their side or they tend to conflate God's interest with America's interest. That's an assumption that no one can make about any country, even the United States. As Lincoln put it so eloquently, our responsibility and obligation is to do our very best to be on God's side rather than assume that God is on our side. We have to understand that our ultimate allegiance belongs to God, not to the United States. If we make patriotism an ultimate value, then it becomes an idol. As important to me as patriotism is, I was always taught by my parents to love my country, and to respect my heritage, and always to love and to respect God even more.
When I listen to liberals in debates like the pro-life debate, I often get the impression that they don't think God has a side on these issues. God does have a side on many of these divisive issues. God is pro-life. There's a reason why the Jews alone among the civilizations of the Mediterranean basin condemned abortion and infanticide, even when the Romans and the Greeks were doing it. Christianity came in the first century a.d. into a Roman civilization that routinely practiced infanticide, according to historians like Will & Ariel Durant. Life was cheap inside and outside the womb. The church bore eloquent testimony against abortion. From the Didache onward they were very clear that supporting abortion or having abortions was beyond the pale for someone who claimed to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.
WORLD: So what's wrong with "claiming that America once was, and ought to return to being, a Christian nation"?
LAND: As an evangelical Christian I believe the phrase "Christian nation" has connotations of a redeemed nation. A Christian is someone who has a personal relationship with Jesus and has entered into a redeemed state. As an evangelical Christian, I would never want to claim that for any nation. There is no nation in history that has been made up completely of born-again believers in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Secondly, this nation was founded by many people who were operating largely out of what Francis Schaeffer would call a "Christian memory." They still accepted a Judeo-Christian value system, although some were Deists and some were committed Christians. Many of them were people like Thomas Jefferson, who issued his own edition of the Gospels in which he kept the teachings of Jesus, but eliminated all claims to Messiahship and all miraculous elements.
Many others were operating from a Judeo-Christian worldview and accepted Jesus as the Savior, while not necessarily accepting Him as their Savior in the sense I as an evangelical would understand that personal commitment and personal conversion experience. Even after the First Great Awakening, it would be erroneous to assume that anywhere close to a majority of people who lived in the American colonies prior to the Revolutionary War were born-again Christians as evangelicals understand it.
A "Christian nation" would have to be a nation where virtually the entire population were born-again believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, and their societal institutions, including their government, would reflect a value system that would be put together by an overwhelming consensus of born-again Christians. That was not the case in the Colonial, the Revolutionary, the post-Revolutionary, the early Federal period, or any period since.
WORLD: So how would you define the nature of the United States?
LAND: As our Declaration and our Constitution indicate, America as a nation was an attempt to combine Judeo-Christian values, in a very traditional sense, with Enlightenment ideas of self-government. The genius was that it worked only because you had both. As John Adams, our second president, made clear in a speech in 1798, "We have no government armed in power capable of contending in human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Our Constitution was made for a moral and a religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other."
Adams and James Madison were the prime architects of the Constitution. Adams is saying you can only have the degree of freedom and self-government that we have in the American constitutional system if most people obey the law voluntarily, because they have a sense of moral obligation to a higher power, namely God.
George Washington in his farewell address said, "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness."
The first and second presidents were stating this is a nation founded upon a Judeo-Christian understanding of what's right and what's wrong. They believed this system of government would not work unless a significant majority of the population had an internal code of morality that these presidents found inconceivable apart from a religious commitment.
WORLD: Does "Christian nation" talk feed the paranoia of the left?
LAND: We needlessly play into the hands of people who complain that evangelicals want to bring in some kind of theocracy when we start talking about America as a "Christian nation." Our goal should be the goal articulated in the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission's Vision Statement: "An American society that affirms and practices Judeo-Christian values rooted in biblical authority."
Imagine if the vast majority of the people in this country were converts to the Christian faith and had a personal relationship with Jesus. In our self-governing country, eventually the government and the legal system would reflect the will of the majority. This would include a respect for the soul liberty of all people, including those who are not Christians and are not religious.
Most Americans believe in pluralism. They hold a tremendous respect for the sanctuary of the soul and believe that no mere human being has the right to interfere coercively with the "soul liberty" of any other human being.
WORLD: Why do liberals love to pay attention to so-called dominion theology, aka Christian reconstructionism-and what's the problem with that doctrine?
LAND: Liberals focus attention on Dominion Theology or Christian Reconstructionism because it scares the living daylights out of the majority of the population. It's a tremendously effective political ploy in seeking to create a Christian Reconstructionist "bogeyman" to scare people into opposing the legitimate concerns of evangelical Christians and conservative Catholics.
The problem with Christian Reconstructionism is that it is a misunderstanding of how Christians should seek to be involved in public policy and in government. As a Baptist, I believe in the separation of the institution of the state and the institution of the church. That does not mean I believe that religious convictions and religiously informed moral values should be kept separate from public policy. It merely means that I do not have the right to have the government impose, or give favoritism to, my religious views any more than any other religious or secular group should have the right to impose its values or views.
It relates to what my Baptist forefathers in the 17th and 18th centuries called "soul liberty." If we have "soul liberty," then the government does not have the right to institute civil penalties for religious infractions. Under some formulations of Christian Reconstruction, there would be legal penalties for adultery. As a Baptist, I believe we have the right to preach against adultery. I don't think we have the right to put people in jail for adultery between consenting adults in private. I do believe we have the right to throw people in jail for forcing people into sexual acts against their will. That's called rape, not adultery. I also believe we have the right to prosecute people who engage in sex acts in public. That's called public indecency.
WORLD: In what ways has God blessed America, and which of those blessings do we deserve?
LAND: It would take hours, if not weeks, to describe the ways in which God has blessed America. We have been blessed with a huge swath of the world's most bountiful farmland, which has enabled us to become the breadbasket of the world. We've been blessed with enormous reserves of natural resources including oil, coal, gold, and iron. We've been blessed with an abundance of all the things that make for a productive and modern industrial state. We have been blessed with a veritable explosion of incredible genius in our founding generation who gave us our wonderful Declaration of Independence and magnificent Constitution. Its glorious First Amendment extends constitutional guarantees of basic human rights that are recognized and protected by our government, but which our own government asserts are given to us by God.
As a Christian and as an American, I believe that God has superintended our affairs and blessed us in supernatural ways. These blessings were undeserved. A blessing by definition is an undeserved gift. These blessings are given by the grace and mercy of God and are not in any way, shape, or form deserved or earned by anyone or any generation.
WORLD: So when are we on God's side?
LAND: We were on God's side when we defended the world against two of the greatest tyrannies that humankind has ever produced, namely Nazism and Japanese militarism. We were on God's side when we developed and led the free world to a policy of containment of the expansionist designs of the "evil empire" known as the Soviet Union. God is an ardent anti-Communist. In resisting that particularly pernicious evil, we were doing God's work. Did we always do it God's way? No. Did we do it perfectly without blemish and without any selfish motive? Of course not. Nevertheless, I believe that we were on the side of the angels in the Cold War.