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God & country

Interview | We're not a Christian nation, says Southern Baptist leader Richard Land, but America has certainly been blessed

Issue: "Don't fence me out," April 21, 2007

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.

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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."

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